Say Yes! with Stephen C Edwards

Fri. February 21, 2020 10:23 AM by Ross Forman

stephen c edwards (left) with partner jonathan

photo credit // provided

Edwards and partner co-founded Allegrezza, an SATB chorus

Stephen C Edwards is bringing positivity with a purpose to Davenport's Piano Bar (1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.) for a 1-hour show Saturday Feb. 22, starting at 8 p.m.

Say Yes! with Stephen C Edwards will hit on everything that makes you happy, organizers said – with Harold Arlen, Kandor and Ebb, Susan Werner, Harry Connick Jr., and other composers to be featured.

A portion of the proceeds from this concert will be donated to Allegrezza.

Say Yes! was inspired when Edwards was watching "Glow" on Netflix and a drag queen wanting a better life got a producer to come to a private performance. She sang "Yes!" from Liza Minelli's "Liza with a Z" concert – "and threw it all out on the line; you could see the desperation in her eyes as she sang for her life," Edwards said. 

"Life is amazing. I believe that life is joy and love. I believe that life is recognizing our humanity in each other. I also believe the we are complex people, with different backgrounds that shape and form us, and that sometimes things can step in the way of connection and in the way of joy. I think the reason I was so moved by the performance was because I had started to let things get in the way of my 'Yes' to parts of life. 'Say Yes' became my mantra. Yes to joy, yes to experiences, yes to love, yes to trying new things. Therapy helped that too. This show is about tapping back into that joie de vivre."

Edwards, 44, lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood and has called Chicago home for 18 years. He is the founder/artistic director for Allegrezza; director of music and worship at The Union Church of Hinsdale; choir director at B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim; and a private voice instructor.

As Edwards jokes, he was born with a microphone in his hand, as he sang his first solo in church at age 2. His grandfather was a preacher, so it gave him an easy access to his first stage, he added.

His show at Davenport's will be a mix of musical theater and jazz, with plenty of his personality. "Whether you are right where you want to be in life or you need a nudge to move in the direction of happiness, excitement and adventure will not leave disappointed," he said.

And it will support Allegrezza, an SATB chorus that, through song, shows acceptance and joy for all. Allegrezza is "joyfulness" in Italian and 20 percent of proceeds from its concerts is donated to local charitable organizations.

"My fiancé Jonathan and I were sitting at @mosphere a bit over six years ago enjoying the dancers on stage as I was bemoaning not having a choir to conduct," Edwards said. "I was talking about what I love about groups I had conducted and all the things that would be fun to have in a group. Then I was wishing I could find a group like we were discussing to conduct when Jonathan said, 'Why don't you just start your own?'"

They did – Allegrezza.

"Six years later, we are going strong and continue to get better and better," Edwards said. "I think that there are several things that set (Allegrezza) apart, (starting with), we are the chorus that has a foundational principle of giving back. We have partnered with so many amazing nonprofit organizations throughout the Chicago-area over the last six years – from food pantries to organizations fighting against cancer, to places working to end gun violence and working to give proper medical assistance to the homeless (in) Chicago. 

"We have all kinds of singers in our group, (including) professional opera singers, pop singers, people who do musical theater, jazz, and folk. When all these people bring the realness of who they are and the realness of their voices, it makes a thrilling sound.

"We sing for a world where everyone is love and accepted for who they are, period."

Plus, Allegrezza rehearses in a brewery.

Allegrezza has its next concert this May called "In Your Love," inspired by Daniel Elder's "Three Themes of Life and Love," based on Rumi texts. "I heard the music last summer and the whole piece is accompanied with percussion. This sparked an idea to do a concert, featuring various percussion instruments," Edwards said. "While hiking outside Barcelona 10 years ago, about halfway up the mountain, I came across two gentlemen playing an instrument I had never seen. It was called hang. After that, I began to search for someone in Chicago that played hang."

He ultimately found one of the leading experts. 

"Hang is a type of hand pan (and) we will be featuring the hand pan on two songs in our upcoming concert, along with hammered dulcimer, marimba, and African and Indian hand drums. It is an eclectic and thrilling program that you will not want to miss," he said.

