The Big 5-0

On April 4-5, the University Singers celebrate 50 years of making music and building community.

By Jane Ford
This is a photo of the University Singers

The University Singers
Photo by Chris Sabbatini

University Singers is about making beautiful choral music. But it is much more than that. As the group celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it confirms the power of music to inspire, and also to build community and foster long-lasting friendships.

“University Singers inhabits an interesting hybrid place as both a for-credit class in performance and also something that becomes much more than a class — a group that at its best becomes a family,” said Michael Slon, assistant professor in the McIntire Department of Music, who is in his seventh year as the ensemble’s choral director.

The musical family, which numbers anywhere from 85 to 90 students each semester, is a faculty-led performance course with students sharing administrative leadership roles that include handling concert arrangements, producing newsletters and programs, arranging social activities and even getting the risers on the stage. The collaboration “gives me a special opportunity to interact with the students in a way most faculty don’t enjoy. I have the advantage that many of them sing in the ensemble for the four years they are here, and I get a chance to know them as people and see them develop and grow,” Slon said.

Singers are drawn from all areas of the University and build relationships across academic disciplines. “It’s nice that such a diverse group can come together over this shared interest,” said fourth-year systems engineering major Scott Meadows, an ensemble member since his first year. Meadows is the group’s president and in the past has served as social chair and concert manager. “It’s so rewarding for everyone that has been involved.”

Ryan Fleenor (History ’06), the group’s alumni liaison, said members of the University Singers “became like family to me. Coming to rehearsal was more like coming home than going to class.”

Leah Bernick, a third-year student majoring in English and drama, joined University Singers her first semester. “All my closest friends here I met through the group,” she said. “I have developed friends that I will have for a lifetime.”

Bonding is intensified and expanded when the group tours and performs local outreach concerts. Spending 24 hours together day after day on a concert tour “allows us to attain an even higher level of musical expression and cohesion, and engenders a deeper sense of community,” Slon said.

On tour, that sense of family extends beyond the group. At a visit to a nursing home last spring, a University Singers alumnus from the 1950s gathered all his friends to attend the concert and sang along with the ensemble. Bernick said she is always filled with a sense of pride and excitement as alumni talk about their time with the Singers.

On a tour that included Lancaster, Pa., Bernick recalls a “home stay” with a couple there. “They had tea, homemade brownies and scones for us when we arrived at their house. We stayed up talking almost ’til dawn,” she said. It was not the first group of touring University Singers to stay with the couple, who have no U.Va. affiliation. They have “developed a strong bond” with University Singers through the shared love of music, Bernick said.

“That’s the great thing about music, that it provides a central fire around which people can congregate and really find a critical meaning,” Slon said. “And one of the special things about the power of music — it bring people together across generations.”

At home, Bernick appreciates opportunities the group has had to be part of the University’s major events, including performing at the President’s Convocation for the past two years. One memory she will treasure was singing at the Capital Campaign Kickoff Gala in 2006. “It’s exciting to become part of a University tradition as a group.”

When it was founded in 1957, the ensemble, then known as the Virginia Singers, was a different organization, independent of the University. By the time the group came under the sponsorship of the McIntire Department of Music in the 1964-65 academic year, it was known as the University Singers. It wasn’t until the 1969-70 academic year, under the directorship of music professor Donald Loach, that University Singers became a Music Department offering.

“Up to that time it was predominately town/gown with a few student members,” said Loach, who conducted the University Singers for almost 30 years and is now music professor emeritus. “In the 1970s, the present-day history of the University Singers begins with the admission of women and the offering of academic credit.”

One characteristic of the group that has not changed over the years is the ensemble’s constant pursuit of excellence. Loach said the students often told him they felt that he had challenged them and took them beyond their expectations. “They always rose to the challenge of the music,” he said.

“The opportunities I had at U.Va. to experience high-quality, high-discipline music-making very much informed my decision to pursue music after school,” said alumnus William Bennett, who earned a B.S. in systems engineering and as a student often sang solos with University Singers. Bennett, a lyric tenor, now sings professionally with choruses, small opera houses and symphonies.

Mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead (Economics ’80), who sings with early music groups and has performed both in the United States and Europe, sang with University Singers in the late 1970s. She credits “Coach Loach” with having “a very strong influence on both my willingness to hear and enjoy singing all sorts of music, especially 20th-century music, and in my choices for interpretation.”

Over the years the ensemble’s repertoire has included a wide variety of a cappella and accompanied choral music ranging from Gregorian chants to large-scale choral orchestral works that have included Handel’s Messiah, the Brahms Requiem, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. This year, as part of the 50th anniversary season program offerings, they performed Carmina Burana by composer Carl Orff with the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra, a collaboration Slon has fostered, along with performing together in the new Family Holidays Concerts.

The Singers commissioned American composer Stephen Paulus to compose a piece for the 50th Anniversary Concert on April 5, at which it will celebrate 50 years of music and honor past members. The ensemble also will perform works by Hayden and Beethoven with orchestra as well as works that have historically been part of the group’s ongoing repertoire. Slon will conduct, Loach will be the special guest conductor, and alumni will be invited to perform with the current singers.

The reunion anniversary celebration, which includes a gala banquet after the concert, is an opportunity to “look at the impact the organization has had on its members and where it is going in the future,” Meadows said.

“It’s a time for alumni and friends to commemorate many years of joyous music-making,” Slon said.

“There’s always a sense of history at U.Va., but it rarely becomes personal,” Bernick said. “With this event, we are making it personal and powerful. It’s about people with experiences and stories.”