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The Apollo Chorus of Chicago Celebrates 144th Season, an Interview with Conductor Stephen Alltop

(Photo Courtesy of Apollo Chorus of Chicago)
This year the Apollo Chorus of Chicago is celebrating its 144th season, making it one of the oldest volunteer choruses in the country and the City of Chicago's oldest musical organization. When the chorus takes to the stage this year to perform the distinguished and time honored piece, Handel's Messiah, it will be for the 136th time. The chorus has been with the windy city since the "Great Fire", and performed with many respected groups such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, appearing on Oprah's last show, performing along venerated artists like Josh Groban and Jackie Evancho. I had the pleasure of interviewing the group's director and conductor of the past seventeen years, Stephen Alltop.

Kyle Kenyon: You’ve been with the Apollo Chorus, the oldest musical group in the city of Chicago, for seventeen years, what have the past seventeen years been like working with the Apollo Chorus?

Stephen Alltop: It has been a journey, a progression, I would say we’re constantly moving towards higher standards and a broader identity as a musical organization. I think the chorus standards have risen quite a bit. It’s been quite an honor.

The Apollo Chorus is celebrating 144 years this year, making it one of the oldest volunteer choral societies in the country, how does it feel being the conductor of such a prestigious ensemble?

It’s an honor I feel as though being the music mentor of Apollo has constantly challenged me to become as better musician. The world of choral music is a highly international one and that’s been such an honor working with so many renowned artists, like our soloists for this year’s Messiah. It think it’s such an honor that in 144 years I’m only the ninth director. It’s because it’s been such a wonderful journey, and because we keep getting better it’s like every year its new adventures.

What can we expect from the choir this season?

This season we have a mix of great classical music, of course we’re doing Messiah, which is a mainstay of our season because it’s part of our identity, and we can provide a very dramatic performance, we have a very distinguished soloist including Amanda Majeski. We’re doing another mainstay which is Elijah and we return to these great masterpieces because its part of our identity. Something we’ve never done before is Broadway, and we’ve been venturing into other types of music, so why not Broadway. We are doing some very nice arrangements and that the central aspect when we venture into these realms we look for arrangements that are challenging for the choir.

What lead you to pick the works for this season?

The Broadway decision had been on our radar for a while, because we have a number of members of the chorus who love musical theatre, and the success of our Beatles and Friends presentation kind of sealed the deal, we did a very large ranging musical season last year, so this year we’re doing Broadway and next we’re we doing something new something that Chicago has never heard before. What determines our choral pieces is our collaboration with our orchestras like the Elmhurst Symphony, which I’m also the director of and it makes it easy and productive to collaborate with both groups.

In December, you’ll be performing Handel’s Messiah at the Passenger. This year will be the chorus’ 136th performance of this work, it’s somewhat become a staple in city tradition, on the website it says “We know this year’s Messiah will be the most memorable to date”, what can we anticipate to make it “the most memorable to date”?

Well I mentioned the solo quartet because they’re really distinguished artists, and over the years the chorus has begun to sing more of the piece by heart and it creates a sense of ownership for the chorus.  When the chorus does that, it makes a very deep connection with the audience during the least amen chorus, seeing them sing this mesmerizing work just makes this incredible impact on the audience.

Where do you see the group heading into future seasons? What can we expect to see for the 2016-2017 season?

Well those plans are very much under discussion right now. I can say with confidence we will have something old, something new, we will have a great choral master work there and probably something very new that Chicago hasn’t hear before, hopefully something American. Apollo has really broaden its activities and has been hired on many occasion to work with many different people. We’ll be singing Milner’s Second Symphony at Millennium Park at the end of this season. We never know completely what’s going to happen, but exciting things always seem to come along

This season will certainly be exciting, I for one am excited to attend the December 19th performance of Handel's Messiah, you can purchase tickets here, tickets start at just $18. You can also listen to a recording of the chorus' performance on WGN here. Be sure not to miss out on these wonderful performances by the oldest musical group in the great city of Chicago! 

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