When Stephanie Mowery came to Syracuse from Pasadena, Calif., to become artistic director of the Syracuse Children’s Chorus—after a long, celebrated tenure by founder Barbara Tagg—she had a couple of goals. She wanted to continue the organization’s commitment to artistic quality, but she also wanted to expand the membership and audience of the chorus, and she wanted the group to better reflect the greater Syracuse community.
“I had some very big shoes to fill,” says Mowery, 52, who had admired Tagg, an instructor at Syracuse University, and her work with the chorus for years before her appointment. “The chorus has a strong tradition of artistic excellence. So it was an honor to be able to come here and work with this organization. Now we’re trying to broaden the reach of the choir; make it more diverse and more inclusive. We want to let people know who we are and really be representative of the community.”
Established in 1981, the SCC has twice been recognized by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Chorus America award for Adventurous Programming. That tradition will continue, Mowery says. She has set about acquainting the chorus with world music pieces and works by contemporary composers. On Feb. 2, the SCC will work with New York City-based composer Jim Papoulis at a daylong workshop at Inspiration Hall on James Street in Syracuse.
“Choral music is changing,” Mowery says, her voice filled with enthusiasm. “Young people are looking for a contemporary approach. World music is very new to the choral scene, but it is quickly making an influence. At the same time, we still want (the students) to be familiar with the choral traditions.”
The SCC’s annual holiday performance has become a local tradition. This year, the chorus will present “A Holiday Festival of Readings and Carols” on Dec. 2, 4 p.m., at Most Holy Rosary Church, 111 Roberts Ave., Syracuse. Mowery says the festival was adjusted a bit this year; while there will be plenty of seasonal music, fewer of the selections will be Christmas carols.
“We’re trying to broaden the festival and make it more relevant to a variety of faith traditions,” Mowery says. “Poetry will be included for the first time.”
The chorus—which is actually three separate groups of children from ages 8 to 18—is currently 115 singers strong. The Preludio, or beginner choir, is conducted by assistant director Marcia DeMartini. More experienced voices are featured in the Kantorei and Chorale ensembles. Mowery says 150 voices would be ideal. “We are in a bit of a recruitment mode,” she says.
The SCC performs four self-produced shows a year, and sings in additional performances at other times with various arts and community service organizations. The chorus practices on Monday and Wednesday afternoons at Syracuse University’s Crouse College. The SCC has been based there since its founding; Tagg is still affiliated with the chorus as director emeritus.
While children do audition, the SCC is not necessarily looking for the next Josh Groban. A desire to learn new music, an interest in meeting students from other local communities, and a commitment to work hard are just as important, Mowery says. Auditions can be arranged at any time during the year but are officially scheduled in May.
“There is a lot of responsibility required of the children. They’re developing life skills, building self-esteem,” Mowery says. “Their participation also requires a big time commitment for the parents: juggling logistics. They are just so supportive and it’s great to have that.”
While she is not a parent herself, Mowery has been helping young people discover their own love of music for more than 25 years. Before joining the SCC in July 2011, she was director of children’s and youth music at All Saints Church in Pasadena.
“It was hard to leave, but I had wanted to do something with a nonprofit for years,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have moved to the East Coast for any other reason—my family is out west in Oregon.”
Mowery says while she was familiar with how talented the chorus is, she was surprised to learn that the chorus had so few male voices. “Out of the 35 members of the advanced ensemble (the most select of the three groups), only five were guys,” Mowery says. “But last May, I auditioned quite a number of guys. So there’s a good crop of new male voices.”
It can be difficult, Mowery admits, to keep young male singers feeling confident as they move through the teen years and voice changes. So she is organizing a small ensemble just for young men of that age.
“Voice change is the hardest thing in the world for young singers,” Mowery says. “If you start them young, you hope they develop a love for the music and the skills to keep them going. That’s the challenge.”
As for her own “newbie” status, Mowery credits the staff of the SCC and the chorus’ seasoned members for helping her shed it. “Some of the ‘vets’ in the advanced group have been with the choir five, six or even seven years,” Mowery says. “It’s amazing to see them mentor the new members this year and even help bring me up to speed.”
“They know the ropes,” she adds with a laugh.
Mowery has also been reaching out to local school choruses. She would like to collaborate on more shows with other groups. Mowery says she would like those who perform with their school groups to get a sense of the SCC and see that there is another outlet for their singing.
Mowery has spent much of the past year and a half getting familiar with her new community—as a resident and as a music professional. Her opinions on each are a study in contrast.
“Getting used to the Syracuse weather? It’s been a transition, I won’t lie,” she says with a laugh. “But I do enjoy the change of seasons.”
Of the local arts community, Mowery is eager to make connections. “My goal is to be more collaborative,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities for that here in Syracuse.”
Last May, the SCC joined with singers and drummers with the Imagine Syracuse Young Musicians Project for the “Visions of Peace” concert at Hendricks Chapel on the Syracuse University campus. “That was an amazing experience and we’d like to do more projects like that,” says Mowery.
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.
Photo above: Michael Davis Photo