When you head a vocal ensemble that bears your name, the responsibility to keep the musical selection and performances fresh and engaging takes on added significance. But for Michael Teolis, leading the 30-member Michael Teolis Singers is a labor of joy — one with clear connections to his Italian upbringing.
Teolis, 60, traces his Neapolitan roots on his father’s side to a small village near San Clemente called Campo Galluccio in the province of Caserta. (His mother is of Polish, Scotch, English and Irish heritage.) And he recalls growing up with his paternal grandmother, who’d sing in Italian around the house. His father, who served in the 5th Army Chorus during World War II, later worked as a classical music deejay.
“My father loved to sing along with his opera recordings,” Teolis recalls. “I never really appreciated his love for music, especially opera, until I began to study music seriously.”
Teolis- – who earned music degrees from De Paul University and VanderCook College of Music respectively — may be serious about his craft, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have some fun with it. One of his stated goals with the Michael Teolis Singers, which he formed in 2007),is to look at “the lighter side of the art” when it comes to choral works.
Teolis also pays much attention to rarely heard or unknown choral music of past and present mainstream composers. Chances are you’ve heard of the artists the chorale spotlights, but not necessarily the compositions themselves.
When the Michael Teolis Singers take the stage May 3 at First United Methodist Church in Oak Park, the bill (entitled “Look What Else They Wrote”) will include a yet unpublished popular song written by Sir David Willcocks, “You Bring Me Happiness.” Also slated are an independent sacred motet by film composer Nino Rota, an arrangement of a song written by Aaron Copland to words of Ira Gershwin, “Younger Generation,” and “Four New England Pieces” for chorus, by Dave Brubeck–along with selections by Beethoven, Schumann, John Philip Sousa and Peter Schickele.
“I love looking for the uncovered musical gems–the things people would really appreciate, but didn’t really know existed,” says Teolis, who works as the performing arts chair and instrumental music director at the Latin School of Chicago. Teolis excels at not only finding rarities, but bringing them to life on stage: “Charles Strouse, the composer of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and ‘Annie,’ sent me a psalm setting that he wrote when he was 22 years old. He’d never heard it until I gave him a recording of our performance of it.”
It’s dedication to that self-styled mission of musical discovery and delight that makes Teolis and his vocal group gems in their own right.
“Having the choral ensemble has given me an opportunity to write more music and to challenge myself as a conductor,” he adds. “There were a couple of years when I was away from choral music and I realized something was missing in my life. Putting together this ensemble, with the help and encouragement of my friends, I’m doing something that I enjoy and I continue to develop my skills and musicianship. I’m also able to bring what I learn to my classroom as a teacher.”
“Look What Else They Wrote,” the spring concert by the Michael Teolis Singers, takes place 7:30 p.m. May 3 at First United Methodist Church, 324 N. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park. Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 for seniors/students. For further information, visit MTSingers.com or call 708-366-2889.