Ring out a Cheer: A Story of the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus
Written By: Margaret C. Matheson
0000-00-00Clark’s Choristers - the Beginning (1944-1947) The chorus whose sixtieth anniversary we celebrate this year was not the first amateur singing group to be formed on the U of A campus, but it has certainly been the most long-lived and successful. Its beginnings were modest. In 1944 when Gordon Clark (Gordie to his friends), a first year medical student and talented musician, was prevailed upon to lead a newly formed mixed chorus of about seventy U of A students, he little realized what he was starting. Much later Dr. Clark reflected, “It was just a group of people who wanted to sing. We thought it might last only a year.” Perhaps; but it is significant that the posters for the 1945 concerts refer to “The First Annual Concert”, so it looks as if they very much expected it would continue.
After several months of rehearsals in Med 158, the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus (dubbed “Clark’s Choristers” by the U of A Gateway) presented its first two concerts on March 1 and 2, 1945 in Convocation Hall. Those performances opened with Bach’s well-known chorale, “Now let all the heavens adore Thee” (Wachet auf). The program was a demanding one for a newly-assembled amateur group, many of whom had little or no previous choral experience and only a vague idea of what those little black dots marching across the page stood for. On the program were sacred and secular works by Mendelssohn, Elgar, Purcell, Bortniansky and Gretchaninoff, and a cameo appearance by a student brass quartet. Kay Sheasby (later Brundage) was the accompanist, the first in a long line of devoted and hardworking UAMC accompanists.
By the fall of 1945 word had spread that there was lots of fun to be had in this new campus group, and suddenly the size of the Chorus nearly doubled. That season two concerts were presented in McDougall United Church (a larger venue was felt necessary), and were followed by two more in Calgary. That was the Mixed Chorus’s first out-of-town tour, and they’ve been touring ever since.
By the autumn of 1946 the line of eager prospects stretched out the door, and Gordon Clark was forced to hold auditions to keep the sections properly balanced and of a manageable size. That auditioning policy continued for the next 25 years. In the spring of 1947, in response to requests from several smaller centres in the province, the Chorus went on an extended spring tour by bus after final exams were over, giving nine concerts in various southern Alberta communities.
Near the end of the Mixed Chorus’s third season, the Dean of Medicine informed Gordon Clark that, alas, he must make a career choice: shall it be conducting or medicine? The Dean went so far as to suggest that Clark was no Toscanini. Gordie regretfully submitted his resignation to the Mixed Chorus, which now faced the possibility that, deprived of its popular maestro, it might have to disband.
The Era of Richard “The Boss” Eaton (1947-1968) Unbeknownst to the Mixed Chorus, help was on its the way in the person of Richard S. Eaton, recently appointed Lecturer in Music in the Department of Fine Arts. Mr. Eaton, with a BMus from McGill and considerable experience as a conductor of church and school choirs and small madrigal groups, had been asked by U of A President Robert Newton to take over leadership of the Mixed Chorus in the fall of 1947.
The Mixed Chorus executive had grave misgivings about having the University President select its new leader - and a faculty member at that! Autonomy has always been of critical concern to the Chorus. By the end of the first rehearsal, however, Richard Eaton had put those concerns to rest. Thus began a relationship between the Mixed Chorus and Richard “The Boss” Eaton that was to last for nearly twenty-one years.
Professor Eaton, funny and charismatic with a cuttingly sarcastic wit and very demanding ways, continued the example Gordon Clark had set of striving above all for musical excellence. He continued Clark’s auditioning policy, and over the years gradually expanded the Chorus’s repertoire.
He also continued Gordon Clark’s commitment to taking live music from the University to the community. During the Eaton years, the UAMC sang in over eighty locales, mostly in rural Alberta, including a performance on the Blood Indian Reserve. There were occasional forays into BC and Saskatchewan as well. For several years the UAMC exchanged visits with the University of Saskatchewan’s Greystone Singers. Tours always included (as they still do) mini-concerts at local schools, and often appearances at local church services. Wherever it went, the UAMC’s concerts were always popular and welcome local events. Throughout the Eaton era UAMC tours received financial and administrative assistance from the provincial government as well as the University.
