Strong Roots, Resilient Problem-Solving Spells Success for Hartford Chorale

Meeting challenges both recent and historic, the chorale celebrates 50 years


The Hartford Chorale has a lot to celebrate this spring. Part of the fabric of the Hartford community for 50 years, the chorale has established a reputation for excellence throughout southern New England and beyond. The organization takes great pride in its rich history and tradition of performing symphonic-scale, choral-orchestral repertoire at a high standard of artistry. A bedrock of dedicated volunteer singers and savvy board members, together with dynamic artistic leaders and a small fellowship of resourceful paid administrators, have keyed the organization’s longevity, achievements, and evolution.

A 50th anniversary culminating concert on May 20 will both honor the chorale’s past and look with anticipation to the future. The performance will recognize the legacy of music director Richard Coffey, departing after 17 years at season’s end, highlight incoming interim music director (and current assistant music director) Jack Anthony Pott, and include the world premiere of a new work commissioned from composer and Connecticut native Scott Perkins.

Moreover, the rediscovered joy of singing in person again provides plenty of reason to celebrate. The chorale’s return to the concert stage was temporarily delayed when its December 2021 performance of Handel’s Messiah was canceled due to an unwelcome resurgence of COVID-19. The cancellation was only a small setback on a determined journey for the chorale, however. Despite enormous challenges, the group didn’t look back and only grew more passionate about keeping the music alive and sharing it with its community.

The energetic response, while decidedly forward-thinking, was also very much in line with the core identity and roots of the organization, going back all the way to its very founding – a story that comes into focus when exploring the chorale’s history.


A Season of Well-Reasoned Alternatives

Just as planning for its 50th anniversary season was about to ramp up, COVID-19 presented an unexpected and daunting obstacle. How did an ensemble that earned its reputation on the largest-scale performances – requiring massive forces of performers and equally robust audiences to be sustainable – survive a time when society desperately needed to avoid crowded gatherings? The chorale had to stick to a simple principle.

“We immediately turned our attention to focusing on what we could do,” explains Lalitha Shivaswamy, president of the board of governors. The ethos became second nature among the leadership, until one day music director Richard Coffey spontaneously referred to the COVID year as “a season of well-reasoned alternatives.” “The name immediately stuck,” recalls Shivaswamy.

Those alternatives included harnessing under-explored talents already existing in the group – such as the media and technology expertise of assistant music director Jack Pott and the office management acumen of accompanist James Barry. The board also rolled up its sleeves to provide extra hands-on assistance, and approved funds to create new positions for emerging roles and invest in growing its media presence. Says Shivaswamy, “Once we had a clear sense of our strategy, the energy was unstoppably cheerful.”

The chorale jumped into the online space, producing a full season of creative virtual content, including a program of excerpts from the Messiah, a showcase of various individual performances from members, and a panel discussion of African American choral and vocal artists. However, its response to the pandemic is perhaps best captured not by any specific programming achievements, but by how the organization gained momentum when facing the crisis. “The chorale membership and donor base is now bigger than it was in March 2020,” says Shivaswamy. The group now includes almost 140 singers, up about 10 percent from two years ago.


Responding to Loss, Building a New Foundation

Long before COVID-19 entered our lives, the members of the chorale met another pivotal moment. In fact, that’s the story of its origin.

Before the chorale’s first days, a dedicated group of volunteer singers came together to found the Hartford Oratorio Society in 1920, mounting its first performance in May 1921. In the earliest days, this ensemble performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in both Boston and Hartford. The society became part of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in 1954 (renamed as the Hartford Symphony Chorale), receiving all of its funding through the symphony.

The Hartford Chorale's predecessor ensemble - The Hartford Symphony Chorale, shown here in the 1960s with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The symphony released the chorale in 1972, leading the choral musicians to incorporate a new independent nonprofit chorus.


Then in 1972 came an abrupt transition. The symphony underwent an organizational restructuring, releasing the chorale and ending its financial support. Joanne Huelsman, the chorale’s immediate past president and 50th anniversary committee chair, notes that the symphony’s decision came as a surprise, naturally causing a tremendous amount of distress to the singers.

However, these undeterred choral musicians somehow incorporated a new independent nonprofit chorus in just an astounding 12 weeks, taken from the governance structure built while the chorale was part of the symphony. Thus, the Hartford Chorale was established. All of the logistics and expenses taken care of by the Hartford Symphony for two decades – locating rehearsal space, hiring a music director, producing concerts, raising money, and selling tickets – now fell to this ambitious group of volunteers.

These newly minted nonprofit leaders proved up to the challenge. By December of their inaugural year, the chorale held its first concert, continuing its predecessors’ tradition of presenting major choral-orchestral works with professional orchestra and soloists. The featured work on the auspicious first program: Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, a piece that was written during trying circumstances (Haydn’s original title translates to Mass In a Time of Anxiety) but is synonymous with triumph that soon followed.

