Rehearsal is about to begin, so the children of the Rogers Park and Humboldt Park neighborhood choirs quickly form a circle. As the brassy sounds of Bulgarian folk music begin to play, they take three steps to the right and one step backward, performing a lesnoto dance that has been a tradition in Balkan villages for centuries. The rhythm of lesnoto helps the kids focus, but it also exposes them to an ancient culture that continues to thrive in Chicago. After the warm-up, the choir forms a line and sings songs from a repertoire that includes everything from South African and Croatian folk standards to Psalm 150 and the Christmas Cantata.
Standing at the head of these two choirs is Danny Wallenberg, a conductor who has worked with the Chicago Children’s Choir for 20 years. An avid international folk dancer himself, Wallenberg likes to pepper his rehearsals with the far-flung sounds of Israel and the Balkans. He draws on such a diverse musical palette to introduce kids to new sounds and cultures.
It’s not always easy. Wallenberg recalls the first time he played Bulgarian music to his choir, noting how they were taken aback by the throaty singing and the sharp intensity—both qualities that help the sound carry. The music’s asymmetrical meter diverges from Western traditions and is often brought to life with the gaida, a goat-skinned bagpipe; the tambura, a metal-strung lute; and a large tupan drum. According to Wallenberg, the students’ first reaction to hearing the music was, “Whoa, that’s weird.” It didn’t take them long, however, to start appreciating its complicated rhythms and brassy timbres.
He was drawn to working with this particular group because of such learning experiences. In his experience, the children’s choir has the ability to “affect children’s lives through musical education—specifically through singing.” And Wallenberg is just one of many conductors—in fact, his Rogers Park and Humboldt Park choirs make up only a small portion of the full Chicago Children’s Choir, a collection of neighborhood and school choirs that brings together 3,500 students across the city.
Working with a few of these groups, including the concert choir, Wallenberg discovered that there is more to the choir than just singing. Along with technical skills, his students “learn what it is to be in a very diverse environment, how to get along, and [how to] be open to different languages and cultures.”
One City, Many Worlds
Though their music comes from every corner of the world, the students aren’t just exposed to distant cultures. Wallenberg also introduces them to parts of Chicago they otherwise wouldn’t see.
For their final concert of the year, the Rogers Park and Humboldt Park choirs performed what they billed as an International Chicago Tour. Wallenberg organized the concert as a way to “expose the kids to the wealth of cultures we have here in Chicago” and to teach them that “you don’t have to go very far to create human contact and see different cultures right here in our backyard.”
During this weekend-long performance, the choirs sang at several schools on the South Side and a Polish church on the North Side. They performed alongside street musicians in the subway and attended a workshop that explored South African folk music. They ate at Italian and Middle Eastern restaurants and moved to new rhythms at an international folk dance group in Evanston, which Wallenberg regularly attends in his own spare time.
For many of the kids, these performances mark the first time they’re able to make friends outside their neighborhoods, and Wallenberg observes that it’s “beautiful to see the friendships that are forged.” It’s clear that these experiences don't just build musical leaders—they build good citizens of the world. That’s why the number-one rule in rehearsal is “Don’t make fun of anybody.” The conductor encourages the children to always practice respect, especially in light of their diverse backgrounds. In his own words, he tries to impart lessons that “go way beyond anything connected with music.”
The concert choir regularly performs at high-profile events, including concerts at the Joffrey Ballet and the Lyric Opera. Catch the choir at one of the following locations this summer:
Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park | Saturday, June 28, and Sunday, June 29
The choir will perform Benjamin Britten's War Requiem with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The concert is free and open to the public. Friday’s performance begins at 6:30 p.m., and Saturday’s begins at 7:30 p.m.
Ravinia Festival in Highland Park | Friday, August 16
The choir will lend their voices to the music of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers alongside the Lakeside Singers, Chicago Chorale, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. and will be accompanied by a showing of the film.