Choral Arts Cleveland: History

In the fall of 1974, a small group of men and women from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights area, many of whom were alumni or parents of the Cleveland Heights High School A Cappella Choir singers, joined together under the direction of Edward Battaglia, II, to found an independent community chorus known as the Choir Alumni and Parents Singers (CAPS). As the chorus evolved into a community chorus, it changed its name to the Choral Arts Performing Society (retaining the acronym, CAPS). On September 22, 1991, it abandoned the CAPS acronym and became the Choral Arts Society of Cleveland (CASC).

Choral Arts is a community chorus consisting of singers drawn from throughout the Greater Cleveland area; members come from all walks of life, diverse cultural backgrounds, and a broad age range, and include talented voices with varying degrees of musical training. CASC regularly makes musical contributions to the community through free admission concerts, donations of tickets to deserving organizations (when it sells tickets for performances), and participation in institutional and civic events.

Edward Battaglia, II , the founding Music Director of CASC, was a graduate in Music from Syracuse University and had directed many Gilbert and Sullivan productions with Syracuse Light Opera College and as a faculty member with Cazenovia College, Haverford School and Cleveland Heights High School. While Headmaster of The Columbus Boychoir School in Princeton, New Jersey, that group received an invitation to perform at the White House. For his 1983 Chagrin Valley Little Theater production of “The Mikado”, he was nominated for two Critics’ Circle awards.

Early Years

Bylaws for the chorus were first approved by the membership on Oct. 3, 1982; subsequently these were amended by the membership on Feb. 27, 1983, April 10, 1983, September 22, 1991, March 12, 2000, January 16, 2005, September 28, 2008, and October 11, 2009. In 1982 Choral Arts became a nonprofit corporation, and in 1983 it received its tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Choral Arts has a Board of Trustees, elected by the membership for overlapping three-year terms; its Executive Committee, which carried out the everyday activities, was until 2009 made up of the Music Director, the General Manager, the three elected officers (Chorus President, Secretary, and Treasurer), and committee chairpersons. The Music Director, General Manager, Chorus President, and Treasurer also served as ex-officio, voting trustees. The bylaws, incorporation, and organizational structure of CAPS, as it was then called, were largely the work of Mr. Battaglia, Al Joseph, General Manager at the time, and Drew Clemens, then Chorus President.

An offshoot of CAPS in the early 1980s was the Orpheus Society. Singers from the Orpheus Society in turn formed the Western Reserve Chorale, which continues to be active today and has combined forces with the Choral Arts Society of Cleveland on several occasions.

In 1982 a Questionnaire Survey was submitted to the membership. With 42 responses, CAPS members made clear that they wanted a serious singing group with a relaxed atmosphere, an accompanist, a cross section of music in a variety of concerts, auditions held for solos, and Sunday evening rehearsals.

In 1983 the Choral Arts Performing Society had a new logo, a cluster of stylized faces holding music scores, which was the product of Elaine Szilagyi, whose husband, John, was then a member of the CAPS Board of Trustees.

During the summer and fall of 1983 Ed Battaglia took a leave of absence in order to serve as the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre’s first Resident Music Director. Barbara Sturbank was named Assistant Musical Director and Accompanist for the duration of Ed’s leave of absence.

In the spring of 1983, the Chorus was “purchased” as one of the premiums offered by the WCLV Marathon and performed for a theatre opening in Lorain the following winter. In the fall of 1983 a group of 25 CAPS singers, under the direction of Barbara Sturbank, performed October 16 at the Jewish Community Center for the Community Awards Dinner of Cleveland Heights. From 1981 to 1988 Choral Arts took part in the Fairmount Temple’s annual celebration of Jewish music under the direction of cantor Sara Sager and performed the work of contemporary composers such as Abraham Kaplan and Michael Isaacson. Beginning about 1988, the CAPS made a major effort to achieve higher musical goals and focus on major works for orchestra and chorus.

In 1989 CAPS lost its accompanist, leaving Ed Battaglia performing dual roles as conductor and accompanist. In the spring of 1990, Donald Shelhorn was appointed accompanist. He was formerly organist and associate music director under Robert Shaw at the First Unitarian Church in Shaker Heights. He also was organist and choir director at Trinity Cathedral, Temple on the Heights, Temple B’nai Jeshurun, and St. James Anglican Church. At the time of his appointment, he was organist and choir director at First English Lutheran Church in Cleveland Heights and Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood. He also had been a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus since 1961.

