Kantorei, the Singing Boys of Rockford, mark their 50th anniversary Friday, June 13th, with a concert at the Coronado Performing Arts Center. The program also is the final one in Rockford for the choir’s long-time director.
On a warm June evening, Joel Ross leads a rehearsal of Kantorei. It’s a regimen that’s been going on longer than any of these boys, and even many of the alumni, have been alive. That’s not lost on Ross. Ross has been director for just over half the choir’s 50-year existence. And also, as he points out, half of his own.
“I’m 52 now, and so, I guess, the stars are all aligning. When you‘ve done something for half your life, what it says that maybe, are you still convinced that that’s the thing you want to do, or do you want to put that book back on the shelf, and move on to something else?”
The secret to the choir’s success and his own longevity with the group?
“Basically, it gets in your blood. After being with the boys for a few years, I realized that the boys were learning, they were having really great experiences musically and from a personal growth standpoint -- and so was I.”
Certainly the boys seem to enjoy the experience.
Fourteen-year-old Ian Stocker has been a member for 6 years. He’s been a soprano but is transitioning to baritone.
“I needed an activity and Kantorei fit well, and it’s been a blast.”
Even so, Stocker found that music wasn’t the only thing he had to master.
“It’s helped me to learn, kind of, how to of balance out everything, because obviously school takes a lot of time, but Kantorei takes a lot of time too, and you’ve got to put into it at home and here.”
Twelve-year-old David von Kampen is in his fifth year in the organization. He spent four years in the prep or training choir, so this is his first year in the performing group. He says others told him the step up would be tough, and they were right. But he thinks it’s been worth it.
“It’s really challenged me, but challenges aren’t without reward, because I have learned so much this year alone. And I’ve met lots of friends, I’m excited about our tour, and just going to practice. Every day I learn something new.”
Linden Lundstrom, choral director at Rockford’s East High School and several local churches, founded the choir in 1964. Lundstrom was interested in bringing European choral practices to America, and that led him to create Kantorei as a boys’ choir in the German tradition. That means that the choir performs with mixed voices, including tenors and basses. Many boy choirs use only the treble voices -- sopranos and altos.
Craig Sheridan, who still lives and works in Rockford, was one of the singers in that original group.
“It was a true nurturing experience for me. I loved music, and being able to travel in the United States and meet other people and sing with other people – it was just, it was great.”
Sheridan says he made friendships in his tours with Kantorei that endure to this day. Sheridan sang with Kantorei until he graduated from high school in 1969. Eventually, he had a son who sang with Kantorei as well. That’s not unusual. In some families, three generations have gone through the program.
Lundstrom stepped down from the choir in 1978, and the choir went through several directors before hiring Ross in 1989. Under his tutelage, the boys expanded their horizons with more national and then international tours, and through the ups and downs of the economy and the changes in society, remained strong. Ross says that’s a tribute not only to Kantorei – the boys, their parents, the board and everyone else in the organization -- but also to the city it calls home.
“If this were really easy, then every community in the United States of Rockford’s size would have a boy choir, and of course such is not the case. So it’s really an incredible group effort.”
Ross says there have been many memorable moments along the way, but some of the best don’t come from some tour or special event.
“There’s something very magical about even about working with boys in a rehearsal setting, where you can tell that they’re learning to love music, and they’re learning to love singing, and they’re learning to love being with the other boys, and the bonding that occurs through that experience.”
Although the anniversary concert is the last big hurrah, Ross will officially step down from his post in late June after leading the performing choir on its 2014 summer tour, a performance cruise of the Caribbean.
John Rakes has been chosen to take over as the new artistic director. Rakes most recently served as an Adjunct Professor at both Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University, conducting the Men’s Glee Club and the Women’s Chorale at Wheaton and the Concert Choir at NIU. Ross says he has a lot of confidence in him and the organization.
“Kantorei really isn't about the directors. It’s has always been about the boys. As long as there are boys who want to participate, and adults, of course, along the way to help guide them, the organization would not have survived and would not be what it its today.”
Ross says he looks forward to following Kantorei as a member of the community.