In 1970, a group of friends would get together to sing. The informal group could not have known that 50 years later, their fun, informal group would still be going strong – having evolved into Durango Choral Society, a local singing powerhouse made up of four choirs – two adult groups and two youth choirs.
Dawn Spaeder, executive director of DCS, said there are more than 160 singers currently in the society, which is gearing up for its annual Christmas show, “Viva Christmas!” that will be held Sunday at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.
For Spaeder, who started out as a singer with DCS 12 years ago, the group has had many highlights over the years, including singing all over the world and performing at Carnegie Hall four times – one of those times with the youth performers. “We have 12-year-olds in this town that can say they’ve performed on the stage of Carnegie Hall – that’s a lifetime thing! So they rise to that; they rise as artists,” she said.
DCS was also the recipient of the Alice Parker Award in 2016, which, according to its website, is “designed to recognize choruses that may not typically emphasize or include the performance of contemporary music, but have chosen to stretch themselves to present some of this repertoire. Such choruses might include, but are not limited to, those specializing in early music or Baroque repertoire.” DCS won the award for “Requiem for Eagles,” a piece performed with the Telluride Choral Society. “Requiem” was composed by the late David Lingle with an orchestration/adaptation by Dalen Stevens.
“‘Requiem for Eagles’ was a humongous highlight for us. That was kind of a dream come true between the two communities of Telluride and Durango,” Spaeder said.
Along with the external highlights DCS has had, longtime conductor Linda Mack Berven also sees working with the singers as a highlight.
“ The biggest highlight for me is when I’m standing in front of the choir conducting them, watching their faces and seeing that joy of performance reflected back at me. That’s probably the biggest reward that I get,” she said.
Mack Berven started singing with the society soon after moving to Durango to teach at Fort Lewis College in 1982. She took over conducting in January 1999.
She said she has seen a lot of changes in DCS over the years.
“The choir is a lot larger now than it was and we’ve done more concerts,” Mack Berven said. “I think the biggest change has been that it’s gotten much larger, and all four of the choirs have just continued to thrive over the years.”
And for Mack Berven, the secret to the group’s longevity can be found in the group itself.
“I think they love the camaraderie. I think they love the challenge of a wide variety of music,” she said. “I think they enjoy a really strong spirit, plus, I have high expectations, and they know that I’m always raising the bar, and they like that; they want to work hard and they want to do really well. I think that motivates them to continue and to really enjoy the fruits of their success.”
And that success comes from hard work. The choirs are made up of all volunteers. They meet once a week for 2½ hours, and in order to sing, they have to be able to read music and they have to have choral experience.
“So there’s a level I can really maintain – a pretty high level of musicianship with them,” Mack Berven said. “They are loyal, they are dedicated. And boy, do they work hard.”
Perhaps two of the most loyal singers are Richard and Gail Grossman, who have been singing with DCS since 1977. The two joined not long after moving to Durango from Albuquerque.
For Richard Grossman, the highlight of all his years performing was when DCS got to perform with Dave Brubeck.
And for Gail Grossman, the ability of Mack Berven to bring in singers of all ages helps keep the society fresh.
“It’s high quality. And Linda is just so good that people come and they stay for a long time,” she said. “She also for many years has worked at the college, and we have quite a few younger people in the choir who have worked with her when they were students at the college. We have older people and younger people, so it’s a nice mix of ages. She also has a good section of men, tenors and basses, which many choirs don’t often have a lot of good tenors.”
As DCS enters its next 50 years, there’s a lot to look forward to, Spaeder said. The group wants to continue its professional development to make sure the artistic bar stays high. And it would also like to see Durango host a choral festival. And in May, 33 singers in the adult choir will be traveling by invitation to Italy.
And it’s the soul-feedng experience of listening to choir music that keeps everyone – singers and audiences – coming back, Spaeder said.
“That’s why it’s successful – because people come to it and support it for a lifetime. And we make people feel good. It feels good to sing, it feels good to make people happy,” she said. “To look out into that audience and see a smile or a tear or someone’s eyes closed just reflecting – you’re touching souls with a language that goes beyond words. And that’s really special, and that’s why we keep on going.”