Written by Lizzy Scully; Photos provided by Mancos Valley Chorus

The Mancos Valley Chorus grew from a group of locals who got together to casually sing now and then. In 1998, when they realized they needed to garner more resources and be more organized, they decided to formalize the group. With little funding, they relied on donated music, whoever was available to direct, and whatever venues they could find. But with the advent of Mancos Valley Resources, the 501 (c)(3) umbrella under which the non-profit Chorus now operates, its members began collecting donations at concerts, holding fundraisers, and writing grants. Their numbers grew modestly as did their bank account. Now decades later, the Chorus is going strong.

In light of this weekend’s events, we asked Treasurer Helen Looman for a more in-depth look at the Chorus and some of its members. Looman and her family have been involved for decades (Looman for six years and her sister for 20+ years).

Mancos Valley Resources: Why are you involved with the Chorus?

Helen Looman: Singing nourishes me physically and mentally as well as forges friendships within my own community and the communities of Cortez and Durango.

MVR: Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Chorus?

HL: I know that when the chorus began it was done fairly loosely and with no vision to become what it is today. Things remained pretty much the same until the Choral Aires in Cortez disbanded and members began to interweave within the two communities. At that time, the organization began a serious search for a director. With the inclusion of a professional director, the chorus began to expand and change focus. Until recently there was no outside support for the Chorus expenses. With the addition of a paid director and accompanist, the need to look elsewhere for funding grew. Though difficult to address, it forced the Chorus to mature musically. We have developed a large music library (some of which has been shared with the local schools). As we grow and mature, the Chorus has gained more assurance and credibility.

MVR: How big is the Chorus today?

HL: At this time we are about 35 members, both male and female, ranging in age from mid 20s to into the 80s. One interesting thing we do is that as we age, our voices drop and the range decreases. Because of that, many of our Tenors are now women! Backgrounds vary. There are educators, librarians, nurses, therapists, business owners, radio hosts, pastors, and musicians. The Chorus is open to all committed singers without audition. As a result, there are some members who are not able to read music, but must learn through our weekly rehearsals and the practice CDs used privately throughout the week.

MVR: Could you share with me one or two interesting stories of current or past members?

One of our members who passed away a few years ago was an incredible whistler (think of the intro to A Fistful of Dollars) and competed in competitions all over the country. Lee Bartley, our pianist, was a well-known figure in the Denver music scene for many years, and in 2010 made â CD of the Year with A View From Above.

MVR: Are any members professional musicians?

Both our director and accompanist are professional musicians. Kriss Larsen, Director of the Chorus since 2000, holds a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from New England Conservatory in Boston and a Master of Music degree in vocal performance from the University of Maryland. In addition to directing the Mancos Valley Chorus, she also directs the Womens Prerogative in Durango.

Lee Bartley, piano accompanist since 2006, received a degree in music theory and composition from Denver University. He has released three CDs, the most recent in the summer of 2014, and has toured and performed with Liz Story, Lisa Downing, and Joseph Akins, to name a few. In addition to accompanying the chorus for concerts, Lee rehearses and helps prepare soloists and special musicians who join the chorus for its performances.

MVR: Why do you stay involved with the chorus? In what ways does it serve you?

HL: It’s fun, I get to know people from other communities as well as my own. There is a sense of family, and I get to give back to the community. But, most importantly, I find that singing promotes a more healthy body and definitely a more healthy outlook on life. Often I can go to practice in a foul mood and leave with a huge sense of well-being.

MVR:: Have other members expressed different reasons for being involved that you know of? If so, can you explain? I.e. what are some things you commonly hear from participants?

HL: The funniest response was from one of our male members who said, This is where the women are! But mostly, it is the joy of learning more musically. Most express how music touches them at a deeper level and how they may be dealing with physical, relational, or mental difficulties that seem to dissipate after singing for two hours. One member said that there is a power in singing in a chorus when everyone is breathing, thinking, and creating something beautiful together.</span>

MVR: In what ways does it serve the community?

The Chorus has presented 11 free concerts in Montezuma and La Plata Counties each year for the past 18 years. Concerts are given at five different venues in Mancos, Cortez, and Durango. The audience includes seniors at the Valley Inn in Mancos, students and staff from the Mancos Elementary School, and friends, family and fans who attend concerts in the three communities. Some other ways Chorus serves the community include: Choral members improve their musical skills and share in the joy of making music together, under the competent direction of Kriss Larsen; Over 600 residents of Montezuma and La Plata Counties are exposed to free, excellent quality vocal music and participate in a joyful celebration of music; 225 children and staff at Mancos elementary schools are exposed to high quality choral music as part of their arts education curriculum. The concerts help build a sense of community and an appreciation for the arts in Montezuma County, where cultural opportunities are limited.

Chorus and audience members purchase gas, eat at restaurants, and shop in local stores in Mancos, Cortez and Durango before and after rehearsals and concerts, thereby generating additional economic benefit to these communities.

MVR: How do you choose your music?

HL: Our director has the vision of what she would like to present. She then researches the music and presents it to representatives from each choral section for approval/suggestions.