Never underestimate the power of a lunch break. In just one brief hour, deals can be brokered, fences can be mended and, on Capitol Hill, music can be made. About 20 years ago, a group of Hill staffers decided to make music over their lunch and in the process formed a Washington treasure — the Congressional Chorus.
It all started in the fall of 1987, when a dozen staffers took a chance on a bulletin board advertisement. Gathering in the auditorium of the Russell Senate Office Building, the staffers held their first practice during a one-hour Tuesday lunch break.
The chorus was the brainchild of Harlie Sponaugle, a staffer for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms. Singing was a passion that Sponaugle wanted to spread to the Hill.
Sponaugle would go on to serve as executive director while Michael Patterson, a friend and church choir director, was enlisted to serve as music director. For nearly two decades, Patterson and Sponaugle led the chorus together.
The goal of the chorus, according to its charter, was twofold: “To communicate to the American public the spirit, diversity, and power of American Choral music, and in doing so, to serve as a vehicle for community service to the Washington metropolitan area.— To that end, the chorus only performs and commissions works from American composers, lyricists and arrangers.
For many staffers, the chorus quickly became a way to fulfill a love of music.
The chorus’ first concerts were a Hanukkah and Christmas concert and a spring concert, both performed on the Hill. The group was closely tied to many Members’ offices not only through its singers but also in gaining support. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Members sponsored Congressional resolutions to allow the chorus to perform in various locations on the Hill.
The chorus further established Hill ties when it was made into a Congressional staff organization. In 1997, former Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.), who at the time had a staffer in the chorus, sponsored a resolution making the chorus a Congressional staff organization.
One House Member, Rep. Martin Lancaster (D-N.C.), would go on to sing with the chorus after leaving Congress.
The chorus’ connection to the Hill evolved over the years. The late ’80s marked a period of establishment. After several months of lunch-hour practices on the Hill, rehearsals moved to the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society building next to the Supreme Court.
“We had to pay to move a piano into the auditorium each time we practiced,— said Dave Cape, one of the original members of the chorus who still sings with the group. “There is only one piano for use in all of the Capitol.—
In its second year, the chorus opened up to non-Hill members, many of whom were former staffers who wanted to continue singing. By its third year, the chorus moved to night practices.
In 1988, the chorus began singing for the lighting of the Capitol Christmas Tree, something it did annually for many years.
But 1989 marked the chorus’ first real big splash with its selection to sing in George H.W. Bush’s inauguration.
“The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang before the ceremony began,— said Louise Buchanan, an original chorus member and former Hill staffer. “And here we were, this little ragtag group of 25 members singing as the party approached for a presidential inauguration. We sang America the Beautiful,’ Shall We Gather at the River’ and I Gotta Sing.’—
The chorus would also sing Patterson’s own composition, “Anthem for a New Age.—
After singing for the Bush inauguration, things really took off, including a follow-up performance at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.
Throughout the 1990s, the group performed at almost every Christmas party the Clintons held.
During that time, the chorus also performed at Members’ private Christmas parties and in NBC’s 1996 “Christmas in Washington— special.
The chorus also sang many concerts at the Kennedy Center and recorded several albums, including “Harmony on the Hill— and “Hang a Shining Star,— and sang elsewhere throughout Washington. In 1997 and 2002, the chorus performed for the United States Association of Former Members of Congress annual awards dinners.
As the 1990s progressed, Hill membership ebbed to a low of around 10 percent, even as the chorus continued to perform throughout Washington. In 1994, it received Internal Revenue Service nonprofit status.
Tragedy struck in 2005, though, when the chorus’ founding director, Michael Patterson, suddenly died.
“Patterson had really brilliant musicianship,— Cape said. “He held a doctorate in music and read music like the printed word. The group almost broke up after he passed away.—
In the aftermath of Patterson’s death, the chorus went through a period of great uncertainty. Its co-founder and executive director, Sponaugle, resigned.
“Harlie and Michael were really a partnership,— Buchanan said. “A few others also left with Michael’s passing. Some of the original members were just so invested in him.—
But the following year, the chorus found new life with David Simmons, who was hired as the chorus’ artistic director in 2006. For this part-time music teacher, the chorus is now Simmons’ full-time passion.
Simmons has sought to reignite the chorus’ ties to the Hill. Former and present government workers now make up 50 percent of the chorus.
The chorus now rehearses out of the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street Northeast and is preparing to perform its fall concert “American Folksongs and Spirituals: New Twists on Familiar Tunes.— That concert will be held 8 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Church of the Epiphany. Tickets can be purchased at chorusmarket.org. The chorus will perform a “Feelin’ Groovy— cabaret in March and an “American Masters— concert in June.
As for the two remaining original members, Cape is still heavily involved as the chorus’ outreach chairman. He continues to work for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms.
Buchanan has retired from the Hill and no longer serves on the chorus board. She has, however, thrown herself into a new chorus endeavor — the American Youth Chorus.
Founded in 2008, the American Youth Chorus is as an educational outreach program for District 8- to 14-year-olds. Buchanan has been a liaison between the chorus and the group and leads a group on Tuesday nights at the Atlas. In its inaugural season, the American Youth Chorus performed for the Obama Children’s Inaugural Ball, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center.
In 2003, the chorus sponsored a “Music in Schools— initiative, which brought music education into D.C. public schools.
“Going into the schools was so rewarding,— Buchanan said. “Impacting neighborhoods where the world seemed so out of tune was invaluable.—
In its very early years, the chorus led service initiatives in homeless shelters and nursing homes.
Singing groups have come and gone in Washington, D.C., but in its 20-year history, the chorus has proved its staying power.
“The chorus is now striving to be professional at all times,— Buchanan said. “One of the chorus’ goals is to return to Hill performances, to strengthen its ties to its starting days.—
Buchanan reflected that there were positives and negatives to the larger size of the chorus. Simmons has roughly doubled the chorus’ size to 80 members.
“Back when it was just a group of eight of us, we were like family,— she said. “We all shared a strong political focus and were so tight as a group.—
Buchanan looks back on the chorus’ history and compares it to chapters.
“In the beginning, we were totally focused on the Hill,— she said. “After that, we moved to expand beyond the Hill and concentrated less on Congress, and Hill membership no longer became mandatory. We had to build an infrastructure.—
Simmons is bringing the chorus into its third era, Buchanan said. “We have really expanded our focus, but at the same time we would like to go back and reconnect to the Hill. A return to the Hill would be like returning to our world.—