Members of Queen City Chorale pose for a photo outside Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield, Missouri
What started as The Weekend Choir during the COVID-19 pandemic has become Queen City Chorale. The community choir finishes its second season April 7 with a free concert at Christ Episcopal Church. (Photo by Queen City Chorale)

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What started as The Weekend Choir has turned into a much bigger project than Kenny Kabak could have anticipated — and thankfully he knew just who to turn to for help.

Now known as Queen City Chorale, the community choir wraps up its 2023/2024 season on Sunday, April 7, with its spring concert at Christ Episcopal Church. “Sleepers, Awake!” starts at 7 p.m. and admission is free.

“We’re doing music that ranges really from the Renaissance, like the 1600s, all the way to modern works of today,” Kabak said. “There’s acapella stuff, Swedish music, it’s been a lot of fun to put together — and the choir sounds insanely good.”

Original group missed live music during COVID-19 pandemic

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The Weekend Choir got started back in early 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Kabak and his friends were really missing music. The performing arts are important to them and they felt like they'd lost part of their identity.

“We weren’t getting live performances and so I wrangled up like 12 or 16 of my friends that I went to college with and sang with and I said, ‘Hey, I’ll buy all the music. Let’s just go meet at a church, wear your mask and we’ll record,’” Kabak said. “We did some really nice professional videos with our buddy and we put those out and it… started to pick up traction really fast.”

Kabak, the director of music at Christ Episcopal Church, started getting questions: When are you going to do the next one? When are you going to do a live concert? He got the sense this weekend project had a chance to take off and “be something cool.”

“It just turned into a project that I needed help with, really, so I reached out to Briar (Douglas),” he said. “Briar and I sang in undergrad together in the chorale at (Missouri State University) and I knew that Briar has a lot of strength in arts administration and executive leadership.”

Douglas, who works in the Office of Student Engagement at MSU, met Kabak at European Cafe and agreed to team up. Kabak is now the artistic director for Queen City Chorale. Douglas is the executive director.

Weekend format a ‘magical experience'

The Queen City Chorale performs at University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri
Queen City Chorale has held several of its performances inside Springfield-area churches. The group rehearses at Christ Episcopal Church. (Photo by Queen City Chorale)

The original group was called The Weekend Choir for a reason. The group would learn the music on its own, then meet for the first time on Friday night to rehearse. More rehearsals followed on Saturday before a Sunday performance.

“We were training ourselves to flip repertoire really quickly and that became kind of our M.O.,” Kabak said. “It was a really magical experience and so we actually still operate with that same structure as the Queen City Chorale now.”

GG Pierle, a soprano in the choir, got to experience that magic for the first time in 2022, one month after relocating from Alaska to Springfield. She said participating in Queen City Chorale has been “insanely fulfilling in my life musically.”

“What’s happening in the rehearsal room is really great and intentional music-making and I loved it from the first rehearsal,” Pierle said. “It just felt so put together and welcoming and like a normal choir rehearsal even though I’d never sung with these people before. It was just such a welcoming and calming feeling.”

Another benefit to the “weekend choir” model? It’s accessible for people with busy lives and even those who have moved away from Springfield.

“We get folks that went to Missouri State or we knew in Springfield that then moved to Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia,” Douglas said. “We’ve got some people from Arkansas, so it’s nice to bring everybody back.

“It brings them back for kind of a mini-reunion… One of us is lending our couch or spare bedroom to them and then we’re going out that night and getting drinks or doing whatever. It’s so nice because community has always been at the core of what we’re doing here. That’s one of the parts that I really love.”

And it’s not just nurturing a community that already exists. Douglas said one singer in the choir moved from Arkansas to Springfield for work but didn’t have any music connections in town.

“She had heard about Kenny and about Queen City Chorale through a mentor,” he said. “She joined us and now this is like her musical home in Springfield.”

The new choir is already performing at big events and tackling difficult music

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Kabak’s hunch about the choir was right. Queen City Chorale has taken off quickly, earning invitations to perform at the Missouri Choral Directors Association conference in July 2022 and the 85th Annual Missouri Music Educators Association In-Service Workshop/Conference in January 2023.

“And both of those were invited performances,” he said. “We had to submit an audition reel and it was through blind adjudication that we were selected to perform as the only community choir in the state to be selected for that conference.”

