Five years after the Boys Choir of Harlem stopped performing amid a sexual-abuse scandal and financial collapse, an effort to resurrect the group has taken an important step forward, with auditions planned next week for a new set of singers.
The world-renowned choir was founded in 1968 and trained young people from underprivileged backgrounds to sing in the world’s great concert halls, from Carnegie Hall to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The auditions on Oct. 15-17 and Oct. 22-24 at the Church of the Ascension on West 107th Street in Morningside Heights mark a launching point in the fitful restart of the choir, which provided music instruction, academic tutoring and counseling to generations of young men and, later, women. About 40 to 60 boys in fourth through 12th grades will be selected for a new boys’ choir. A girls’ choir is planned after that is formed.
“It’s a commitment to be excellent that we’re looking for,” said Horace Turnbull, brother of the choir’s late founder, Walter Turnbull, and leader of the new effort. “Our goal is to create productive citizens, not necessarily singers.”
Mr. Turnbull, along with alumni and leaders of the original group, had initially hoped to start auditions in February, after announcing a fundraising effort in December. But the organizers said things had taken longer than expected.
M. Roger Holland II, the organization’s artistic director and the boys’ choir conductor, said rehearsals should begin in January. It will take some time, he said, before the choir is ready to perform, because the students will be new to the program.
“All we will have is our institutional memory, our values and our history to build on,” said Mr. Holland, who under Walter Turnbull was director of artistic education at the Choir Academy of Harlem, a public school that operated in partnership with the Boys Choir of Harlem. “But that only goes so far.”
Mr. Turnbull said he hasn’t hired a conductor for the girls’ choir but hopes to hold auditions for that ensemble before the end of the year.
Chief among the group’s hurdles is convincing donors, would-be board members and parents that it can overcome its troubled past. The choir began a downward spiral in 2001—while Horace Turnbull was in a position of authority—when a 14-year-old boy accused the program’s chief counselor of molesting him.
The counselor was sentenced to two years in prison for multiple counts of third-degree sexual abuse and endangerment of a child, all misdemeanors.
City investigators found that the Turnbull brothers had failed to report abuse complaints to authorities and had allowed the counselor to continue working with children. Horace Turnbull was an original founding officer of the choir and also served as general manager and executive vice president.
The choir was evicted from its space at the school in 2006, as it faced a lawsuit and mounting financial problems. It stopped performing in 2007, around the time of Walter Turnbull’s death, and officially disbanded in 2009.
The $30 million lawsuit filed against the Turnbulls, the counselor and the city was settled in 2010 for an undisclosed amount. Horace Turnbull said all employees and volunteers for the new organization, called the New Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem, will complete training on reporting abuse. An accounting firm will audit its books.
Organizers haven’t yet secured a home for the choir, and their application for federal tax-exempt status is pending. They are accepting donations under the umbrella of a replica choir program in Florida that Horace Turnbull helped found, raising about $5,000 so far. The choir’s estimated budget is $275,000. Mr. Turnbull said he has received verbal pledges for more money.
The choir has signed a deal with a Los Angeles production company to film a reality TV series on its rebirth, starting with the auditions. The company, DuBose Entertainment, hasn’t yet found a network home for the program.
Recruiting members for a new board of directors—which will have fiduciary responsibility for the organization—has been more challenging than finding volunteers for a separate advisory board that has no such responsibility, Mr. Turnbull said.
Marc Roberge, lead singer of the rock band O.A.R., has signed on to the advisory group. He said he was reluctant at first to join, but decided the group is trying to “turn a negative thing hopefully into a positive thing.”
“Carrying the history and the sensitivity—and in order to change, you need to remember the mistakes—it’s really important to be transparent, especially when you’re trying to win back the trust of the city,” he said.
To register for auditions, parents can call (914) 584-6367 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Harlem Village Farmland, 1820 – 1870 (harlemworldmag.com)
- Francine Brown’s Roots in Harlem (harlemworldmag.com)