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Gertrude Grisham, language and diction coach for Chicago Symphony Chorus, dies at 87

Gertrude Grisham language dicticoach for Chicago Symphony Orchestrchorus.

Gertrude Grisham, a language and diction coach for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra chorus.

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Updated: December 20, 2013 6:35AM



If the nasally sound of the Midwest or other unlikely operatic settings crept into the voices of classically trained singers in Chicago, Gertrude Grisham readjusted their accents and diction with kindness and a good sense of humor.

“I recall a session where she was coaching ‘Carmina Burana,’ ” said Christopher Bell, director of the Grant Park Chorus, “and after a couple of attempts to gain uniformity and regularity in a bawdy drinking song, [she] gave up with the wry comment, ‘I am only happy if I imagine that a disparate troupe of minstrels has wandered from the four corners of the country into the town square and is singing this.’ ”

Mrs. Grisham, who grew up in Vienna and spoke German, French, Italian and English, was a language and diction coach for the Chicago Symphony Chorus for nearly 40 years.

She also worked with the Steans Music Institute of the Ravinia Festival, Music of the Baroque and Chicago Opera Theater.

Mrs. Grisham died Nov. 5 at age 87 of pancreatic cancer at Midwest Palliative & Hospice Carecenter in Glenview.

She was born in Austria. Though she studied art history, music and stage diction at the University of Vienna, her younger years were marked by hunger and deprivation from the Great Depression and World War II, said her daughter, Therese Grisham.

“They were poor, and my mother worked doing various things — being a nanny and being a maid — and ended up starting a puppet theater, the youth theater, in Vienna,” which is still in existence, her daughter said. “They made their own puppets.”

“They also had to do quasi-military duty under the Nazis” at an office in Vienna, Therese Grisham said. “She would hear news every day of friends of hers who had fallen at the front. She said they spent most of their time in the basement due to air raids.”

After the war, she landed a job as a nanny in Salzburg, where she also used her language skills to translate for the American military. Her American contacts helped her obtain a fellowship to study drama at the University of Washington, her daughter said.

There she met William, who would become her husband of 62 years. They moved to Chicago for work, and Mrs. Grisham obtained a doctorate in German literature at Northwestern University. She taught literature and German at Lake Forest College before devoting her time to being a diction coach.

In 1974, she began working with the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

The singers were fond of “Frau Grisham” for her warmth and skill at explaining things, said Chicago Symphony Chorus Manager Carolyn Stoner. If they started sounding a bit too Yankee, Stoner said she would tell them: “ ‘The American R’s are creeping in. Make this other shape with your mouth,’ or ‘Do this with even more teeth.’ ”

“She would be quite precise on how to purse your lips to get a real German umlaut sound,” said Duain Wolfe, director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. “She would make sure we knew the difference between Austrian German and high German and low German or Renaissance-style German. She was really quite the linguist.”

“She was really brilliant at bringing that knowledge to the singers, so that they could understand the diction of the German language,” said Anthony Roberts, director of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute.

Mrs. Grisham dissected songs word-by-word to help singers understand and interpret them.

“In a German song, we would go through it at first in English, and she would say as we switched to German, ‘Keep that feeling. What’s at the heart of the text?’ ” said Nathaniel Olson, who has performed at Ravinia.

Because of her studies of literature, Mrs. Grisham was able to provide precise interpretations of operas such as “Faust.”

“It was like having a fantastic class on Goethe,” Wolfe said.

She always had a cat or three around the house. One of her favorites was named Pablo. “Pablo had two odd eyes. He was named after Picasso. . . . He followed her everywhere and sat in her lap,” her daughter said.

She had a walking stick with a built-in flashlight, and she wore striking Victorian Scottish agate brooches on her sweaters.

Mrs. Grisham also is survived by another daughter, Esther Grisham Grimm, and her sister, Elisabeth Berndorfer. A memorial service is planned at 6 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. It will include works by Mahler and Mozart, two of her favorite composers. Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Orion Ensemble are expected to perform, relatives said.

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