Summer could not have begun on any brighter note than it did last weekend with sunny skies, balmy temperatures, and spectacular choral music in Swasey Chapel, presented on Sunday afternoon (June 23) by 47 Denison Singers and their conductor, Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus William Osborne.
They all returned to Denison to celebrate their 12th reunion since the mid-1990s, working through six intense and concentrated rehearsals during their three-day stay, but also reserving some time for making merry. The preparation paid off for this 589th performance since the group’s founding in 1961, and a delighted audience treasured their professional interpretation of the beautiful music in the challenging and diverse program.
The concert included works by Haydn, Bach and Copland, as well as four new pieces written by Clifford Davis ’72, R. Michael Daugherty ’71 and Michael Fauss ’72 — all Denison Singers — and Denison faculty member Ching-chu Hu, associate professor of music, who composed his piece to the words of a poem written by alumna and fellow faculty member Ann Townsend ’85, a professor of English who also is a member of the Denison Singers.
The concert concluded with two 16th century madrigals, with the final piece, “Sing We and Chant It,” being particularly apropos. Piano and organ accompanists included Singers members Susan Rumer Billin ’69 and Meredith Park Needham ’78, as well as Donald Armitage of Winston-Salem, N.C., cantor emeritus of the Augsburg Lutheran Church.
Osborne founded the group in 1961, when 16 students gathered to rehearse in a basement classroom in the old Life Science Building (now Higley Hall). They called themselves the Denison Madrigal Singers, or more familiarly, the “Mads.” By 1963, the group had begun to add performance tours to their schedule and had shortened their name to the Denison Singers to reflect a far wider repertoire.
During the next four decades, the Singers performed regularly on campus and toured during breaks, eventually appearing in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and in a number of European and South American venues while on 12 foreign tours. During their four-plus decades, the Denison Singers garnered considerable widespread notice for being a group that was ambitious, articulate, committed, technically adroit, versatile, well trained, and always prepared.
The student ensemble was formally disbanded in 2003 upon Osborne’s retirement from Denison, and all subsequent performances have been by the alumni group during reunions in either Granville or Winston-Salem. Throughout its 42-year history, the group was composed of a diverse array of Denison students studying a wide range of majors (some majored in music), and its 260 alumni have gone on to be bankers, doctors, journalists, ministers, musicians, professors, research scientists and social workers, to name just a few. And the group can claim among its membership more than a dozen President’s Medalists, the highest student honor awarded by Denison established in 1985.
Jeff Masten ’86, now an associate professor of English & gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University, said, “Being in the Singers was like having a multi-year interdisciplinary course — music and performing, yes, but also languages, European and American history and poetry — not to mention skills like intense concentration and commitment. ‘WO’ (the Singers’ affectionate nickname for Osborne) challenged us intellectually and drove us to a level of excellence none of us had known before. And for many of us, the group has been a family that produced lifelong friendships.”
Clearly, members of the group treasure the opportunity to be with one another and make music. Sharon DeVane Knode ’87 of São Paulo, Brazil, John Leistler ’86 of Amman, Jordan, and Judy Pistor Hildesley ’66 of London, England, traveled the farthest to attend this year’s reunion. First-time reunion attendees were Gwynne Roshon-Larsen ’72 of Saratoga, Calif., and Steve Knisely ’98 of Shiloh, Ohio.
Elaine Harwood Klemen ’64, a founding member from Chicago, and Shelby Walters ’04, an anesthesiologist from Long Beach, Calif. (one of the last student members of the Singers), represented the range of ages and class years.
Rick Kauffman ’86 said, “Coming back for these reunions gives us an opportunity, once again, to make something new, artistic and creative, the way we did back in our college years.”
Following a picnic dinner in Slayter Hall provided by University President Dale Knobel on Friday night, at the group’s traditional Talent Cavalcade in Burke Hall, alumni from the 1970s performed an uproarious 26-page choral history of the group to the tune of Ravel’s Bolero.
Saturday night’s banquet was held in the newly named Knobel Hall in the Burton D. Morgan Center, where Bob Palmer ’73 presented a memorable slide show of the Singers over the years. Then, 1978 graduates Meredith Needham and Perry Mixter brought down the house with their narration of the slideshow, “WO, the Unauthorized Biography, Version 2.0,” a hilarious and irreverent tribute to the life and times of their revered director.
Even with all of the concentrated singing, conversing and laughing over three days, the Singers’ vocal abilities were not impaired for Sunday’s afternoon concert, and the program was every bit as gorgeous as it was impressive. And once again, Osborne’s motto for the group singers, “Attempting the impossible, achieving the improbable,” was realized on the stage of Swasey Chapel in front of an enthusiastic audience. Dr. Osborne and his Denison Singers had added yet another joyous memory to the history of the group and of the college.
To add even more significance to this remarkable reunion, the Singers joined forces to collect and donate to the college a sizable monetary gift to be used to assist students in Denison’s Department of Music with expenses related to their major and to the pursuit of post-graduate training in music performance. The gift, of course, was given in Dr. Osborne’s name to honor their beloved leader.
And as a footnote, as the Singers prepared to disperse from campus following the emotional concert, they were already heard planning their next reunion.
The photos below are taken from rehearsals in Swasey Chapel, the Talent Cavalcade in Burke Hall, and the culminating concert in Swasey.