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One Of The Country’s Oldest Choruses Is Celebrating Its 150th Birthday — And It Was Founded In Chicago

The Apollo Chorus of Chicago will be performing Handel's "Messiah" at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance this weekend, an annual tradition dating back to 1879.

The Apollo Chorus of Chicago.
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CHICAGO — One of Chicago’s longest holiday traditions is returning this year for a special musical presentation. 

The Apollo Chorus of Chicago is celebrating its 150th anniversary with its annual rendition of Handel’s Messiah, in its entirety, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Shows are 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets for the Apollo Chorus of Chicago’s performances are available on the Harris Theater website and cost $24-$70.

Artistic director and conductor Stephen Alltop, who has been with the chorus 24 years, said this year’s performance is the culmination of a long Chicago history.

“Hearing the Apollo Chorus perform Handel’s Messiah — it should really be a bucket list objective for every Chicagoan because it’s really something special,” Alltop said. “The chorus sings a great deal of the piece by heart. So, it’s a chance to experience Handel’s Messiah, that fully and in a wonderfully energetic way.”

Nearly 130 members of the chorus will be joined by four internationally-known soloists for this weekend’s performances: soprano Nicole Cabell, mezzo-soprano Julie Miller, tenor Steven Soph and bass-baritone David Goversten.

Credit: Provided
Artistic director and conductor for the Apollo Chorus of Chicago Steve Alltop.

The upcoming shows will be just two of several performances the chorus has done this year as part of its 150th year anniversary season, including performances at the Chicago History Museum and the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Austin.

The chorus was founded in 1872 in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, making it one of the United States’ oldest musical organizations, according to the group’s website.

Throughout its history, the Apollo Chorus of Chicago has performed across the Midwest and in a number of notable performances, including Star Wars In Concert, alongside singers Jackie Evancho and Josh Groban, and at Oprah’s two-part finale, Oprah’s Surprise Spectacular.

The chorus has only had nine directors.

Alltop grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Since receiving his doctorate in conducting at Northwestern University and teaching at North Park University, Alltop has been on the faculty at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, where he works when he’s not with the chorus.

“I had a pretty different approach to that music that the chorus had been doing for a long time,” he said of taking on the conductor role. “I had to be very upfront about that when they interviewed me that some things will be done very differently. And they went and hired me anyway. It was a bit of a growing pain — learning curve time. But the members of course really bought into performing Handel’s music in that manner and it’s been a really fun journey ever since.”

Several performers have been members for decades, while more recent additions have joined straight out of college.

“It is the membership that makes the chorus so extraordinary,” Alltop said. “What I have tried to do with them as a choral conductor is to keep trying to inspire them, and all of our musicians to the highest levels of excellence we can and for me, that involves challenging myself, to hear more, to know more, to be better at what I do. That’s sort of a journey that we have taken together now for a long time.”

Alltop also sees the yearly performance, which has been performed by the chorus since 1879, not as an obligation, but rather as an opportunity for the chorus to push themselves and take the beloved music to new heights. 

“Handel’s Messiah, which we do every year, there’s nothing about it that is like, ‘well, okay, we’re doing Messiah again,’ he said. “It’s more like, ‘here’s yet another opportunity to do this better than we’ve ever done it before.’ And that’s a great motivator that comes particularly with incredible, choral masterworks of any kind. It could be choral or any masterwork inspires you to keep getting better at it.”

The chorus will continue its celebration of its 150th anniversary with more performances and events in 2022, including a performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion in March, a black tie celebration gala in June and more.

Credit: Provided
The Apollo Chorus of Chicago practices for its performance of Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 7, 2021.

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