• Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future

    Rockefeller Chapel Choir Members Perform Beloved Classics and New Music

By Anne Hartman

A choral library tucked in the back of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel holds every piece of music the chapel choir has sung—thousands of sheets of Bach classics, Civil War tunes, and commissioned pieces.

The Rockefeller Chapel Choir has existed as long as the chapel itself, and was there to sing Anton Bruckner’s “Locus Iste” when the chapel first opened its doors in 1928.

It’s no surprise that the choir has played such a prominent part in the history of the chapel, which is not only a ceremonial and spiritual center for the University, but also a major center for the performing arts, says Elizabeth Davenport, dean of Rockefeller Chapel. In fact, the chapel was built to be a place where the human voice would resound and inspire awe.

These days, the chapel choir is led by James Kallembach, director of choral activities at UChicago and senior lecturer in music. The choir members—thirty in total—are undergraduates and graduates; some are music majors, but most come from programs outside of the performing arts in search of a creative outlet. For choir member Will Myers, a second year in the College, the choir is a welcome reprieve.

“I don’t really think of rehearsal as optional, like I could skip it for homework, because it’s my favorite thing to do,” Myers says. “I have to put everything else around the choir because that’s what’s important to me. I get to spend a couple hours going through the music, and it’s very cathartic.”

Myers and the rest of the choir perform at Rockefeller’s Sunday services, but the choir—like the chapel—is not tied to any religious tradition in particular.

“What we do on Sundays is not like the average church,” Davenport says. “We are really bringing the same critical inquiry that categorizes the University to the exercise of religion. People who come, come because they want to think about religion in today’s world.”

Rockefeller’s Sunday services are punctuated by the choir’s performance of major, beloved classics, as well as new music, including pieces commissioned specifically for the choir and chapel.

Kallembach himself wrote a new setting of the Passion story—telling the story of the death of Christ—for the choir, which was performed for the second time this spring and was released as a CD. The setting looks at the story in today’s context and interpolates biblical text with part of Dante’s Inferno, a section of Faust, an excerpt from Macbeth, and William Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose”—all of which speak to the shadow side of the human experience, Davenport says.

Unlike past renditions of the Passion story made famous by Bach, Kallembach’s setting uses female choir members to take on the role of the narrator and Jesus at parts.

“Back then, women couldn’t even be witnesses in the court of law,” Davenport says of Jesus’ time. “So to have a female narrator tell this story is saying something very profound about gender and history.”

True to Rockefeller’s tradition of embracing the critical inquiry of a variety of religions, choir members are exposed to more than just music rooted in the Christian tradition. Last fall, the choir partnered with the choir at KAM Isaiah Israel, a Hyde Park synagogue. The choirs joined to mark Kristallnacht, a night when Nazis destroyed synagogues and Jewish shops across Germany and Austria, and an event that became a turning point in the Nazis’ persecution of Jews prior to World War II. Together, the choirs performed songs common in synagogues before the war, some that were sung for the first time since the 1930s.

“It was stunning,” Davenport says. “I don’t think anybody who was there will forget that experience. It felt like we were in the synagogues of Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s.”

The choir has also made their mark off campus. Twelve choir members traveled to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, last September to perform their “Sacred Powers of Water” concert at the Marine Biological Library (MBL). The songs explore water’s healing properties, and, following the concert, Christopher Neill, the director of the Ecosystems Center at MBL, discussed how climate change has affected the Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Myers counts the trip to Massachusetts as his most meaningful experience with the choir, but says he looks forward to every chance to sing with the group. The sentiment is typical for all choir members, who, despite busy schedules, value the opportunity to sing together in Rockefeller.

“Being able to sing together is just one of those things—it’s very good for you psychologically, neurologically,” Davenport says. “Song is something that humans universally use as a means of what I’m going to broadly call spiritual expression, to mean expressing what animates us and gives us life and meaning.”