Monday, January 17, 2011

"Music Review: Yale Glee Club at Strathmore," from the Washington Post

Alfred Thigpen of the Washington Post reviews our January 7 Strathmore performance. 

What? No Charles Ives? For its sesquicentennial concert at Strathmore, Yale's Glee Club might have cited the name of the famous Yalie composer or rationed out more than a passing fight song. Even so, Friday's sellout audience heard an opera-length concert featuring jazz pianist John Eaton, Whim 'n Rhythm, the Yale Whiffenpoofs, alumni singers and, finally, the Glee Club itself, which broke the mold decades ago with the inclusion of women - clearly the right choice.

Under the direction of Jeffrey Douma, sopranos sang as one instrument and with flawless intonation. There was uniform vowel placement and the proscription of vibrato, which can sound like the choral equivalent of uneven pavement. Without this discipline, the contemporary sacred works of James MacMillan and Robert Vuichard would have fallen like bad souffles. Instead, their treacherously clustered semitones and contrapuntal subtleties became otherworldly, transcendent even.

In a evening laced with truly commendable performances, the only standing ovation - scattered but richly deserved - went to senior Whiffenpoofs member Nathan Calixto for his performance of "Salley Gardens." Jokingly referred to as the group's "cash cow," Calixto, with his Rostropovich-like high baritone, momentarily erased the infamy that was 2010. This is Yale's rising star.

Friday's concert was the final stop on the glee club's U.S. winter tour with an eight-city international schedule this summer. We can only hope that the Mayans were wrong about impending doom in 2012. With the backing of Yale's prowess and ambassadorship, clearly Douma is taking his group into a strongly viable third century.

Winter Tour 2011: Strathmore and D.C.

YGC Manager Rachel Wilf '11 on our Domestic Tour's grand finale 

In Chicago, on our second day of tour, Jeff announced that our last tour concert at the Strathmore Music Center had sold out. We had sold seventeen hundred tickets! The excitement about the concert built up over the week as YGC was abuzz with requests for spare tickets. My favorite request was one posted on Craigslist: “SAVE MY MARRIAGE. Was supposed to buy tickets, but didn't. PLEASE LET ME PURCHASE 2 OF YOUR EXTRA TICKETS!”

When we arrived in the D.C. area on Thursday night we had a brief rehearsal with the Yale alumni chorus and met up with our hosts for the night. On Friday morning they brought us to the White House, where we put our pre-concert jitters aside to take a guided tour. We didn’t see the Obamas, but Jennie Witthuhn ’12 did catch a glimpse of Bo getting walked on the lawn. We saved the rest of our D.C. sightseeing for Saturday and left the White House for lunch in Silver Spring, MD and a workshop at the nearby Piney Branch Elementary school. We worked in small groups with the students in the fourth and fifth grade choir and taught them the chorus to Eli Yale. The students seemed to really enjoy performing the song with us for the rest of their classmates (they were especially excited by the crying motions we make in the last verse).

After the workshop we traveled to Bethesda to our concert site, the Strathmore Music Center. The Glee Club fell silent when we first walked onto the stage for rehearsal. Strathmore is a stunningly beautiful space (see photo above). The entire center is newly built with honey-blond wood, boxes lining the walls of the concert hall, and seemingly endless tiers of seats. (I won’t comment on the Committee’s suggestion that the hall resembles the Space Federation building from Star Wars. Strathmore certainly has better acoustics).

As the concert began we looked out on the filled hall from the choir boxes above the stage. From there we watched the opening performances of the concert by pianist (and Yale graduate) John Eaton and Yale’s two senior a cappella groups, Whim’n’Rhythm and the Whiffenpoofs. When we took the stage after the intermission, we sang pieces with the familiarity gained from hours of rehearsal and concerts on tour. Nemo te Condemnavit and Dover Beach came together especially well and the quartet in Zephyr Rounds seemed to float out into the auditorium.