The touring Chorus performed in auditoriums, gymnasiums, garages, churches, Legion and community halls. They became expert at the speedy construction of makeshift and sometimes tottery risers out of wooden soft drink boxes, long planks, a roll of heavy brown paper and a stapler. The music director would write ahead hopefully to the sponsoring group, suggesting that a recently-tuned piano would be appreciated, but Mixed Chorus accompanists played on an amazing array of pianos, some only approximately tuned.
Indispensable members of the Mixed Chorus traveling entourage were the honorary presidents and tour chaperones who provided a liaison with the University, and especially in the early days acted as nurses-cum-mother-substitutes to singers. They tended singers who succumbed to various ailments, led the applause at concerts and made sure their charges observed proper billeting etiquette. Although their role has changed over the years, honorary presidents have always been valued as important links with the history and tradition of the Mixed Chorus.
Spring tours then were part of the government’s “Maytime in Alberta” program, a sort of touring spring caravan of arts and crafts. Touring was (and continues to be) a valuable bonding and learning experience for choir members as well as the communities they visited. Choristers were billeted wherever they went. The hospitality shown them was truly memorable.
The Mixed Chorus was called upon to perform on many important campus events, including Varsity Guest Weekend. They sang on CBC radio, and later on television. There were frequent off-campus occasions too. Members enjoyed the privilege of singing for Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the Alberta Legislature during the royal couple’s 1951 visit. Richard Eaton, also a composer, wrote an arrangement of Road to the Isles in honor of Princess Elizabeth. They sang for other dignitaries, including Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The Chorus also was part of the massed choir at the grand opening of the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in 1957. Professor Eaton conducted all the choral music that day. The exception was Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, which was led by the aging dean of Edmonton church choir leaders, Vernon Barford.
In 1957 the Mixed Chorus celebrated Richard Eaton’s tenth anniversary as its leader with a surprise gathering of UAMC alumni at the Corona hotel. Eaton’s parents and siblings were flown in for the occasion. It was a time of reunion and reflection. In an impromptu after-dinner speech, when referring to past Mixed Choruses Professor Eaton said, “I have learned a great deal from them, as much as they have from me. And when I think of our good times together, and the number of places we have sung, perhaps we can say that we have had some measure of success in bringing choral music to the people.”
In September 1967, during Canada’s 100th birthday celebrations, Richard Eaton devised his own personal centennial project. He told the Edmonton Journal, “All the choirs are going east [this year]. We decided to take music into the north.” Accordingly he led the UAMC on a week-long northern sojourn, an additional tour that season, carrying the Chorus’s youthful choral sound into the Canadian north as far as Yellowknife, Hay River and Pine Point.
It was an immensely successful expedition, albeit over bumpy gravel and dirt roads. Dust seeped into the bus despite everyone’s best efforts, and singers were issued gauze masks in a futile effort to preserve their voices. A local piano dealer had loaned them a fine Yamaha upright, which was carried underneath the bus and rolled out for each performance. It was in dire need of an overhaul on its return.
The final concert of the tour, in a school gymnasium in Fort Vermilion, marked the close of the Eaton era, although no one realized it at the time. Professor Eaton joyfully flung his hat into the Peace River afterwards, and a few days later he and his wife and daughter left from Edmonton on a year’s much-needed sabbatical leave, his first ever from the University. His plan was to spend a glorious ten months visiting music schools and festivals in North America and Europe. His sudden death on January 25, 1968, while vacationing on the island of Rhodes, shocked and saddened his choirs, the University and the whole musical community.
