By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois.
O’er thy prairies verdant growing, Illinois, Illinois …
Our little-known state song opens an evening of music written by composers with connections to our 200-year-old state, including some with local ties. The Michael Teolis Singers will “Sing Illinois” at its spring concert on Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Oak Park.
The group consists of 30 singers who come from Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park and other surrounding areas. Their musical experiences vary — some are former Grant Park Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus members, some are from the music education sector, some sing at churches, and others “just love to sing,” according to Nancy Greco, Michael Teolis Singers’ president/manager and a Forest Park resident.
“Our ensemble wants to perform a higher quality,” Greco said, “and we do lesser-known works, rarely-heard composers, new works, and things that are not a heavy, standard repertoire.”
Artistic Director and Conductor Michael Teolis meticulously researches the composers for each annual spring themed concert. “Sing Illinois” includes music by a Pulitzer Prize winner who grew up in Oak Park and graduated from OPRF 80 years ago, and a female composer who spent most of her years in the village.
Lora Aborn (1907-2005) penned ballets, symphonies and religious music that have been performed around the world, according to her daughter, River Forest resident Chatka Ruggiero. At the upcoming concert, Aborn’s “To Music (from Fragments),” written for the Heritage Chorale in Oak Park many years ago, will be performed.
“She lived in Oak Park and River Forest from 1931 to 2005,” Ruggiero said. “She wrote her music and performed here and was the organist for the Evangelical Church on Marion Street and then for the Universalist-Unitarian Church in Unity Temple for 40-plus years.”
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1959 for his First Piano Concerto, John LaMontaine (1920-2013) wrote symphonic, chamber ensemble, ballet, opera, choral and solo works. He was the first composer commissioned to write for a presidential inauguration and composed “Overture: From Sea to Shining Sea” for John F. Kennedy’s 1961 swearing-in.
The LaMontaine work being performed by the Michael Teolis singers is of a different ilk, “Nonsense Songs from Mother Goose,” which Greco, a soprano, describes as being fun, but challenging.
Another piece with a local connection is Carl Schalk’s “Glory to God in the Highest.” Schalk is a retired music professor from Concordia University and composes for Grace Lutheran, River Forest. Other pieces with significance are those involving African-American women. “Hold On” is a spiritual arranged by Margaret Bonds and “Song for Snow” is composed by Florence Price.
“The music has to touch you; it has to strike a note with the audience,” Teolis said. “While the music is accessible, we entertain and educate.”
Part of the entertainment is trumpeter Joe Burgstaller, who will join the voices with his arrangement of “Oblivion,” an Argentine tango. Burstaller is a former member of Canadian Brass and now self-describes as a multigenre international soloist.
Burgstaller met Teolis 40 years ago as a young student. At the time, Teolis was a music teacher at St. Benedict Preparatory School, Chicago, and had heard about a boy who wanted to learn a brass instrument. Teolis met him in the hall and was blown away by his harmonica playing. He took Burgstaller on as a 6-year-old coronet student. Teolis is currently the performing arts chair and instrumental music director at The Latin School of Chicago, teaching band to students in grades 4 through 12. He is about to retire.
But the Michael Teolis Singers will go on. Rehearsals begin again in September in preparation for their annual holiday show. And featured at every concert is the century-old Skinner pipe organ, a lure that brought the group to the locale in the first place when Teolis, Greco and eight other founding members were looking for a venue 11 years ago.
Expected to attend the concert on Saturday are Ruggerio, Schalk and a nephew of LaMontaine.
“Sing Illinois” is Saturday, May 5, 7:30 p.m., First United Methodist Church. $20; $15, seniors/students. Tickets: 708-366-2889, info@MTSingers.org, or at door. More: mtsingers.org. 324 N. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park.