When Albert Jackson took over the chorale back in 1998, there were nine members. Today, the South Holland Master Chorale boasts some 120 voices. The group of mostly amateur singers hail from across the south suburbs and northwest Indiana. (South Holland Master Chorale)

When maestro Albert Jackson walked into his first rehearsal of a South Suburban College choir, he found nine singers.

"That’s not even a choir. That’s more like a small ensemble," he said. "So I said, ‘For the next rehearsal you’ve all got to bring a friend, I don’t care if they sing or not, as long as they’re breathing.’"

The singers obliged and at the group’s first concert two months later, there were 24 performers.

That was in 1998 and what was supposed to be a temporary gig for the Chesterton, Ind., resident has morphed into a full time job with the village of South Holland.

Now as Jackson prepares to kick off his 20th season at the helm of what is today the South Holland Master Chorale (southhollandmasterchorale.org), he can count upwards of 120 members, 111 of whom he took on a concert tour in Europe a few years back.

"Little by little and bit by bit people heard ‘They’re having fun on Monday nights,’ so it grew and grew and grew and grew," he said.

And they continue to come, even though by Jackson’s own admission, "This is very difficult music. It’s not sing along with Uncle Al.

"We’re doing the finest, the best of choral literature, the best that I can lay my hands on. We do Bach, we do Mozart, we’ll do African American spirituals, we’ll do the occasional gospel piece, although I’m not a gospel musician," he said. "And people rise to the occasion."

At its two upcoming fall concerts, "Looking Back, Looking Ahead" — 4 p.m. Oct. 8 at St. Irenaeus Church in Park Forest; 4 p.m. Oct. 15 at First Reformed Church of South Holland — audiences can expect to hear the work of Mozart, Vivaldi and Wagner, as well as a couple of spiritual pieces, he said. "As broad a spectrum as we can possibly manage."

This season the group, which hails from 23 communities, will present six concerts: two in South Holland, two in Calumet City and one each in Park Forest and Dyer, Ind.

A community effort

Like the music it performs, the chorale itself is diverse in terms of race, economic stature and age, Jackson said. Singers come from as far as the South Side of Chicago and Kankakee as well as from Tinley Park and northwest Indiana.

"I have people on the thin side of 30. I have people who are 90," he said. "Very dog-gone few of them" are professional singers, he added.

"But they work like professionals and they perform at as close to professional as we can possibly attain as a group," he said.

South Holland resident Amelia Bishop, 70, is one of the "original nine."

"What I like is how it connects the community," she said. "We practice at a Lutheran church but we sing at all the Christian denomination churches in the community, so it’s a way of uniting all of the churches. It’s a way to meet other people at other churches who are also interested in singing."

She said she also appreciates the group’s flexibility. She took a hiatus after her daughter, who also was a member, died several years ago.

"But I still came to their performances and kept up with the choir," said the retired biology teacher. "Then I went back to school and eventually rejoined the choir."

Jackson’s leadership, she said, fosters an atmosphere of caring and respect.

He celebrates all levels of singers, she said, giving voice lessons and inviting all to shoot for a soloist spot.

After each performance, there’s a casual get-together, sometimes at a Pizza Hut, she said.

"He makes singing more joyful," she said. "We’re singing all kinds of sacred music so it’s a very peaceful, enjoyable experience."

Belonging to a choir, she added, "makes me, a senior, feel connected. I look forward to it."

As a music teacher at Western Avenue School in Flossmoor, Valerie Pasqua, 37, celebrates song every day.

But the chorale "is my outlet to be musical," the New Lenox resident said.

She was a member for six years, then took four years off to have children.

"This is my first year back. When I was away, I really missed it," she said.

She’d find herself standing in her kitchen listening to 98.7-WFMT, Chicago’s classical and folk radio station, and when she heard a song the group had performed, she’d quiet the kids and say, "Oh, I just need to listen."

"Music teachers get so busy with the stuff that we’re directing that we don’t get to do our own thing and I was missing that a lot," she said.

