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Mon Yough Chorale Keeps Community Chorus Tradition Alive

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
December 21, 2017
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

(Above: Members of the Mon Yough Chorale perform during a holiday concert Sunday at Sampson's Mills Presbyterian Church in White Oak. Photos special to Tube City Almanac.)

In the 19th and early 20th century, singing for fun and public entertainment was a common American pastime.

Companies and ethnic clubs like McKeesport's Swedish Singing Society and the Turners (originally known as the Turn und Gesangverein --- the "Gymnastics and Singing Union") sponsored choruses, concerts and even competitions.

Over the years, public singing faded away, and so did most of the community singing groups. But in McKeesport, the Mon Yough Chorale keeps the tradition alive.

The chorale --- now comprised of 35 to 40 volunteer performers under the direction of Ben Filippone --- recently completed a busy December schedule with a concert this past Sunday at Sampson's Mills Presbyterian Church.

Portions of that concert will be broadcast at 8 a.m. Dec. 24 on WEDO (810) and WZUM (1550/101.1), and the full concert will be broadcast at 3 p.m. Dec. 24 on Internet station WMCK.FM.

While the name "Mon Yough Chorale" is relatively recent, its history dates to the 1950s, says spokesman Ken Obusek.

"It's been two different groups with five different names," he says.

The current chorale is the product of a 2001 merger between the McKeesport Choraliers and the White Oak Community Singers, but the McKeesport Choraliers --- founded in 1962 --- traced its origin to an even earlier group known as the Laurel Choraliers, according to Obusek.

Following the merger, the group was known as the Mon Yough Community Singers, but in 2012, Obusek says, Filippone encouraged them to change their name to "chorale."

"We had changed the direction of the group and were becoming a little bit more professional, so he felt we ought to  have a little bit more professional-sounding name," Obusek says.

In addition to being a type of music sung by a large group, a "chorale" is a more elegant way of saying "choir" or "chorus." Two of the best-known professional chorales of the 20th century were the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Harry Simeone Chorale, which scored a major hit in 1958 with its rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy."

While they strive for professionalism, the Mon Yough Chorale's singers are not paid, though Filippone and accompanist Ellen Gross are compensated for their work, Obusek says.

"They put a lot of effort into picking the songs and directing the people," he says. Subscription drives, donations and performance fees --- you can hire the Mon Yough Chorale --- pay the group's expenses.

Many of the group's members have previous experience in a church choir, school chorus or university glee club, but others just enjoy singing, Obusek says.

"We don't have auditions," he says. "If you're interested, we ask you to come to a couple of our rehearsals on Sunday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. and join us. After a couple of those, if you decide you want to join, you can join, and if not, that's OK, too."

The December holidays are the group's busiest time, Obusek says. This month, it performed at several retirement homes, including The Palms in McKeesport, as well as at a Monroeville restaurant and with the East Winds Symphonic Band.

After a short break, the Mon Yough Chorale will resume rehearsals in late January, Obusek says.

In addition to performing for the public, the chorale is also one of five groups statewide participating in the United Singers Federation of Pennsylvania. The federation holds an annual competition, or "Saengerfest," every June. The Pennsylvania Saengerfest is now in its 85th year. 

Although the group practices at Sampson's Mills church, it is non-denominational. And while it's called the "Mon Yough Chorale," members come from all over Western Pennsylvania, Obusek says.

"You don't have to be from McKeesport or White Oak," he says. "We have people from Monroeville and Monongahela. No matter where you live, if you want to come to rehearsals in White Oak, you are welcome to join the group."

For information about joining or hiring the Mon Yough Chorale, call (724) 861-9066 or (724) 493-0001 or email monyoughchorale@gmail.com.

Originally published December 21, 2017.

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