Red River Valley seemed especially relevant last night because of the presence of so many YGC alumni in the audience (for the past two years it has been the YGC Senior Song performed at Commencement). Nicholas Clemm, Anna Swan, Andrew Tschirhart, and Virginia Calkins, graduates from the class of 2010 who have taken jobs in the D.C. area, and Michael Dziuban, the President of the YGC my freshman year, were all in the audience. The recent alums sat together and I found myself grinning in their direction after almost every song. As of last night we also have a new YGC alumnus: Strathmore was Jamie Van Dyck’s last concert as an undergraduate member of the Glee Club.

Recent alumni weren’t the only alums present at the concert. YGC alumni of all ages performed a short set (including Switzer Boy, a classic known for its yodels) and joined with the current YGC in singing Fenno Heath’s arrangement of Shenandoah and the Yale Football Medley. As YGCA president Clay Kaufman pointed out on Thursday night, when we are all on stage together we span over 70 years of the Glee Club. I was glad that we could share the stage with so many committed YGC alums. And we hardly had to say goodbye—we’ll be seeing each other again at the reunion!

Photos: Mari Oye '11. Top, the Glee Club rehearses at Strathmore. Left, we stow our instruments (ourselves) backstage. 

"Yale Glee Club Instructs and Performs at Piney Branch Elementary"

An article on YGC outreach in Takoma Park, Maryland, from Kristi Tousignant at

Yale University junior, and Glee Club member Claire Paulson of Iowa City, Iowa (third from left) teaches Piney Branch Elementary school fifth-graders and chorus members (from left) Erin Obaonrin, Kira Goo and Nardos Chanyalew, all 10 and from Takoma Park a song the Yale Glee Club sings frequently on Friday afternoon. The Yale Glee Club performed a concert for the entire school that day. Photo: Raphael Talisman

Yale University brought a little glee to Takoma Park last week.

The Yale Glee Club performed at Piney Branch Elementary School Friday and taught the school's third and fourth grade choirs a few Ivy League tunes.

The glee club held an hour-long workshop with the kids, teaching them how to breathe and warm-up before singing. The kids in the choir filed into the school's gymnasium and sat on the bleachers. Some leaned over their neighbors to whisper not so quietly to their friends, others sat with their heads propped up with their hands, waiting.

Director of the Yale Glee Club, Jeff Douma, began by directing the college kids in a warm-up.

"Here we go," Douma said.
Then the glee club hissed.
Douma had the elementary school students join in and each age group faced each other, loudly hissing. Douma told the kids to relax their shoulders and breathe in deeply and quietly.

"I learned how to like make your voice go high and then really low," Elijah Busse, 9, of Takoma Park said. The club sang a few traditional Yale songs for the kids then broke them into groups of 10 to practice another song from the university.

"We love to sing," Douma said. "We love music. And we think it's really cool when kids are into music, too." The kids sat in a circle with a couple of the glee club members as they taught them the words to the song. "It's fun because they let you do fun stuff like sing," Kayla Armstrong, 10, of Takoma Park said.

The glee club tours the country every year for a week during the winter. This year the 65 singers traveled to Chicago, Ann Arbor, Mich., Cleveland, Ohio and Washington, D.C. They usually visit schools and then perform concerts in the evenings at venues or churches. After visiting Piney Branch, the group sang at the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda Friday night.
"The kids learn there is more to music that what's on the radio and on the TV," Principal Bertram Generlette said.

After the lesson, the kids climbed back onto the bleachers, this time, joined by the glee club. The rest of the school sat cross-legged on the gym floor for the performance. The audience fidgeted and twisted around to talk to their neighbors and squirmed while introductions were made. Then the glee club started singing. And the kids went quiet.

The glee club's voices rose and fell with the song. Each put up their arm while they were singing and pulled it down when they were not. Their voices got quiet at parts and the drama rose.
When they were finished, a second of silence was followed by screaming and clapping from the young audience.