Keeping the Chorus Tradition Alive (1967-1971) James Whittle, an organ student in his final year of the BMus program, and assistant conductor of UAMC, had been left in charge during Professor Eaton’s absence, just for a year - or so he thought. Whittle now found himself in the unenviable position of stepping into some rather large shoes and trying to bolster a group of disheartened choristers. His first sad and difficult duty was to lead the Mixed Chorus during the memorial service for Richard Eaton on February 2 in All Saints’ Cathedral - this just a few hours before the second of the UAMC’s annual concerts. Two works on that evening’s program (ironically planned jointly by Eaton and Whittle) were prescient: “Es ist nun aus” (“My time is come, my life is over”) and “Der Mensch, vom Weibe geboren” (“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers; he flees like a shadow, and continues not.”)
James Whittle agreed to become the UAMC’s third conductor, although he was then entering graduate studies at the U of A. An alumnus from that time remembers, “We sang so well for Jim. Everything was so precise.” In 1969 Jim led the UAMC, bolstered by a number of Chorus alumni, in producing a recording in memory of Richard Eaton. Titled In Memoriam R. S. Eaton, it featured some of the best-loved works of the Eaton years, beginning with Vaughan Williams’ “Nothing is Here for Tears”, with a moving text by John Milton. The recording is one of Jim’s lasting legacies to the Chorus, and many years later still makes good listening. (It is noteworthy that nearly a quarter of a century later, Jim Whittle was a key person in the production of the UAMC’s first CD (1995).
In the fall of 1969 James Whittle handed over the leadership of the UAMC to Dr. David Stocker, the first person to occupy a newly-created choral music position in the U of A’s Department of Music. A composer as well as conductor, Stocker will long be remembered for the lively hootenanny and American folk song arrangements, including some of his own, that he added to the Mixed Chorus’s permanent repertoire.
David Stocker was with the Chorus for only one season. In 1970 he resigned from the UAMC to become the founding conductor of the U of A Concert Choir, a Department of Music choir made up of BMus students and other students from across campus.
Once again James Whittle was asked to lead the UAMC. Jim generously agreed to do so, but only for one year, to give the Chorus time to find a new leader. Jim relinquished the conductor’s baton permanently in 1971 when a former member of the Mixed Chorus agreed to become the UAMC’s fifth conductor. A grateful alumnus from the Whittle era has this to say: “The Mixed Chorus owes so much to Jim Whittle. He played a really, really important role, because if it hadn’t been for him the Mixed Chorus probably wouldn’t have survived.”
The Reign of “Uncle Ron” (1971-1986) Dr. Ronald E. Stephens, Professor of Music Education in the U of A Faculty of Education, accepted the post of conductor with alacrity. He had happy memories of, and strong ties to, the Mixed Chorus from his undergraduate years. He had sung under both Gordon Clark and Richard Eaton, was chosen for an occasional short solo, had served four years as assistant conductor, and in 1948-49 had been elected choir president. He was delighted to return to lead his favorite choir.
From the beginning Ron established his clear and simple philosophy: he welcomed all students who wanted to sing, provided only that they submit to a simple voice placement test and agree to attend rehearsals faithfully. The Stephens charisma and the fun of his rehearsals attracted droves of students who wanted to sing, and delighted in his pungent, sarcastic wit and the warmth of his kind and friendly personality. He was famous for keeping time by pounding his heel on the side of the Ag 345 lab counter on which he sat. It was a habit learned from his mentor, Richard Eaton.
Ron’s quotes were as legendary as his dramatic delivery. He could emote with great exasperation, desperation or wicked glee, matching his dramatic delivery to well-worn quips. Sometimes members, hearing oft-repeated wisecracks, threw pennies at him; Ron would pocket these “pennies from heaven” without comment, and never miss a beat. When an obstreperous Chorus threatened to defeat him he would announce that he was “going to go home and kick the cat,” or would simply wave his white handkerchief in abject surrender.
