The Congressional Chorus Celebrates Its 30th Season

A Note Above the Rest

Members of the Congressional Chorus dance troupe rehearse for the “Road Trip!” cabaret performance in March. Photo: Chris Bulbulia

While passing a cafeteria notice board in one of Capitol Hill’s House office buildings, Louise Buchanan noticed a call for vocalists. It was 1987, and most of the people she knew worked as staffers day in and day out on the Hill.

Buchanan loved music but commuted from Arlington to the Hill each day for work, so opportunities to sing didn’t come up often. When she saw the chance to join chorus director Michael Patterson and other Hill staffers in the group, she did. They became the Congressional Chorus. “I remember there were only eight of us, a handful,” Buchanan said.

The volunteer chorus has entered its 30th year and includes many more than the original handful – about 200 singers, dancers, and young musicians in total. “Having this opportunity that we started as a small family, expanded to 25 and now is up to 80 to 90 (in the chorus alone), the scope has expanded considerably,” Buchanan said. “But it’s still like my chorus family.”

Beginnings on the Hill

The group has performed concerts at the White House, the Kennedy Center, and other venues around the District. They have performed for soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other community service programs to give back to their home city. Starting with traditional choral music, they have expanded to give jazz programs, Broadway, sacred music, and more.

When the first director, Michael Patterson, died suddenly in 2006, the 25 chorus members considered disbanding, but instead a search led them to hire David Simmons, and 11 years later the group has built up to six separate ensembles: two American Youth Chorus (AYP) groups, a dance troupe, the Northeast Senior Singers, the Congressional Chorus, and an a cappella ensemble. The group performs roughly seven major concerts a season with small gigs throughout the year.

Simmons moved the group to the newly refurbished Atlas Performing Arts Center, where it hosted its 11th annual “Road Trip!” cabaret show in March. “The Atlas Performing Arts Center was just opening in the fall of 2006,” Simmons recalled. “I had a hardhat to wear on visits when it was literally still being constructed.”

Simmons saw an opportunity at the Atlas and signed on as one of the center’s first partners. The H Street corridor didn’t look like it does today, though. It didn’t have all of the restaurants, shops, and clubs. But the chorus has grown with its neighborhood.

Finding A Soul in Music

Simmons had to find his way back to music after entering DC as a staffer for H. John Heinz in 1987 and as a law school student at American University. He had played piano and organ professionally since age 14 and worked with choirs, so when his job and career didn’t fulfill expectations, he decided to try music again. “I started teaching what I thought would be a five-to-six-month gig, and figuring out what was next with my legal career,” Simmons said. “But pretty soon I was directing musical theater.”

After venturing into the Washington Opera and Gilbert and Sullivan companies, Simmons received the offer to lead the Congressional Chorus. “It’s a lot, a lot of listening, a lot of weekends, a lot of late nights – a lot of nights you feel like you want to throw the towel in,” Simmons said. “But then you get a night where the show just comes together. They put so much heart and soul into it, and really you can see the exuberance in their face and bodies.”

With his schedule full of the chorus, AYP, Senior Singers, and other rehearsals, Simmons keeps busy with the music. Take the most recent “Road Trip!” show. The cabaret required weeks of rehearsal, choreographed dance numbers, and fully memorized songs, culminating in a two-hour-long production. And it all comes together. “It gives you a certain thrill that you just can’t get anywhere else,” Simmons said.

Singers from Elementary Age into Their 90s

Natalie Grandison has spent four and a half seasons now with the chorus as a soprano vocalist, member of the dance troupe, and now board member. She lives in Southwest and works on the Hill, and learned of the group through a friend and other members of the chorus. “My favorite thing about it is the people,” she said. “I get to interact with people who work on the Hill, in education, who are retired, in the military.”

A trained vocalist, she said she also appreciates the professionalism and challenge. Simmons will sometimes present the group with a piece of music that seems beyond their skills. But with a little faith and dedicated practice, they pull it off. The performances seem to get tighter and tighter.

But it’s not all about the music for Grandison. Spending hours with hardworking people in pressure-packed environments means she needs a release during the week. The chorus has become her outlet. “Often we are surrounded by people in our same industry or mindset,” she said. “It’s nice to be involved with a group a people where music is the common factor.”

Like Simmons, she feels fulfilled by the music in her life. “I get almost a high from rehearsal and performing that is rejuvenating,” Grandison said.

Buchanan has a similar reaction and hopes to see the chorus continue to grow, though not so much as to lose its family-like feeling. Her strongest draw is the community service it brings to the neighborhood and the opportunities it gives young musicians in the AYP program. She hopes the children of the community connect with the music. “I’ve seen children absolutely just blossom,” she said. “One has sung in operas at the Kennedy Center now. I feel like we’re instilling in them a love of music, and not just for notes and rhythm, but self confidence and pride in themselves.”

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