Charitable donations from the May show will go to Care for Real:

Edwards partner of 8 years, Jonathan Pugh, was the catalyst that started Allegrezza. He now takes care of all of the business/budgeting aspects of the organization, Edwards said. "We would be nowhere without him. He handles our website and chorus management software and finances; he is the president of our board of directors. He grounds my artistic brain and is so strategic and methodical while letting me be me. He also puts together our programs and oversees marketing."

The Musical World of Edwards

Edwards grew up in a conservative Christian home where music was at the center. His dad was a band and orchestra director and his mom sang all the time. His cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents were all musicians. "Every time we were together, we would always sing, play our instruments and entertain each other ... . and of course do it all for the glory of God," he said. "I was the lead in nearly every church musical, and while the rest of the world was looking to Whitney Houston and the like as their musical inspirations, I was mimicking and admiring Sandi Patty and Steven Curtis Chapman."

Edwards started taking French horn lessons in the sixth-grade and eventually would practice three or four hours a day. He was offered scholarships for his musical skill.

He even has a master's degree in music.

"I came out of the closet in grad school, and being gay and (at a) Southern Baptist Seminary do not mix. So, I dropped out and concentrated on my Master of Music degree," he said.

"I get the greatest joy from singing in intimate settings (where) there is a way of connecting with an audience in that environment," he said. "Outside of intimate performances in places like Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret, the biggest highlight, perhaps, is when I was a featured soloist with Chicago Symphony. To be on stage singing to over 2,000 people was surreal and a dream-come-true. 

"I have sung with Chicago Symphony Chorus, and have two Grammys because of it, Grant Park Symphony Chorus, and have soloed at many churches in the area and in Texas. I really love singing in the church I work at.

"I think one of the greatest (performance) moments was when my choir, Allegrezza, was invited to perform with Chicago Sinfonietta. The concert highlighted LGBT composers and performing groups. I prepared the choir to sing music from Bernstein's 'West Side Story' and David Conte's 'Considering Matthew Shepherd.'

"The hardest thing was that, after I prepared the choir, I had to release them to the conductor of the symphony. Thank heavens he loved the group. I sat in box seats during the performance biting my nails and crying over how amazing the group sounded ...and they were singing at Orchestra Hall.

"The audience went nuts and I have never been prouder."

Edwards' musical journey has had roadblocks. One in particular.

About 10 years ago, he had two vocal cord surgeries.

"Having your money-maker go under the knife is scary," he said. "Singers often equate their voices with the essence of who they are. Have the essence of who you are and your identity go under the knife is scary. After surgery, I made it my mission in life to study every aspect of how the voice works. I researched and found a teacher in Milwaukee that changed my technique—-so that it was a legitimate and life-giving technique. Because of my work with her, my voice is easier, freer, and more authentic than ever. I no longer try to sing music that doesn't fit my voice. I also am much better at saying no to gigs that I don't want to do."

Musical coaching is prominent for Edwards, which he has been doing since college.

"Since I discovered this way of authenticity in singing and teaching, my teaching has changed immensely," he said. "I take a very raw and authentic approach to how I teach, and every student comes with a different bag of issues. The goal is always to find the student's authentic voice. So, I do not train opera voices, or theater voices, or jazz voices. I train people to sing with their own, beautiful, authenticity. When you sing as who you are, that is when magic happens.

"I had a talented person come to me who had had quite a successful career in their youth doing musical theater in the Chicago area. They were frustrated because, after a certain time, they stopped getting hired to do shows. When this person came to me, the voice was nice, but masked, trying."

He went with the mirror approach. "Even though I had a full-length mirror in the lesson, it took six months to get the student to really look at themselves. As the student was really able to see all the physical things that were holding him back, we found their voice. Within two months he was getting hired again. And four months after that, (he) got cast as lead, and is still getting roles."

Edwards' coaching career has also included helping a 70-year-old tenor who never had low notes. "As we released the voice, he found a low register and rediscovered the ease of singing above the staff as well."

On April 5, Edwards is part of a new jazz piece at the Union Church of Hinsdale, starting at 10 a.m., called "Passion Music."

Allegrezza also is doing a cabaret show in July called "Disney Heroes" and another cabaret in October called "Disney Villains." Allegrezza has its next round of auditions in August.


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