Josephine Lee was conducting a choir at age 14.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Then know this: To fully grasp how that came to be, and understand the undeniable force Lee, 43, has been ever since, you have to know her story. Starting with the present. Lee is now the president and artistic director of Chicago Children’s Choir, a job she’s had since 1999, when she became the youngest artistic director in CCC history. In those years, she’s nurtured thousands of youth in neighborhoods from Englewood to Rogers Park. Along the way, her journey at CCC has also included buzzed-about collaborations with the likes of Chance the Rapper, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“To me, this is more than a choir. That’s always been a misnomer,” says Lee. “We are creating global citizens and teaching world leaders. These young people are learning how to express themselves and coexist with one another.”
This will especially come to light this May, when CCC stages its annual end-of-season concert in Millennium Park, featuring kids ages 8 to 18 from 92 Chicago schools. For these young people, it’s the ultimate opportunity to share the power of music. And for Lee, it furthers a dream she’s had since ever she was a child.
Lee picked up a violin at age 3 at her childhood home in Lincoln Park. “My parents were very strict. They told me to play violin and said, ‘You’re going to stick with this until you finish high school.’ ”
In retrospect, Lee appreciates the push they gave her. Her mom was an educator and self-taught pianist. Her father was a theologian. Now both deceased, they instilled in Lee not only extreme focus but a sense of spirituality. “We prayed a lot,” says Lee, noting that her religious roots have influenced the choir’s mission to explore a wide variety of faiths and freely discuss them.
In her youth, Lee also played piano and sang in several choirs. Distractions were few and far between. “We didn’t have a TV until I was 13,” she says. “Then I would sit and watch Vienna Boys’ Choir, and conductors Fritz Reiner and Leonard Bernstein. I intuitively picked up on what was going on.”
Her self-taught conducting skills came full circle when she was asked, upon the basis of her beyond-her-years talent and passion, to lead a neighborhood children’s choir at age 14. Later, at 17, Lee attended DePaul University, where she got a bachelor’s degree in piano performance. She went on to Northwestern University, where got her master’s in conducting before landing at CCC. There, she began in some of the most challenged schools on the South and West Sides.
She’s since started a family with her husband, Kevin McConkey, cofounder and principal of Grip Design. No surprise — music plays a huge role in the upbringing of their two kids. Her son Emerson, age 11, played Tiny Tim in Drury Lane’s production of “A Christmas Carol” and her daughter Bennet, age 9, loves dance. As a family, they go to concerts and museums regularly. “You have to expose them at a young age,” says Lee.
Lee also loves her CCC children as her own. Today, she’s responsible for a full-time staff of 20 and of course those 5,200 students across Chicago who are part of neighborhood after-school choirs and in-school choirs. In addition to providing overall vision, Lee still conducts — namely, the top ensemble, Voice of Chicago, a mixed-voice performance-based choir for youth ages 13 to 18.
Voice of Chicago is the pinnacle for kids who want the most from their CCC experience. But every step of the way, at every school across Chicago, kids enrolled in the organization are pushed to dig really deep. While technically challenging (Lee purposely selects music written for professional adult choirs) and often in different languages, the pieces also tackle tough subjects. Among them: God and religion, and the ramifications of gentrification.
It’s a different experience from what the kids get in school. While there is some topical crossover, Lee says, “When you set words to music you get something so visceral.”
Lee encourages the kids to be inquisitive by sharing her feelings and empowering them to do the same. The impressions that she leaves are strong. Just ask Ted Hearne, who did a year in her concert choir. He’s now, as Lee says, “crushing it in the postmodern contemporary music scene.” In fact, he was recently a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his five-movement cantata, “Sound from the Bench,” which addresses the crosscurrents of power.
“Josephine was an extremely influential mentor to me,” says Hearne. “It’s because of her total respect for you as a human and also as an artist. She incorporates that into her practice in a beautiful way. … Everything is game when you search for your art. Josephine’s ability to access the deepest part of herself is really inspiring.”
Lee echoes the thought: “We use our voice to amplify what needs to be told,” she says. “Everyone can grasp the stories these songs are trying to tell at a high level if we challenge them. Every day I’m more inspired than these kids are. They absorb things like sponges. They’re willing to accept different lessons and speak their truth.”
The truths are not always easy, but they are important, no matter how old you are. Says Lee, “It’s all about understanding each other, especially now with all the rhetoric and divide. … We are in the business of uniting and finding common ground. We try to imagine what the world would be if we all managed to do this. And we can do it. These are Chicago’s youth. And they are extraordinary.”
The Must-Go Show
In honor of Chicago Children’s Choir ending their 62nd season, all 5,200 kids from every CCC ensemble citywide will gather in Millennium Park to perform a repertoire that’s been practiced as independent ensemble units then “like magic” collectively brought to life.
A combination of musical styles and themes will be explored, from classical to blues to punk to religious to Spanish-language in honor of the Voice of Chicago choir’s upcoming trip to Spain. As a special showstopper, cast members from the “Hamilton” Chicago company will join to sing selections from the musical along with the kids.
More than 400 attendees are expected. CCC has staged similar concerts before but none of this magnitude. “The audience is usually in shock,” says Lee. “Everyone who experiences it takes a piece of soul with them. It’s a unifying and teachable moment.”
AT THE SHOOT
The Chicago Cultural Center is one of the city’s architectural gems. And artistic inspiration runs through its very corridors. So it was a fitting location in which to photograph our cover subject, Josephine Lee. As president and artistic director of Chicago Children’s Choir, she is undoubtedly one of the city’s brightest cultural stars. CCC has its office in the Cultural Center and hosts auditions there.
Photographer Maria Ponce
Hair Lynee Ruiz
Makeup Shannon O’Brien