On key

The Schubert Male Chorus has sung for Grand Rapids since 1884.
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The Schubert Male Chorus sings at its spring 2022 concert. Photo by David Sparks

For 39 years, John Pesano has performed as part of the Schubert Male Chorus.

Pesano’s a long-tenured member of the chorus, but his stint pales in comparison to the entirety of the group’s history.

Since 1884, the Schubert Male Chorus has performed at least once a year in Grand Rapids. Most years, those concerts are in person, but the streak was kept alive during the pandemic with two online performances for the 2020 Christmas show and 2021 spring concert.

The only membership requirement, according to Pesano, is being a man who likes to sing.

“You have to like to sing,” said Pesano, who joined after learning about the chorus from a friend as it prepared for its 100th anniversary in 1983. “We’re serious about singing, but it’s all about having fun. It’s the camaraderie, the fellowship. We hang out a lot. We have rehearsals on Monday nights, have a beer or two and shoot the bologna.”

When the Schubert Male Chorus is doing well, it stays at a consistent membership of 35-40. As the pandemic kept the chorus from meeting in person, however, membership fell off. Now, there are only about 28 members.

And it’s not looking bright for the future, either, as the current membership continues to age.

“We’re at the point, we’re getting pretty old,” Pesano said. “With so many things for the younger generation to do, it’s hard to get younger guys. We try to recruit when we go out and sing, but It’s tough to go out and sing.”

Pesano spoke with Grand Rapids Magazine shortly before the group’s spring concert in May. The chorus will resume practices in September, and Pesano said he hopes there might be some new interested singers ready to join.

Younger members would be key to keeping the long-running organization active well beyond its 140th anniversary, which is fast approaching.

Its history is deeply rooted in a familiar organization in West Michigan: St. Cecilia Music Center.

Schubert Male Chorus was started by Henry C. Post, whose aunt was one of the nine women who founded St. Cecilia’s in 1883.

In addition to the traditional spring and Christmas shows, the Schuberts perform at a wide array of venues when asked. They have performed at the dedications of the original City Hall in 1885, East Grand Rapids High School in 1929, the city-county complex in 1969, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and DeVos Hall. They’re also a regular at Festival of the Arts and like to sing, often more than 20 times a year, at retirement and nursing homes in West Michigan.

Since 1884, the Schubert Male Chorus has hosted at least one concert in Grand Rapids. Photo by David Sparks

But perhaps Pesano’s favorite performances are ones the chorus has not had the pleasure of presenting in the past two years: singing at the immigration and naturalization ceremonies for new U.S. citizens.

“We’re hoping we can start doing that again soon. That was always really moving to everyone,” he said. “We used to do that four times a year.”

He also remembers a rousing standing ovation for “Old Man River” at the 87th Annual Convention of The National Garden Clubs.

The performances run the gamut, from patriotic tunes and glee club music to light rock and folk music, Pesano said. While it’s often just the men singing, he did say musicians will join the chorus from time to time — like the violinist who joined them in May.

There’s a member who’s also a ventriloquist, so that will pop up on occasion and provide some comedic relief, he said.

The mood of the chorus also depends on the director, a position that has revolved over the years. Some are “more strict than others,” Pesano said.

Pesano said he has made a lot of friends and memories over the years and he’s hopeful the chorus will continue for the men of Grand Rapids. He’s sure there are plenty of potential members who need an outlet for their voice.

“You should have some sort of musical background, but it’s not necessary that you have to be a professional singer; 90% of us are neophytes at that sort of thing,” he said.

This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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