Yale singers mark a milestone

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010

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. www.strathmore.org . $20.

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