Dallas Street Choir one of several activities in Palant’s planner
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — Dr. Jonathan Palant is a very busy man.
He’s a college instructor. He leads choirs for a church and a synagogue. He’s the founder and conductor of two groundbreaking community choirs, and planning their tour to Carnegie Hall and the National Cathedral in D.C. in June.
He’s even the carpool guy for his preschool son, making sure young Noah gets to and from school and play dates.
“I really feel as if the busier I am, the better I am, and the more gets done,” Palant said.
Thankfully, all of this busy work hasn’t stretched Palant too thin. In fact, his star appears to be rising as fast as the workload.
Musical America named Palant one of the top 30 innovators in music this year, citing his work as founder and conductor of the Dallas Street Choir, a chorus of homeless men and women.
In its special publication honoring the winners, Musical America notes the successes the two-year-old choir has attained, from its size (about 75 singers for each rehearsal) to the unique performances and big stages already conquered.
It also mentions Palant’s ambitions for the group. The Dallas Street Choir will be traveling this year to New York and Washington to perform at two of the most notable locations in the music world, accompanied by Credo, a 100-plus-member community choir Palant founded.
And then there’s the “Start Your Own Street Choir!” website, where Palant has encouraged other cities to create their own vehicle for giving the homeless a voice.
“It’s really cool to know an idea is a trend,” Palant said. “What I’m most proud of is there are seven or eight street choirs in the last two years using the model of the Dallas Street Choir.”
The street choir motto is “Homeless, not Voiceless.” Palant said he sees all kinds of difficulties faced by members of the homeless community, but that when it comes to singing, they are no different from other choirs.
“I can’t think of another activity where you walk in and all that divides us is left at the door,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor, married or not, young or old, learned or not. We come in on equal footing and (what divides us) never becomes an issue.”
It’s a sentiment that echoes through all of his work.
“It’s very natural to remain within your own sphere of activity,” Palant said. “I think my (Musical America) award, the innovation comes from being the conduit. I facilitate those interactions through music. It’s not just a meet and greet. The music becomes a connector, the tool that brings us together.”
And the Dallas Street Choir is just the latest success for Palant. The founder of Credo and the street choir has numerous accomplishments since moving to Dallas in 2007, when he started work with the Turtle Creek Chorale.
To some degree, he feels he has to jump in feet-first to make these visions a reality.
“I am not a great delegator,” Palant said. “I think I have a capacity to take direction from leadership, but it can be difficult at times because I am a free spirit.”
It’s hard to argue with the results.
“If you know what you want to make, go after it,” Palant said. “I’m a dreamer, but I don’t just do the dreaming part. I think big when other people think I’m crazy.”
He attributes his love of bridging gaps in part to what he’s learned from his family. His parents were very involved with social justice, their synagogue, and the Boston area’s Jewish scene.
His father was a pediatrician and his mother the executive director of a group resettling Soviet Jews. They were also involved in bicycle safety regulation and interfaith efforts.
His older brother is also creative and innovative — and another one of the 30 winners of the award from Musical America. Bill Palant created a boutique arts management company, Etude Arts.
When he was about 10 years old, Palant was watching the University of Michigan marching band on TV and already knew he wanted to be a part of that. It didn’t take long before he knew he wanted a doctorate and to teach in college. He earned his bachelor’s degree in music at Michigan in 1997. Then he was the only music teacher at San Pasqual High School near San Diego, which had 2,600 students.
A few years later, he earned his master’s degree in music at Temple University. Once more he went to the high school level, teaching at University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio.
One of the biggest lessons from his high school days was a grasp of the different ways needed to engage people, which he has applied to all of his work.
Palant earned his doctorate in 2007 from Michigan State University. And then came a surprise. He applied for the artistic director position with the Turtle Creek Chorale and kept making it through rounds of interviews.
He was offered the job, and moved to Dallas with his longtime boyfriend (now husband) Mark Mullaney, and started in July 2007.
“It’s this million-dollar operation, one of the largest men’s choirs in the country,” Palant said. “It propelled me to the front of my field. It was a nationally recognized choir, a professional job, well paying compared to most first-year collegiate assistant professors. I was able to do things with celebrities and on a stage much larger.”
Although he established his place in the Dallas musical scene, he felt he needed to expand personally and professionally. He took the job as Minister of Music at Kessler Park United Methodist Church in 2011, which he continues to hold.
Palant’s creative spirit was given a further chance to blossom at Kessler Park.
“The then-senior pastor gave me a lot of latitude, and he’s the one who said, ‘You have my permission to try it. If it works, do it again. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again.’ It was such a wonderful, simple lesson that applies to anything we do.”