Douma announced it was time to sing the song the kids had practiced and the third- and fourth-graders pumped their arms, some whispering, "Yes!" The kids sang with the glee club, complete with hand movements.

"I really like the singing and being able to meet these good singing people," Alya Fawal, 9, of Takoma Park said. Generlette hoped interacting with college kids would get the kids interested in higher education at a young age.

"Our expectation is that we are getting them college-ready," Generlette said. "And not only college-ready, but life-ready."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Winter Tour 2011: Things I Learned In Cleveland

YGC President Emily Howell '11 on Day 5 of Tour

1) People in Cleveland are friendly.

Before the concert, the Glee Club was treated to gourmet pizza at a beautiful house near the church. Afterwards, we enjoyed a delicious reception while we met our homestays and mingled with the audience.  Over and over, I heard “Thank you for coming to Cleveland!” Then I had a fantastic homestay with Glee Clubber Ellen Ray, where our hosts gave us a full second dinner, held off my impending cold with cough syrup, and made sure Ellen, a vegan, had a tasty vegan feast.

2) Cleveland is important to the people of Cleveland.

After dinner, Jeff was interviewed briefly by a local TV station, who wanted to know two things: his name, and why we chose to come to Cleveland. (His answer: “Because it’s been a while since we were last here.”)

3) Cleveland likes the Glee Club.

It was the only time all tour I had to request that the audience stay standing for Yale’s alma mater, Bright College Years, because we got a standing ovation after the football medley. This was the third concert of tour, and the night before in Ann Arbor we had really hit our stride. Every once in a while when we sing there are moments when it seems like we’re one voice and one mind, because everyone is so focused, so responsive to Jeff, and so perfectly together. Those moments are exhilarating, and I felt a few of them in Cleveland, particularly in Dover Beach Revisited.

4) “With some teamwork, a lot of help, and a little bit of butter, we can get through anything.”

Glee Clubber Michael Haycock, himself born in Ohio, taught the Glee Club about Ohio native William Howard Taft in his pre-concert pep talk. Taft attended Yale, then went on to become President of the United States (one of eight from Ohio!) and, later, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft is also known for his general largeness: he once got stuck in a White House bathtub and had to be rescued by his staff. He then had a bathtub installed that was big enough for four men. Michael used the experience to teach the Glee Club how, when caught in a tight place, like a bathtub, you just need to “wait it out and get a bigger one next time.” Also, that teamwork is important.

And so, the next morning, we left Cleveland after less than 24 hours spent there—not long, but long enough for urban planning students David Eisenman and John Good to have some major struggles with its subway system. Thanks for the lessons, Cleveland. On to D.C.!

Atid Kimmelman '13 examines a butterfly at the Cleveland Botanic Garden.

Manager Rachel Wilf '11 eats an eighth note on the bus.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Winter tour 2011: Ann Arbor

Day 4: From Elm City to Tree City
Bram Wayman (Saybrook '09) offers his perspective on the Glee Club's visit to Ann Arbor:

I had the wonderful fortune to hear the Yale Glee Club twice in the last week—once in Chicago and once in my hometown of Ann Arbor. YGC's visit to Ann Arbor was particularly special because I was not content to simply sit in the audience. As the traditional tour saying goes, "Be the first to help out and the last to complain," so I helped out with a number of miscellaneous tasks. Mari asked me to take pictures of the group in rehearsal, some of which you can see here.

One of the only joys of not singing in the Glee Club is observing the Glee Club. On those rare occasions when we are sick and have to sit out, or when we have already graduated and are shamelessly tagging along, we get to see YGC's defining characteristics at work. The attentive, humorous, hard-working but easy-going attitude we all seem to share has a direct effect on the rehearsal process, which is as fun as it is efficient.

