Six Vocal Ensembles United by a Common Purpose

Perfect Harmony

Syracuse University’s choirs, choruses, and vocal ensembles raise their voices in the universal language of song.

Hendricks Chapel Choirs performs at the holiday concert
Hendricks Chapel Choir. Photos by Steve Sartori.

Nick Godzak ’16 clearly remembers his first rehearsal with the University Singers. Everyone was congratulating him because he’d been admitted to SU’s most prestigious choral group as a first-year student. “I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t have a clue what it was,” says Godzak, a music education major in the Rose, Jules R., and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music. “But then we sang a beautiful Latin text, and nothing in my life prepared me for the sound that came out of a group of singers reading a piece of music for the first time. When I heard the last chord dissipate, I realized I was a part of something really special.”

The University Singers are just one of six outstanding ensembles offered for credit by Setnor’s choral activities program that are open to all students regardless of major. Participation in these groups—Hendricks Chapel Choir, Oratorio Society, University Singers, Women’s Choir, Concert Choir, and Windjammer vocal jazz ensemble—gives music students the opportunity to hone their skills to the highest artistic level, while non-music majors experience the pure joy of harmonious fellowship. “Our primary mission is to teach and train music students, but I believe there should be a choir for every student who wants to sing,” says John F. Warren, professor of music and director of choral activities at Setnor.

University Singers

Conducted by Warren, the University Singers are a highly select, 35-member ensemble that performs the great choral repertoire of the last five centuries. For the first time, the group performed abroad in spring 2015, thanks to a one-time anonymous donation that made it possible for them to travel to France to compete in the 44th Grand Prix of the International Choral Competition—Florilège Vocal De Tours 2015. In addition to the competition, the students gave several concerts at various venues throughout the region.

Group photo of the University Singers

At the competition in Tours, France, the University Singers competed with choirs from Finland, Hungary, Macedonia, and Sweden. Rising to the occasion, they gave three powerful performances of a cappella choral works, including pieces by Haydn and Duruflé, and African American spirituals to win the top honor. “When the awards were announced the translation lagged behind, so we didn’t realize we’d won first place,” Godzak says. “Then we all lost our minds crying and screaming—we couldn’t help it.”

Oratorio Society

Gail Van Dusen drove 84 miles round-trip from Cort­land to Syracuse every Monday night for 16 years to attend Oratorio Society rehearsals on the top floor of Crouse College. “I hadn’t done anything other than sing in a church choir since graduating from Ithaca College School of Music, and I really wanted to sing in this semi-professional group that has always had a great reputation,” Van Dusen says. “I drove through a lot of ‘interesting’ weather, but I did it because singing with others who were serious about performing great musical works was fun for me in spite of the commute.”

The Oratorio Society is Syracuse’s largest choral ensemble, with approximately 30 students and 100 staff, faculty, and community members of all ages and professions. The audition-only, mixed ensemble was formed in 1975 when the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra (SSO) needed a chorus for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Under the baton of internationally renowned conductors, the Oratorio Society has performed such major choral repertoire as the Mozart and Verdi requiems, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, and the Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Warren became the fourth conductor of the group in 2011, soon after the SSO filed for bankruptcy. “It’s been challenging at times,” he says. “Our membership dipped at first since the group was created to perform large choral works with orchestra, but it was good for us to do some different things, especially a cappella pieces that helped hone our listening and intonation skills. But I feel good about where we are today because we’re continuing to perform major choral pieces at a high level with the Syracuse University Symphony Orchestra and Symphoria, the area’s newest professional orchestra.” 

Hendricks Chapel Choir

John Matthews ’83 auditioned for the Hendricks Chapel Choir after hearing the group sing at his freshman Convocation. A broadcast journalism major, he managed to find time in his busy schedule to practice two nights a week and sing at the service each Sunday morning. “For me, the choir was akin to being in a fraternity,” he says. “It was very much a combination of enjoying the music, while also forming real friendships with my choir mates. Whether it was throwing on a choir robe over my T-shirt and jeans on Sunday mornings, going to the Varsity after rehearsals, or singing Christmas carols as part of the annual holiday concert, all are very special memories.”

The Hendricks Chapel Choir is the most diverse of all the student choral groups... they’re in it because they want to be, and engaging with people outside of their majors keeps all of the students in touch with their humanity.

—Professor Peppie Calvar

When Hendricks Chapel opened its doors in fall 1930, a notice was placed in The Daily Orange inviting students to try out for the newly formed chapel choir. Under the direction of Arthur Poister, who arrived on campus in 1948, the choir grew into a musical organization of high stature. Today, the choir is an auditioned ensemble of students representing a broad spectrum of academic majors. In fact, of the 37 choir members, half are non-music majors. “The Hendricks Chapel Choir is the most diverse of all the student choral groups,” says Professor Peppie Calvar, assistant director of choral activities and conductor of the choir for the past three years. “I like that. Since the choir doesn’t fulfill any requirements for music majors, they’re in it because they want to be, and engaging with people outside of their majors keeps all of the students in touch with their humanity.”

The Hendricks Chapel Choir requires the largest time commitment of any of the student choral ensembles, and members can earn one hour of revolving course credit through the College of Visual and Performing Arts

Those who have sung in the choir remain extremely loyal alumni because many say it helped shape their lives. Each year, former members come back during Orange Central to join the choir in singing the last hymn and final blessing at the Sunday service. “This is my ninth semester in the choir, so I have worked with many students and conductors over the years, yet the one thing that remains constant is the love that exists amongst this group,” says Sara Morey ’14, G’16, the choir’s graduate teaching assistant. “The Hendricks Chapel Choir will forever be one of the most prominent and meaningful memories of my time at SU.”

Concert Choir

Group photo of Concert Choir performing in Crouse College

The Concert Choir is a mixed, non-auditioned choir open to any student or staff member who loves to sing. Directed by Setnor professor Elisa Dekaney, the choir performs every year at Family Weekend and prepares at least two major concerts during the academic year. The repertoire consists of music from such historical periods as Baroque, Classical, and Romantic, with particular emphasis on music from global cultures.

Women’s Choir

Women's Choir performing in orange scarves

The Women’s Choir offers Syracuse women who love to sing an opportunity to study and perform a diverse choral repertoire and enjoy an active performance schedule, including an annual festival with distinguished guest conductors. Under the direction of Barbara M. Tagg ’69, G’70, G’97 since 1996, the choir, which does not require an audition, has become known for its innovative and versatile programming, drawing on music from various historical periods and contemporary compositions representing many different styles and cultures.

Windjammer

Group photo of Windjammer

Windjammer is Syracuse University’s vocal jazz ensemble. Established in 1981, this audition-only group performs several styles of jazz, including swing, bop, contemporary, Latin, and blues, with an emphasis on vocal improvisation. Under the direction of Setnor professor Jeff Welcher, the 16 voices of Windjammer perform literature from the most current catalogs of vocal jazz writers and arrangers. The ensemble has shared the stage with an impressive list of performing artists and jazz educators and has performed in a variety of venues.

Christine Yackel

This story was first published on December 14, 2017 and last updated on . It also appeared as “Perfect Harmony” in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


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