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Enlightening Audiences: The Lira Ensemble of Chicago

by Staś Kmieć

Polish American Journal June 2009

The Polish American population of the Chicago area has an active and rich cultural life. One of its most successful and enduring ethnic arts organizations, The Lira Ensemble has been entertaining and enlightening audiences for 44 years. As the nation’s only professional Polish American performing arts company, their success lies in bringing the best of Polish Culture into American life through orchestral and vocal music, dance, and informative English language narration.

The name of the company, “lira,” is the Polish word for “lyre,” a traditional symbol of music. jn_09_Lira

Raphaelle Ziemba of the The Lira Dancers (left) twirls in a costume from the southern Rzeszów region. The dance group is part of the Lira Ensemble, which has been entertaining and enlightening audiences for 44 years. The nation’s only professional performing Polish American arts company, Lira brings the best of Polish Culture into American life through orchestral and vocal music, dance, and informative English language narration.

In Response to the Polish Joke. The company was established back in 1965, to be a positive response to the then-popular occurrence of the offensive Polish joke. It was also a way to disseminate that Polish musical culture consists of more than polka music. Lira focuses on artistic achievement with the highest quality in its work and creates a tradition of professionalism in Polish-American Arts and Polish Arts in this country.

Director Lucyna Migala. The ensemble’s driving force is its artistic director and general manager, Lucyna Migala. The Lira Singers was co-founded by Alice Stephens, a Lithuanian American, and her student, Ms. Migala as an amateur youth group. Under Migala’s current direction the ensemble continues to grow.

Born in Poland, she came to America as a young child with her family. Her parents, Joseph and Slawa were prominent in Polish-language broadcasting, and Lucyna followed in their footsteps. With a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and fellowship at the Washington Journalism Center, she spent 13 years as a writer, reporter and producer for NBC News, based in Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.. Along with other members of her family, she created WCEV/1450 AM, one of Chicago’s major multi-ethnic radio stations.

Ms. Migala is the recipient of an Emmy for her work in television, an award from the Chicago Commission on Human Relations for her work in radio, and the Cavalier’s Cross of Merit from the president of Poland.

“There is so much wonderful Polish music yet to perform and so many terrific folk and historic dances that we have not yet presented,” said Ms. Migala. “Our work will not be done until every American is aware of the rich thousand-year heritage that immigrants from Poland brought with them to these shores – a culture that they treasure and enjoy and pass on to their children and grandchildren.”

Recordings and Cross-Ethnic Outreach. The ensemble is well-known for its nine recordings beginning with records, then tapes, and now CDs. These collections of folk songs, carols, Marian hymns, and other Polish songs are a necessary addition to any Pole’s music library. The Lira Singers have also recorded a cassette of original songs that teach Polish phrases and Polish prayers.

The company’s motto is to perform the Arts of Poland and America, so naturally American music is an integral part of its repertoire. Bridging the language gap, Lira has commissioned about a dozen bi-lingual Polish/English arrangements of folk, patriotic and other music from both cultures which reach beyond those of Polish descent.

When other ethnic groups began moving into traditionally Polish neighborhoods, Lira responded by producing cross-ethnic concerts at churches and schools in such areas. Lira also fostered a dialogue between American Jews and Polish Americans, creating concerts of Polish-Jewish music, which it brought to prominent synagogues in the Chicago area to observe important anniversaries of World War II and the Holocaust. The Chamber Chorus and percussionists were invited to perform at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. during World War II commemorations.

With Lira, heritage counts less than talent, accomplishment and commitment to the company. Many Lira artists are not Polish at all. The company includes many talented African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and artists from many other ethnic groups.

Performances
The Lira Ensemble is artist-in-residence at Loyola University Chicago and is divided into:

  • The Lira Singers, the female ensemble which is the core of the company, is made up of eight to fourteen women who perform in three or four part harmony.
  • The Chamber Chorus compliments the Singers with eight to twelve male vocalists.
  • The Symphony is made up of 50+ professional instrumentalists with Paul Dijkstra and Philip Seward as Co -Conductors. The musicians also appear as the Lira Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, String Quartet, Piano Quintet, Piano Trio, and Woodwind Quartet.
  • The Lira Dancers – An addition since 1994, the troupe of 14 dancers was co-founded by Anthony Dobrzański who served as choreographer and dance director from 1994 through 2003. Iwona Puc, who received her certification as a Dance Instructor from the Rzeszów’s Provincial House of Culture, is the current choreographer. The dancers are either professional dancers or have come out of local groups.
  • The Children’s Chorus – “Dzieci” was created in 1987 as a community chorus of boys and girls, ages 7 through 16.

The Lira Ensemble performs about 80 concerts annually in both traditional arts venues and neighborhood sites and has won praise from critics and audiences in both Poland and the US. Its artistic standards earned the company the opportunity to perform alongside the Sarasota Opera in Florida, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and the Chorus of the Lyric Opera.

Lira’s concerts of new music and the music of major Polish composers provide an opportunity to introduce American audiences to repertoire unknown to them.

The distinguished artistic advisors to the Lira Ensemble include composer/conductor Krysztof Penderecki, composer/conductor Stefan Stuligrosz of Poznań, composer/percussionist Marta Ptaszyńska, pianist and Chopin specialist Daniel Pollack of Los Angeles; and composer Henryk Górecki.

Performances range from 15minute presentations to twohour concerts featuring all five groups. Lira regularly performs at Polish-American community events, and as a community outreach to the elderly, Lira makes a series of appearances in senior and nursing homes.

Vocalists and instrumentalists perform at wedding ceremonies, partie, special events, and funeral services offering a wide variety of musical services, and present classical and jazz repertoire, as well as Polish favorites.

“Our plans for Zapraszamy! – An American Celebration of Polish Song and Dance (a program originally announced in 2002) are not dead, but are on hold until the economy is much healthier, said Ms. Migala. “Meanwhile, Lira is performing in major theaters and concert halls in Chicago and in an ever-growing number of other cities.”

Since 1993, the Board of the Lira Ensemble has organized annual tours of Poland. Income from the tour helps support their work with a portion of the cost of each tour being tax deductible.

For additional information contact: 1 (800) 547-LIRA, lira@liraensemble.com or www.liraensemble.com.

 

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