The Blackhawk Chorus is a premier community chorus that has built a loyal fan base throughout the East Bay since it was founded 28 years ago. The group joins the orchestra for ALL JOHN WILLIAMS—March 16 & 17 at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek—to add drama on certain Star Wars and Saving Private Ryan selections in the program where Williams’ score calls for a choral component.
We talked about the Blackhawk Chorus with its Founding Director and longtime leader, Diane Gilfether, and learned more about the former opera star, who landed her first professional role as a leading lady at the age of 15.
You founded the Blackhawk Chorus in 1991. Can you tell us how that came about and how you’ve managed to keep it going for so long?
Diane Gilfether: The “birth” of the Blackhawk Chorus was very serendipitous. Through a circuitous route, twelve women had learned of my long background in the world of opera and solo performances, and asked if I would consider giving them group voice lessons. Of course, I agreed thinking it would be a very satisfying six weeks of promoting the love of singing for these eager women. No one dreamed that this humble beginning would spread throughout the East Bay, bringing such joy and fulfillment to so many, myself included.
Word of mouth began to spread very quickly, and by the end of the first year, there were close to thirty women in the group. In the second year (after a summer hiatus), men were invited to join, and the group swelled to forty-five members—at the same time, no longer viable for rehearsals in my living room. From that time, to the present, and hovering between 125 to 130 singers—all ages and walks of life. We are only constrained by performance venues with limited stage space for us.
Before you founded the chorus, you were a lyric coloratura soprano. How did it all start for you?
DG: My personal love of music, and singing, in particular, is entirely due to my adorable late mother, Elizabeth LaHood Zennie. Widowed at a very early age, and left with very meager finances, she raised two young children completely alone with little or no concern around her personal sacrifices for us. Somehow, she managed to pay for my voice lessons from age 13, which then led to offers of scholarships to several colleges and universities as well as graduate schools. Hers was a legacy of love and sacrifice on behalf of her children. My very first operatic role was that of Monica in Menotti’s “The Medium” with the Pasadena Opera. I was 15 years old at the time.
Your opera singing career took you across the United States and around the world. Looking back, what are some stand-out highlights?
DG: There were many stand-out highlights in my singing career. Selecting just one would take a great deal of thought. The event that immediately comes to mind is the occasion on which I sang the Romanian National Anthem in Bucharest, Romania to a packed audience during the time when that country was under strict oppression and dictatorship. I learned the Anthem phonetically, and it must have been understandable because I received thunderous applause. It was a very special moment for me reminding me of how blessed I was to enjoy the freedoms of living in the USA.
What is the Blackhawk Chorus to you?
DG: Where do I begin? Having been associated with many choruses over the years, I can safely say that none was given me more pleasure, fulfillment, and satisfaction than Blackhawk Chorus. We are truly a devoted and caring “musical family” dedicated to one another, and I am grateful and privileged to be a part of such a chorus.
The repertoire for the ALL JOHN WILLIAMS concerts is a little different from the jazz and pop standards the group is best known for. Can you tell us more about prepping the chorus for these concerts with the California Symphony?
DG: It is a great honor, indeed, to be performing on the All John Williams program with the esteemed California Symphony. We have hoped for such an opportunity to come along, and have been steadily preparing the selections for this very sensational concert! Blackhawk Chorus is accustomed to unusual programming since typically our Spring concerts center around jazz and pop standards, while we reserve the classics for our winter programs. It will be a thrill for us to be associated with CSO on this concert series. Our only regret is that the Lesher stage will only accommodate a bit less than half of our singers. Still, there is great anticipation.
The Blackhawk Chorus joins the California Symphony for ALL JOHN WILLIAMS, featuring music from Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Superman and more on Saturday, Mar. 16 at 8 PM and Sunday, Mar. 17 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.