The 35-minute drive to practice at Flossmoor Community Church is worth it, she said, to work with Jackson and the others.

"He is so knowledgeable and so good and so caring. He makes classical music come alive," she said. "One time we were practicing Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ and we were singing this beautiful part and he stops us and says, "This is one of the last things Mozart wrote before he died.’ He makes the music come alive with history."

Pasqua said she enjoys being part of a group effort to create a unified sound.

"There’s all this teamwork," she said. "It’s my joy, my little happy spot of the week."

The little choir that could

The South Holland Master Chorale began in the early 1970s, under the direction of J. Albert Kindig at what was then Thornton Junior College, now SSC. Jackson, now 60, stepped in as a temporary director in 1998 and hasn’t looked back. Today, the chorale is a civic branch of the village of South Holland.

"We do concerts in the village and all around the Southland," said Jackson, who grew up in Chico, Calif., but landed permanently in Chesterton after meeting his wife, Patricia, there during graduate school. The couple has a daughter.

In 2011, Jackson, who taught at SSC before retiring after 17 years, took 111 members of the chorale to Europe.

"I used to live in Germany so it was like homecoming for me. I knew most of the sites we were going to sing at," he said. Those included venues in Prague, Czech Republic; and Salzburg and Melk, Austria; as well as St. Michael’s Church in Mondsee, Austria, which is where the wedding scene for "The Sound of Music" was shot.

Pasqua recalls how thrilling it was to sing in some of those historic places.

"I remember, at the last concert, for the last song, crying (while trying to sing) because the experience was over. One of the choir members next to me looked at me and said, ‘I understand.’ We had so many fun adventures and sang in the most beautiful places in the world on that trip," she said.

Jackson said, "One of the things that makes us famous is that I do not audition. Everybody’s welcome. Everybody.

"They come in having heard about the group, knowing what we do, knowing the level of literature that we perform and knowing that in rehearsal, we work hard. Just like the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Just like any professional chorus," he said.

Does he believe anyone can sing?

"Yes. I would say unconditionally. I’ve had people in this group or other groups who can’t match the pitch but with time and training and effort and desire, anybody can at least match a pitch," he said.

"In the vast majority of cases, people are scared to death they can’t sing," he said.

But Jackson said he believes most people want to sing.

"The studies on the advantages of it are innumerable. From the purest physical basis, you increase respiration, you lower heart rate, you lower blood pressure, cerebral activity increase exponentially. All of the above is accomplished with any kind of aerobic exercise, which includes singing," he said.

Anecdotally, he added, "A number of people in my chorus have said over the years, ‘You know I come on Monday nights and I’m (stressed) and I leave (relaxed)’ because they’re physically active in singing."

He also cites studies explaining the social benefits of singing in a group.

"There are choirs of seniors, disabled people, people in prisons, in orphanages, in rest homes. There is a certain societal togetherness that occurs when you’re all doing the same thing. When you’re singing, you’re taking breath together. You are moving sound in an absolutely unified fashion," he said.

"Then on the spiritual level, most of what we do is sacred music. I’ve had people tell me, ‘Albert this is as close as I get to church.’ That’s very meaningful to me," he said.

The future

"I don’t think of it in terms of numbers. You can wind up with a chorus of 200 people and nobody knows who anybody is," Jackson said.

"I want to continue what has been established — continue to sing at the highest level possible. Sure, I’d like to draw in new singers, to foster the singers who have been here a long time. But I don’t have grand and glorious visions," he said.

He is also mindful of serving the longstanding audiences that fill the venues when the group performs.

"I flatter myself to say we have a following but people know who we are and know if they want a great experience to come to our concerts, all of which have always been free," he said.

The Christmas concerts at St. Victor’s in Calumet City are always standing room only, he said. The spring events typically draw 600-800.

"So, yeah, people know of the group," he said. The audience has a lot in common with the performers, he noted.

They are loyal, diverse and "like a big community family."

Twitter @dvickroy

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