Bob Cilman, director of the Young @ Heart Chorus, a group of 25 elderly singers who perform worldwide.  The Chorus, which Mr. Cilman has directed since 1982, is based in Northampton, Massachusetts.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

Bob Cilman, Directing And Preaching To A Golden Choir

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

March 26, 2008


He is seated, looking over what appears to be a menu in this palatial expanse at the Ritz Carlton.  Bob Cilman is indulging in the possibilities of choice where food is concerned, and on this particular morning can't resist the opportunity to note the miniature size of the recorder that will capture the conversation he is about to participate in.

Mr. Cilman is the director of the Young @ Heart Chorus in Northampton, Massachusetts and, to vary on a slogan for a famous credit card, has been a member of sorts since 1982, getting his group of elderly songsters to execute the delivery of the tunes in their performance repertoire, no matter how long it takes.  Mr. Cilman, who is also the Executive Director of the Northampton Arts Council, has a prominent role in Stephen Walker's documentary "Young @ Heart" (which opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 9, and in San Francisco and other U.S. cities on April 18) and by his own admission is a son of sorts to the Chorus, a son who is favored on some days and hissed at on others depending on how hard he works his troupe of senior singing sensations.

"Mostly our rehearsals, they're a pure joy, but at times they can be tense.  And I think without that tension of trying to make something sound really good, it wouldn't be worth it," said Mr. Cilman, who was born and raised in Rochester, New York, barely an hour north of New York City.  The new film on Mr. Cilman's chorus isn't the first that has been done on them, as Mr. Cilman will attest to, and was pleased with the way things turned out, while acknowledging the ups and downs of having intruding cameras.  "You go through a lot of extras with film, that you just -- you know, it's not fun to have around all that much.  But you also get used to it.  We knew what we were getting into.  We've been around film a lot.  So the Chorus is pretty good about not mugging too much for the cameras.  You know, there are some moments in the film where I sort of cringe and say, 'oh god, why'd they do that?'  But mostly I think they come off as pretty honest portrayals of who they are.  You know, I recognize the people on the screen as the people I know and I think that's a good thing to be able to say about film and a documentary," said the chorus director.

Family is something that Bob Cilman knows a lot about.  He is married and has two daughters, and though they are foremost in his mind, over the 26 years under his tutelage it is natural to assume that the Chorus members have become like additional grandparents to Mr. Cilman (pronounced "sill-man".)  The departure of two chorus members a few years ago took its toll on Mr. Cilman and the rest of the chorus.  "It became really difficult when people started to die.  I mean, that was -- that's really hard.  By the second death, the death of Joe Benoit (whom Mr. Cilman sang the praises of during the interview) -- when that happens and you aren't ready for it -- you believe him when he says he's gonna live for ten more years."  Despite these adverse and tragic circumstances, the Young @ Heart Chorus has soldiered on -- not unfazed -- but unbowed and persistent, even when Mr. Walker's film cameras were rolling.  The deaths, Mr. Cilman noted, "was a time where it was really difficult between us and the filmmakers." 

The collaboration between Mr. Cilman, who is understandably protective of his chorus, and filmmaker Mr. Walker and his film crew had its ups and downs, as Mr. Cilman implied, but he is thankful that the new film "Young @ Heart" did the chorus justice even in the toughest moments of exposure.  "Actually I've got to say that you don't see any of it (the tension).  And what's really wonderful is that they chose this moment, that we sort of gave them, which I think was a really interesting moment where we . . . let them see how we rehearse after (some difficult situations)," said the chorus director, who noted that one of the choir members sang a touching rendition of Prince's song "Nothing Compares 2 U", which Sinead O'Connor later covered.  "When you capture what's really there, and you don't feel the need to make it something, make it into something other than what it really is, it's just a beautiful thing.  This chorus is pretty real, so you've got to count and trust the fact that when you spend some time with it you're gonna get some real moments.  They did, I think."

Audio: Bob Cilman talks to Omar P.L. Moore of -- 11 minutes 40 seconds

Dora Morrow and Jack Schnepp, Young@Heart chorus members, sit down with The Popcorn Reel and celebrate life, music and the joy of youth

Stephen Walker, "Young @ Heart" film director

Audio and story copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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