The Chicago Symphony Chorus was founded in the 1957-58 season, after sixth music director Fritz Reiner had invited Margaret Hillis to establish a chorus to equal the quality of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Now led by Duain Wolfe, chorus director and conductor since 1994, the ensemble regularly performs with the CSO in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival. Recordings by the ensemble have received 10 Grammy Awards for best choral performance, most recently in 2010 for the CSO Resound disc of Verdi’s Requiem. Carolyn Stoner, who has served as chorus manager since 2008, shares an inside look at her work with the acclaimed ensemble.
Could you describe your job duties as manager of the Chicago Symphony Chorus?
There’s actually a lot of variety in my role. I do everything from budget planning and tracking day-to-day expenses, to calculating payroll, scheduling and running auditions and rehearsals, and managing our artistic staff of assistant conductors, pianists and diction coaches. There is also an HR/personnel aspect to the job, as I am responsible for administering a myriad of rules and protocols that are set by the chorus’ collective bargaining agreement. (Side note: The chorus is represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, as are the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet and the chorus and dancers of the Lyric Opera.)
What was your career path before your current position? What led you to the CSO?
I majored in arts management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. While I was in school, I interned at the Aspen Music Festival and School for two summers. Following graduation, I moved to New York and worked as a managerial assistant at CAMI, which is an artist management agency. From there, I went to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (my hometown orchestra) as the artistic coordinator and then artistic manager. In 2008, a colleague at the CSO reached out to me and asked if I might be interested in the chorus manager position. I served as interim manager for four months while they conducted a nationwide search (as required by AGMA), and ultimately won the position!
What do you enjoy about working with Chicago Symphony Chorus musicians?
I love getting to know the individual members and being a part of their lives. It is always fascinating to me that 160 people with such different journeys, motivations and life experiences can come together and make an incredible, unified sound.
What’s one of the most rewarding parts of your job?
Seeing the chorus exit the stage after a performance. The flush of the warm lights and endorphins, the pride in their work and satisfaction from the applause beam from each person’s face. In that moment, I feel so incredibly lucky to support these gifted musicians as they perform at their best and share their gifts with our audience.
Do you have a favorite concert or memory from your time at the CSOA?
There have been so many amazing musical moments but one performance that really stands out is Mahler 2 at the Ravinia Festival in 2016.
The whole week it had been very, very warm, temperatures in the mid-90s and so much humidity. The staff at the Ravinia Festival does their best to keep the stage cool, but Mahler 2 calls for a large chorus, and the chorus sits very close to each other. I spent the week worrying about people fainting on stage or getting heat stroke!
Then comes the performance evening, and it is POURING RAIN. I’m talking torrential downpours. By the time the chorus arrives at warm-up, most of them are thoroughly drenched, and then they still have to get from the warm-up space in the Martin Theatre to the stage. Keep in mind that performance dress at Ravinia is a white top. In order to enter the stage in an orderly manner, the chorus leaves the Martin Theatre in a single-file line, walks through the park and enters backstage through the audience. I send the chorus on their way, some of them carrying umbrellas (which are all but useless since the rain is blowing sideways), they scurry to the stage, dump their umbrellas off stage, desperately attempt to keep their music somewhat dry. Then, they sit on stage, without singing, for 80 minutes. Finally we come to the last movement, and they sing gloriously. The performance is honestly transcendent. And then it’s over, everyone heads to their cars, and the parking lot is mostly washed out. In some spots, the water is more than a foot deep. At least one person had water breach the chassis of their car, and one person couldn’t get their car started at all. It was truly an epic experience.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to float in my tiny inflatable pool. I enjoy taking walks through the forest preserve and learning about native plants. Also, I am a DIY master and I love getting in over my head and starting projects (and then not finishing them).
TOP: Chicago Symphony Chorus Manager Carolyn Stoner. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography