Music and Memory: Remembering the Dartmouth College Chamber Singers

With the 25th reunion of my class of 1991 quickly approaching this year, I find myself reminiscing about some of my Dartmouth College experiences. I like to tell people that the two best choices I made while at Dartmouth were to study Mandarin Chinese and to join the Chamber Singers. Both were completely random choices, and yet each had an enormous impact on my subsequent life. 

In spring 1989, upon returning to Dartmouth after a long stint abroad in Taiwan and China, I tried out for the Chamber Singers, an elite choral group on campus. I'd never sung before in a chorus, but I had a couple of friends who spoke highly of the experience and recommend this choir above the others, and also I found out they were planning a trip to Scandanavia which sounded greatly attractive to me. The conductor was Melinda O'Neal, and after a brief tryout she accepted me into the group. I joined that spring, and our first performance was a choral piece by Bach, "Wachet Auf Ruft Uns Die Stimme" ("Sleepers awake, the voice is calling us"). I'd grown to love Bach since reading Godel Escher Bach in high school, and performing this piece with a choral group was a marvelous experience. I was hooked.

That fall we also focused on several German choral works composed by men who lived in the 15th-16th centuries. That November we performed a concert at Dartmouth's Rollins Chapel.  Here is the list of songs we sang which as you see included a number of Russian and American works and some very modern ones by Copland and Ives. 

Dartmouth College Chamber Singers (Melinda O’Neal, Conductor)

Nov 15 1989 Concert Program:

1. 'Wohlauf, Ihr Gaste' (E. Widmann)

2. 'Ach Lieb, Ich Tu Dir Klagen' (Von Hassler)

3. 'Wach Auf' (Heinrich Finck)

4. 'Wie Wen Tut Mir Mein Scheiden' (M. Franck)

5. 'Ein Fauler Baum' (Melchior Franck)

6. 'Innsbruck, Ich Mus Dich Lassen' (H. Isaac)

7. 'Alla Riva Del Tebro' (G. Palestrina) 

8. 'Zastupnitse Userdnaya' (Chesnokov)

9. 'Svete Tickhiy' (Nikolsky)

10. 'Hvalite Gospoda Snebes' (Chesnokov)

11. 'What Wondrous Love' (William Billings)

12. 'At the River' (Aaron Copland)

13. 'All the Pretty Little Horses' (Aaron Copland) 

14. 'Long Time Ago' (Aaron Copland; Jeanne Laforgia, solo)

15. 'Lark' (Aaron Copland)

16. 'Winter' (Dominick Argento; Elizabeth Allen, solo)

17. 'Serenity' (Charles Ives; Brian Coughlin, solo)

18. 'Psalm 90' (Charles Ives)

19. 'My Lord, What a Morning' (H. Burleigh)

That winter in early January we performed our annual Feast of Song, a student-written play that included several choral pieces we'd been working on over the fall. The theme was German and the play took place in a German castle in the Renaissance era. While the play was historically accurate in some senses, it took great liberties with the storytelling. For that season I was given the role of Balthazar D'Oro, a "restless, roaming rake" and a prophetic indication of my future.

Later that winter (1990) we took our tour of Scandanavia which included Stockholm and Malmo in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark. We were guests of the St. Matthews Choir as I recall while in Stockholm, which was a wonderful experience--I believe we all stayed in the homes of members of the choir. We also guested with an all-girls choir in Malmo and did the same, which was fun. We got to perform in beautiful old churches with gorgeous acoustics.  One of my favorite memories is of us doing an impromptu performance of "Alla Riva del Tebro" in a church in Copenhagen.

In 1990-91, my final year at Dartmouth, Melinda O'Neal was off campus and a guest conductor named Carmen Tellez stepped in to do the job. She led us in a repertoire that included many Spanish pieces, and we performed that November 20 at Rollins Chapel with the Brno Madrigal Choir.

Later in spring 1991 we performed an original choral work by a New England-based composer named Ingram Marshall, and premiered his work at the Hopkins Center in May 1991. The work, "Savage Altars", was recorded in 1992 by another choir. We also performed a series of works by Benjamin Britten called "Ballad of Green Broom". 

That winter I was honored to perform the role of King Carlos V of the court of Spain in our annual Feast of Song. I believe I may have also contributed to the writing of the script for that season (others can verify or deny this). I even had my own solo during the play, a song called "L'amor donna, ch'io te porto", which was my only solo during my stint as a Chamber Singer.

How do I remember all this? As a historian, I'm trained to archive things, and I've kept records. Thus I'm happy to share with my former Chamber Singers two hi-res images I've kept of our group taken in 1989-90 as well as concert recordings for 1989 and 1990 which I've posted onto youtube and the program from the concert that Carmen Tellez conducted in Nov 20 1990 at Rollins Chapel

As for the long-term influence of being a Chamber Singer, I think anybody who knows me will recognize how important music in all its forms and styles has been to my research and personal life. The discipline and high standards that Melinda O'Neal and Carmen Tellez instilled in us have perhaps carried into other areas of my life including my research and writing and film projects as well as my own musical endeavors, although I can't say whether the latter truly lives up to the standards of the Chamber Singers. No doubt other more talented Chamber Singers have gone on to successful careers in music--and I'd love to hear from them after all these years.