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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Helpful for the whole spirit’: Whitworth Community Chorale brings music lovers of all ages together

Taisiia Kompaniiets arrived in Cheney earlier this month after fleeing war-torn Ukraine.

Two days later, the 26-year-old piano teacher belted lyrics with 150 men, women and children inside Whitworth University’s Cowles Music Center as part of a new chorale ensemble called Whitworth Community Chorale.

Under the energetic direction of 36-year-old Joshua Chism, community members as young as 12 and as old as 90, as well as Whitworth students, faculty and staff rehearse Monday nights during the school year.

The group rehearsed Saturday morning inside the music center as part of its chorale retreat.

“It’s just been an overwhelming response that we did not anticipate at all but are thrilled to be able to provide this for our community,” said Melissa Halverson, program coordinator for Whitworth’s music department and organizer of the Whitworth Community Chorale.

Chism, who is in his second year at the university, is the associate director of chorale activities and coordinator of music education. He said he launched the community chorale in September to meet the needs of the community.

He said some students love to sing but can’t participate in daytime choirs because of scheduling conflicts. Meanwhile, some churches have scaled back their choirs, preventing community members from choir singing.

He said he wanted to provide an opportunity that has a little more “meat” than the average church choir but does not require as much commitment as, say, the Spokane Symphony Chorale.

“I said, all of this together, it seems like we could meet such a great demographic for the North Side,” Chism said.

The community-student ensemble is not uncommon among universities. Chism said the Whitworth Community Chorale’s 150 members surpassed his expectations, adding that Whitworth’s numbers rival the country’s largest public universities’ chorales of this type.

“To have that level of commitment at a school the size of Whitworth is astronomical,” Chism said.

Chism attributed the community chorale’s popularity to people seeking connection and togetherness since the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said limited choir opportunities, like churches eliminating choir groups, Whitworth’s strong ties to its alumni base (several members of the chorale are alums), and former choir singers yearning to sing again, are other reasons for the group’s continued growth.

Halverson said people are excited to be part of the group.

“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Oh, I’ve been wanting something like this. I used to sing in a choir and haven’t had any place to do this,’ ” she said.

Halverson said members enjoy Chism’s energy level, which she said is “off the charts.”

“He brings both the knowledge but just fun to it as well,” she said. “He puts a lot of humor in. He’s very, very personable and his energy is contagious.”

Members with any level of experience can join the chorale. Whitworth students can enroll for an academic credit and community members pay a nominal fee.

The chorale performs one concert each semester. The next one is April 14 at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox in downtown Spokane.

“We can learn, but we can also do it in a very fun, enjoyable way,” Chism said. “People want to come back to that.”

He said one woman told him she feels “20 years younger” after she leaves the two-hour Monday rehearsals.

“There’s something about music that is so transformational and life giving and joyful, and when you can capitalize on that in an energetic way and translate that to others, then people jump on board,” Chism said.

Barbara Allen, who has sung all her life, said a bus brings her and 12 other Rockwood at Whitworth senior living community residents to rehearsals. The music is stimulating and helps with memory, she said.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to be in a group for quite a few years and this was the perfect opportunity,” Allen said.

She said Chism appeals to the entire age demographic.

“I think it’s interesting that this is not only providing a musical need, but also it’s invigorating and it is something that is helpful for the whole spirit,” Allen said.

Jurene Phaneuf, a localreal estate agent, said she and Kompaniiets sang at their first rehearsal two weeks ago.

Kompaniiets, her husband and two other Ukrainian women are living at Phaneuf’s Cheney home.

“I knew she had a music background, but I didn’t know her, so I said, ‘Would you like to come and sing?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’ ” Phaneuf said of Kompaniiets. “So, like, less than 48 hours she was singing with us.”

Kompaniiets said she and her husband lived in Odesa, a city of roughly 1 million people on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine.

She said they woke up to the sounds of bombs when the war broke out nearly two years ago.

“One bomb came near us, and our apartment just shook, and we decided we need to go,” Kompaniiets said.

They fled to western Ukraine and stayed with her husband’s family for several months before she stayed in Poland for over a year, Phaneuf said.

Phaneuf said Kompaniiets’ music career was put on hold the past two years, making Kompaniiets’ first time singing at rehearsal two weeks ago a joyous time.

“It was a great welcome for her to be able to participate in something like this,” Phaneuf said.