Among the joys of the holiday season in these parts are performances by the Chicago Children's Choir.
Founded in 1956 with the goal of bringing together children of different races and cultures, the choir has become a local institution. It works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, River North Dance Company and many other cultural groups.
The choir serves more than 3,000 children, ages 8 to 18, through programs at 60 Chicago Public Schools and after-school programs in eight Chicago neighborhoods. Its Concert Choir includes 100 young performers who not only entertain Chicagoans but also serve as music ambassadors, often in Santa hats this time of year.
Behind it all is Josephine Lee, the choir's artistic director and president. Born and raised in Lincoln Park, she got her bachelor's degree in piano performance from DePaul University and her master's in conducting from Northwestern University. The mother of a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, she's married to Kevin McConkey, principal in Grip, a marketing and design firm.
Lee's drive and commitment to family, the arts, education, culture and community come from her parents. Her father was born in Korea in 1918 and raised in an affluent family, Lee says. He married and had four children. When he was in his mid-30s, he was injured and unable to walk. When he regained his ability to walk, he became a missionary and ventured south. When war began, he was unable to reconnect with his children. He then went to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies in religion.
Lee's mother was born in Korea in 1937 to Buddhist parents. In her mid-30s, she almost joined a monastery before friends persuaded her to go to America. Lee's parents met in Chicago, where they married and had one child: Josephine.
Lee's parents devoted their lives to helping others and bettering their community. Her life has followed the same path.
Lee recently took a break from holiday madness to discuss the choir and music. This is an edited transcript of the conversation and a follow-up email exchange.
Q: How did you come to the Chicago Children's Choir?
A: When I finished my master's at Northwestern, I applied for a job at the choir and auditioned. I was conducting in eight Chicago Public Schools — at the age of 22 — and two neighborhood choirs. I still remember my first school like it was yesterday. The kids were absolutely incredible. There was an equal fascination between me and them: I was this new person coming to teach them, and they were these kids who had no formal musical training. I taught them a gospel piece, "Hallelujah," and as they sang it back I was floored and knew I had found my place. The next year the choir named me artistic director at the age of 23. I never knew that, after spending years as a classically trained pianist, I would fall in love with an organization that embraces such a wide range of music and reaches such a broad group of children.
Q: Did you ever think of trying something else?
A: My parents died in 2001. I lost them both, months apart. … I was ready to leave the city. But I realized post-9/11 why I was here. Throughout my life, it was a struggle to understand my place in this world. After their deaths, I realized my destiny. Chicago Children's Choir helped me understand that I was put on this earth to help and be of service to others.
Q: With 3,200 kids, this is a lot of work.
A: We have 100 performances on the books for (2012).
Q: How many people are involved to make in making that happen?
A: We have 31 staff members — administration, programming, conductors. There's an entire parent-volunteer arm. Representatives at each community site. The list just goes on. I can't even put a number on it. It's also the parents who are committed. I get stories (that) there are students who won't get up for school, but Saturday morning they're up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to go to choir.
Q: And then you have the people on the receiving end.
A: We serve 3,200 kids — times the parents, times our donors, times the community. (The numbers) go on and on. The touch factor, the impact.
Q: How do you relax?
A: I need to run. I love to run. Not long distances. I'm totally lazy when it comes to exercise. I try to do it in as short a time as I can. At least once a day, six days a week. I love spending time with my family. I love my husband and kids. They're my center, my force.
Q: The choirs not only bring music to parents and schools and nursing homes and to audiences around the world, but to kids, who many people feel are being shortchanged with the elimination of music programs in our schools.
A: It's very important to be part of the system and for children to understand what great art is today. Today, mediocrity is celebrated. We're in an age where you can lip-sync and get away with it. It's critical (to reach children) now more than ever.
Q: When the choir was founded, its mission was about fostering racial understanding. Is that still part of what happens?
A: I'll tell you a story. A couple years ago, we were performing with the Lyric Opera in "Carmen." Often, before concerts, it's hurry up and wait. The children and I usually end up sitting for hours. During this dead time, I like to talk with the children about a variety of topics, from bullying in schools to music. On this particular day, we were talking about the history of the choir. At the start, the dialogue was pretty normal, "We were founded in 1956 by Rev. Christopher Moore during the civil rights era." Boilerplate answers. A younger singer, with two mothers, asked the group whether they had heard of Prop 8 (a 2008 California measure banning same-sex marriage). A boy, sitting near her, responded that he had and that, as a Christian, he strongly believed that marriage should be between a man and a women, not two men or two women. For good or bad, I instantly knew that I was about to enter uncharted territory. Then, another girl spoke and said that she's an atheist, does not believe in saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school and pays no attention to the differences among anyone, instead accepting all. For the next 30 minutes, I witnessed a very thoughtful and respectful conversation, something rarely seen among adults, let alone children. Seconds before we were called on stage, a kid from Hyde Park said, "I don't know what's worse: the civil rights issues of the '50s and '60s or religious intolerance and discrimination of sexual orientation today." As always, the children went on to perform beautifully. I know that without the choir these kids would have never been exposed to each other and wouldn't be able to openly discuss these types of issues. They really come from every corner of the city. That evening affirmed my belief in the choir's mission: that through our organization, they learn to respect each other and appreciate their differences.