Douglas chimed in: “Those were both during our first season, so it’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘Well, now we’re just going to have to continue to outdo ourselves every single year.’ It never felt like this was a new thing. It never felt like we were learning the ropes. We just kind of jumped in and hit the ground running, and we’ve got really great members that were ready for the journey.”

That has allowed Queen City Chorale to tackle some difficult music. The group’s fall concert this season, for example, had a major impact on its members. It was called “The Song of Life Itself” and Kabak calls it a “social justice-focused concert.” The choir invited different organizations around the city to come speak to the audience, including the International Institute of Southwest Missouri, which helps refugees.

“We got to combine that with the vehicle, which is music, to tell the story of the Syrian refugee crisis and Black men being shot by police,” Kabak said. “(That piece) was inspired by the murder of Michael Brown and was written by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson. It’s called ‘The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed’ and it’s a comparison to the last seven words of Christ when he was crucified. Each of the seven movements is representative of an unarmed Black man’s life and honoring the legacy of that person.

“I don’t think there were many dry eyes in the room and I think it completely impacted each of us. We were able to spend some really intentional time in those weekends having conversations, not just singing — really fostering some important dialogue about what we were singing about. That’s really the heartbeat of what we’re doing.”

Spring concert focuses on sacred music

Queen City Chorale rehearses inside Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield, Missouri
Queen City Chorale uses a “weekend choir” model, where the group meets for rehearsals Friday and Saturday before its Sunday concerts. (Photo by Queen City Chorale)

The cornerstone of the April 7 concert focuses on sacred music and features one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most famous cantatas: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.” Kabak said that basically translates as “Sleepers awake.”

“It’s a conversation between Jesus and the soul, essentially, sung by a soprano and a baritone,” he said. “And the choir accompanies them, just telling people ‘Wake up! Christ is returning! He’s coming!’ I thought it was really fitting to the Easter season.”

The second half of the concert is sacred anthems for choir and organ. Queen City Chorale will be accompanied by Zaheer Popo, who earned a degree in organ performance from Missouri State University and is now at the University of Kansas.

“The music of this concert is vastly different (than the fall concert),” Pierle said. “I think that speaks a lot to the creative side of Queen City (Chorale) and the repertoire that Kenny is picking and what he’s going for. It’s just crazy to think in two seasons what repertoire we’ve covered and what we’ve done when we only meet for two weekends.”

Admission to “Sleepers, Awake!” is free, though Kabak said the nonprofit choir will be accepting donations.

“We are entirely grassroots-funded at this point,” he said. “Up until this point, everything that we’ve produced has been funded by friends, family and singers. The singers pay to sing in the choir, so they are the stakeholders in this experience, actually. We put money into it because we love it.”

The next step: becoming a community staple

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With the foundation work started Queen City Chorale is now looking for ways to ingrain itself in what Douglas calls Springfield’s “poppin’ arts scene.”

“We’re trying to branch out, do some performances at different venues, reach some different audiences and just, for a lack of a better word, do some networking in Springfield,” he said. “We’ve got some good community partnerships built already… and we’ve got some other (partnerships) down the pipeline. That’s really what I see as kind of the next step for us is just for this to be more of a community staple and build awareness of the group.”

Those interested in getting involved can visit Queen City Chorale’s website. The group does auditions year-round, giving all singers the chance to join a pool of about 90 singers. Douglas said the group is always looking to partner with Springfield-area organizations in a way that benefits both groups.

“I think all of the people on our team are ideas people and brainstorming people,” he said, citing the group’s partnership with Dickerson Park Zoo. “We’ve done everything from singing at their 100th birthday celebration to singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the giraffes. We do it all for them and that’s the kind of stuff we’re looking for. If your sentence starts with, ‘I have a crazy idea,’ we’re obsessed. We love it. We want to hear the crazy idea.”

Want to go?

What: Queen City Chorale’s Spring Concert, “Sleepers, Awake!”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 7

Where: Christ Episcopal Church (610 E. Walnut St.)

Admission: Free. Donations will be accepted

For more information: Visit Queen City Chorale’s website or connect with them on Facebook

Jeff Kessinger

Jeff Kessinger is the Reader Engagement Editor for the Hauxeda, and the voice of its daily newsletter SGF A.M. He covered sports in southwest Missouri for the better part of 20 years, from young athletes to the pros. The Springfield native and Missouri State University alumnus is thrilled to be doing journalism in the Queen City, helping connect the community with important information. He and wife Jamie daily try to keep a tent on the circus that is a blended family of five kids and three cats. More by Jeff Kessinger