Home for the Holidays

by Beth Knapinski
Photos courtesy of Peoria Area Civic Chorale

The PACC’s former artistic director and conductor marks his return with a homecoming-themed Christmas program.

When the Peoria Area Civic Chorale steps on stage in December to perform its annual An American Family Christmas program, this year’s theme—“Home for Christmas”—is more than just a title. It’s a holiday homecoming celebration for many involved.

Dr. Joseph Henry, who served as artistic director and conductor from 1994 to 2011, is once again leading the ensemble, following a three-year hiatus to focus on his new duties as associate provost at Eureka College, where he is also professor of music. “It was good timing for me to take a little break [from the PACC],” Henry says. “I enjoyed working up a new learning curve and trying something new.”

Creating an Experience
When he founded the PACC in 1982, Barth Dowling, former band director at East Peoria and Morton high schools, wanted to try something new. Envisioning a performance ensemble crafted after Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians—whose programs combined musical talent with a dose of production and theatrical lighting—he gathered a small group of singers together to perform vocal selections.

In his 12 years as conductor, Dowling grew and further established the organization in Peoria, and in 1992, he hired Henry, who was then new to the area, working at Eureka College. Upon Dowling’s retirement two years later, Henry took the reins as artistic director and conductor, and as he notes, “The rest is history.”

During his previous tenure with the Chorale, Henry crafted programming based around a range of themes, from the Big Band Era to Broadway. “As director, I thought in themes, and the themes directed the literature and venues I chose for the programs,” he explains. “We do more than just stand up and sing. I think that is a unique niche in Peoria.”

Under Henry’s direction, the vocal and choral group collaborated with a range of local music groups, such as the Peoria Symphony Orchestra and Central Illinois Jazz Orchestra, and even took its performances abroad, performing in New York City, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. While it continued to perform high-quality music during Henry’s three-year hiatus, there was a perceived lack of stability, with four different directors in four years, and the organization suffered, most notably with a decline in the singing membership. While Henry consistently carried 80 to 95 singers on the PACC roster from 1994 to 2011, fewer than 50 remained by last spring, just before the group announced his return.

Dr. Henry Comes Home
When the Chorale approached Henry about leading a set of music for this year’s An American Family Christmas, he began to think about coming back as full-time artistic director and conductor. “One of the questions I had for the board of directors when considering coming back was: ‘Are you in the attitude of growth or in an attitude to just sustain the status quo?’,” Henry recalls. “Their response was the right one—it was one of growth.”

Since his return in August, Henry has helped the PACC boost its ranks of singers to about 75 for the fall season. The increase is attributable to both new and returning singers, he says. “There were a lot of singers who have sung for me in the past that decided this was a good time to come back and recommit.” This year, the PACC hopes to improve the entertainment experience with additional emphasis on lighting and production, especially in secular music selections like "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." "I’m trying to strike a balance between music that educates people, but also entertains,” Henry explains.

Making Beautiful Music
Kelly Fisher, a Chorale member since 2005 and its current marketing chair, says Henry’s return, along with the new and returning singers, does more than improve programming—it makes the organization healthier overall. “We’re trying to grow a larger audience base as well as membership interest,” Fisher said. “Now that Dr. Henry is back on board, we’re going to have some more stability and return to the ‘old’ PACC.”

While Henry’s three years away may have challenged the organization, he’s looking forward to being back—home for Christmas—with the PACC.

“Making music can be a transformative event for people,” says Henry. “There is nothing more enjoyable for me than to make beautiful music with people who are impassioned about making beautiful music.” a&s

This year’s performance of An American Family Christmas takes place at 7:30pm in the Caterpillar Performing Arts Center at Five Points Washington on December 19th and 20th, with a Sunday matinee on December 21st at 2:30pm. Call (309) 693-6725 for tickets, or visit peoriacivicchorale.org for more information.