The Next Page: The Heinz Chapel Choir, 75 years of beautiful music together

Mark Kenny sings the praises of the glorious choir launched by 'Pop' Finney


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To this day, 78-year-old Arthur Steinberg is unsure exactly what compelled him to skip a choir concert during his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, but the repercussions still resonate for him 56 years later.

"I had a small solo in it, and I decided to cut the performance and take a train to Cleveland to visit my Aunt Eva," said the Squirrel Hill butcher's son, now a clinical professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

When the errant tenor arrived for rehearsal the following Monday, 30 floors up in the Cathedral of Learning, Theodore M. "Pop" Finney, chair of the music department and founding director of the university's Heinz Chapel Choir, asked why he was there.

"Well, gee, it's rehearsal. I'm a choir member," said Mr. Steinberg.

"Not anymore," said Finney. "Get out!"

"Are you throwing me out?" asked the undergraduate.

"Yes," said the beloved but no-nonsense director. "Goodbye!"

And for six years Mr. Steinberg stayed out, banished from the group he'd come to regard as family, until -- after two years of graduate school, four years of dental school and with his new bride in tow -- he made a humble bid for rapprochement.

Heinz Chapel Choir holiday concert schedule

5:15 p.m. Nov. 26 (Free campus concert for Pitt students, faculty and staff. No tickets required.)

8 p.m. Nov. 30

3 p.m. Dec. 1

7:30 p.m. Dec. 4 (This invitation-only concert will be broadcast on WQED-FM.)

8 p.m. Dec. 6

3 p.m. Dec. 8

A handful of tickets remain for the public concerts.

"I had done very, very well at school, but what was heavy on my heart, really, for these years was the fact that I was no longer a member of the choir. I took my wife with me to help me beg Pop. He saw that I was truly contrite, and he took me back in."

That is, Mr. Steinberg was permitted re-entry to the choir fold with its alumni reunions and other privileges. That life lesson -- that the standout dental student was just one member of the choir and could easily be replaced, no better than anyone else -- stuck.

"My experiences in the choir were really a formative factor in my life, that's without question -- the talks that he gave, the brilliant choir leadership that he gave, and the lessons that he personally taught me.

"I had post-graduate at Harvard. I was a Fulbright scholar. I had a teaching award in Ireland. I think all of the things that I learned in the choir, sometimes in spite of myself, really helped me to become qualified to do these things -- seriously," said the prodigal son, still happily among an expansive community of choir alums.

 

To nestle onto a hard, wooden bench in a heavy coat on a windswept, pre-winter night, elbow-to-elbow amid the sold out crowds annually drawn to the series of holiday concerts performed by the choir in its namesake sanctuary, is to settle in for the magic of a maestro at play in a wondrous cavern.

With the mere wave of a hand, current director John Goldsmith summons a cappella classics down from the ages or conjures tribal chants in the heart of this urban campus. The mere pulse of his open palm casts beauty like a spell into the darkest reaches of the vaulted ceiling.

Ancient melodies and subtle overtones -- musical and metaphorical -- swirl like doves amid the chapel's towering stone and stained-glass tributes to biblical figures, education and human virtues, enveloping audiences in a lush interplay of tonal triumph from basso rumblings to clear soprano voices dissipating like chimes in the soaring heights.

This is Mr. Goldsmith's 25th and final season leading the choir, the longest tenure of any director since Finney founded the group in 1938, more than 1,000 singers ago.

Known fondly as "JG" to the many students he's conducted, Mr. Goldsmith is a former member of the world-renowned vocal ensemble Chanticleer and an a cappella specialist whose emphasis on vocal and ear training has honed the choir into a perennial favorite at home and abroad.

The choir, which usually numbers about 50, is open by audition in the fall to any registered undergraduate student at Pitt. Though the group performs at various times during the year, the holiday series is the highlight.

"So few things actually pack the house in the classical music world, yet here's one that's students, and it's absolutely mobbed," said Jim Cunningham, weekday morning host at WQED-FM, which at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4 will air its 13th annual live broadcast of a choir seasonal concert. "We do a lot of holiday concerts from all over the country, if not all over the world, and it's one of the most anticipated and most beautiful," he said.

Indeed, under Mr. Goldsmith's direction, the series grew so popular that the university mandated ticket sales to manage the crowds that began flooding performances -- four concerts that typically sell out, one free dress-rehearsal for the university community and an invitation-only gala hosted by the university chancellor.

Proceeds help fund student scholarships for overseas tours that Mr. Goldsmith has hosted nearly every three years, trips that have featured Pitt singers in concerts throughout China, Europe and South America. This spring, the choir will spend two weeks touring the Balkans -- thanks in part to continuing support from one of its earliest benefactors.

