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Young@Heart sings sweet sounds of rock, pop, soul and more

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

At first blush, the allure of the Young@Heart Chorus appears novel: a group of 70- 80- and yes, 90-somethings performing an exceptionally eclectic setlist of rock, soul and pop, music decades removed from that with which its members are typically familiar.

And yes, that juxtaposition is entertaining.

But digging into the group’s well-documented 39-year history—sitting for a while and absorbing the pathos of its art and the arc of its existence—leaves one with much more than a smile.

It’s impossible to be unmoved by the chorus members’ powerful, often emotionally raw takes on familiar and more obscure material.

Call it wisdom, if you like. The truth is these late-in-life artists bring something that can’t be taught.

“I think that’s something people really pick up on is that they really know how to stretch the emotion,” said Young@Heart Chorus co-founder and Director Bob Cilman. “They know how to go from really happy to really sad in a way that a lot of groups can’t pull off. I think it has a lot to do with their years of experience. They’re really genuine people.”

Indeed. Any doubts as to that authenticity are quickly laid to rest by viewing the 2007 Fox Searchlight documentary film, “Young@Heart,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Originally released on British television in 2006, it served as an introduction to the Northampton, Massachusetts-based group for much of the U.S.

Now local senior services nonprofit AgingNext has lured the Young@Heart Chorus to Claremont for a virtual show fundraiser, which will take place over Zoom at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20. To purchase tickets online, go to www.youngatheart.eventbrite.com, or send a check to AgingNext, 141 Spring St., Claremont, CA 91711, or by phone at (909) 621-9900.

The show will document how the chorus—ages 75 through 92—has weathered the pandemic. A spoiler: very well.

“It’s hard to talk about having benefit from the pandemic,” Mr. Cilman said. “It’s hard to talk about it in those terms. But as an arts organization, we’ve really done well during this period.”

Like most creatives, COVID’s forced isolation has also compelled the group to find new ways of working. What started out as a clunky, not entirely successful conference call among its members last March morphed into its first forays onto Zoom. Soon after, Mr. Cilman, the wonderful Young@Heart band, and producers began to edit together remote recordings from its members, ultimately creating a sizable cache of music videos.

The group’s newfound creative outlet got an initial boost when CNN started showing their video of Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 classic, “For What it’s Worth.”

“Then we did another more polished version of [Sam Cooke’s 1964 iconic civil rights anthem] ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ with the Chicago Children’s Choir, which was kind of great, actually,” Mr. Cilman said.

Then it was off to the races.

“We went from the Zoom boxes last year to me going to peoples’ towns and filming them doing songs on video,” Mr. Cilman said.

Young@Heart now has 22 new music videos to its credit.

The material is a music nerd’s dream: from 1950s rockabilly wild man Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” to the Ramones’ punk rock anthem “I Wanna Be Sedated,” a positively funky version of Dr. John’s 1973 hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and Iggy Pop’s “Tonight” share space, as does soulfully plaintive American roots artist Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” and Canadian indie darlings Arcade Fire (“I Give You Power.”) The obscure—1980s German synth-pop artist Saâda Bonaire’s “You Could Be More As You Are”—is billed equally with gold standards such as George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” A moving take on the 1938 French ballad, “J'attendrai,” is followed by songwriting god Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” The group even sets to music a Charles Bukowski poem, “The Laughing Heart.”

To call it wide-ranging obviously doesn’t do it justice. Today’s Young@Heart Chorus includes five singers over 90 years old. That it would tackle this repertoire is well past unexpected.

It began in 1982 when Mr. Cilman and Judith Sharpe founded Young@Heart while both working at an elderly meal site in Northampton, Massachusetts. Since then Mr. Cilman has taken Young@Heart Chorus around the world several times, winning over crowds in Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and other international locales. It’s also toured domestically, beginning after the movie was released in the U.S. in 2007.

Mr. Cilman, a musician himself, has over time became a masterful musical director. He treats his chorus members as artists, with respect, and in turn expects them to work hard. It’s a stereotype-busting experience watching him tease spellbinding performances out of people who in many instances began with the group with no prior musical training. 

At the risk of pandering, I came away feeling Young@Heart is doing a lot to show older folks not only aging gracefully, but thriving while finding their artistic voices.

“I would love to make a film about the first time people come to be in the chorus,” Mr. Cilman said. “We have them do kind of a minor audition, and I would love to show what people did when they first arrived to what they eventually wind up doing. It’s such an amazing journey. Some could hardly open their mouths and they turned into these incredible performers. It’s something about the strength of the group that really gives them some power.”

With any art collective, be it a chorus, a band or a theater company, longevity is a rare and valuable commodity. With the age of Young@Heart’s members, that possibility is inherently all the more uncommon.

“What’s interesting is it continues to be gratifying with totally different changes in personality,” Mr. Cilman said. “We’re forced to reinvent it over and over, because the people are different. This time we had to reinvent because the circumstances were different. So that’s been a real interesting fun challenge.”

In the documentary, we are privy to the poignancy the group brings to the inevitability of death. Some 150 chorus members have come through the program since 1982, and though he’s had 39 years to get used to it, it still hurts.

“It’s incredibly sad, and it’s really sad when it’s unexpected,” Mr. Cilman said. “A lot of times people die and we don’t see the for a year before they did. And there are some that die after being at rehearsal a week before. And that’s just really hard.”

I encourage readers to spend an hour toggling through the Young@Heart YouTube channel. You will no doubt feel the unique, homespun exhilaration this group is capable of delivering through its both tender and humorous worldview.

I’m forever fascinated by people who deal with grief as part of their vocation, and imagine a certain thickness of skin must develop out of necessity, if only to inure oneself against the heaviness of losing so many friends. 

“I’ve had to learn how to give a good eulogy,” Mr. Cilman allowed. “I get asked a lot by chorus members’ families. I’ve got to do one in June for a guy. He was one of the greatest chorus members, Andy Walsh, who died at 91 in December.”

He took a second to compose himself, the emotion catching in his voice.

“Every time I see [footage of Mr. Walsh] I just remember how much I loved this guy. He was so incredible.

“I guess what you come to ultimately is that you get to feel good about the fact that at the end of their life they were doing something incredible. I mean, it’s a wonderful way to leave this world.”

Agreed. And I would encourage anyone to seek out “Young@Heart” on their streaming platform for irrefutable supporting documentation.

Tickets for AgingNext’s Young@Heart Chorus virtual concert and fundraiser, with special guests the Claremont High School Chamber Singers, are $25. The event takes place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20. To purchase tickets online, go to www.youngatheart.eventbrite.com. You can also pay by phone at (909) 621-9900 or send a check to AgingNext, 141 Spring St., Claremont, CA 91711. A link to the concert will be sent via email in advance of the event.

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