The 1990s

In 1991 Marge Geiger, who had joined Choral Arts six months earlier, was appointed General Manager, replacing Mike Havlena who had to resign for health reasons. She taught English at a variety of schools including Cleveland Heights High School, John Carroll University, Cleveland State, and Cuyahoga Community College. She also has over the years been actively involved in singing and performing, principally with a small group that specializes in sacred Renaissance polyphony and with the Blossom Festival and Cleveland Orchestra choruses. After three years she resigned as GM to complete her dissertation; however, she was not gone for long and continued, in the 21st century, to serve as General Manager until 2007.

Over the years, rehearsals came to be held Sunday evenings at the First English Lutheran Church in Cleveland Heights (Derbyshire and Euclid Heights Boulevards.) In 1992 the chorus, renamed as the Choral Arts Society of Cleveland (CASC), was given the use of space in the church basement for an office so as to be able to centralize files and the growing music library, and to conduct the business of CASC in a more professional environment.

On August 16, 1992, CASC performed at St. Philomena’s Church, East Cleveland, to a packed church for a congregation that was no less than effusive in its praise of the musical liturgy; that same summer they performed at a wedding in Holy Rosary Church in Cleveland. CASC continued to bring St. Philomena parishioners and their community live choral and orchestral music, thus enriching the lives of citizens who don’t often have the opportunity for such artistic experiences. On November 15, 1992, a concert at St. Philomena’s Church — dedicated to the memory of Phyllis Sutker, an outstanding soprano and a founding member — included Faure Requiem and Pavane and R. Vaughn Williams Serenade to Music.

Premier of Liverpool Oratorio at the Palace Theater.

Perhaps the biggest musical undertaking in CASC’s history occurred with the 1993 Ohio premier of Paul McCartney’s and Carl Davis’ Liverpool Oratorio at the Palace Theater with the Chagrin Valley Choral Union. Ed Rothschild served as Chairman of the Steering Committee for the Liverpool Oratorio. The Oratorio included the largest group then known to perform on the stage of the Palace at one time. The vision and courage of Ed Battaglia were the key to having made it all happen. The performance put CASC in touch with several funding agencies including the Cleveland Foundation, which contributed $5000 to the project; the performance also gained us the support of WMMS and the continued support of WCLV.

On Nov. 7, 1993, CASC performed at a concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in conjunction with the Cleveland Women’s orchestra, for the 100th anniversary celebration of the Columbia Exposition. The work, A Festival Jubilee was a commissioned work for the opening of the Women’s Building of the Chicago World’s Fair.

Other significant large-scale concerts over the years included Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’ Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Mozart’s Coronation Mass, Rossini’s Stabat Mater, Bloch’s Sacred Service, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Haydn’s Creation.

On October 1, 1994 Carmen Mihalache Dimulescu was appointed to replace Donald Shelhorn as accompanist. Carmen was on the staff of the Cleveland Institute of Music as accompanist and was also the accompanist for the Cleveland Ballet. Unfortunately she passed away suddenly about one year later. On November 28, 1995, Choral Arts performed a specially composed work in a Memorial Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music in memory of Carmen. In addition, the CASC spring concert in May 1996 at the Cathedral of St. John was dedicated to Carmen’s memory.

Betsey Burleigh becomes Music Director

In the late fall of 1997, Ed Battaglia resigned as director after 22 years to move to Florida, and Betsy Burleigh agreed to serve as interim director in order to fulfill the commitment to perform the Bloch Sacred Service at St. John’s Cathedral on February 23, 1998. At the time Betsy had been in the Cleveland area for two years as choral director and assistant professor at Cleveland State University and was serving as choral director for the Akron and Canton orchestra choruses. She subsequently became the assistant choral director of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. In 2008 she became music director of the Mendelssohn Choir in Pittsburgh, and in 2010 she became music director of Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica.

An unusual moment on October 29, 2000, was Choral Arts’ participation in the Hungarian Millennial Coronation celebration at the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Cleveland, in the presence of the archbishop of Hungary. Over the years Choral Arts has sung creditably in French, German, Latin, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and of course English – but mastering Hungarian was a special challenge.

Marci Alegant becomes Music Director

In August 1998 Marci Alegant was appointed the third Music Director of Choral Arts. Marci came with impressive experience in academic, religious, and community choral conducting. She has a Masters Degree in Choral Conducting from McGill University in Montreal and a Masters Degree in Music Education with a concentration in voice performance from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. She had thirteen years experience teaching music on the grade school, high school and university level. At the time of her appointment she was teaching at Lake Ridge Academy in North Olmsted. She had founded a chamber group, the Black River Singers, since moving to Oberlin, where her husband, Brian, was teaching in the Oberlin Conservatory. CASC was extremely fortunate to be able to have Brian most capably serve as accompanist and thereby accompany Marci on the long drive into Cleveland Heights from Oberlin.

