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The Sound of Music on the Hill

At a choir rehearsal one recent Monday evening at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street Northeast, there was a man standing in the front row with silvery hair and a pinstriped suit, reading off an iPad while others sang from stapled sheet music that crinkled with the turn of every page.

In the row behind him was a scruffy man wearing shorts and sandals and an orange T-shirt with the words “ADOPT THIS DOG” across the front in big black letters.

A young woman wearing sweatpants came in late, taking swigs from a can of Diet Coke.

A man with a BlackBerry holster at his hip ducked out to take a call.

Some of them giggled to their neighbors before the conductor gently reminded them that “this isn’t the time to socialize” — much like a presiding officer of the House or Senate floor chides his or her colleagues for speaking during proceedings.

When they began to sing, they sounded like one.

This is the Congressional Chorus, a melting pot of ages, occupations and political persuasions.

The 100-member, co-ed chorus began 25 years ago as a group of a dozen Capitol Hill staffers rehearsing during their lunch hours in the auditorium of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

“In those days, we had to spend $10 to $15 a week to get the piano moved there, because there was only one piano in the Capitol,” said Dave Cape, who works in the office of the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and is one of the choir’s founding members.

As the chorus approaches its 25th anniversary concert this Saturday at the National City Christian Church, some changes are more noticeable than just the size of the group and the updated rehearsal facilities: The group has widened its net beyond the Capitol Hill community and expanded its repertoire to more contemporary and even original arrangements.

“We still sing just American music, try to preserve American music and also promote new music … and that’s something that differentiates us from the other acts in town,” said David Simmons, the group’s artistic director since 2006, who reiterated its tagline: “American music for every age.”

A Chorus Is Born

When the Congressional Chorus was founded in 1987, email was not prevalent, Cape emphasized.

“A co-worker, Harlie Sponaugle, she had this idea,” Cape said. “Someone asked her what, if she could do anything she wanted to do in life, what would she do? She said she’d like to found a chorus.

“She and I started working on the exact same day” at the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office, Cape continued. “She put a notice on the bulletin board: ‘Like to sing? Come join us in the auditorium in Dirksen.’”

Cape, who has always been a singer and was a member of the varsity chorus at Marquette University, said the first rehearsals cleared up some misconceptions pretty quickly about what this chorus was all about.

“There were these two guys who worked with us who thought it was going to be like ‘Sing-along with Mitch,’” Cape said with a laugh. “And then the director said, ‘Please everyone observe the fermata after measure 13.’”

The group became self-selective, made up of Hill staffers who were serious and skilled. They were able to put on a holiday concert that first year, but they had to arrange for legislation to pass that would permit them to use official space, with some members going door-to-door seeking legislative co-sponsors.

The Congressional Chorus grew in size, popularity and ambition. It was selected to perform at the inaugurations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It was invited to White House Christmas parties. It got itself a Congressional mailbox, attained nonprofit status and added a board of directors.

And the group brought on Michael Patterson, a friend of Sponaugle’s from church choir, as its music director.

Patterson, much loved by the group, died suddenly in 2006. Some members of the chorus, devastated by the news, cut ties and the group almost disbanded.

But the board wanted the show to go on, and it put out an advertisement for a new artistic director. 

“I came here in 1987, so 25 years ago, too,” Simmons said, noting the coincidence between his anniversary in the District and that of the Congressional Chorus. “I worked on the Hill for [the late Pennsylvania Republican] Sen. John Heinz and had no idea the chorus existed. I was a purely political guy, but always a musician on the side.”

Simmons went to law school and then into practice, but in 1995 he decided to pursue music full time, primarily teaching children’s theater and opera. Though he describes his current work with the Congressional Chorus as full time, his “day job” is as a music teacher at a private school in Prince George’s County, Md. 

25 Years Later

When Simmons came on, about 25 members were doing two shows a year. Now there are about 100 people in the group, with 75 singers performing three main concerts plus a holiday show annually.

Simmons also founded a children’s choir, the American Youth Chorus, which often performs with the adults in the Congressional Chorus. This branch of younger singers numbers about 75.

Some performances are now done “Cabaret-style,” which appeals to a lot of the musical theater lovers in the chorus.

And in honor of its 25th anniversary, the chorus has commissioned two new pieces: one by renowned Pacific Northwest composer Joan Szymko and one by 19-year-old Eastman School of Music student Chris Urquiaga that’s a three-movement song cycle set to Langston Hughes poems.

“He was looking for something that was inspirational and that would speak to all people but mainly toward the youth,” Urquiaga said of Simmons. “And when I was looking through Langston Hughes’ poetry, I thought, ‘What could be better?’”

Simmons is proud of the talent of the group and the new directions it’s taking, but also of its diversity.

“It used to skew toward people in their 40s,” Simmons said. “Now, our youngest are 8 years old, and our oldest member is maybe 80.”

Simmons added that as the chorus has opened itself up to singers outside the Capitol Hill community, perhaps “Congressional” Chorus isn’t the right title anymore. Only about 20 percent of its members are Capitol Hill staffers.

“We’ve talked about it,” he said, but the desire to continue acknowledging the chorus’s roots won over.

“I’m thrilled that it’s opened up to a larger group,” Cape said. “I keep saying to [Simmons], ‘What’s in a name?’ I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t bother me, but I don’t think there’s a need to change it.”

The Hill Singers

For many of the Capitol Hill staffers who found their way into the Congressional Chorus, the extracurricular activity holds a special place in their hearts — and busy work schedules.

Jim Forbes is the communications director for Rep.
David McKinley (R-W.Va.). 

A lifelong singer who was about a decade out of practice, Forbes learned about the Congressional Chorus several years ago during his stint in the office of former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) but never auditioned. When he recently returned to Washington, D.C., for his new job, he sought out the chorus just in time to participate in the 25th anniversary concert.

“It is truly a way for me to relieve stress because I enjoy it so much,” Forbes said. “And this is the best choir by far I’ve ever been with.”

Forbes has also enjoyed getting to know some friends on the other side of the aisle: “The guy I travel home with, he’s a Democrat on the Hill, and we’ve had some good talks.”

Beau Brunson joined the Congressional Chorus during his tenure as an aide for Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) four years ago. He found out about it through a colleague who wanted to audition; she didn’t make the cut, but he did.

Brunson says he joined the chorus, in part, for the challenge, but an additional challenge is getting to rehearsals on time — the House floor schedule often includes a series of votes at 6:30 p.m. on Mondays.

“But he’s very supportive,” Brunson said of his boss, Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), for whom he is the legislative director.

And Michael Brewer, a staff assistant for Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), gushed over what the Congressional Chorus has meant to him since arriving on the Hill and Washington, D.C., itself last June.

“It has been amazing,” he said. “Such a great conglomerate of folks who are all interested in the same thing, and being new to D.C., it’s been a place for me to make friends while exploring my passions.”

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