Melodic Men: 90 Years of the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix

Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix

One of Arizona’s oldest performing arts organizations is about to receive a long-overdue honor. And if that was not enough, the prestige arrives in the midst of the group’s best season yet—a season that builds upon its storied history and provides audiences with the symphonious sounds of the Valley’s most talented male singers.

Gov. Doug Ducey will proclaim the month of December as Choral Musical Arts Month during a Dec. 7 ceremony at the state capital to coincide with the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix’s 90th Anniversary Season. The official proclamation recognizes the group as Arizona’s longest-standing, continually performing choral organization. In fact, the state’s only performing arts organization that has been around longer is the Tucson Symphony.

“This chorus has been a diverse, all-volunteer group with a long and rich history which has delivered professional-quality music to its audiences through performances and participated in outreach activities each year,” the proclamation states. “The audiences of the Choral Musical Arts in Phoenix have benefited by the exposure the chorus has given them through a wide variety of musical genres.”

The Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix made its public debut Christmas morning 1929 on KTAR radio. Originally known as the Orpheus Club, the group of 30 men performed its first season concert for a capacity audience in February 1930 at the Phoenix Women’s Club building.

Since then, the choir has logged more than 3,500 rehearsals and more than 1,000 performances not only throughout the U.S., but all around the world—including Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and 10 European countries.

“We may be the most entertaining choir in town,” said Brook Larson, who serves as the group’s artistic director. “And by entertaining, I don’t mean that we’re up there singing and dancing in costumes or anything like that. We just do a variety of repertoire that most of the audience and most of our singers really like. And we do it at a pretty decent level.”

The Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix’s mission is to entertain audiences while adding cultural value to the Valley’s communities by delivering quality performances and providing a rewarding experience for members. As a non-profit organization, that last aspect has been key to the group’s success and sustainability, according to Larson.

“We’re a community choir,” said Larson, noting the difference between Orpheus and professional chamber choirs such as the Phoenix Chorale. “It has got to be fun to get [singers] to come back the next week and the next year.”

In order to accomplish that, Larson—who has led the group since fall 2009 after leading a men’s chorus and teaching choral methods for six years at Arizona State University—selects broad themes that allow him to program a wide spectrum of music.

He typically tries to choose two or three songs per concert series that will challenge the singers, and about a dozen more that they will simply enjoy singing. The men meet for rehearsals every Tuesday night at Central United Methodist Church in Phoenix.

“Most of [our members] are people who sang in high school and/or college and just want to keep singing,” Larson said. “They are attorneys, doctors, businessmen, engineers and teachers. There are stronger singers and there are weaker singers in my choir. But we need the entire team. As great as Joe Montana was, he wasn’t going to win that football game all by himself.”

The group has grown in size since its inception in 1929. This season’s roster boasts 85 men—with Larson hoping to increase that number to 90 in the spring to coincide with the group’s 90th anniversary. Members vary in ages, with the youngest currently being in his mid-20s and the oldest having just recently turned 93.

One of the group’s longest-standing members is Dave Kelly, who moved to Phoenix from Billings, Mont. when he was 8 years old. Kelly started singing in school and church choirs as well as in the Phoenix Boys Choir. He continued doing so throughout his education at both University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.

“When I got out of college in 1976, my mom spotted an audition notice for Orpheus in the newspaper,” Kelly said. “I went down with my brother and auditioned. We both made it, and my brother sang with Orpheus until he moved to Missouri.”

The 63-year-old retired Phoenix Police Department officer has stuck with the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix ever since, preferring the sound of a group of men singing to that of the mixed choirs, with which he had performed in the past. He believes the organization was founded as a social group of men who liked to sing—a quality that was still present when he became a member. However, it has evolved since then.

“There were discussions over the years of whether we wanted to get more serious about music,” Kelly explained. “In the early 90s, it started to change a little bit. In my estimation and in the estimation of people who have been in the audiences for these years, we’re singing better and better and better every year. It’s a great social thing, but the music is what I’m here for.”

In addition to the group’s annual collaborations with Phoenix Children’s Chorus and the Valley’s junior high and high school choirs that occurred earlier this season, the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix has two upcoming concert series: Holidays with Orpheus in December, and Orpheus Salutes America in April and May.

About half of the singers will take the patriotic program on tour for performances in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. in June. Tours like those are just one of the benefits of being a part of the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix, according to Kelly, aside from simply getting to explore his passion for singing, of course.

“We’ve been many places that I would not have gone to without being in Orpheus,” said Kelly, noting some of his favorite destinations include Australia, Russia, Great Britain and New Zealand. “All of those trips I’ve traveled on, all of the friendships I’ve made, and all of the things I’ve seen that I wouldn’t have had in my life without Orpheus would have to be the high point.”

The organization has come a long way since its inaugural season, or even since the 1980s, when it was performing for capacity crowds at ASU Gammage. Larson explained the explosion of the performing arts community in the Valley now offers residents a vast number of options, forcing the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix to compete for its audience.

“In my opinion, Orpheus is one of Phoenix’s best-kept secrets,” said Larson, noting first-time attendees typically turn into regulars. “My singers have the ability to give them a gift by singing so soft, delicately and beautiful in one piece, turning around and blowing their hair back in the next piece then making them laugh in the next piece. They make them smile, laugh, cry and emote.”

Larson aspires to someday see the group grow in size to 150 or even 250 members. However, it is currently unable to afford venues such as the performing arts centers of Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa that are capable of holding that many singers on stage. In the meantime, he hopes the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix of today would make the men who sang on the radio that Christmas morning in 1929 proud.

“I try and influence the audience by showing them that the choral art that has been alive and well for 400-500 years is still alive and well,” Larson explained.

Holidays with Orpheus
Various Dates in December
Various Locations Across the Valley
$15+
602-271-9396
orpheus.org

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