As just the second director of the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Chorus since its founding by Margaret Hillis in 1957, Duain Wolfe is well-known to Chicago audiences and the international choral community at large. In his post, he relies on his longtime associate director Cheryl Frazes Hill, who has served as an important bridge from the Hillis years to the present.
Director of choral activities at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts since 2002, Frazes Hill was a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus from 1976 through 1992. Hillis named her an assistant conductor in 1985 and promoted her seven years later to associate conductor, a position which at that time compelled her to step down as a singer.
“What’s really lovely is that when Duain came on [in 1994], I don’t think we [the associate directors] expected that we would be asked to stay,” Frazes Hill said. “It’s like a new coach for the Bears or something. They bring in their own people. We were really lucky that he had that confidence to allow us to stay. That was a big thing for him to keep on her [Hillis’] assistants and keep that continuity.”
As associate director, she assists Wolfe in preparing the chorus for its performances with the orchestra, leads sectional rehearsals where much of the nitty-gritty work is done, oversees preliminary auditions and handles other administrative tasks. During rehearsals, she records the conductor’s directions concerning tempos, dynamics and phrasings, which are passed on to singers who might be absent, and notes any problems that might escape the conductor. Finally, the associate director acts as an intermediary for the singers, who are not allowed to interrupt rehearsals with questions because of the limited time available.
In December, the CSO and CSC will perform Handel’s Messiah in a special holiday-themed presentation on Dec. 20-23.
What sets the Chicago Symphony Chorus apart from other orchestra choruses in the United States?
It was really one of the first symphonic choruses. There were very few symphony choruses as the time, and she was the one who established what became the standard for this country and actually, for the world, I dare say. Hillis established it as a professional ensemble that would be comparable to the orchestra, and that standard has really remained intact for all these years.
How is the chorus different today than it was when it was founded in 1957?
I think the level of the singers over the years — and you can see it in all the many choral organizations that have sprouted as a result of what was established here in Chicago — is higher than we had 20 and 30 years ago. They were wonderful then, but the kids coming in now, they can’t get in unless they have a certain level [of training], and the competition is far greater.
What kind of musical background does a CSC singer typically have?
The vast majority now do have bachelor’s degrees and many do have master’s degrees. A very large number of those are actually in vocal performance. They are trained singers, and that is to be their career. I don’t think we have anyone who hasn’t studied voice at the college level.
What is the average length of tenure for a singer?
We have some who have been here for 30-40 years. I think the average is maybe eight years.
Is it hard to find enough qualified singers for the ensemble?
I don’t think so. We hear many, many auditions. We have a lot of universities around here. People who move here who are professional singers from other areas. People who have had opera careers or have had singing careers but want to settle down and be in one place. We really get a variety of singers. A lot of singers have a very full resume, and we seem to get them pretty regularly.
How many weeks before a concert do rehearsals begin?
It depends on the piece. So for Messiah, we would have only a few weeks of rehearsals. Many of our singers know that piece, and so the time to get it ready is not as lengthy as when we did [Verdi’s] Macbeth, and we weren’t familiar with the opera. But we don’t go longer than about four or five weeks on a piece.
Is the holiday season the busiest time of the year for the chorus?
For many years — 20 years — we did this show called “Welcome Yule!” that Duain conceived, wrote and conducted. That was a very busy pocket for us. Now we’re doing Messiah, which has the same amount of rehearsal time actually but fewer shows. The production staff was busier with “Welcome Yule!” There was a lot of stuff that went on with that piece.
What is the toughest part of your job?
That’s a good question. One of the tough parts is sometimes the music we get. Sometimes the scores are really difficult and learning them to the point that we can get up on a podium and conduct them and prepare them — that can be challenging.
Duain has to figure out almost a year out how many rehearsals he needs for something. Now if you have a piece that we are not familiar with, sometimes you don’t know how long it’s going to take, and so there are times when we wish we had one or two more rehearsals, and that’s when the intensity [ratchets up]. It’s not a relaxing environment. It’s all very time-limited. It’s not like in the university where I can schedule an extra rehearsal or work late. You can’t do that with professionals in a union situation. We have a clock and they take X number of breaks, and if you don’t get it done, then it’s not done and that’s a problem. So I think time is the hardest part of our job.
What’s it like to work with Duain Wolfe?
He’s a perfectionist, and he puts that standard on himself more than anybody else and so everybody who works for him, we all have to be at that level. He’s very collegial. If we sit down and we talk about something, he respects us and he listens to us, and we work things out together. A lot of people in his position wouldn’t do that.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: The Chicago Symphony Chorus performs Handel’s Messiah during concerts in 2015. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015