Rocking out

Armed with punk and pop covers, Young@heart Chorus ain’t your typical senior choir

By ROBIN GILES
Special to the Union Leader
October 18. 2017 1:02PM
In matching white shirts and black ties and hat, Steve Martin and the Young@Heart Chorus put a dapper spin on contemporary rock and pop hits. 
If you go...
WHO: Young@Heart Chorus

WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Lebanon Opera House, 51 No. Park St., Lebanon

TICKETS: $39 to $79

INFO: lebanonoperahouse.org; 448-0400

When Shirley Stevens heads to the Lebanon Opera House for Saturday afternoon’s gig, it will be the latest stop in a relatively recent singing career that’s taken her to New Zealand, Japan and throughout Europe.

She’ll be backed by a top-class band of professionals, and she might even be asked by fans for her autograph.

And why not? She and the rest of the Young@Heart chorus have an award-winning hit documentary to their name, appearances on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and scores of videos on YouTube and other social media.

They also have a way with a song — a rock song. Quite a few rock songs, actually. They cover tracks from Tears for Fears, Buffalo Springfield, Los Lobos, Talking Heads, Prince, David Bowie and more.

“My family still can’t believe the type of music we sing, and they love every minute of it,” says Stevens, who joined the Young@heart Chorus in 2008, having spent most of her professional career in banking. “My sons are flabbergasted at what their mom is singing, and they want to go out and tell the world.”

Her boys have a right to be proud, and a little bit bewildered. Their mom is, after all, 82 ½, but in Young@Heart that only makes her the average age.

Choir director and Young@Heart founder Bob Cilman says, “At the minimum we are looking for people over 73,” and it’s not unusual to have members belting out Bowie well into their 90s.”

Born in 1953, Cilman is the baby of the group he formed 35 years ago at a retirement home in the Berkshires.

So what does it takes besides a birth certificate from the ‘40s or earlier for a person to get into the singing group?

“They have to be willing and open to singing music they aren’t familiar with, and enjoy working in the context of a group,” Cilman says. “It’s not simply how good a voice you have, it’s much more about how you inhabit the stage.”

Stage presence is important because this chorus doesn’t stand still. There’s costume changes and choreography.

“(The audience) will see men and women old enough to be great grandparents singing rock ‘n’ roll, and loving every minute of it,” Stevens says. “The song I really connect with is (Bob Dylan’s) ‘Forever Young,’ which is our signature song. We usually end every concert with it. I have a verse of the song as a solo.

“Over the years, I’ve had a number of solos,” she adds. “The director picks a song that he believes will go with your voice. In New Hampshire, I will be singing (the Psychedelic Furs song) ‘Love My Way’ a sad but meaningful song.”

Every song is a challenge, she says.

“Over the years we’ve had to learn so many, you wouldn’t believe,” Stevens says. “The chorus backs up the soloists, so we don’t have to learn every word of every song. When I’m on stage, sometimes I get nervous (so) that I might forget the words to my solo. But for the most part, when I see the joy that we are bringing to the audience, I am just so proud to be part of it.”

The many benefits to being part of Young@Heart outweigh stage fright.

“My time with the group has taken me twice to the Netherlands,” says William Sheppard. “Having never being overseas before, it was a chance of a lifetime for me ... With water cruises, dinner cruises and museums, during down time there was lots to do, including shopping for souvenirs and returning home with some Belgium chocolates for gifts.

“For the tour the following year to Oslo, Norway, it was another 10 days performing five shows, visiting museums, traveling around the countryside, seeing the fjords and, of course, returning home with some souvenirs,” says Sheppard, who joined the chorus in 2014, after a career in the Boston area as an industrial packaging engineer and line supervisor at an electronics plant.

He tried out for the group five years ago.

“I had no idea how much fun I would be having,” Sheppard says. “Joining up with Young@Heart has been some of the best times of my life. When I’m having a problem, things are a bit easier to handle with the support of the other members.”

“It’s like being in a family,” says Joel Spiro, a recent addition to Young@Heart and a foreign service officer for 40 years, serving in France, Belgium, Morocco and Senegal. “Everyone cares about everyone else, and as a newcomer, I am constantly encouraged when I don’t do as well singing a solo during a rehearsal as I should.”

Struggles are a theme of “Welcome to Your Life,” the show Young@Heart will perform at the Lebanon Opera House. “‘Welcome to your life’ are the first words uttered at the show,” says Cilman. “It’s a show inspired by today’s headlines, and also the struggles that everyone faces as they journey through life.”

Those struggles can ultimately lead to victory, says Cilman, who in 2013 retired from the Northampton Arts Council in Massachusetts, where he served as executive director for 24 years.

And where Cilman leads, he’s sure to have devoted followers.

“What’s the best thing about being in this group?” Stevens asks. “There isn’t one thing, but since I have to narrow it down, I would say experiencing the joy that we bring to the audience, and because of our amazing director.”

“I look forward each time to be with peers who have a lot to offer,” says Sheppard, “and have a great time together under the direction of (Cilman,) who is a man of so much talent and energy. He drives us to be the successful group we are.”

The opera house show will be opened by Lebanon High School’s Select Chorus: The Superlatives.

In addition, there will be a post-show question-and answer-session with the singers.


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