Two glee clubs will find harmony

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Rebecca Droke, Post- gazette
Freshman Isaac Hill rehearses "Loch Lomond," a Scottish folk song, under the direction of Richard Teaster at the University of Pittsburgh Men's Glee Club rehearsal at the First Baptist Church in Oakland.
Click photo for larger image.

Typically, when a choir performs Francis Poulenc's complex "Gloria," members practice for weeks to fine-tune the addictive rhythms and melodic themes.

But in a rare performance on Saturday, the half-hour-long work will be performed by the all-men's Virginia Glee Club and all-women's Chatham College Choir -- whose members have been rehearsing the parts separately.

"On the one hand, it's easier because there are less notes to learn, compared with a typical piece for a men's choir," said Frank Albinder, director of the Virginia Glee Club. "On the other hand, it's more challenging because you are combining forces with a choir you don't know."

While singers in each group have learned their parts separately, "It's never enough to totally prepare them," said Margaret Ross Mehl, Chatham's director of choral activities. "Just getting used to hearing those other pitches around you -- tenors and basses, that's what turns out to be the real fulfilling experience."

In a men's glee club, works are written for first and second tenors, baritones and basses. In a women's choir, those parts are first and second sopranos and first and second altos. When women and men combine their voices, the parts are soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

Among the challenges in combining the choirs is striking the right balance because there are 40 members in the Virginia Glee Club and 30 in the Chatham College Choir.

   
Chatham College Choir and Virginia Glee Club

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Campbell Memorial Chapel, Chatham College, Shadyside.

Admission and parking: Free.

   

"The women's voices, because they are higher, tend to balance off satisfactorily," Ross Mehl said. "Just because there are more men and fewer women, it doesn't mean the women will be overpowered. The higher pitches project more quickly than the lower ones."

Performing Poulenc's "Gloria," -- which Albinder considers one of the great choral works of the 20th century -- is an example of the direction in which many collegiate glee clubs are moving.

While these singers know their schools' alma maters and fight songs and frequently perform folk music, jazz standards and Broadway show tunes, glee clubs also learn major choral works.

"Sometimes when combined choirs get together, they might do two or three separate pieces but we decided to do a major work," said Ross Mehl.

Both choirs also will be performing selections from their respective repertories at the free concert on the Chatham campus.

Among the listeners this weekend will be members of the University of Pittsburgh's Glee Club, which has grown to 40 members and is enjoying a revival. The all-male group released a recording of Pitt fight songs last October. Their music director, Richard Teaster, encouraged members to attend this weekend's concert to hear how other groups are performing.

For the first time since 1990, Pitt's glee club will tour four cities in Eastern Europe from April 30 to May 12, stopping in Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg.

"We're doing a lot of American music," including George Gershwin, Count Basie, Stephen Foster and some spirituals, Teaster said.

Teaster was hired to revamp Pitt's glee club in 1999.

"It was a more social group and singing had become secondary. I did my best to bring music to the forefront."

Local alumni, he added, were determined to maintain the tradition of the group, which was founded in 1890, an era when most collegiate glee clubs in the United States were formed.

A "glee" is a comparatively short vocal work with sectional contrasts for men's voices.

"Many of [these groups] have histories of being banjo and mandolin clubs" and performing popular music, Teaster said.

Especially after World War I, American choruses began performing classical choral works, sometimes with local symphonies.

Then, in the 1950s, the Robert Shaw Chorale "really brought choral music to the forefront in this country," Teaster said, adding that Shaw's recordings of popular music appealed to audiences beyond the classical concert hall.

Collegiate glee clubs enjoyed generous funding in the 1970s. But single-sex groups lost funding in the 1980s. The move toward equality in funding, exemplified by the passage of Title IX, which prohibited discrimination in collegiate programs, made it more challenging for single-sex groups to stay afloat.

The Virginia Glee Club, once funded by the University of Virginia, became an independent nonprofit in the 1980s. The group operates its own endowment with the help of an alumni association but still rehearses at the university and 95 percent of its members are UVA students.

Some glee clubs went co-ed. Although Chatham's graduate and continuing education programs are co-ed, its choir is made up solely of women.

Albinder is optimistic about combining the two choirs.

"Every time I've done it with glee club men, it's turned out quite well. All choral singing is sort of a synergy."


Marylynne Pitz may be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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