On Wednesday evenings, there’s a familiar, controlled chaos at the Westcott Community Center. About 60 members of the Syracuse Community Choir (SCC), from all over Central New York, file in. There are hugs and handshakes, smiles and chatter. The atmosphere recalls a large family gathering—which is exactly what it is.
The SCC has been preparing for its annual Winter Solstice concert, scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 19, 3:30 p.m., at Nottingham High School. But since this is the 25th anniversary of the choir, this concert has an added significance. Founder and director Karen Mihalyi has been guiding the group, united by a love for music and a commitment to social justice, through a repertoire that reflects its rich history, but also shows where the group’s collective spirit is right now.
Mihalyi started the choir in 1985, after her work on women’s issues took her to Nicaragua where she saw how music could be a vehicle for unity and change—for everyone. With the SCC, Mihalyi has always welcomed anyone who wants to sing, regardless of ability, race, religion or any other label. While many members live in the city, others come from as far away as Phoenix, Truxton and Cortland. The group currently includes members who are blind, wheelchair-bound or dealing with serious impairments. Yet they find a way to get to rehearsal and contribute. SCC also has active children’s and teen choirs, and both will perform at the Solstice concert.
“Each season is slightly different,” says Richard Gardner, who joined the SCC about 20 years ago. “Many people who left the choir for a while came back to do this show.”
Gardner, a native of Washington, D.C., met Mihalyi around the same time that he was taking stock of his personal goals. “I basically made a list of what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalls. “One of the things I wrote down was to strengthen my commitment to peace and justice; another was to sing for large groups of people.”
The choir answered both calls. “We offer a model of how we would like the world to be,” Gardner says. “Even at its best, it’s not easy. It takes work.”
Peter Swords has been with the choir for most of its 25 years. He was drawn to the group because of the spirit that inspired it. “From the very beginning, the choir was singing about peace and justice,” he notes. “We, at that time, were not even sure our kids were going to grow up.”
Geri Lynne Jackson, a Syracuse resident, joined the SCC three years ago; now she’s a board member. “A friend of mine had lost some of her vision, so we wanted to have a regular thing we did where that wouldn’t be an issue.” What Jackson found in the SCC was a place that helped her feel connected. “I feel I’m part of the community and we’re working for something,” she says.
Steve Reiter joined the choir in the mid- 1990s. He remains charmed by the group’s ability to transcend. “I came from a musical family and I just loved singing harmony. But this group is about literally being in harmony with people who may not have the same opinions or lifestyle as you do. It’s an enlightening experience. Then, you have the larger community: They come to our performances and they get recharged. You feel like you are part of something that has a presence.”
One of those performances hooked Nancy Gwin 17 years ago. “I was an appreciative audience member,” she says, laughing. “I was aware of the roots of the choir, and I had a lot of respect for the mission.” Gwin says the choir has given her strength to take that mission into her everyday life. She was incarcerated earlier this year for protesting at the School of Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., and planned to return to school the morning following rehearsal.
“I leave here just full of energy, full of life,” she says. “It really gives you strength for the journey. Music and singing are a path to change—change in your own heart and change in the world. You can sing with greater strength and unity if you’re a community.”
Although she has had no formal music training, Mihalyi is clearly a unifying presence. Now 60, she leads the rehearsals with equal parts determination and charisma—with no hint of pity. She does all she can to accommodate the needs of her members: There is Braille sheet music for the blind, rides for those who can’t drive themselves, and child care for parents who need it. In return, she expects the choir to meet high musical standards—and they do.
“Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s frustrating,” Gardner admits when asked what it is like to try and create something harmonious from a group that, upon first glance, has little synchronicity. “I keep coming back because during our best moments, we are so focused. It’s a little like the feeling of being in love.”
Any group of individuals this large has its share of struggles and the SCC is much like an extended family in that regard, too. “We’re dealing with real people and real emotions,” Mihalyi says. “There are places in any group where hurts and patterns of behavior rub up against each other. The thing that sustains me is the music.
“The thing is, I’ve always been doing this for me,” she continues, thinking about her own commitment to the SCC. “It’s not just this labor of love. People say, ‘Oh it’s wonderful that you do this,’ but I’m the one who gets so much. I still feel that way. I feel grateful, mostly.”
Mihalyi is also pleased with the reputation the SCC has built. “One of the things I’m most proud of is the way we have fostered relationships within the community,” she notes. “For example, we have collaborated with the Onondaga Nation and that has made us think more about the importance of forming alliances.”
The SCC headlines summer and winter solstice concerts each year, along with nearly a dozen other performances. “The idea of observing the solstice is something I really like,” Mihalyi says. “It’s rhythmic, cyclical—there’s a sense of ritual about it. I love that because it feeds me.”
Song selections depend on what’s happening in the world. “There was a time when we were doing a lot of music from Nicaragua and Latin America,” says Gwin. “Now, we’re doing South African songs; songs about the abolitionist movement.” Pete Seeger is a choir favorite, and the SCC has twice had the opportunity to perform with their hero.
The Winter Solstice concert will include guest performances by national acts Kim and Reggie Harris, Francisco Herrera and the lowercase-spelled emma’s revolution. The Harrises met Mihalyi about 20 years ago, and have admired her commitment to the choir— and the community—ever since. The choir has performed with the couple several times. “She really saw the value of the arts in connecting people, and put that idea into action,” Reggie Harris says in a call from the couple’s New York City home. “What she does gives hope to the community.”
Harris says he and his wife jumped at the chance to be a part of the SCC’s 25th anniversary concert, but he offered no hints on what they will perform.” Agreeing to do this show was a no-brainer,” he notes. “This is a milestone we just have to celebrate.”
Pat Humphries, of emma’s revolution, met Mihalyi at a music workshop before she even started the choir and the two have remained close. “I’ve been honored to have my songs, and now those of emma’s revolution, included in the repertoire since the beginning of the choir and to have performed with the choir a number of times,” she says. She looks forward to performing with the SCC again, especially on such a special occasion.
For Mihalyi, the milestone of 25 years has prompted not only reflection, but thoughts of the future. She never expected the choir to last so long, but she is more surprised by the mark it has made on her own life. “I don’t think I envisioned how deeply I would feel; the change I would go through—for the better.”
Mihalyi, whose daughter now performs in the teen choir, says she is beginning to feel comfortable with the idea of letting someone else handle the administrative management of the choir, so she can focus solely on the music. “For the last six or seven years, I’ve been focused on building a solid organizational structure so that it will survive.”
says she will always lead with the same guiding principals that
inspired her to start the choir. “We want to be a consistent presence of
hope in the community. We’re going to need it in the future.”
A Joyful Noise
The Syracuse Community Choir’s 25th anniversary concert, “Coming Home,” takes place Sunday, Dec. 19, 3:30 p.m., at Nottingham High School, 3100 E. Genesee St. Tickets cost $10 to $25 on a sliding scale, but no one will be turned away; children are free.
The concert will include performances by the SCC children and teen ensembles and special guest performances by internationally renowned musicians Francisco Herrera, Kim and Reggie Harris, and Pat Humphries and Sandy Opetow, who comprise emma’s revolution.
The afternoon will also include a presentation of the 2010 People’s Peace Award to community organizer Geneva Hayden, selected for her many contribution to the community. She launched Light a Candle for Literacy in 2004, and led efforts to establish Kwanzaa Park and gardens in her South Side neighborhood—among other contributions. The People’s Peace Award acknowledges ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the name of social justice and peace.
To purchase tickets, call 428-8151, e-mail syracusecommunitychoir@gmail. com or stop by the Syracuse Cultural Workers store, 400 Lodi St.