Choir director Josephine Lee brings out the best in Chicago’s kids

Like most preschoolers, 3-year-old Josephine Lee put up a tussle when mom sat her down to practice the piano and violin.

But because their little girl showed such promise and passion for music, her South Korean mom and North Korean-born minister dad dug in their heels and pressed the practice issue.

Lee grew up in Chicago and took her family’s creed of hard work and harmony all around the globe. She was conducting her own choir by the time she was 15 and, at 23, became the youngest artistic director in the five-decade history of the Chicago Children’s Choir, where she has earned artistic accolades that soar off the charts.

“From my mother, I got my passion for music. From my father, love of community,” she says. “Music has been my religion.”

In 2006 the Chicago Tribune named Lee “Chicagoan of the Year in the Arts” and last year, she took the 3Arts Artist Award, for distinctive work in music, theater and visual arts. The same year, Lee was named one of the Anti-Defamation League’s “Rising Stars-Women 40 and under defining the future.” The year before that, the Union League Club of Chicago designated her one of its “distinguished musicians.”

Since Lee took the reins of the Chicago Children’s Choir 10 years ago, the concert choir has performed for dignitaries ranging from Bill and Hillary Clinton to the Dalai Lama. This summer, the choir sang for Beyoncé prior to trips to Argentina and Uruguay. The choir took the stage on the 2007 PBS series “From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall,” and landed a Chicago Midwest Emmy Award for the 2008 documentary “Songs on the Road to Freedom,” named after its CD.

The list goes on and on.

Songs of the Season

Make plans to attend the Chicago Children’s Choir Concert Choir’s annual concert, which includes masterpieces by Copland, Elgar and Handel, world music from Bulgaria, the Philippines and South Africa, a Chanukah Suite and a contemporary gospel work by Richard Smallwood

Layers of Lee

Sitting across from her in the transformed warehouse in the Fulton Market District in the West Loop where Lee, now 34, her husband Kevin and their 21-month-old son Emerson have made their home, you would never dream you were sharing space with such an illustrious woman.

Talking about the choir’s new CD, “Holiday Harmony,” in a sofa-framed conversation area, framed by white brick walls and black-slat floors, the small willowy Lee comes off as fresh and unpretentious. Lee speaks in a young Midwest vernacular, not the sort of pompous art-speak you might expect to hear from someone in her position.

It was surreal, says Lee, wearing shorts and a tank top, to record holiday carols, and then come out of the studio to Chicago’s warm summer streets. She cuts short a cell phone call to Kevin, the principal of his own design, branding and marketing company, whom she met backstage at Cirque du Soleil nearly 10 years ago. Pushing a wisp of long black hair from her face, she pivots and shakes her head at her son, who is fixating on the photographer’s equipment.

Emerson, who spends most of every day with this classically trained pianist, conductor, arranger and producer, astounds his mom with what appears to be a predisposition toward pop.

“I see him doing these hip-hop moves and I wonder where that comes from,” she says with a laugh as light as a choral bell.

The layers of Lee unfold. Musical prodigy. Globe-trotting maestra. Mom. Marriage partner. Mentor. Messenger of peace and harmony.

Talent tapper

She is also a master at drawing out talent in kids. The Chicago Children’s Choir is a multicultural group founded in Hyde Park in 1956 by the late Rev. Christopher Moore. About 2,800 children in 45 metro schools participate in the choir program during the school day and eight neighborhood choirs take part after school. A select 90 make up the concert choir, which collaborates regularly with choral, orchestral, opera, theater and dance organizations, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

This summer, between naps and outings to parks with Emerson, Lee was busy being chorus master for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Tosca.”

Three weeks a year, Lee is one of 10 harried parents shepherding 50 kids through foreign realms, shaping not only their vocal chords, but their hearts and values.

“It’s rigorous,” she says. “It’s 24/7.”

The return? She sees young people learning to set boundaries for themselves, focus on their goals and respect adults.

And she gets to be there when kids discover something living deep within themselves. On the “Freedom Tour” in 2007, for instance, the concert choir sang at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four girls were burned to death by fires set in 1963 race riots. Lee says she’ll never forget the impact reflected in the kids’ eyes when they visited a slave museum and sang for folks in the FEMA trailer neighborhoods of New Orleans.

“It’s one thing to read about history,” she says. “It’s another thing to experience it together through song.”


Lee’s choral journeys link her to her own legacy. Her late father was born and married in Pyongyang. After the Korean War scattered the family, he moved to Chicago, where he met Lee’s mother.

It was her parents’ dream that she would return to Korea and in some way work to bring the two halves of their homeland back together.

A trip to the divided nation of Korea was right in tune with a troupe dedicated to promoting peace and tolerance. In the summer of 2008, Lee and the choir became the first non-Korean civilians at the Yeolsei Observation Platform in the demilitarized zone, one of the most heavily armed places on Earth.

“The Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas resounded with a beautiful Korean melody praying for peace Friday,” the Korean Times reported.

Teens in the choir tied ribbons to a dividing fence and sang “We Dream of Reunification” (also called the Reunification or Peace Song), performing together with the Seoul Metropolitan Youth Choir at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Seoul.

“I had a very ambiguous feeling. The DMZ is all about division, but it was so beautiful, untouched and immaculate,” Tim Geistlinger, a 17-year-old tenor, told the Korean Times.

It was a mission of world citizenship, Lee says.

“Music is a vehicle by which we communicate, cross cultural barriers and begin the process of living harmoniously,” she told Korean reporters at the time. “It’s through children you make change because they are the future.”

Music appreciation

And what about the musical prospects of her own children? Lee reveals that she is expecting a daughter, due this winter. Will she insist Emerson and his little sister devote themselves to music?

That depends on whether they show enough passion and talent, she answers. Josephine Lee the Mom then lifts the miniature frying pan Emerson is using to perform a percussion solo and unceremoniously stuffs it in her big, shiny, black purse.

“Not every kid has the passion to be a performer,” Lee says. “It’s fine to be a music appreciator, too. If we created a world full of performers, music would be kind of a self-serving art form, wouldn’t it?”

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