The Sounds of Silence

In November the annual report of the Chicago Children’s Choir included a letter from artistic director William Chin recounting some of the choir’s accomplishments from fiscal year 1999. The organization’s concert choir, whose singers are drawn from the CCC’s four neighborhood choirs, had performed in the Joffrey Ballet’s 1998 production of The Nutcracker, appeared on the TV drama Early Edition, staged its first annual 24-hour sing-a-thon, and capped off the season in June with a three-week tour of Scotland, England, and Wales. But by the time Chin’s letter appeared, his six-year tenure with the CCC was over: on September 13, longtime executive director Nancy Carstedt informed Chin that he was being terminated, effective immediately. Chin signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibits him from discussing matters surrounding his dismissal and within hours had cleaned out his desk in the choir’s offices at the Chicago Cultural Center.

According to sources close to Chin, the choir had given him a significant raise that summer and had told him he’d have a job as long as he wanted one. Only a few board members knew of the plan to oust him, and afterward the board was instructed not to discuss the matter publicly (several members, contacted by phone last week, declined to comment or did not return calls). Carstedt says that she too is bound by the confidentiality agreement but adds that Chin’s interaction with the children did not develop as she and others had hoped. Prior to joining the CCC in 1993, Chin founded the Oriana Singers and served as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, but he had no experience working with a children’s choir. “A number of people on the board felt there could be a higher level of artistry,” says board president Jeanne Halvorsen. But sources familiar with developments say Chin was also less than enthusiastic about a major initiative the board is considering: a charter school for grades four through twelve that would offer intensive training in choral music.

Charter schools are public schools approved by the Chicago Board of Education; they must provide the core curriculum found at other schools but can also waive some regulations in order to provide specialized training. Carstedt first approached the CCC board about opening a charter school nearly two years ago, inspired by the school of the Vienna Boys’ Choir and a similar school opened by the Boys Choir of Harlem in 1993. The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded the Harlem choir a grant to help replicate its school in five other cities, and Carstedt says representatives from the school would serve as consultants to the CCC. Right now the Chicago school system has only one charter available, and Carstedt hopes to learn by March whether the Board of Education will award it to the choir. If so, she thinks the fourth through sixth grades could be up and running by fall 2001, with an additional grade added each year. If not, she says, the CCC will either reapply next year, consider opening a private school, or drop the whole concept.

Opening a charter school would be extraordinarily ambitious: according to Carstedt’s business plan, the choir would need to raise between $25 and $30 million to obtain a building, renovate it, and set up an administrative and academic infrastructure. She says the choir board’s favored site is a structure west of the Cultural Center on Randolph that now houses a Musicland and other stores. Gallery 37 has a new trade school on the other side, and the School of the Art Institute is building a facility two blocks away on State. The proposed charter school “would sort of fit into what’s happening in that area,” notes Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg, who supported the CCC’s charter-school proposal early on. Yet even she describes the project as “a bit pie in the sky,” adding, “I’m not sure I know where they’re going to get all the money.”

Sources close to Chin say he was skeptical of the proposal, questioning whether the organization should invite the considerable bureaucracy of running a public school for nearly 500 students. Halvorsen says that some board members were concerned about the project as well but that only three or four out of nearly 30 dissented when it was put to a vote last summer. After firing Chin, the board appointed 24-year-old Josephine Lee as acting director, and last week she was named Chin’s permanent replacement. Lee received her master’s degree in choral conducting at Northwestern University last year, and since 1983 she’s been involved in a variety of local choral groups. During the past decade she served as head conductor of the Chicago Hosanna Girls and Boys Mission Choir, a Christian group she accompanied on tour to Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, Bangkok, and Seoul. She joined the CCC in fall 1998 as conductor of the neighborhood choirs in the Loop and Rogers Park, then last summer Chin promoted her to a key role as one of three people who conduct the 120-member concert choir. Lee says she’s not averse to the charter-school project but she doesn’t expect to be heavily involved in the planning process.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.