As he found out, the Dallas community was willing to back his dreams.
“If you have someone with the will and energy to do it, there are people willing to sing, get involved and fund it,” he said.
Palant tested that out in fall 2011, shortly after leaving Turtle Creek. He wanted to create “an intergenerational, interfaith chorus welcoming all of God’s people.”
It started with a living-room meeting with six or seven people. Palant told them what he needed and asked their support.
Credo grew quickly, from 28 people at the first rehearsal to 44 on the first trip overseas. There are now more than 100 members.
“I had the support of singers, both men and women,” Palant said, “who believed in me and in the mission and who trusted me, be it singing a mass for peace when we include a Muslim call to prayer, be it at Christmastime singing a song about same-sex love and loss, be it traveling to Cuba, Iceland, Australia, the Baltics, and soon to be New York and Washington, and most likely in 2018 to Vietnam.”
As professional as Credo appears, there’s no audition process. Everyone is welcome to join. There are now some Jewish singers, and Jewish music has been included in recent concerts.
“Credo is singing ‘intro to Jewish music’ music. We are exposing different audiences to different cultures and religions,” Palant said.
While transitioning from Turtle Creek to new projects, he also took time to write a “user-friendly” textbook. Brothers, Sing On! Conducting the Tenor-Bass Choir came out in 2013. He also added a new role, teaching at Richland College in 2013.
And he also spent time building a family. Jonathan and Mark, a vice president at United Way, have been together 15 years and married two years ago. Their son Noah is 3½, and they are expecting a girl in March.
They recently moved out of Oak Cliff to be closer to Noah’s school, Levine Academy.
“The older he gets, the more he’ll want to be with his friends,” Palant said. “We want him to have a community. We moved north. We have more friends now that have kids and play dates.”
But his connections to the heart of the city remain strong, and that’s what led to the Dallas Street Choir.
Originally, he was asked to help run a choir for The Stewpot, a center for the homeless and less fortunate. The idea was a few rehearsals a year and a concert for those served by the center. Soon, he saw an opportunity to go big.
“In 2014, I was presented with a piece of music called The Street Requiem by three Australians. I decided to rebrand the Stewpot choir into the Dallas Street Choir,” Palant said.
The new choir debuted Jan. 25, 2015, at the Dallas City Performance Hall. The sold-out performance included opera star Frederica Von Stade. He teamed the choir with Credo for some performances, and was able to land some notable venues.
One example of the cross-cultural efforts Palant loves is the way he’s brought the street choir to Congregation Shearith Israel.
“We’ve had wonderful opportunities for performance and exposure. The community truly believes in our mission to give voices to the homeless that we are more alike than different,” Palant said.
Despite the choir’s success, it is still a challenge behind the scenes. Many of the singers have or have had issues with alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness or physical abuse, and he’s learning a lot about navigating those challenges.
“I take great pride with all my choirs,” Palant said. “It doesn’t matter what your past is. You are a clean slate right now.”
And this summer they’ll take a journey together on the road to New York and Washington. Von Stade will be there again at Carnegie Hall, and honorary chairs include Whoopi Goldberg, Jake Heggie, Stephen Schwartz and Audra McDonald. There has also been strong local support.
“I think sometimes people are looking for an outlet to get involved, to give. I’m grateful to those who see the value of the trip,” Palant said.
Some people have asked him why he’s asking for donations to help with a trip, not housing.
“Housing doesn’t necessarily soothe the soul,” Palant said. “We are fueling the mind, body and spirit.”
Part of the application process for the trip has been asking street choir members how they’ll use it to help themselves and others. Some have found it empowering to be able to go and show the public what they are capable of, while others want to make an impact on the homeless elsewhere.
While Credo and the Dallas Street Choir grow, Palant has continued finding new venues. In July, he organized a community concert in response to the ambush on Dallas police officers. And he just left his position at Richland College to take up one at UT-Dallas. And 2016 marked his first time regularly leading a synagogue choir, including High Holy Day services. Palant took over as conductor of Temple Shalom’s adult choir in the spring and conducted the combined choirs at the region’s cantorial concert.
While it wasn’t his first foray into Jewish music, it was a notable turn for him.
“It’s where my roots are, and the older I get, the more I realize that, and the more important it becomes for my son, and soon, daughter,” Palant said. “I know where I come from.”
In addition to changes in his own profile, Palant said he has seen Dallas’ national reputation rise since 2007.
“At the time, Dallas had the concert hall of note, but beyond that, I’m not sure it was on the playing field of cities I was used to,” he said.
“With the growth of the arts district, the success of the Dallas Symphony and theater center, I perceive Dallas to be viewed in a more favorable light than it was 10 years ago.”