The Kalamazoo Male Chorus is celebrating its 90th birthday next month with a concert almost as big as its sound. The group will perform May 20th at 4 p.m. at the First Baptist Church in downtown Kalamazoo.
Director Michael Palmer says the group was one of many male choruses that sprouted up in manufacturing towns across the country. He says the paper company Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment started the chorus in Kalamazoo for its employees — primarily single men.
“They tried to keep them as busy and as connected as possible and so one of those ways was to get that glee club atmosphere that the colleges and universities had at the time,” said Palmer.
Palmer says today there are only six male choruses in Michigan. Though the Kalamazoo Male Chorus has changed over the years, one thing hasn’t changed:
“I don’t believe the chorus has ever auditioned anyone in its 90 year history,” said Palmer.
The exception being for the chorus's scholarship program. Pedro Hogan has been in the choir for about four years.
“It’s definitely an ego-free environment and that’s something that you don’t always encounter in the arts,” he said.
Brian Rhinesmith joined last September. He says he enjoys singing with the guys.
"There’s some kind of a support and strength you get there. Plus I like the idea of the service to the community,” he said.
The chorus covers everything from hymns to today’s pop hits. It’s big — there are 45 singers. Western Michigan University music student Zachary Nicely joined the chorus six months ago through its scholarship program. He says he recently got the opportunity to conduct.
“Standing in front of the group, I never realized how big the sound is and how many different things are really going on at the same time,” said Nicely.
“That was surprising to me too, the power that we’re able to put out to people and the reaction from the audiences," added Michael Versalle.
Versalle has been with the male chorus for 10 years. He says one of the things that keeps men in the chorus is the camaraderie. Director Michael Palmer’s son Collin couldn’t perform at the group’s annual Valentine’s Day concert last year because he had recently suffered a stroke. Palmer stayed with Colin that day at his rehab facility in Grand Rapids.
“We were able to live stream the show and we were able to sing directly to Collin and Michael — and it’s just a really beautiful moment,” said Pedro Hogan.
Palmer says Collin has since made a remarkable recovery.
At the 90th anniversary concert, the group will collaborate with no less than seven other musical acts — including alumni from the Kalamazoo Ringers, Whiskey Before Breakfast, The Duffield/Caron Project, and the Kalamazoo Community Chorale which has 50 members.
“Because there are so many groups out there that are drawing on the same audience. It’s tough to get a good, solid audience to a show unless you do collaborate," said Palmer.
"So that’s been a hallmark of this group and I hope it continues in that way.”
After 15 years as director, this will be Palmer’s last concert with the male chorus. He says it’s been a joy to work with these men and the chorus hopes to announce a new director at the show. Palmer says they have some surprises planned for the audience.
“And then afterwards we’re going to have a champagne reception and just celebrate our 90th birthday,” he said.
You can see the Kalamazoo Male Chorus perform its 90th anniversary concert on May 20th at 4pm at First Baptist Church in downtown Kalamazoo. The event is free.