I also felt, more than ever before, in touch with the smooth continuity of YGC tradition across the years. Speaking with Bruce Ryan ('71) in Chicago, I discovered that the contest for members between a cappella and YGC has barely changed in almost half a century. On stage for the Football Medley in Ann Arbor, I found myself next to Derek Tam, who was still jumping out of time on "Oh Yale, Eli Yale," so I reprised my old role of trying to coerce him into the right rhythm. Best of all, I got to hear some of the pieces that have become legendary amid the older singers of my generation, especially MacMillan's infamous and stunning "Nemo."

Mark Dollhopf gave a speech in Chicago about passing on the gift the Yale Glee Club gives us all. From helping out in Ann Arbor to conducting Barty's music with my choirs at the University of Texas, I'm honored and thrilled to keep the glee in motion! YGC is truly my second family, and this week was a magnificent reunion. See you all next month to celebrate our one hundred and fiftieth year.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Winter Tour 2011: Chicago

Publicity Manager Mari Oye covers Days 1-3

Day 1: Sparsos congregavit!
We assembled from across the country on New Year’s Day. The Glee Club had been collecting in stages, something like a snowball, since the first bus left at 7 am from New Haven. A bleary-eyed crew joined at the LaGuardia central terminal and were greeted by our inimitable tour managers, Abigail Droge '12 and Arshia Chatterjee '11, who looked typically perky and handed out bags of sweets. “We’re lucky to have the Yale Glee Club on board with us today,” the captain announced as we took off for Chicago. We thanked him – and then collectively went back to sleep. I mean, it was New Year’s Day.

Song of the day: "Take Me Back to Chicago"

Day 2: Perspectives from Real Live Chicagoans
Three genuine Chicagoans from the ranks of the YGC, Hana Zegeye ’13, Ayanna Woods ’14, and Adam Fishman ’12, introduced us to their city with pride. Hana regaled us with stories of the time she ordered extra cheese on a deep-dish pizza and “almost died of a cheese coma” and then guided us through a similar experience at Pizano's Restaurant.

“It means a whole lot to me that the Glee Club came to my home,” Hana said. “It’ll be my mom’s first time watching us today. I invited a bunch of buddies and my old high school choir director to come. It’ll be a really warm affair.” This, despite the fact that is was 13 degrees outside at that point. And windy.

The YGC Blog caught up with Ayanna during rehearsal for our concert at the First Methodist Church downtown. "It’s like these people are from one part of my life and these people are from the other part of my life, and then they COLLIDE!!" said Ayanna. "It’s like Spongebob walking into the Shawshank Redemption."

"In which he wins an academy award for best guest actor," Hana added. "Yeah!"

We sang in the church's beautiful wood-painted interior to an enthusiastic and Yalie-filled audience.
The life-collisions continued afterwards, as recent and less-recent alums welcomed us with a Singing Dinner. We usually don't think about all the generations of Glee Clubbers over the last 150 years -- about the hundreds and hundreds of people who have stood in our places singing "Little Innocent Lamb" or "Shenandoah." Appearing all at once, we'd make one very crowded stage. Connecting with alumni like the group in Chicago gives us a chance to compare notes on increasingly legendary stories from tours past (and traditions like certain requirements for particularly brave renditions of "Bandolero").

Song of the day: "My Kind of Town"

Day 3: Outreach and Potlucks
Our third day in Chicago included two outreach concerts. The first took place at the Morton School for Excellence ("I can't think of a good rhyme for excellence!" sang YGC president Emily Howell in "Eli Yale") and the second at The Chicago Academy, where Julia Myers '12 caught a brief nap before lunch (photo at right). We were impressed by the Chicago Academy's cougar mascot and glad Handsome Dan didn't have to face off against it.

"What's college like?" a middle-schooler in the audience asked. Adam Fishman '13, YGC outreach chair, took the mike and said "It's like summer camp. You study what you want to study. So I really like math and music, and I study that." Those of us familiar with Adam's all-nighters looked up in surprise. "Well," he amended, "summer camp with a lot of homework." There we go.