"We have very consistently supported the Heinz Chapel Choir -- from the creation of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment -- because of Mrs. Heinz's great affection for the choir," said Janet Sarbaugh, senior program director with The Heinz Endowments.

Despite Mr. Goldsmith's role in shaping this regional prize, he wastes no time deflecting credit for its rich legacy. "Pop Finney started it all," he said. "We owe him everything! His legacy is always emphasized at choir camp by selective readings from his book. The point is: 'We have made music!'"

 

'Since the first week of January of 1939...'

So begins "We Have Made Music," the slim volume of essays written by Finney, published in 1955 and addressed to "the small host of young people who have been members of the Heinz Chapel Choir."

Under headings such as "Our Primeval Pact" and "Shall Brothers Be," Finney jotted down for posterity eloquent observations and instructive insights he'd shared in person with his young charges, who first sang in the chapel during its dedication on Nov. 20, 1938. Complementing the music the choir made and drawn from a deep intellectual well spanning philosophy, religion, literature and ancient history, Finney's compelling lessons cast a beam of wisdom, optimism and, occasionally, comfort from the sometimes-unsettling shadows of then-current events:

An impromptu memorial upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, "the only president most of the choir members could remember." World War II. Its lingering devastation -- "the collapse of the human spirit" -- that Finney witnessed in 1954 when academic studies took him to post-war London and Munich. "We had a choir throughout the war," Finney wrote. "What it undoubtedly lacked in tenors and basses we must have made up in the tenaciousness with which we clung to our work and to each other. We had a song ready for the victory long before we could use it."

Beyond the serious and somber, though, Finney's devilish sense of humor pokes through. So does the unbridled joy at his good fortune to provide not only vocal direction but guidance to his young singers, an appreciation still shared by many, more than 35 years after his death in 1978.

"I can't read that book without crying. I'm tearing up right now," said Joye Masquelier Neff, who sang with the choir from 1959 to 1961. "Choir was the most meaningful thing that I did at Pitt. When you read it, you just feel like you're with Pop. He and Mom were really special,"

"Mom" was Pop's wife, Myrle. The couple had no children but welcomed the young singers as members of their family, hosting choir gatherings at their home in Squirrel Hill and at their rustic summer home in Somerset County, where Pop reportedly nurtured more than 1,000 varieties of roses.

John Davis of Newtown, Bucks County, recalled visiting the farm as a child. His parents, Bob Davis, class of 1941, and Sue Becker, class of 1943, met in choir and were married in 1945.

"With all the guys in the service at the time, theirs was probably one of the first choir marriages, if you will, and I came along 13 months later, which makes me one of the first choir babies."

Bob Davis, who flew with the Army Air Forces during World War II, died in 1995. His wife died in December at age 90. In preparing for their mother's memorial service, John Davis and his brother found her copy of "We Have Made Music," which from long use automatically opened to page 21, revealing the lyrics of the choir's signature song, "Brother James' Air," a Scottish hymn with lyrics from the 23rd Psalm. The song found its way into the memorial service.

 

For Tony Schettler, 92, of Jackson Springs, N.C., choir memories resonate as deeply as his rich bass voice, which Pop once described as "lower than I can go when I have a cold."

Mr. Schettler had no prior musical background, "but it was good enough back in those days," when the choir performed sacred music for weekly worship services at the chapel, before the university became state-related in the mid-1960s.

Recruited into the choir by Bob Davis, Mr. Schettler still speaks in the matter-of-fact manner of a mechanical engineer, class of 1943. "I went to NASA as a rocket scientist, except at that time it wasn't NASA and we didn't have any rockets," he said.

When talk turns to the choir's impact on his life, however, the engineer paused long before answering with a hitch in his rumbly voice. "It was one of the more important things that happened in my life," he said..

It's where he met his wife Beth -- Elizabeth Klages -- an alto who stood in front of him during rehearsals, apparently a precarious spot at the time for a young coed.

"I'm one of the guys Pop refers to in his book as the wolf of the choir. I was chasing the girls, I guess," he said.

These days, Beth Schettler's choir memories are a fading victim of advancing dementia. The old wolf's memories, though, still reverberate like young students in full voice singing their way back down to class in packed elevator cars after rehearsing high up in the Cathedral of Learning.

"It was just like a sound wave coming down the elevator," he said, a hitch again softening his voice.

He fondly remembers the man he called Pop -- "He was the choir" -- whose 75-year legacy still touches the lives of so many students who have made music in Heinz Chapel.


Mark Kenny (mjkenn01@gmail.com) is a Ross-based writer whose features have appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine, Keystone Edge, Pop City, the Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press. He and his wife, Amy, are choir alums. They have three choir babies.

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