From Holland with love: Julia van IJken takes up more of the reins with Young@Heart Chorus

Julia van IJken, who came to the Valley in 2021 after working with the Young@Heart Chorus online from Europe, now assists longtime chorus director Bob Cilman with directing rehearsals and live shows. 

Julia van IJken, who came to the Valley in 2021 after working with the Young@Heart Chorus online from Europe, now assists longtime chorus director Bob Cilman with directing rehearsals and live shows.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Julia van IJken huddles with Shirley Stevens at a recent Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal at the Bombyx Center in Florence. “I feel lucky to be a part of this,” she says.

Julia van IJken huddles with Shirley Stevens at a recent Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal at the Bombyx Center in Florence. “I feel lucky to be a part of this,” she says. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

When Y@H Chorus Director Bob Cilman asked van IJken to take charge of rehearsals when he was ill for a few months in 2022, she was hesitant at first. But soon enough, she found herself thinking “I think I can do this.”

When Y@H Chorus Director Bob Cilman asked van IJken to take charge of rehearsals when he was ill for a few months in 2022, she was hesitant at first. But soon enough, she found herself thinking “I think I can do this.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Julia van IJken, who came to the Valley in 2021 after working with the Young@Heart Chorus online from Europe, now assists longtime chorus director Bob Cilman with directing rehearsals and live shows.

Julia van IJken, who came to the Valley in 2021 after working with the Young@Heart Chorus online from Europe, now assists longtime chorus director Bob Cilman with directing rehearsals and live shows. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

“That’s the spirit!” Julia van IJken works with the Young@Heart Chorus during a recent rehearsal at the Bombyx Center in Florence.

“That’s the spirit!” Julia van IJken works with the Young@Heart Chorus during a recent rehearsal at the Bombyx Center in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

When Y@H Chorus Director Bob Cilman asked van IJken to take charge of rehearsals when he was ill for a few months in 2022, she was hesitant at first. But soon enough, she found herself thinking “I think I can do this.”

When Y@H Chorus Director Bob Cilman asked van IJken to take charge of rehearsals when he was ill for a few months in 2022, she was hesitant at first. But soon enough, she found herself thinking “I think I can do this.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Julia van IJken, who came to the Valley in 2021 after working with the Young@Heart Chorus online from Europe, now assists longtime chorus director Bob Cilman with directing rehearsals and live shows. 

Julia van IJken, who came to the Valley in 2021 after working with the Young@Heart Chorus online from Europe, now assists longtime chorus director Bob Cilman with directing rehearsals and live shows.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

All together now: Julia van IJken leads the Young@Heart Chorus during a recent rehearsal at the Bombyx Center in Florence.

All together now: Julia van IJken leads the Young@Heart Chorus during a recent rehearsal at the Bombyx Center in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 02-16-2024 3:59 PM

In the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, Julia van IJken was at her parents’ home in the Netherlands, unable to travel back to England, where she’d been working on a master’s program in art and communication at the Royal College of Art in London.

One project had involved working with a small women’s choir in London, studying how the heartbeats of singers can actually synchronize when people sing together. Looking for ways to explore some of those ideas online, she came across a video of a group of elderly singers from America singing the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.”

Van IJken had never heard of them, this group called the Young@Heart Chorus, but she was intrigued. She fired off an email to their director, Bob Cilman, and she also contacted some other choral groups, wondering if she could work with them online during the lockdown.

Cilman got back to her the next day; she didn’t hear from the other groups.

Nearly four years later, van IJken, who’s 31, is a vital part of Young@Heart, the producer and editor of their video content but also an assistant director of rehearsals and live shows — someone who, as Cilman says, “has come up with a lot of new song ideas and how to present them on stage.”

And she might be the heir apparent to the full director’s job when Cilman, who’s been at the helm since the chorus began in 1982, decides to call it a day.

As Cilman said in a recent interview, “Julia has really worked her way into the hearts of the [chorus] in a big way, a way nobody else has ever quite done. I’m not going to be here forever, and … she’s the first person I’ve worked with that I can see saying, ‘It’s yours.’”

At a recent Y@H rehearsal at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, as the group prepped for a Feb. 25 performance there, van IJken was throwing herself into the music with enthusiasm, leading the group through its paces on selected songs as she swung her arms to emphasize certain notes. She danced a bit on stage as well, her long hair swinging behind her.

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“The more energy we give them, the more energy they give back,” she said a day later during an interview at the Y@H office, also in Florence.

Her journey to work with Y@H online and then in the United States in person — she’s been in the Valley since late 2021 and lives in Easthampton — is one that she sees as a bit of serendipity.

“When Bob first said, ‘Do you want a job?’ I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ Let’s see where this goes,’” she said. “I don’t know if it would have happened if COVID hadn’t come along and I wasn’t back at my parents’ house, in my childhood bedroom, thinking, ‘Now I’m going to have to do something online.’”

That initial work, in 2020, involved helping the Y@H singers, Cilman and other staff members, and the Y@H band figure out how they might work online — in particular via Zoom — and develop new material with everyone separated.

“It was really about, ‘How can we do something interesting and effective and that feels like a show with a group of people, average age 85, in front of equipment they’re not familiar with?’” van IJken said. “How can we make that visually interesting?”

She also has a background in fashion, having studied fashion communication in London as an undergraduate and later working with photographers and stylists in the industry. “I have a real affinity for aesthetics and image-making,” she said.

With van IJken handling much of the video editing and production work from Europe, Y@H ended up producing six online performances in 2020 and 2021.

It helped that she was fluent in English, with a distinct British accent — her father is Dutch but her mother is English, and she learned both languages growing up — and Cilman said she had excellent ideas for presenting the online shows. She also put together a short virtual performance of the group as part of her master’s degree program.

Van IJken finally met the chorus members and staff during a three-week visit to the Valley in the summer of 2021.

“I had befriended this group of people somewhere in America, and I’d see them twice a week online,” she said with a laugh. “So it was wonderful to see everybody in person.”

‘I think I can do this’

Moving to the Valley — van IJken says she’s enjoyed living in a less urban area for the first time in her life — was the next step, though working with the chorus directly was a different experience for her.

“I hadn’t really worked with music before,” said van IJken says, “though I did a lot of dancing when I was growing up, including ballet and jazz and contemporary.”

She loves music, she says, and she enjoys much of Y@H’s classic 1960s/1970s rock, R&B, and pop repertoire. But it was the group’s unique artistic dynamic and overall mission that most appealed to her.

“To be part of this effort that’s really about celebrating age and about people remaining vital and engaged in life when they’re older — I feel lucky to be a part of this,” van IJken said.

Her connections to the elderly singers deepened in the summer of 2022 when Cilman was out of action for a couple months with a respiratory illness. He asked van IJken to take over directing the chorus rehearsals and two live shows at the Big E in West Springfield.

“I said, ‘I can try,’ though I was hesitant to sing in front of people,” van IJken recalls.

She recognized, though, that in directing the singers, “You need to remind them of what they’re singing and what it should sound like. You have to show them what to do.”

The experience of leading the group “was edgy at first but they were very supportive, really sweet and kind, and after a few weeks I said, ‘I think I can do this.’”

And, van IJken notes, she and Cilman have been sharing chorus direction ever since.

“The truth is I’m trying to teach Julia everything there is to know about this organization,” said Cilman. “In terms of directing she’s done an amazing job. She’s also learning how to write grant [proposals]. She’s a really good writer and is able to articulate the mission of the organization as well as anyone.”

Cilman has also been working with her on logistical issues as Y@H considers a return to something they’ve not done for several years: touring. Chorus members, he said with a laugh, put touring “as their No. 1 objective.”

A couple months ago, van IJken secured a three-year O-1 visa that extends her stay in the U.S. — it can be renewed — and lets her expand the range of her work with the chorus.

Working with Y@H also means confronting the reality that members continue to pass away. The group recently lost Justa “Ana” Garcia, who sang in Spanish and English; she’d been with the chorus since the summer of 2021, the first person ever to join Y@H already in her 90s, and was rehearsing with them just a few weeks ago.

“It’s always sad when someone dies, even though that’s part of life,” said van IJken. “But to be part of their lives when they’re doing something that’s so important to them, when we’re all working to put together something that’s really good? I’m really grateful for that.”

The Young@Heart Chorus performs at the Bombyx Center in Florence on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. in a show that will be dedicated to Ana Garcia.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.