The day ended with some free time to see the sights of Chicago, the city's brilliant architecture at once elegant and industrial. Some YGC alums from the classes of 04-07 held a potluck in Hyde Park with the current YGCers they were hosting. Sylvia Glauster '05 introduced us to her cats Credo, Kyrie and Gloria. Adam Varner and Hen Kennedy '07 rounded out our impromptu choir. The altos sang tenor, half the sopranos sang alto, Adam held down the bass, and we pulled out the Yale Songbooks again for a second, more casual singing dinner.

The night gave us hope that "you can keep the glee in your life after Yale," whether or not you end up marrying a fellow Glee Clubber.

Song of the Day: "You're the Inspiration"

Below: Four YGCers stroll in Millenium Park. All photos courtesy of Dylan Morris '11.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"Yale Singers Mark a Milestone" in the Washington Post!

Re-posted from Moira E. McLaughlin at the Post. Original article available here.
We're already getting excited for the Strathmore Hall concert on January 7!

The storied Yale Glee Club, which boasts Cole Porter and Charles Ives among its alumni, is bringing its perfect pitch to Washington.

The collegiate choral group, one of the oldest in the country, is celebrating its 150th anniversary season and is performing at Strathmore next week. It will be joined by two Yale a cappella groups, the Whiffenpoofs and Whim'n Rhythm, as well as jazz pianist John Eaton, a Yale alum.

What began in 1861 as 13 men singing simple songs known as "glees" on the street corners of New Haven, Conn., has evolved into an 85-member coed chorus that performs such classical works as Verdi's "Requiem," Mendelssohn's "Elijah" and Hayden's "Creation" as well as pieces commissioned from such well-known modern composers as Ned Rorem and Dominick Argento. The group sings worldwide in venues as varied as the steps of Grand Central Station, small countryside churches in France and Carnegie Hall.

"The music is the heart of it," says senior Mari Oye, who has been in the group for three years. "But it's like if you're on a sports team, you all are working together for something."

Many singers remain loyal to the club after graduation, and an alumni group, the Yale Glee Club Associates, has a board of directors that holds annual meetings.

"I auditioned because of the music, but I stuck around because of the people," says Rachel Wilf, a senior who has been in the group for four years.

Throughout the years, the group has remained dedicated to tradition but at the same time open to new ideas.

"It's really funny because I don't think of [the Glee Club] as being that old. We're not pretending that it's still 150 years ago," Oye says. "The fact that it is 150 makes it really fun, makes it a way to connect with Yale's past, from back when it was all guys in tuxes to today, where we have women and people from all over the world in the Glee Club."

Maintaining a balance of tradition and openness has required experimentation with sound, formalwear and music. For a time in the 1920s and '30s, the Glee Club incorporated a banjo band, and for a brief stint in the 1980s, women wore blue sashes with their black dresses.

Tradition, however, stares down from photos of the club dating to the 1890s and lining Yale's Hendrie Hall, where the Glee Club rehearses.

"I know from what the students tell me, just seeing all those pictures on the wall and seeing how [the Glee Club members] are connected in this unbroken line well over 100 years ago is something that they really appreciate about the group," says Jeffrey Douma, the club's seventh (and current) director.

The Glee Club still sings "Gaudeamus Igitur," which dates to its first concert, and every May performs Randall Thompson's "Alleluia" at baccalaureate, singing from the balcony at Woolsey Hall.

"You see you're part of a tradition of people who have gone long before, and it's cool to uphold that tradition and carry it along," says Clay Kaufman, who graduated in 1984 and is president of the Yale Glee Club Associates Board.

Wilf echoes that sentiment: "I didn't quite know about it when I signed up, but it's another really rewarding part about singing in the group."

Yale Glee Club Appearing with the Whiffenpoofs, Whim'n Rhythm and John Eaton on Jan. 7 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Show starts at 8 p.m. 301-581-5100. . $20.