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Yale 62

The Yale Alumni Chorus

By John Stewart

(Scroll down to see the slideshow of photos from the June 21-July 25, 2019 trip: The Odyssey of Song Tour to Greece!)

One fact that has always amazed and gratified me is the enormous variety of singing experiences at Yale, I suspect at least as much as any American university. When I arrived in New Haven, knowing little about Yale beyond its prestigious name, I was delighted to find how important singing was, and I quickly found my way into a singing group and the Yale Freshman Chorus, and thereby being lucky enough to begin some of some of my most profound lifelong friendships. And one of my favorite Yale experiences in recent years was the passionate Yale song singing by everyone in the 50th reunion tent, concluding with everyone joining in the Whiff song, and waving the white handkerchiefs at the climax of the Alma Mater.

Here’s an astonishing yet only partial list of Yale singing opportunities. There are at least nine a capella groups, some all men and some mixed and two for women. These days the main a capella musical diet is rock covers, where a soloist stands in front with microphone, imitating rock or pop singers, accompanied by a variety of sounds, including vocal percussion (microphone and percussion noises). But some of the groups specialize in, for example, jazz or gospel or Jewish music. The Yale Slavic Chorus is a women’s group specializing in Eastern European music. There’s the Battell Chapel Choir, open to all at Yale. In the School of Music, there’s the Camerata, a smaller group, and the Scholar Cantorum, a larger group, as well as the Yale Choral Artists, an all-professional group. There’s the Berkeley Choir, and the Marquand Chapel Choir, and the Marquand Gospel and Inspirational Choir. There’s also the New Haven Chorale, which frequently performs with the New Haven Symphony.

As you may know, with the Whiffenpoofs, all seniors, have begun accepting women, but the senior women’s group, Whim’n Rhythm, has not started to accept men.

Most of the a capella groups have active alumni groups who attend periodic New Haven reunions. Get-togethers for Whiff and Whim groups vary, depending on the strength of the senior year experience. Our ’62 Whiffs, minus Jack Brandt, recently deceased, have met every two or three years, and will have met, this year, on Sept. 23-26, in Cape May, at the home of Tom and Debbie Cutler. We practice each day and at the end, sing for our wives and friends.

The Yale Russian Chorus was reborn two years ago under exciting new leadership, and is welcoming singers from beyond Yale as well. For 66 years, there has been a vibrant group which calls itself the Alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus, which gives concerts on its own but has reestablished a close connection with the New Haven Group. Last November, the 65th Anniversary Concert in Woolsey Hall saw over 165 men on stage, and the chorus is now accepting women.

50 years ago, when undergraduate women were admitted, Fenno Heath immediately transformed the Glee Club into a mixed chorus. There was, surprisingly, less complaining than in other aspects of Yale life. The Current director is Jeffrey Douma and the Glee Club is simply amazingly good, comparable to the best college choirs in the country, and singing a large and very challenging repertoire each year. As you will see from Peter Sipple’s and Carl Kaestle’s reports below, the Alumni Chorus offers to alumni inspiring opportunities to sing and travel, whether or not you sang as an undergrad. Wives are welcome! And sometimes there are as many as 250 singers on the tours. For most of the tours, our class has had the largest representation!

From Peter:

Rehearsal during the 2013 YAC Balkan Tour. sent in by Peter Sipple

One of our neighbors in Maine, Bruce McInnes, regaled us one evening in August 1997, with stories from a then-recent European tour with alumni of Amherst College where he’d directed the glee club for nearly two decades.  (While pursuing a graduate degree in music from Yale, Bruce sang in the Yale Glee Club and we became good friends.)  The Amherst men performed to great acclaim and enjoyed a rich experience.  A few weeks later Bruce described the concert trip to Mark Dollhopf, an enthusiastic Whiffenpoof and YGC alumnus who in turn contacted me in my role as chair of the Yale Glee Club Associates.  Yale alumni, Mark urged, should be performing abroad too!  We ran the idea before the Associates Board, Director David Connell and others in a position to bring an alumni choral group into being.  Over the next several months support for the idea waxed, and before we knew it Mark had proposed China, of all places, as the location for the first such venture!  A plan evolved for four of us to fly to China the next April to organize a two-week singing tour.  The Yale Alumni Chorus was born, and I christened it with that name.  The trip took place in June 1998, and over the next twenty years YAC — as it’s come to be known — has sponsored a dozen trips, with concerts taking place on five continents and twenty or more countries.  Since the China tour, Margaret and I have traveled with YAC to Russia, the three Baltic Countries, and the U.K.  The Alumni Chorus continues to thrive, with, by now, thousands of Yale-related singers having taken part, performing under two directors, David Connell and Jeff Douma.  As “ambassadors of song,” the participants join with national and regional choirs and orchestras, carry out community service, and entertain audiences in major concert halls.  I was privileged to have participated in the birth of YAC and am proud that the class of 1962 stands first in line for the number of its graduates taking part in YAC trips.

From Carl:

My experience with the Alumni Chorus was for six or eight years, so I have less historical knowledge about the group. I first went to Milton for their annual weekend to rehearse with Jeff Douma, about whom I had heard so much, and so, when I came back East, I thought I would try it out.  Of course, I was blown away with Jeff, and enjoyed rehearsing constantly from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.  I saw various singers that I had known from a capella singing, like Donny Abbott, Murray Wheeler, Al Rossiter, and others, and made some new friends from different eras.  So, for the first time in my life, I really felt like an active alum, not just a nostalgic alum.

One could go to the Milton weekends, even if the repertoire we were rehearsing was for a summer gig that I couldn’t go to — example, my first year at Milton, the Alumni Chorus was going to Cuba that summer, and I wasn’t able to do a summer gig, but the Milton weekend was a wonderful thing anyway.   In fact, I only took one tour, with YAC, with my wife, Liz Hollander, — to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, which was strenuous, lots of singing, lots of interesting things to see.  But the gigs I did were the International Choral Festivals that the Alumni Chorus has put on, during summers when a tour abroad is not planned.  I went enthusiastically for most of a week in New Haven to all three of these events, and I really enjoyed them — not just the camaraderie of the Yale Alumni Chorus, but mixing with choral groups from around the world and having very interesting songs to learn, many of them from other shores.

So, I have benefited from a lot of wonderful events and rehearsals with the YAC, though I’m not a veteran; the group is characterized by people who can tell stories about six or seven tours they’ve gone on. But it is in any case a congenial organization, and it’s been a  blessing  to have Jeff conducting it,  with all his wit and generosity and incredible efficiency, as well as interpretations, as a rehearsal conductor, even with the YAC, which, we all knew, was in a much less skilled and less rehearsed (by the very nature of the group, people from all over the country), compared to the Yale Glee Club, so beautifully expert in these past decades, getting better all the time.


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