Meet A Member: Yvonne Turner, Brazeal Dennard Chorale

How does a chorus's legacy continue after its visionary founder is no longer around? It takes the will of a community.

"When our transition started, it was all about continuing to make that music," says Yvonne Turner, the new executive director of the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, and a soprano with the group for almost three decades. The storied ensemble in the city of Detroit was founded in 1972 by Brazeal Dennard, a gifted educator, conductor, arranger, and ardent champion of African-American music, who passed away in 2010.

The Chorale has successfully met that first challenge of their transition, as evidenced by gold and silver medals at the 2012 World Choir Games in Cincinnati. Now, with a renewed sense of purpose under the ensemble's third artistic director, Alice McAllister Tillman, Turner looks to match the organization's artistic prowess with an equally robust operating capacity, all on top of her career in the schools.

Ms. Turner, a veteran teacher who provides reading and math services to kindergarten students by day, spoke with Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney for the latest in our monthly 'Meet A Member' series about her plans for the future of the Chorale.

What got you hooked on choral music?

While I was singing with my college choir, I remember listening to the parts and the orchestrations, and just thinking “gosh, this is some beautiful music.” Then I had a chance to hear the Brazeal Dennard Chorale when they performed at Wayne State University, and I thought, “That’s exactly what I needed.” And when I graduated from college, I sought out the Chorale’s community chorus. And that was just a joy. It gave me a chance to sing music that I had not grown up singing. I grew up in a household that was just gospel music – it was gorgeous sound, but it wasn’t the same choral sound. So when I heard that, it opened up something in me. We do a variety of music—mainly the spiritual, but we also do Handel and Bach and Beethoven too.

How long have you been with the Chorale?

When I first found the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, they had a community choir for people like myself who wanted to sing choral music and may not have been classically trained, so I began singing with that group in 1987. The community choir had its own concert schedule, but we also sang with the Chorale on a couple concerts. Then in 1999, I auditioned for the Chorale and I made it! I’ve been singing with them ever since. I became executive director in January of 2014.

What were the challenges of transition after the time of Brazeal Dennard?

After Brazeal, we lost quite a few members. They left because they felt their commitment to him was complete. When we first reorganized we had about 25 singers. Then we started getting new people—mostly people like myself: seasoned singers who wanted to continue. After Dr. Augustus Hill (who succeeded Brazeal Dennard) stepped down and Alice McAllister Tillman took over, then we started to get an influx of college students, because she was an adjunct professor and has brought in quite a few of her voice students. Now we’re up to 40. At one time it was an older chorale, but now there are a lot of young people coming in or coming back. It’s exciting because it creates a whole different sound. The legacy will continue because these children—as I call them—will continue singing what Brazeal started. And that was his whole mission—to remember, discover, preserve, and share the spiritual. The tradition is still there and people want to be a part of it.

Brazeal Dennard Chorale
The Brazeal Dennard Chorale in their most recent Classical Roots concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Even someone like myself—I grew up in a Baptist church singing gospel music, but the spiritual was not something that I was used to doing. I began to learn and listen to the stories. It’s a storytelling art. It tells the stories of our sorrows, our struggles, our celebrations, through music. And as African-Americans, we have a different relationship to the spiritual than the average American.

What was your experience at the 2012 World Choir Games like?

Oh, it was exciting. At that time we were under the direction of Dr. Hill and he was a very talented director. We took on that challenge—it took a lot of effort and sacrifice, but we were ready. We heard choirs from other countries sing the spiritual well—they had the right tone, but just didn’t have that feeling. There’s something about the Chorale when we come together to sing a spiritual—we were moved to tears during the competition.

And to bring home a silver in the mixed chamber category was just as good as gold. It’s not something we were as familiar with, but we were on point. And to meet choirs from all over the world, it was exciting to be at that caliber. That in itself let me believe that what Brazeal Dennard started had transcended all boundaries.

You are re-launching your Young People’s Chorus after the program was halted 3 years ago. What is this revamped version of the program like?

Right now we have about 15 middle school students who are active. At our holiday concert, they sang with Chorale, and they performed their own selections at our Legacy Concert on April 24. When I was in the community chorus, the children matriculated from the youth chorale, through the community chorus, and into the Chorale, and that’s one way for the legacy to keep going. And hopefully the love and the passion that we all have for this type of music is in them as well.

Tell us about one recent success in your chorus that you’re really proud of.

For years, we’ve had a Classical Roots series with the Detroit Symphony. A few years back, something happened, and we did not do the Classical Roots concert. That’s how our own Legacy Concert was born. We said, we’re an African-American choral ensemble—we should celebrate the music of African-American composers and arrangers. And this year, we combined the old legends with the new legends to provide those different perspectives. I’m excited about our vision for this program.

What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?

I’m in the process of talking to civic organizations across the state to see if the Chorale can get back to touring other parts of Michigan where they don’t hear this type of music on a regular basis. We’ve always had a wonderful partnership with the Detroit Symphony, but that’s only right here. We’d really like to take it outside the city of Detroit. That’s one of the things Brazeal did—we would travel and share this music. And we were well-received—it was something that was new and different. People embraced it. So I’m making connections so that we can continue doing that.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your chorus today?

Right now it’s the operating budget. We manage, but it would be nice to have a foundation in place to be able to plan out our year. We have relationships with people that we’ve known for years, including in the media, so they know who we are. That’s the easy part—it’s just getting those working dollars together. That’s just where we are right now. That’s been the most difficult thing, but I do enjoy it. The end result is always worth it.

Can you tell us about a time where your Chorus America membership has helped you?

We were able to ask for information on salaries. We’d like to incorporate that information into our planning. And it’s helpful to compare choruses of your size, or bigger or smaller, whichever way you decide, and make some decisions to help you do what you need to do as a chorus.

Also, just keeping up with what’s going on in the world of choral music is valuable. I get a chance to see what other organizations are doing through the email newsletters. When this season came, it just started. There wasn’t a planning period. Dr. Hill resigned in September and Alice took over, so there wasn’t the time for planning that we normally would’ve had. I’m looking forward to using all of this information this year to make decisions and put some things in writing so we can come in ready. And we are planning to be a part of Conference in Cincinnati this summer!

When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?

I’ve taught second grade for the bulk of my 30-year teaching career, although this year I’m in a new position as an intervention instructional specialist. What I do now is work with kindergarten students who are struggling, and provide intervention services in reading and math.

But the music has always been my hobby, my happy place, my balm in Gilead. When I got to rehearsal, I would always get a second wind. And as a classroom teacher, I have infused a lot of music into my lessons. One of my students said once, “There’s a song for everything,” and I said, “There sure is!”

Is there anything else you want to share about your relationship to choral music?

I always run into people who say “Gosh, I wish I could sing,” and I always tell them that you can. If you can talk, you can sing—it just depends on how much you want to put into it. And it doesn’t come easy, but it you really want it, it’ll come.

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.

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