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A History of the Lawrence Civic Choir

by Gloria Follett, Historian
The heritage and tradition of singing fine choral music in the Lawrence community and Douglas County dates to the 1920's with the founding of the Lawrence Choral Union. In 1975, the musical heritage of the city was given new life by a group of enterprising local musicians who gathered together to start the Lawrence Civic Choir. Independently of one another, Tom Wilcox and Dave Grisafe were thinking seriously of forming an adult chorus to sing and perform masterworks of choral repertoire. Once they discovered each other, the Lawrence Civic Choir became a reality. Members of the organizing Board of Directors were Tom Wilcox, Chairman, Dave Grisafe, Vice Chairman, Donald Albin, Treasurer, Chris Lane Secretary, Dan Abrahamson, Janice Cobb, Peter Curran, Virginia Curran, Ruth Harwood, Cora Lee Price, Richard Roller, Juanita Strait, and Jackie Shmalberg.

The Board prevailed upon Dr. Leslie Adams of the University of Kansas to conduct the newly formed choir. Singers came from local churches and schools, the University of Kansas, Baker University, and surrounding communities, including Topeka and Kansas City. The ninety member choir performed its first concert at Haskell Jr. College (Haskell Indian Nations University) on Sunday evening, April 6, 1975. Two weeks later, on Sunday April 20th, the choir again sang for the community. The ambitious program included J.S. Bach's Cantata No. 80, Ein Feste Burg, and a selection of madrigals and spirituals. The hard work and dedication of the musicians resulted in accolades from appreciative audience members. The Lawrence Civic Choir had made a highly successful debut and was to rapidly become an integral part of the arts community in Lawrence and northeast Kansas.

The choir was incorporated as a non-profit organization and registered with the state of Kansas June 3, 1976. The Articles of Incorporation were amended and re-registered February 11, 1980. The amended Third Article now reads: "...for educational, cultural and charitable purposes of fostering and promoting the development and appreciation of choral music in the City of Lawrence and Douglas County, Kansas by promoting and causing to be produced choral musical productions and concerts." The choir fulfills its mission through performances, tours, and scholarship awards.

Over one hundred singers provide a richness and diversity of talent which enables the Choir to undertake a rigorous and challenging repertoire. The choir performs literature from a wide array of styles, periods, and cultures. During seasons past, great choral works such as Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Mozart's Requiem, Mendelssohn's Elijah, Brahms' Requiem, and Schubert's Mass in A-flat Major have been performed. Many of the Choir's concerts have been joint productions with other Lawrence groups, such as the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra, the Lawrence Chamber Players (now the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra), the Kansas Brass Quintet, and excellent musicians and dancers from area universities. See Past Concerts for a more complete listing of works previously performed by the choir.

Through the ensuing seasons, the choir's European tours and sister city connections have promoted cultural exchange. Under the auspices of Ambassadors for Friendship, the Choir traveled to Poland in 1980 and to Austria and Romania in 1986, bringing goodwill and hope to audiences behind the Iron Curtain. Other tour destinations have included Austria and Hungary in 1990, England and Wales in 1993, Eutin, Germany (Lawrence's Sister City), Prague and Vienna in 1996, and Italy in 1999. During each of these tours, "home-stays" with local musicians and their families have created bonds of friendship, understanding, and a deeper appreciation of each others' cultural heritages.

The choir's cultural connections, like those of the City of Lawrence generally, extend to Asia as well as to Europe. A group of singers from Hiratsuka, Japan (a Lawrence sister city) joined with the choir in concert in June 2000. Although the choir did not get to travel to Japan, the opportunities for learning and sharing afforded by these visitors from Japan were tremendous. The two groups exchanged music, giving each the opportunity to assimilate a bit of the others' musical heritage. While in Lawrence, the Japanese choir members stayed in the homes of choir members here in Lawrence, allowing time for cultural exchange outside of the music practices.

To encourage and support the development and higher education of young singers, the choir established a scholarship program open to graduating high school seniors in Douglas county. The list of scholarship winners can be found on this page . On April 30, 2001, Mary M. Rosenbloom passed away quite suddenly at the young age of 43. To honor her love of the Lawrence Civic Choir, her family chose the choir's scholarship fund as her memorial. The scholarship is now named the Mary M. Rosenbloom Music Scholarship.

Since its 1975 debut, the choir has enjoyed exceptional professional leadership. Following Dr. Leslie Adams, who conducted the choir's premier performance, Lewis Tilford, Director of Fine Arts for the Lawrence Public Schools, guided the choir through the 1975-76 season. For the next seven seasons, 1976-83, the choir performed under the leadership of Maribeth Kirchoff-Crawford, a member of the music faculty at the University of Kansas. It was during Kirchoff-Crawford's tenure that the choir made its initial European tour to Poland in 1980. Leon Burke III directed the choir for the 1983-1984 season. Pat Boyd, of West Junior High School, conducted the choir in a "Pops Concert" in June of 1983. During the fall of 1984, Dr. George Lawner, University of Kansas, conducted the choir. His untimely death led to the appointment of Dr. Dan Politoske, University of Kansas, to complete the spring 1985 season.

For the next five years, 1985-1990, the choir flourished under the leadership of Dr. John Buehler, Baker University. Dr. Buehler led the choir on two European tours, Austria-Romania in June 1986 and Austria-Hungary in June 1990. In the fall of 1990, Joel Panciera, then Director of Music at First United Methodist Church in Lawrence, took the podium. Panciera, who had studied with John Rutter in England, brought to the choir a refreshing and challenging perspective on choral singing. During the June 1993 tour of England, Panciera arranged for the choir to meet and sing under the direction of John Rutter, truly an exhilarating choral experience. From the fall of 1993 to the fall of 2001, the choir was under the leadership of Dr. Robert Andrew (Rob) Reid. His love of fine choral literature, superb musicianship, and boundless energy allowed the choir to achieve much during this period, including a May 2000 mega-performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the Lied Center of Kansas that included the Lawrence Civic Choir, the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir, the Plymouth Congregational Church Chancel Choir, the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra, and an august group of soloists, including Maria Kanyova, soprano, Holly White, mezzo-soprano, Hugo A. Vera, tenor, and Simon Carrington, bass.

After Rob Reid and family decided to return to the northland from whence they came (Minnesota), we were blessed to have Steve Eubank join us as interim director for the spring of 2002 semester. Steve, who is the music director at Topeka High School, has since become our permanent director, and the future looks bright.

The success of the choir over the past 34 years is due in no small part to the dedication and talents of our accompanists, Winifred Gallup, Jan Bays, Tammy Lydon, and, currently, Geoff Wilcken. Their fine musicianship and enthusiastic support of the choir has facilitated the choir's learning of the music throughout each semester. This is in addition to their flawless performances during our concerts.

Many, many volunteers have kept the Lawrence Civic Choir going for the past 34 years. The "behind the scenes" task of organizing and keeping track of our library of choral music and rented and borrowed scores has been done by Jean Lominska for many years. Recently, Andrea (Andy) Parson has begun assisting Jean in this endeavor. Their dedication to what can be quite a stressful job at times is greatly appreciated.

Another choir member who has performed a valuable service for many years is Robert (Bob) Vaughan. His recordings of our concerts since 1999 have provided wonderful keepsakes for choir members and for our many fans.