Do the words 50th anniversary conjure up an image of an elderly couple enjoying a dinner by candlelight with violin music playing softly in the background? Maybe not!
Erase that picture and substitute 73 men and women ranging in age from 29 to 72, singing their hearts out in Swasey Chapel and living it up like college kids afterward. They came from 23 states and the District of Columbia, and from as far as England and Jordan to take part in the group’s 588th performance.
They are the Denison Singers who returned to campus last weekend to celebrate five decades of making music together under the direction of their beloved director, Dr. William N. Osborne, affectionately referred to as “WO” by most of his former students. On Sunday afternoon, they presented a remarkable choral gift to an enthusiastic audience in Swasey Chapel. The concert was titled “The Denison Singers Turn Golden.”
The music performed by the group included material they have sung over the years along with original material written by group members Michael Daugherty ’71, Cliff Davis ’72 and William Stevens for the occasion. The concert opened with “How Can I Keep From Singing,” an obvious description of the feelings of the men and women on stage. They were accompanied by pianist Meredith Needham ’78 and rehearsal accompanist/organist Sue Billin ’69, both members of the Singers, and organist Donald Armitage of Winston-Salem, N.C.
According to Osborne, a group of 16 students first assembled in September 1961 in the basement of Denison’s Life Science Building (now Higley Hall), planning to become a new choral ensemble to complement the Chapel and Concert Choirs. All three groups were conducted by Osborne, with this newly formed ensemble using the name the Denison Madrigal Singers. By 1963, their musical interests had widened, and under their new name, The Denison Singers, they began touring during spring break to sing for alumni clubs. Over the years, they traveled to 24 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 14 foreign countries. The group formally disbanded in 2003 when Osborne retired from Denison, but the music didn’t stop. They have reassembled to sing at reunions in Granville and Winston Salem, N.C., where Osborne was director of the Piedmont Chamber Singers following his retirement from Denison. Now a professor emeritus, Osborne was named Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts while serving on the faculty in Denison’s Department of Music, an honor he held through his retirement.
Elaine Klemen ’64, a founding member of the group, returned for the reunion and commented, “The people who are here have all had similar wonderful musical experiences, and that just flows among us. I had two extraordinary opportunities while I was here as a student. One was the music and the other was having professors like Wally Chessman. The artistic and intellectual were a marvelous blend here, and I feel very privileged to have gone to Denison.”
Jeff Masten ’86 said, “Once you come back for one of the Singers reunions, you never stop coming back. We work very hard with 12 hours of rehearsals to prepare for the concert, but also having a lot of fun, having parties and socializing afterward.”
Each Singers reunion has a Friday night Talent Cavalcade, and it always produces some good-natured ribbing of WO. This reunion was no exception with parody show tunes like “He is the Very Model of a Modern Musicologist” (from The Pirates of Penzance), and Masten’s lyrics for “What I Did for WO” (A Chorus Line), “My Favorite Sings” (The Sound of Music), “Seasons of WO” (Rent), and the encore, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “WO-klahoma.” In addition, the Singers added a goodly amount of convivial story-telling at Osborne’s expense during a Saturday night roast, or as it was billed, a “WOast.”
Aside from the music and fellowship, another hugely important aspect of this reunion was the extraordinary generosity demonstrated by the loyal Singers. As if the beautiful Swasey concert weren’t enough of a gift to the Denison community, the group’s members also committed significant financial support to the Mary G. and G. Harold Osborne Endowed Scholarship, a fund WO established to honor the memory of his parents that is designated to aid fine arts students at Denison.
Rick Kauffman ’86, who handled the lion’s share of reunion communications, planning and logistics, and who keeps more than 200 active Denison Singers updated, commented, “There’s something special about coming back to relive what we knew here for four years, refocusing our attention to detail and renewing our appreciation of the music.”
Said Jeff Langner ’02, “It’s amazing to have more than four decades of Denison graduates get together and share stories of their Denison years.” About Osborne, Masten, a professor of English at Northwestern University, concluded, “There are some people who are terrific teachers, and WO is certainly one of them, teaching us new ways to think about the music. But there are very few people who build lasting institutions like the Denison Singers, and that is a very special way of giving back to the world.”