In 1973, searching for an outlet for their own and their friends' creativity, Robert and Jane LaPella founded The Johnson City Civic Chorale (currently named The Civic Chorale).
"We thought that the city could use a community chorus, and we had a lot of friends who were very fine singers who didn't have an outlet for their artistic juices, if you will," Robert says. "So Jane and I started out with 16 invited singers all of whom were exceptional talents. In addition to professional musicians, there were doctors, lawyers, educators and people from every walk of life. Our first program was a Christmas program, and by that time we had grown to 32 singers, which was my goal. I wanted to have a chamber-type chorus that could do a wide range of repertoire, so that we all would have our need for choral expression taken care of. And here we are 40 years later." Their repertoire ranges from plainsong to Broadway.
When they began the chorale, they got assistance from East Tennessee State University (where Robert taught), Milligan College and area churches, which loaned them music.
"All the people in the initial group charged themselves a little membership fee, so we could buy what we needed," Robert says. "So through the generosity of the two colleges and churches and the membership fee, we were able to put together very interesting programs, not only for the public but for ourselves as well. That's a big part of the responsibility of the director. And we had a very focused person in the chorale who got our tax exempt status, which was an advantage."
When they started the group, Robert directed and Jane was the accompanist on piano and organ. "She handles both very well," Robert says. Jane has been the organist at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church for more than 50 years. "We did hire other players, especially string players, for oratorios and cantatas," Jane adds. They also sang with the Johnson City Symphony under Lewis Dalvit and Antonia Wilson and combined with other choruses for joint concerts.
The chorale also collaborated with the Johnson City Community Theatre to perform Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, "Pirates of Penzance." The theatre loaned the chorale its director, costumes and props.
While "Pirates" was a highlight, they both say that performing at the World's Fair in Knoxville and at the opening of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center were significant events. "We did the second concert in Andrew Jackson Hall in Nashville. Billy Joel was the night before, and we were on Sunday afternoon," Robert says.
That concert also demonstrated the wide range of repertoire that the chorale focuses on. It began with Handel's "Rejoice in the Lord." It also included four early American hymns, choruses from Verdi and Offenbach operas, the world premiere of "Three Madrigals" by Johnson City's Kenton Coe, selections from Ernest Bloch's "Avodath Hakodesh," selections from Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land" and "Siegneur, Pourquoi tu Pleures?" by Jacques Bernard (a piece with special meaning for the choir).
A review by Jerry Warren, chairman of the music department at Belmont College in Nashville, which appeared in the Johnson City Press, said "Handel's majestic coronation anthem "Rejoice in the Lord,' opened the program with the ensemble projecting the majesty and awe of this 18-century composition."
The final song of that concert "Siegneur, Pourquoi tu Pleures?" was given to the chorale by the English group, Ayre Valley Singers, when they came to Johnson City in 1979 – one of Jane's favorite memories.
"We hosted them," she reminisces. "They were a small group just like us. They came, and we housed them and kibitzed with them; and they brought us that song. It was such a nice song that we used it as an encore for several years. Gee, that was a long time ago, though."
The chorale had planned to visit the Ayre Valley Singers in return, but since everyone in the chorale had day jobs, they weren't able to make the trip.
Their biggest obstacles were trying to keep the group balanced between voices. "We had a lot of people who were solo singers, but they were willing to put themselves in a group," Robert says. "There were really no prima donnas. But it was difficult because there aren't as many tenors as there are sopranos."
The other challenges were "getting publicity and just the job of it," Jane says. "You always wondered if there was going to be any publicity before the next concert. But all musical groups want more publicity than they ever get. The process of finding neat music to do to fit your group, just to find it and combine it to make an intelligent program is a chore. Bob used to worry about it an awful lot, but that resulted in good programs. The main thing was to find something that was worth learning and suitable for the group. We loved it, and we think David (the current director) is doing a great job now. There are a couple of people still in the chorale who were part of the original group. That's a big commitment – every Thursday night for 40 years."
Robert says he didn't originally think in terms of how long the chorale would last, but it was "never meant to be the Robert LaPella Civic Chorale. We got our little following going, and at that time critiques were being done in the press for concerts, which helped us gain more visibility. We actually didn't think about how long it would go, but I hoped that it would. It was meant to be something that would last beyond me, and after 20 years Jane and I decided it was time to turn it over to someone else."
The LaPellas retired in 1993. They say it was not hard to relinquish the reins, but they did miss it for a while. "But we were still teaching, and other things took its place," Jane says.
They still attend the concerts and support the chorale any way that they can. They aren't the only former members of the chorale in the audience. "There are a lot of former members sitting in the audience these days," Robert says.
Since they retired from the chorale and Robert retired from ETSU in 1997, "Our travel legs have been quite busy," he says. "We've been all over the world," Jane says. "We've still got a few things on our bucket list, but we've been blessed."
"We go to a lot of concerts," Robert says. "We are opera fans. We collect opera houses on our travels."
Whether they're traveling or at home with Sophie, their rescue Dachshund, their lives continue to be filled with music.
-- The Civic Chorale celebrates 40th anniversary