CHAMPAIGN — Director Julie Beyler and members of her Champaign-Urbana choir, The Chorale, stepped off a plane in Rome in 2008, excited for their performance at The Vatican in two days but exhausted from jet lag.
They quickly realized, though, that the time for relaxation would have to wait when they came upon their tour guide.
“He said, ‘You have to get your people to hurry up and get their luggage, because you have to sing today,’” Beyler said. “I said, ‘Oh no, you must be wrong because we’re doing this on Sunday.’ He said, ‘Oh no, You’re doing it tonight.’”
So they rushed to the hotel, changed into their performance clothes and arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica at 4:40, where they were scheduled to sing during a 5 p.m. service in which Pope Benedict was inducting cardinals.
The early evening light burst through the amber-stained glass windows as the 80-member choir stepped up to the altar. Beyler never imagined performing in a place like this, but here she was, so rushed that she would hardly remember it years later.
Before she knew it, the surreal experience was over.
“You kind of didn’t have time to think about it until it was all over,” Beyler said. “You had this kind of, ‘Did we really just sing at the Vatican?’ It was a kind of recognition when it was over.”
Beyler never envisioned she’d take a choir to perform at The Vatican, Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center or tour all over Scotland, Italy, Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Spain and Portugal, and sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Her dreams were much more modest.
“My imagination was that I would be a school music teacher like my dad,” Beyler said. “Carnegie Hall was not in my future. Until it became possible, it was not something I imagined.”
After 37 years, The Chorale will perform its last concert at 7 tonight at McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church in Champaign after decades providing music to Champaign County and beyond.
When she assembled the choir that would become The Chorale in 1982, her visions were humble. When she was approached to put together a choir for a “Christmas walk” through Champaign businesses, Beyler thought the group would sing together for only a few weeks.
After the caroling ended, though, members asked her to make the choir permanent. And over the years, the choir became bigger and bigger. Eventually, they took over for the in-house choir at Carle Hospital and sang to patients. They put together a New Year’s concert that became a staple in the community. All the while, the Chorale never held auditions, so anyone who wanted could join. Still, the pedigree of singers increased as the choirgained recognition.“She was very dynamic and a good director,” said original member Frank Muhich, “so it really grew.”
As the choir grew, Beyler began thinking big.
“I was never satisfied with the every day, every week kind of thing, so I pushed them,” she said. “It was kind of a strange thing. The better you are, the more people you draw. It just kind of grew in that way.”
After singing some of its songs, she called the office of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and asked to speak to music director Craig Jessup, who just so happened to be in the office that day. He told Beyler to bring her group out to Utah. He liked what he saw, and Jessup, who will attend tonight’s concert, later invited the group to sing with his choir at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
Through Urbana High School choir director Willie Summerville, a revered figure in the local choral world, she found out about Music Celebrations International, which plans tours for elite choirs. She became friends with famed musical conductors Alice Parker and Rene Clausen and celebrated Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath, who toured with the Chorale in Scotland.
“In one of the European cities, somebody said, ‘It must be fun singing for her,’” longtime member Phyllis McPherron said. “You could see her pulling the music out where she wanted it.”
The choir became a social group over the years, and many made it a part of their weekly routine.
In the early '90s, the choir began generating revenue from its performances, so members set up a Young Artists Scholarship that gave $1,000 scholarships to young musicians.
With its core group aging and with some moving to warmer climates for the winter, Beyler decided that it was time for her decades-long obsession to end this fall.
“I think the time is right for us to be happy with what we’ve done,” she said, “but I’ll miss it, and I know the singers will miss it. It just seemed to me that it was time. It’s not easy to describe how you know when that is, because we’re singing well.”
She won’t miss the snowy drives to Champaign in the winter or some of the other ancillary tasks that come along with directing a choir. But she counts herself lucky that a simple group of carolers wound up taking her around the world.
“It was just a case of fortuitous events,” she said. “It’s kind of being in the right place and being able to take advantage of opportunities.”