East Lansing, MI – A mid-Michigan institution is presenting a special performance Thursday night. The Michigan State University Children's Choir is saying goodbye to its founding director, Mary Alice Stollak. After 16 years at the helm, Stollak is preparing to retire. In that time, Stollak has shaped a choral group that's risen from small-town admiration to international acclaim.
Six times a month in a basement room in East Lansing, a very subtle science experiment unfolds. It's a study of the evolution of sound and it begins with a cacophony of chairs.
As chairs and children maneuver into place, the noise rises to a more pleasant pitch of adolescent energy.
A few minutes pass and then, the fun shifts into focus.
The maestro has arrived.
Fifty-five faces are all on Mary Alice Stollak. Fifty-five voices ready to be refined as one. In this room, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
"This room means a lot to me," Stollak says. "It all happens in here and I love the process."
Mary Alice Stollak is looking back on a process 16 years in the making. Back in 1993, the MSU Community Music School was just getting started, and the university was looking to build an outreach program tailored for local children. By then, Stollak was already a veteran choral director. She'd worked with high school, collegiate and church choirs from Chicago to Flint. But all of those experiences proved to be a dress rehearsal for what Stollak feels has been her greatest professional reward.
"I've enjoyed it all," says Stollak. "But nothing has touched my heart and my soul in the way that the children's choir has. And I think it's because they have been so malleable and so excited about singing beauty; beautiful music. They understand. They get it. They get it."
Stollak's style has been called stern but grandmotherly. She likes to call it consistency. Maybe it's her tribute to the Polish nuns who taught her to love music during her childhood in Milwaukee. Her formula is simple: set the bar high and never patronize children.
Over the years, the choir has become something of a vocal dream team. In 2002 the choir was one of only two American representatives at the World Choral Symposium in Minneapolis. The children have played Carnegie, the Kennedy and grabbed two Grammys.
"I knew even when I was little that it was something pretty spectacular."
Sixteen-year-old Zach Kribs started out in Stollak's preparatory choir when he was seven. He was a member of the class that won a Grammy in 2006 for its rendition of William Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and Experience."
"She always tells us in rehearsal that when we have a concert, that our job is to make people who are listening to us...they've got to stop thinking about the milk they've got to go get at the grocery store, or what they're having for dinner," Zach says. "By the time they walk out of that concert they've got to be thinking about the beauty we've got to put them in another place."
"Good for Zach!" Stollak chuckles. "My goodness I mean that's verbatim we talk about that all the time. And so Zach has it right. We're not up there performing. We're hopefully up there interpreting words and music in a way that it touches the hearts and souls of the people in the audience."
One of the choir's most challenging projects came earlier this year in a collaboration with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. With the help of a native speaker, the children performed the 40-minute cantata "Songs for Lada" by composer Alla Borzova entirely in Belarussian.
Zach Kribs has three siblings in the choir. For his brother Gabriel, this experience is about more than just singing.
"I learn a lot, and a lot of the things she teaches us we can apply to everyday life like striving for excellence," Gabriel says.
"It's a wonderful culture of excellence much like a great basketball team," says Stollak. "And I don't think it's the coach. I think they're there because they love what they're doing. If we really teach people to do something that they love, all of these things that we talk about in teenagers really washes away when they're involved in something that gives them meaning."
Now, the MSU Children's Choir is getting ready to say goodbye to Mary Alice Stollak. She has a farewell message for them, too and it lies within the text of a piece they'll be performing tonight.
"And I thought, what do I want to leave these children with? And so I chose a text from the Old Testament," Stollak says. "And it's Micah. And it is, what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your Lord.' Imagine the world if we all could do that."
The piece is called "A Journey of Faith." Stollak's friend and composer Rollo Dilworth has set the passage to music.
"I think the humility that comes out of this Micah text in many ways symbolizes Mary Alice," Dilworth says. "She continues to do what she does for the love of those young people and for the love of the choral art, not to bring attention necessarily to herself."
But the attention is on Mary Alice Stollak as she prepares for her swan song. When the practice room is silent, she thinks about all the voices that have found their potential in this place, and the moments of sheer joy borne from hours of hard work.
"You know, one of the things I love is when I see new parents of children in the (choir) and they hug their children after performances in a way you know, for them you can see they're thinking, my child did that! This room has a lot of that in it," Stollak says.
Mary Alice Stollak is looking forward to visiting family. She admits it's hard for her to relax so she's giving herself a year to see what's next. Until then, she's eager to get back to her other great passion: gardening.
It seems Mary Alice Stollak will still be sowing seeds and growing something beautiful.
MSU University Relations and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra contributed to this story.