Capacities, relationships keep growing around annual Choral Festival

April 24, 2018
Capacities, relationships keep growing around annual Choral Festival

Public invited to devotional concerts June 17, 2018, at Baha’i House of Worship in suburban Chicago

It’s a song that keeps generating new verses.

More than a decade since the annual Baha’i Choral Festival began, its devotional concerts still fill the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, with hundreds of neighbors and about as many Baha’is. Many first-time visitors had “never thought of coming to the House of Worship for anything except to see the beauty of its gardens,” says Van Gilmer, House of Worship music director, who has organized the festival every year since 2007.

Once again, more than 200 people are expected to travel from all parts of North America and beyond, to sing or otherwise take part in this year’s festival June 14–17, culminating as usual in two devotional concerts Sunday, June 17, with the public invited.

What’s more, the year-round efforts that go into the festival are showing results that go beyond those four days of rehearsals, fellowship and study. Relationships are being built, the circle of involvement is widening bit by bit, and opportunities are popping up to increase awareness of Baha’u’llah’s revelation.

Activities of the Baha’i House of Worship Choir, including this presentation for the bicentenary in October, benefit from efforts put into the Choral Festival over the years. Photo by Aaron Rice

Every year, the devotional concerts bring in a total of 1,500 people on the final Sunday of the festival. A variety of music is prepared to be sung under the lofty dome of the Temple. And the music has many repeat listeners thanks to CDs and YouTube videos. Sacrifice has made this possible, as the singers generally pay their own way, Gilmer notes.

Relationships and outreach the past few years have brought occasional results. A few years ago, a cantor from an area Jewish congregation sang as a soloist, and people from other places of worship have expressed interest in similarly participating.

Last year’s outreach to music directors in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs didn’t immediately result in other local choirs lending singers, as was hoped. But to his surprise, Gilmer says, a singer who had attended several of the concerts over the years heard about the invitation and registered for the 2017 festival on her own. She fit so naturally in rehearsals that at first “we didn’t realize that she’s not a Baha’i,” he says.

She stayed beyond the May festival to sing with the augmented House of Worship Choir for special celebrations of Holy Days in October. Not only has she registered for the 2018 festival, she’s bringing a friend. Such small steps are significant in increasing the number of friends of the Faith involved regularly in music at the Temple.

The festival’s reputation helps keep the path smooth for other collaborations involving the Baha’i House of Worship Choir. A few months ago it was one of many choirs singing at dedication ceremonies for a Latter-day Saints church in downtown Chicago.

That and other events the choir travels for — notably, interfaith events and a multi-choir program at an African American church in Evanston — allow Gilmer and others to make friends. That raises hopes “we can start drawing some of these folk into the Temple to sing.”

Almost every year finds at least one guest group eager to sing in the House of Worship. For example, Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School Chamber Singers were part of a “Light of Unity” program Oct. 22 at the Temple.

Still, the Choral Festival is the only event that regularly brings in many hundreds from outside the community of enrolled Baha’is for an hour’s musical worship. Many are used to more of a “church” atmosphere and are unfamiliar with the unique guidelines in Baha’i scriptures for devotional programs at Temples — which are revered by Baha’is as Dawning-places of the Praise of God. Those guidelines mean a program must be without sermons, speeches, introductions, or instrumental music.  

Reflections by singers and observers point to new learning opportunities every year in a variety of areas, including:

  • Managing large numbers of guests and helping them understand the reverent atmosphere expected inside and outside the Temple.
  • Effectively connecting guests with Baha’i service activities in their home communities, and encouraging them to keep visiting the House of Worship for prayer and meditation.
  • Developing the general understanding about the variety of musical styles and texts appropriate and encouraged at this sacred spot.
  • Offering a substantial, welcoming program while managing the challenges of a space not designed to hold a choir that large.
  • Meeting the accommodation, transportation and dietary needs of a diverse, and generally aging, group of participants.

This year the journey is taking an unexpected direction: to Carnegie Hall.

Gilmer has ushered about 70 singers through an audition process to participate in a Thanksgiving weekend performance of Handel’s complete Messiah, which sells out the famed New York City auditorium every year.

It’s an event that involves 400 voices from choirs invited from around the world, accompanied by a full orchestra. Each participating choral group is mentioned in its publicity.

The invitation to Baha’i singers came about after planners of the annual performance found a YouTube video of the “Hallelujah Chorus” sung at a devotional concert at the House of Worship. They were especially impressed at seeing the singers’ faces as they sang the famous piece without printed music or instruments, Gilmer notes.

He adds, “I don’t know how else they ever could have found us” if it weren’t for the Choral Festival videos.

While not precisely an outgrowth of the Choral Festival, this project benefits from the relationships the festival has built. Gathering a group to participate under the Baha’i banner was made far easier by the network of singers the festival has developed and the experience it has provided over the years to Baha’is across the continent.

“The story is, God works in mysterious ways,” Gilmer reflects. “You take one step, He takes two.”

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