"Yale's Singing Tradition Thrives"

Skip Dechert
Gladwyne, PA
April 14, 2006

If you're a singer, and haven't been on one of the Yale Alumni Chorus's sojourns abroad as Yale's "Ambassadors of Song," you're missing a real treat. That's what classmate Louis Mackall told me last summer, and after the recent excursion to England with YAC (as it's more informally known), I can assure you, Louie was right. For a newcomer, the fact that the '62 contingent of nine singers and 16 total travelers was the single largest made the whole experience even more enjoyable.

It was a blast: combining the companionship of interesting people, all committed to a purpose of spreading our joy in singing, with adventures musical and otherwise that could fill a book. As it turned out, stamina and a good sense of humor were also needed starting with the 44-hours that it took to travel from New Haven to Cambridge, England. But that is another story.

The subtitle for the Traditions Tour 2006 was: "Sharing Traditions Across Borders & Generations," with the focus being the musical traditions of Cambridge University and England, as well as the rich history of music and choral singing at Yale. Our time together started with a weekend in New Haven which provided the opportunity for some final rehearsals, and because it coincided with the Yale Glee Club's 145th Anniversary Celebration, opportunities for renewing old friendships.

Saturday, February 11th, late afternoon, we performed in a concert with over 400 singers in Woolsey Hall. The indefatigable Fenno Heath directed an older all-male chorus in some familiar songs such as Humble, with solo by Donald Barnum '65 (who sang with the Metropolitan Opera the night before, and was for reasons undetermined wearing a Class of 1962 name tag [see pix]). Various '62 classmates who would not be making the trip were there, including Dave Willis [see pix], Louis Mackall and Sam Knoll.

In fact, Louis and Mike (Biggie) Moore surprised all singers present, as well as the audience, with the insertion of a double yodel into Eli Yale, sung by the combined Men's, Mixed and Current YGC choruses at the conclusion of the concert. Apparently this had been planned in secret with the current YGC President at a class [see pix] held earlier in the day by these two former Whiffs teaching current YGC members how to yodel (just another example of YAC members extending and passing on Yale singing traditions).

Jeffrey Douma, Director of YGC and Assistant Professor at the Yale School of Music since 2003, conducted the mixed chorus and the combined choruses at the Saturday afternoon concert. Jeffrey also was our Conductor for the YAC Traditions tour, and he is closely in touch with Yale's musical traditions. In fact, he is spearheading a revival of the Yale Song Book: a project nearing completion that involves the publication of a new song book which will include new Yale songs and arrangements.

After the Saturday concert everyone moved to the Omni Hotel for a fancy dinner-dance with all those at the reunion. Dancing to the music of Joe Holmes' Swing Band [see pix], we sang and partied into the evening [see pix of Y62 table].

'62 Grads and wives at Dinner Dance after YGC Reunion Concert - from left,
Biggie Moore, Ann Moore, Louis Mackall, Carol Knoll, Peter Clark, and Sam Knoll

Speeches thankfully were short, but the last announcement was foreboding. Members of the YAC Traditions Tour were advised to meet at 10:30am for our Sunday rehearsal instead of 12:30 because of snow, which was coming down hard. What we didn't know was that the Blizzard of 2006 had begun and that our trip to England would go on and on (if you're really curious, see the sidebar "Getting to Cambridge").

Skipping ahead to Tuesday and underscoring Cambridge tradition, we dined formally that evening in the Great Hall at Kings College. This awesome dining hall is the inspiration for many similar and newer such halls, among them the one at Hogwart's. We were serenaded by a Cambridge Musical Society English Madrigal group, singing from a high gallery. [see pix] We entertained our Cambridge friends with a few songs from Yale's less formal musical tradition, and went to our hotel for the first real sleep in two days.

Our first formal performance was the concert Wednesday evening at nearby Ely Cathedral with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and the Cambridge University Musical Society. Despite our still-sleep-deprived state, our singing was actually quite sensational because of the extraordinary pedagogical and conducting skills of our director Jeffery Douma, the conducting skills of Sir David Willcocks (probably the most acclaimed choral conductor in the world), Stephen Cleobury, current Cambridge University Musical Society conductor, (who has over 100 cd's available from Amazon), and Constantine Orbelian, conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra (50,000 hits on Google, 17 CD's available).

The musical highlight for me was R. Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music, conducted by Sir David Willcocks (who was present at the original performance of this work in 1938). Willcocks is best known for the King's College Christmas Eve services of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast around the world for years. For more information about the concert, YAC and its prior tours, see our invitation to Cambridge at: www.cums.org.uk/alumni/Yale-Cambridge.pdf

YAC produced this benefit concert at the Ely Cathedral, and directed that all proceeds go toward founding an alumni chorus for Cambridge University singers. In fact, this was the primary purpose of our trip: our hope that by showing what we do, and how we enjoy it, graduates of the Cambridge musical tradition would be inspired by our example. YAC is both a chorus and a charitable foundation, which engages in active outreach around the world, establishing choruses and encouraging young performers. The trail of good works and tangible assistance extends to China, several South American countries, Wales, Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg), and the New Haven community.

Class of 1962 tour participants, from left: Warner North, Griff Resor,
Murray Wheeler, Joe Holmes, Biggie Moore, Peter Clark, Boyd Murray,
John Gerlach, and Skip Dechert, at Honorable Artillery Company afterglow
following Bargican Hall concert

On Friday evening in London we sang with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Constantine Orbelian and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican Concert Hall as part of their Great Performers series. The Chorus has sung with Constantine and the MCO before, first in 2001 at the Moscow Conservatory on our 2002 tour to England, Russia, and Wales celebrating Yale's Tercentennial. The success of that visit to Moscow led to in invitation in 2003 to sing at the State Kremlin Palace with the MCO and Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing Russian Patriotic Songs of the Great War. This concert was televised all over Russia (ratings were the highest of any TV broadcast in Russia that year).

