In 1975, the Norwalk Symphony Organization planned a concert version of “Porgy and Bess.” Composer George Gershwin had stipulated it could only be performed by Black artists.
Gigi Van Dyke knew many Black singers in the area. She was asked to recruit a choir of 40 or 50 voices, teach them the score, and rehearse them.
Gigi called choir members from Norwalk to New Haven. She credits “serendipity” with finding all the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses needed.
The story goes that the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra told Gigi to bring “her people” to the concert hall for a technical rehearsal. When the members — all well prepared and ready — showed up, there were more commands like “get your people to…” and “your people had better…”
Gigi told the NSO that she could not be involved with the project. The choir did not want to go on without her.
The Norwalk Hour got wind of the exit from a sold-out performance. The headline was something like “Porgy and the Norwalk Symphony: It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Members of the pick-up choir did not want to disband after enjoying singing together, with Gigi playing piano and directing. They continued rehearsing.
Again by serendipity, opportunities to perform kept coming Gigi’s way.
Hundreds of men and women singers have been part of the group — now called the Serendipity Chorale — over the past 45 years. They performed with Pete Seeger, Andy Williams, Betty Jones, (and the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra), among others.
Peter Jennings and ABC News recognized Van Dyke and the chorale in 1998 for its “service to all mankind.” In 2000, Governor Jodi Rell honored the Chorale as a “Connecticut Treasure.”
The Serendipity Chorale’s last live performance was last February 23, at the Darien Library. The repertoire of show tunes, pop standards, folk songs and gospel spirituals was to have kicked off a busy year celebrating their 45th anniversary.
The pandemic shattered those plans. Instead, Chorale members and friends decided to sponsor the production of a solo piano CD featuring Gigi.
Finding the right piano, recording site and engineer was difficult. Finally Gigi’s longtime friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Edward Thompson — minister of music at Westport’s Unitarian Church in Westport — suggested recording in the now-empty sanctuary, on the church’s Steinway Grand.
Congregation member Alec Head — a recording engineer and producer — heard Gigi play. He quickly signed on.
The sanctuary was booked for 4 hours in September. Recording took just an hour.
“Artists always tell me they can do their piece in a single take,” Alec said. “It just doesn’t happen. Except that with Gigi it did.”
Head remastered the CD, titled “It’s Love.” It was created not as a Chorale fundraiser but as a gift to Gigi, and from her to churches that could no longer have live music, as well as to senior centers and other organizations where she and the Chorale had often performed.
Recording and production costs were underwritten by donations. Copies were sent to singers who have been part of the Chorale’s life and spirit for 45 years.
The Serendipity Chorale looks forward to singing together again — perhaps this year.
In the meantime, they can hear Gigi at the piano playing her favorite hymns and songs.
For the past year, the choir could not sing. But — without missing a beat — they shared the magic of music anyway.
(Hat tip: Lynda Bluestein)