In November 2000, Barbara R. Hawkins was retained as a fundraising consultant for the CASC. The Board approved a plan to apply to foundations for grant monies to cover higher expenses and to approach individuals, companies and professional services for underwriting lesser expenses. The Frohring Foundation gave annual grants to Choral Arts for many years, and the Ohio Arts Council, the Cuyahoga Arts Council, the Cleveland Foundation, the Andrews Foundation, the Collacott Foundation, the Gund Foundation, the Kulas Foundation, and the Reinberger Foundation as well as U.S. Bancorp and private donors have generously supported the Choral Arts Society at various times.

At the end of the 2000/2001 season Marci Alegant informed the Board that she would have to take a leave of absence for the following season, due to the increased demands on her time since she had become Assistant Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Four candidates were interviewed and given “auditions” in leading chorus rehearsals.

Martin Kessler takes the Helm

As a result, in the fall of 2002, Martin Kessler became the fourth and current Music Director of the Choral Arts Society of Cleveland. Martin Kessler served as Director of Music at University School’s Hunting Valley Campus until he retired in 2010 and had conducted eight productions for Lyric Opera of Cleveland and three for Cain Park. At the time he was also beginning his twenty-third season as Music Director and Conductor of the Suburban Symphony, which had previously collaborated with Choral Arts. Conflict avoidance is a person’s method of reacting to conflict. Luckily there are ways to conquer the fear of confrontation. With the appointment of Martin Kessler, Joanne Poderis became the accompanist for CASC. Joanne is Executive Director and accompanist for the Western Reserve Chorale, organist at First Church Christ Scientist of Chagrin Falls, and an Artist-in-Residence at the Cleveland School of the Arts.

In the spring of 2002 the First English Lutheran Church closed its doors, forcing CASC to find a new rehearsal venue. This was solved with the decision to use Grace Lutheran Church at 13001 Cedar Road (between Coventry and Lee Roads) as a new rehearsal site. It has good rehearsal space on the main floor of the church, good acoustics, space for our musical library, and a reasonable location.

Increasingly elegant concerts have evolved under the direction of Martin Kessler. Large choral works have included the Mozart’s Mass in C minor, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, Schubert’s Mass in C, the Faure Requiem, and major works by Stravinsky, Bernstein, Britten, Copeland, as well as Vivaldi, Monteverdi, and many others. In collaboration with the Suburban Symphony, the chorus has performed Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, the Bloch Sacred Service, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and the 30th anniversary performance in May, 2005, of Orff’s Carmina Burana and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. Along with such productions Choral Arts has performed a trio of Magnificats by Schutz, Mozart, and Rutter, a rare collection of Irish music, unusual Christmas music by Martin Kessler himself, five centuries of French choral works, and a world-wide array of music outside the Western canon. With the support of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, two concerts in early 2012 introduced new music by British composers William Godfree’s Requiem and Anthony Pitts’ Jerusalem/Yerushalayim. The composer flew from England to attend the latter performance, which was a North American premiere. Complete listings of Choral Arts’ performances, both historical and in the last six seasons, are accessible elsewhere on the web site.

Notable Leaders

Two founding members have sung with Choral Arts since it began in 1975: Julie and Drew Clemens. Lillian Weinstein and Lew Rakusin sang with the chorus until the early 2000s. Choral Arts could not have survived and ultimately thrived without the diligent work of its General Managers, Al Joseph, Al Glickson, Mike Havlena, Marge Geiger, and Jodie Bender. Art Brooks, Henry Barlow, and Drew Clemens have assured stability as Chairs of the Board of Trustees, and Walter Oswald as Secretary of the Board. Lew Rakusin, Nason Lightman, and currently Jan Hornack have served faithfully as Treasurer. Lillian Weinstein was Secretary for many years, succeeded by Jean Neher, Bobbi Mastri, and now Charlotte Linebaugh. The role of Chorus President was filled over the years by Drew Clemens, Al Glickson, Clint Felker, Mac McVeen, and Laurie Aronoff; that position has since been merged with that of Chair of the Board of Trustees under the title of President. Since 2009 the Board of Trustees has been made up entirely of chorus members. Helpful community leaders who have served in the recent past include Fr. Michael Ausperk, Rose Breckenridge, Micki Brook, Phyllis Donnelly-Ingold, Walter Oswald, and Elaine Szilagyi.

Looking to the Future

Over the years CASC has continually met challenges with respect to group size and balance, fundraising, recruitment and involvement of members, public relations, publicity, and changes of leadership. Its musical proficiency has steadily improved. Choral Arts looks forward to many future years of contribution to Cleveland’s proud tradition of community musical performance.

— Barbara Nahra, revised and updated periodically by Drew Clemens and Marge Geiger.