Not only did these leaders mark their inaugural year by producing a successful opening concert (and a second one later in the season), but they laid a sturdy foundation to pave the way for the organization’s development. Their initial music director search brought them the maestro Henley Denmead, who served a remarkable 30 years until retiring in 2002. And fifty years later, the chorale has enjoyed stability under a steady core mission while continuing to take on new challenges.

“In a way, this mirrors what we accomplished during the COVID period,” reflects Huelsman. “Seemingly overnight, our singing ceased, and after going through the stages of grief we became very entrepreneurial in order to move forward.”


Eyeing the Next Phase

The events of the chorale’s founding clearly instilled an appreciation for diligent governance that is alive and well today. However, it took many steps to mature from its original foundation to the current organization that was well-positioned to weather COVID.

A major step came in 1998 when the organization’s first paid staff member was hired, made possible by a foundation grant that provided an infusion of infrastructure support. This also enabled the chorale to establish an office space in downtown Hartford.

Another substantial transition point came in 2005, when Coffey came aboard as the new music director. “His experience helped the board hire its first executive director and mature our board governance,” says Huelsman. Coffey also implemented significant artistic-focused structural updates, adding an assistant music director and introducing a professional core of singers – which took a few seasons of patience to gradually receive full buy-in from volunteer members.

A basic starting point to maintain healthy operations has been to regularly revisit the organization’s bylaws, at least once a decade, says Huelsman. In recent years, implementing more online systems has freed up time for the current board to focus on furthering the mission, and conducting more business remotely has helped them expand the range of contributors. “Embracing technology allows people who couldn’t otherwise have served to participate in board operations,” says Shivaswamy.


It's All About Relationships

One element of the chorale’s approach won’t be surprising to choral leaders. Forming connections with community leaders and institutions has been a vital component every step of the way.

“Our founders relied on established relationships with orchestral musicians and our performance home,” says Huelsman about the chorale’s initial efforts to keep performing. Strong bonds between the founding singers were essential as well, as the membership took on a great deal of responsibility supporting the organization in many ways. Before the end of its first decade, the chorale was receiving grants from state and local arts councils to support both general operating expenses and specific projects.

The chorale’s performing history has been enriched by creative partnerships as well, particularly for milestone events. The Connecticut Opera came calling when it celebrated its 40th anniversary – and again for its 50th anniversary – to mount grand productions of Guiseppe Verdi’s Aida, reaching tens of thousands. Strong ties with the Hartford Ballet led to yearly appearances in The Nutcracker, and a fully-staged Carmina Burana when the ballet celebrated its 10th anniversary. And its longstanding practice of touring eventually led to an invitation from the Republic of China to visit and perform in a Cultural Olympiad preceding the 2008 Olympic Games, where the chorale gave the Asian premiere of Philip Glass’s monumental work Itaipu in Beijing (along with a touring partner, the New York Choral Society).

The chorale in 2001 as part of a trip to China. They were invited back in 2008 to participate in a Cultural Olympiad ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.


No relationship has been as central as the one with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The chorale and the symphony have joined forces for innovative undertakings – such as Symphony on Ice, and Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky performed live alongside a screening of the 1938 film. Collaborations have been strategic and mutually beneficial. “As we approached our 25th anniversary year, the chorale needed to find new ways to fund our symphonic concerts,” says Huelsman. This led to a new Choral Collections series, co-produced by the symphony and the chorale that continued for over ten years.

Once again, as the chorale reaches its latest milestone, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra will be there on stage to celebrate it with them.


A Future of Possibilities

The past 50 years is only beginning for the Hartford Chorale. “While we have much to celebrate looking back, it’s the future that we’re really excited about,” says Shivaswamy.

A glimpse towards what lies ahead is the commission project that will see its world premiere at the upcoming 50th anniversary. The endeavor was executed with the chorale’s trademark passion for detail and collaboration, enlisting an engaged committee to help guide the process. The resulting work, Scott Perkins’s Alive Poems: Stories of Our American Heritage, sets six texts authored by women that honor and celebrate the journeys of Americans who have been marginalized as immigrants, indigenous peoples, or descendants of slaves.

The theme of the new commission certainly echoes the potential of the chorale at its very best as it builds on its strengths – inviting many voices, ever more inclusive, towards a common purpose in a spirit of camaraderie. Says Shivaswamy, “We look forward to creating a community where anyone who is interested in being a part of our story has an opportunity to participate.”


The Hartford Chorale’s 50th anniversary concert, Hartford Chorale Celebrates Fifty Years!, will be presented on Friday, May 20 in downtown Hartford, CT. More information about the concert and the chorale can be found on the organization's website.

This article is sponsored by the Hartford Chorale. Thank you for supporting the partners that make Chorus America’s work possible. If you are interested in learning more about sponsored stories, please contact us at [email protected].