Choir Connects With Audience, Each Other

Oct 14, 2015

Eric Johnson leads Cor Cantiamo in a rehearsal in WNIJ's Studio A
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

A professional choir based at Northern Illinois University gives a concert Sunday, Oct. 18.  The ensemble gives both its director and its members a chance to go beyond the typical college or church choir experience.

It's a Sunday afternoon, and NIU Choral Director Eric Johnson is leading Cor Cantiamo in a rehearsal for its next concert.  Johnson says he founded the ensemble six years ago for a simple reason: in spite of a busy schedule, he wanted to do more.  He wanted a choir that would focus on contemporary music, and work with living composers. But that wasn't the end of it.

I had a vision of creating musical performances that transcend the immediate moment. That we'd bring together an ensemble  that really wrestles with the meaning and the human experience of music, as well as making beautiful sounds.

The members of the choir seem to think he's succeeded in making that vision a reality.

Tom Faust is a middle school music teacher in the Chicago suburbs. The NIU alum sings bass in Cor Cantiamo.  He says it is a challenge sometimes to accommodate his day job and give enough time to the choir to achieve the high musical level Johnson is asking for.  But then, he says, you get an experience that makes it all worthwhile.

"There was a time at a concert, we had just sung this absolutely beautiful piece. And the hall was silent, completely silent, except for one voice that went, >wow<. And it's moments like that that you just live for. Where you've made a connection through this beautiful music to another human being.  That is why we keep doing it, and that's why I'm in it."

Like Faust, many of the choir members commute some distance. But they don't seem to mind. Soprano Jo Ellen Caulfield has for years come from the southern end of Naperville.

"It is a bit of a hike to get to rehearsals and gigs and things, but it's totally worth it. It's a great feeling walking into rehearsal.  I feel like it's like a family.  And it's a great feeling leaving after you've created a lot of music."

Caulfield says that feeling is fostered by Johnson's leadership.

"He has a way to relate to the people and the songs. THe singers ends up feeling the emotions when singing. You can go into a situation and, you know, just sing the music and be done, but he brings the story to life within our own group."            

Faust says he see a benefit in being part of the choir that extends beyond himself, to his students.

"The children see that it's not like you go into the classroom, you teach them, and then go home and never touch it again.  You live this life. You live this music. And to see that passion and to be inspired by it has a value entirely separate from any musical learning that they get."

Eric Johnson says he too has been affected by his experience with the choir as, together, they strive to get closer to musical perfection.  And he's all the better for it.

Cor Cantiamo performs Sunday, Oct. 18 at 3 P.M. in NIU's Boutell Memorial Concert Hall.  The program features the U.S. premiere of "Standing As I Do" by Cecilia McDowall.   Its text is based on words spoken by British nurse Edith Cavell on the eve of her execution in 1915 by the German Army for helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium.  There will also be works by Aitken, Victoria and Lauridsen.