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The Sound of Music on the Hill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
David Simmons, the chorus’s artistic director, leads a rehearsal. When Simmons started, the group had just 25 members and performed only two shows a year.

At a choir rehearsal one recent Monday evening at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street Northeast, there was a man standing in the front row with silvery hair and a pinstriped suit, reading off an iPad while others sang from stapled sheet music that crinkled with the turn of every page.

In the row behind him was a scruffy man wearing shorts and sandals and an orange T-shirt with the words “ADOPT THIS DOG” across the front in big black letters.

A young woman wearing sweatpants came in late, taking swigs from a can of Diet Coke.

A man with a BlackBerry holster at his hip ducked out to take a call.

Some of them giggled to their neighbors before the conductor gently reminded them that “this isn’t the time to socialize” — much like a presiding officer of the House or Senate floor chides his or her colleagues for speaking during proceedings.

When they began to sing, they sounded like one.

This is the Congressional Chorus, a melting pot of ages, occupations and political persuasions.

The 100-member, co-ed chorus began 25 years ago as a group of a dozen Capitol Hill staffers rehearsing during their lunch hours in the auditorium of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

“In those days, we had to spend $10 to $15 a week to get the piano moved there, because there was only one piano in the Capitol,” said Dave Cape, who works in the office of the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and is one of the choir’s founding members.

As the chorus approaches its 25th anniversary concert this Saturday at the National City Christian Church, some changes are more noticeable than just the size of the group and the updated rehearsal facilities: The group has widened its net beyond the Capitol Hill community and expanded its repertoire to more contemporary and even original arrangements.

“We still sing just American music, try to preserve American music and also promote new music ... and that’s something that differentiates us from the other acts in town,” said David Simmons, the group’s artistic director since 2006, who reiterated its tagline: “American music for every age.”

A Chorus Is Born

When the Congressional Chorus was founded in 1987, email was not prevalent, Cape emphasized.

“A co-worker, Harlie Sponaugle, she had this idea,” Cape said. “Someone asked her what, if she could do anything she wanted to do in life, what would she do? She said she’d like to found a chorus.

“She and I started working on the exact same day” at the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office, Cape continued. “She put a notice on the bulletin board: ‘Like to sing? Come join us in the auditorium in Dirksen.’”

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