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Rockford's Famous Kantorei Takes On A New Dimension

Guy Stephens/WNIJ
There is something different about Kantorei, the famous Rockford boys choir: It now includes girls. Assistant Director Leah Baskin leads the training choir in practice at the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center.

For more than half a century, the youth choir Kantorei has been known as the Singing Boys of Rockford. This year, that changed.

On a late Tuesday afternoon, members of Kantorei’s Training Choir go through their paces. The treble voices sound a lot like those in years past. It’s when you look at them that you notice the difference. The long-time boy choir now includes … girls.

Boys and girls singing together doesn’t seem like such a big deal to the children -- 13-year-old Clara Blaesing, for one. Like many of the choir’s members, she’d sung already in mixed groups, like the Rock Valley Children’s Choir. Still, Kantorei had a draw for her.

“I wanted to explore the music in a more of a technical way,” she said, “and this choir teaches a lot of technical, musical, abilities and stuff. So I wanted to learn that kind of stuff.”

It’s a sentiment voiced by most of the group. And the boys think the new mix is fine, too. Christopher Myers has been in both boys and mixed choirs. He thinks the setup has its advantages.

“Having boys and girls, there are different voices and tones,” he said, “so you can get do a more large variety of songs.”

Leah Baskin

Kantorei Assistant Director Leah Baskin is in charge of the Training Choir. She says teaching the kids music is part of what she does, but not all, because Kantorei is about more than that.

“I always like to say, ‘singers of today, citizens tomorrow.’ That’s what Kantorei does for every single one of these boys and girls,” she said. “We try to teach the whole child. We’re not just concerned with their voices; we’re concerned with them as people.”

And, Baskin says, giving them the opportunity to become a better person.

Yelena Puzin is happy her daughter, Kristina, has that opportunity. And she can tell Kristina is getting something out of it, too.

“She has other practices like dance, and she also studies piano,” Yelena Puzin said. “And sometime she would be like, ‘Oh, I’m tired, maybe we’re not going to go today.’ But when it comes to choir, she’s excited every time, which is really great.”

Kristina Puzin certainly sounds sold on Kantorei. She already was into singing in general and had sung with Baskin before. She says a friend introduced her to choir.

“And I started loving it so much. It was so enjoyable. And having such an interesting experience with Mrs. Baskin -- she’s really wonderful,” Kristina Puzin said. “And I met a lot of new friends. And it’s super fun. We go on many adventure all the time. And it’s just very enjoyable. I hope more people sign up.”

Kantorei Music Director James Marck says that adding girls and young women just seemed a logical thing to do. He says it goes back to the choir’s identity.

James Marck

“Kantorei has always been two things. It’s always been a boys’ choir -- but it has also been Rockford’s choir,” he said. “At the time that it was founded, part of why it had the structure it had was an expression of the community. It wasn’t just boys; it was boys of a certain education level, a certain income level.”

But, Marck says, Rockford has changed a great deal over the past 50-plus years, ethnically, culturally, in income levels and other ways.

“In order for Kantorei to live up to its mission, to be truly representative of Rockford, there’s a couple of things that it needs to improve at, to grow at. One is the participation of girls. And the second is things we’re working on now, which is to grow the ethnic representation of the choir.”

Marck says the goal is to have an organization that is truly inclusive of the community and its various traditions but still keeps the standard of excellence that has made Kantorei attractive over the years. That includes the rigorous program of musical training and life lessons that every member gets.

Tradition won’t go out the window completely. Marck says concerts will include pieces sung by all boys as well as all girls, in addition to mixed ensembles.

And if they’re willing to put in the time and effort Kantorei requires, they’re all welcome, regardless.

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