Taking it to the street

Posted on 23 Jan 2015 at 6:30am

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Jonathan Palant re-emerges with a new choir and a mission — to bring attention to homelessness

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor

For those who think of Jonathan Palant as merely the former artistic director of the Turtle Creek Chorale, there are many more verses yet unsung.

For instance, since arriving in Dallas eight years ago, Palant has volunteered as choral director for The Stewpot, the downtown soup kitchen serving Dallas’ homeless and disadvantaged community. He’s also been music minister at Kessler Park United Methodist Church, and teaches music at Richland College. Then three years ago, he founded his own group.

Called Credo, it was formed as a “mixed choir, in that it is interfaith and brings people of all walks of life with all different experiences and abilities together for a common purpose — of song, but also of service to our community. We intentionally kept it open-ended,” Palant says.

One reason was that even Palant wasn’t sure how long it would last. It was initially launched as what Palant joshingly calls “a choir in a box:” A group of 28 singers gathered for monthly rehearsals, culminating 11 months later with a trip to Cuba to perform. It was so successful, Palant extended it a second year, doubling rehearsals, growing membership and continuing to travel (last year they performed in Latvia, Estonia and Finland, and membership now stands at more than 75 singers). This year, the plan is to go to Iceland.

But while Credo has performed internationally and at Kessler Park Methodist, it has been largely off the radar for the wider Dallas community. And that’s something Palant is hoping to change.

This weekend, Credo will perform its largest public concert yet in Dallas, with a show at the City Performance Hall. And what makes it even more special is how Palant and his singers have combined their mission of service with a worthwhile cause: Shining a light on homelessness.
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“When I was approached by First Presbyterian Church to conduct the Stewpot Choir, the idea was to meet for three hours at a time and offer a concert immediately after that,” he says. Each concert — up to four a year — was a new experience: Palant never knew what to expect. “We’ve had as few as 12 and as many as 40 singers,” he says. The talent pool varied as well, as did the song selection — everything from gospel to hymns to even Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.”

During the 2013 Christmas season, Palant united the work of Credo with the Stewpot Choir. “That’s when we first started getting actively involved in the homeless community,” he says.

Credo put together a fall concert at The Stewpot and staged an hour-long concert. “Everyone got a gift — new hats and gloves and a handwritten Christmas card from a child from the Kessler School — we even had Santa Claus,” he says. They repeated the event a few months ago.
That’s when Palant decided they could — should — do more.

He came upon a choral work, co-written by the former director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, Kathleen McGuire, specifically about homelessness. Called “Street Requiem,” it had never been performed in the U.S. Palant decided it would be the ideal way not only to introduce Dallas to Credo, but also to bring The Stewpot Choir to community attention.

“When Kathleen sent it to me, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have The Stewpot Choir join us on this requiem?’” he says. The Stewpot Choir was rebranded as the Dallas Street Choir and “we met to figure out how can we make this work? I want to make the choir meet weekly, to form an incentive program.”

Since implementing the plan, the street choir has had “58 singers walk through the doors — five with perfect attendance,” he says. Even more heartening has been how the process has strengthened his belief in the kindness and generosity of others.

“What I’m finding is that you have to be fearless in asking for help — and you get it,” he says. “I reached out to [famed mezzo-soprano] Frederica von Stade thinking she’d say no — she said yes. The Men’s Wearhouse has donated tuxedos for every man in the choir; another company has donated gowns for the women” — all for free. Local musicians, including those who perform with the Dallas Opera, have volunteered their time, and all three composers are flying in from Australia on their own dimes.

There was just one hurdle that concerned Palant: Where were the choir members going to sleep that night?

“The concert is at 7 p.m. To secure a bed in a shelter, you need to check in by 4 p.m. But then LaQuinta gave us a good rate on rooms so we can put the entire group up for the night,” he says. Which means, for possibly the first night in a long time, singing members will have access to their own room, their own shower, their own bed. Palant hopes that’s the kind of incentive that will encourage many of the homeless singers to show up.

“I don’t know what kind of choir will show up for this concert,” he says, noting that the full complement of Credo as well as the Richland College Chamber Singers will be on hand along with von Stade. “I’ve never faced this kind of unknown before.”

Despite that uncertainty, Palant is exhilarated by the response (ticket sales have been strong so far), and it has him looking ahead. “I’m trying to figure out what’s up next for the Street Choir,” he says.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 23, 2015.

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