At the afterglow at the Honorable Artillery Company we presented Constantine with a check to fund assistance to younger Russian musicians, and a citation was presented to Dmitri [see pix]. We were entertained by the MCO-associated Style of Five group that performs an amalgam of Russian folk music and jazz on traditional Russian musical instruments.

Members of the class of '62 have played in important role in the Yale Alumni Chorus since it was formed in 1998. Among the most influential was Peter Sipple, who could not go on this tour, but has served on the governing body of YAC. Griff Resor wrote in his essay in our 40th Reunion Time and Change that his experience with YAC on the 2001 trip to Russia, London and Wales was the "highlight of the past five years." Warner North extolled his experience on this 2001 tour, as did John Gerlach, who also was on the inaugural tour in 1998 to China. As he said in 2002: "These tours have fed the memory chain of what music and singing do in a world of increasing tension and conflict. Music is an important ingredient in the mix that we call Yale. " Also representing 1962 were Joe Holmes, Biggie Moore, Boyd Murray, Murray Wheeler (who was the baritone soloist in the Brahms German Requiem at the YAC / Boston Yale Club Choral Festival Weekend in March 2006), and former Whiff Peter Clark, who was our ringleader as we sang Graceful and Easy, and Shall I, Wasting in Despair at the final dinner on Saturday evening.

I've always felt that a good day doesn't get started until there's a chance to laugh, and this trip proved the point. At breakfast together each morning we laughed and laughed and laughed, mostly due to the quick wit and keen insights of tour Producer and YAC President Mark Dollhopf '77, and invariably the day turned out to be terrific. Mark's leadership has been truly remarkable, combining a deep sense of our mission, a charismatic style in guiding us toward those goals, excellent judgment and prioritizing in tense, demanding situations (e.g., getting to JFK when our buses have been cancelled because of the Blizzard). He embodies the message we bring to those we encounter with impeccable panache and confidence.

We found out on Friday upon arriving in New Haven that Yale had hired him away from Janus Development, the non-profit fundraising and strategic planning firm that he headed, to be the new head of AYA (Association of Yale Alumni). To the extent that his participation in YAC future endeavors is decreased, he'll be missed, but that is AYA's gain.

Although the core of the Yale Alumni Chorus participants are former Yale Glee Club members, our numbers are supplemented by wives and friends of past YGC 'ers, and some exceptional singers (especially sopranos and altos) that have been recruited to assure that our choral sound meets the demands of our performances. This includes Yale graduates who sang at Yale but were not in YGC, but whose experiences there or since have qualified them. Although I put aside singing after sophomore year at Yale to concentrate time and energy elsewhere, I returned to singing in the late-eighties joining The Orpheus Club of Philadelphia, a men's chorus with a rich history dating back to 1872. It was a real thrill for me to renew my connection with Yale singing by going on this trip, and I especially enjoyed the time spent with my classmates.

I will long remember the dogged determination and amazing stamina of our group to finish learning two complete concerts after losing two important rehearsals due to transportation difficulties (only one piece was common to both concerts), especially considering that all of our singing at the Barbican in London was in Russian. It was very challenging, but I'm immensely proud of how we met that challenge.

YAC's next tour will be to Rotterdam in September 2006 to sing at the Gergiev Festival with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and Valery Gergiev, a famously exciting international conductor described as the "hottest" conductor in the world today by a noted music scholar. Our performance will be at the final concert of the Festival, featuring Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The companion piece to this story called "Getting to Cambridge" reads like a travel nightmare, but amazingly (and to the surprise of BA personnel and others), we kept our cool, stayed civil, and actually managed to keep having fun. These facts say something important about the camaraderie and positive energy that is a big part of the Yale Alumni Chorus. It's what enables us to be successful with our mission, to spread the joy we feel in our singing, not just with the sound of our voices, but with the look on our faces, and all that we say to those we encounter. Interacting with the singers from Cambridge was a critical part of this trip, and from what I witnessed, we did that very well.

So, while this piece has focused mostly on the Yale Alumni Chorus trip to England, much more is happening at Yale and elsewhere that demonstrates the thriving state of the Yale's singing tradition. Briefly: (1) the current Yale Glee Club is on the cutting edge of what's happening in choral music (I've heard them twice recently, and some of their new music is enthralling); (2) enthusiasm for singing among undergraduate students is at a high point; (3) the Yale School of Music has added some exciting new graduate programs in choral conducting and choral music, and a graduate semi-professional chorus is a part of this endeavor; and (4) subsets of the Yale Alumni Chorus in various cities are staging their own events, such as the recent Choral Festival Weekend in the Boston area, and the performance of the Washington YAC contingent at the National Cathedral April 1st Memorial Service for Sen. William Proxmire. I participated in both the Boston and Washington events, and there were many out-of-towners doing the same.

Yale's singing tradition is alive and well, and always open to new participants. Thank you, Louie, for inviting me back to be a part of it, and I hereby extend the same invitation to any of you who are reading this. By the way, many YAC participants bring spouses, significant others and/or children, some of whom qualify to sing with us. As I said at the top, it's a blast!

Yale Alumni Chorus performing in Barbican Hall London
with Dmitri Hvorotovsky on Feb 17, 2006

Onward to the photos or to "Getting to Cambridge". For the complete set of Skip's photos of the trip, visit www.yale62.smugmug.com.

(Skip's email address is skipyac@planlogic.org.)