“We’re going to do a fa, and I want you to stretch out the last fa and put a crescendo on it,” Dave Simmons instructs Larissa Gallagher.
Simmons, the Congressional Chorus’s artistic director, plunks a series of notes on a piano as Gallagher, an alto, opens her chest, lifts her head and sings back the sequence. It’s mid-August and they’re in a sparse, lime-green rehearsal room in the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE preparing for the chorus’s 24th season.
Simmons, too, has become an expert at auditioning singers for the chorus’s new season. Perhaps it’s Capitol Hill’s answer to the hit television show “Glee,” or maybe it’s just another way to relieve political stress, but the Congressional Chorus enters its new season gaining popularity, growing in size, adding fresh faces and singing new songs.
“It is such fun. It’s so much fun,” says Dave Cape, one of the choir’s founding members, returning for yet another season. Cape, the Senate Sergeant at Arms office’s director of office support services, explains the chorus has thrived on Capitol Hill all these years because it has a diverse population to draw from and offers another social outlet to congressional staffers, who often blend their professional and personal lives anyway.
As Gallagher demonstrates, not all chorus members have to work in Congress. Simmons estimates he’s auditioned more than 100 people this year and will carry approximately 80 people on the chorus roster — 10 times the number who started the group in 1986. But no matter the size of the chorus — the only singing group in the country to have a congressional charter — Simmons, Cape and other veteran members maintain that its mission has stayed constant: to promote American music and to use music as a community service.
That doesn’t mean they stick to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Simmons says. On the contrary, the chorus’s repertoire stretches from William Billings, an 18th-century musician known as the father of American choral music, to contemporary musical master Leonard Bernstein. This year’s season includes a November show titled “From Silly … To Sublime,” which Simmons says will feature music that represents the range of emotions people experience throughout their lives; a spring 2011 cabaret with the 1930s theme “Stompin’ at the Savoy”; and “Cinemagic,” a summer 2011 revue to showcase choral music composed specifically for movies.
‘A nice blend’
The chorus started as an outgrowth of a few congressional staffers’ desire to feed their artistic side. Louise Buchanan, who spent almost 20 years working in the House, noticed a flier advertising the group. She went to the first meeting, became one of the chorus’s eight founders and continues to sing with them to this day.
“I’ve been a singer all my life, and that was sort of a creative-outlet opportunity that was very appealing,” says Buchanan, who worked for former Reps. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Joe Early (D-Mass.).
“One of the appealing parts to me was that it was really rooted in Congress,” she says, recalling times the chorus sang carols in congressional work buildings during Christmas and its big gig singing at President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration. Buchanan now focuses on the chorus’s children’s choir, an endeavor in its third season that fulfills the group’s mission to use music as a community service.
“I think of the chorus as a real stress reducer,” says Buchanan, now retired. “When you would go over to sing, even for an hour, you just felt like you left some of the tension, some of the pressure.
You kind of closed it off for a while. Those jobs are pressure-packed and very demanding.”
The chorus started out in an informal manner. Cape remembers the original group had to pay for the one piano in the Senate to be rolled over from the Capitol to the Dirksen Senate Office Building for its lunch-hour rehearsals.
“We did it more as a social outlet,” he says.
It has since attracted members like Gallagher, a professional actress and voiceover artist who appreciates the chorus’s mission and admires the diversity of its membership.
“It’s a really nice blend,” she says.
Simmons and other chorus leaders have made efforts to attract more congressional staffers to the group, including an e-mail blast from the Congressional Arts Caucus to advertise this year’s auditions.
In recent years, they have attracted aides like Meghann Peterlin, who works on the House Homeland Security Committee’s minority staff and is entering her third year in the chorus.
“I feel like this makes me better at my job,” she said before a rehearsal last week. Music accesses a more creative part of the brain, she says, and she often finds that she has to think creatively when looking at homeland-security issues.
It also gets her back into a community she was once a part of but had to step away from while in graduate school. Peterlin grew up going to show-choir camp and performing in community theater but couldn’t do it all when she was studying for a master’s degree in public administration at Old Dominion University.
“I always felt like some little piece of me was missing,” she says.
Bette Mohr, the chorus’s board president, says the group can act as an anchor for young congressional aides living in the city.
“We have a lot of members who are young staffers, and the chorus has become a home for them,” says Mohr, who is starting her sixth season with the choir. She joined after retiring from the federal government, having discovered that she already knew two people in the choir.
However, Capitol Hill staffers do bring a unique set of challenges to the group. This year, for instance, Simmons is preparing to see a few of them take leave from weekly rehearsals due to campaign work they may have to do for their bosses. And he remembers during last season’s cabaret, which took place over one of the weekends the healthcare bill was being finalized, one of the chorus members would run from his Capitol Hill office to the performance, quickly change into his costume, sing for an hour and sprint back to work.
But Simmons is a Capitol Hill veteran — he worked for John Heinz (R-Pa.), a former senator and member of the House, in the mid-1970s — who knows the power of music. He was drawn back to his childhood hobby after spending time in Congress and working as a medical malpractice lawyer.
“No individual voices,” he instructed as they sang. “Everyone blending.”
Justin Cox contributed to this article.