In the Stephens era the job of running the non-musical aspects of choir affairs devolved onto the shoulders of the executive more than it ever had before. Ron was always concerned about how the executive was managing, but he never interfered. He felt it was their responsibility to handle their own affairs. The Mixed Chorus tradition of outreach into the community continued - many appearances at local churches, at the CNIB’s annual Christmas dinner for its volunteers, Christmas carolling in hospitals. Each year the Mixed Chorus shoehorned itself into Edith and Ron Stephens’ welcoming home for a Christmas potluck supper, with carolling in the neighborhood and hot chocolate to follow.
From his first year Ron, who also conducted the choir of Strathearn United Church, brought his UAMC to sing at morning service on the first Sunday of Advent. Although Ron is no longer there, the Mixed Chorus continues to honor this tradition.
The undoubted highlight of the Mixed Chorus’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations in 1974 was the return of the Chorus’s founder, Dr. Gordon Clark. Said one alumnus, “It was quite a thrill to sing for him.” Clark was to return for other anniversaries.
The spring tours continued and expanded. There were appearances before various religious communities: Doukhobors, Hutterites, singing at the Mormon temple at Cardston. Says one alumnus, “There was a lot of education on those tours.”
A furry mascot joined the UAMC in 1977. A comfortable teddy bear (much like his namesake), dressed in green and gold, he was promptly named Ronnie Bear. Ronnie Bear played a prominent role in Chorus activities over the next decade. He became a great favorite, and was carried ceremoniously on stage before each concert, eventually acquiring his own tuxedo, and a Mixed Chorus T-shirt and blue jeans for school appearances. He was a popular figure on tour, although his increasingly dissolute behavior landed him in hot water (or in the toilet!) on more than one occasion. A number of years later he was retired to the Stephens’ living room where, wiser and much chastened, he greets visitors to this day.
In early 1979 Dr. Stephens took a four-month sabbatical leave, his only break from his conducting duties in 15 years. His place on the podium was ably filled by assistant conductor Merrill Flewelling, who led the chorus both in its annual concert and on a fun-filled spring tour of northern Alberta and British Columbia. Merrill’s program included sacred anthems, folk songs, show tunes, and the Mixed Chorus’s first performance of Haydn’s Missa Brevis St. Joannis de Deo (the “Little Organ Mass”), which was accompanied by organ and string quartet.
On campus, the UAMC sang at a number of memorable events during the Stephens years, none more so than the special convocation in 1983 at which an honorary Doctor of Laws degree was awarded Prince Charles. It was thrilling to have the beautiful Princess Diana sitting right in front of the Chorus on the Con Hall stage.
Ron Stephens conducted the Mixed Chorus for fifteen years. Popular and good-humored, Ron’s kindly wit, biting sarcasm and genuine love of people and music endeared him to a generation of choristers. To most of them he was Uncle Ron. With heartfelt sincerity he could often be heard to say, “I am delighted - simply delighted!” when he received applause, or met up with a chorus alumnus. One such person remembered, “He could be very gracious and genuinely touched by those moments.” When Ron retired from the University of Alberta, he chose to relinquish the reins of the UAMC at the same time. Those who sang at his last formal concert in 1986 well remember the emotional Ron conducting with tears running down his cheeks, tears that were matched by those of many singers. No one ever loved the Mixed Chorus more than Ron. At a grand retirement party at the Faculty Club Ron was presented with a piece of that famous Ag 345 lab counter in commemoration of his total devotion to his beloved Mixed Chorus. His heel marks were still discernible.
Bob de Frece Carries the Baton with Wit and Style (1986 to present) Dr. Stephens helped the Chorus find his replacement - another Mixed Chorus alumnus and former executive member who sang for Jim Whittle and David Stocker in his student years. Dr. Robert de Frece, a member of the U of A Faculty of Education, is now in his eighteenth year as conductor of the Mixed Chorus, its second longest serving conductor. Dr. de Frece, known to one and all as Bob (“You can call me me anything you like, but don’t call me late for dinner!”), with his cheery personality, incredible memory, wonderful sense of humor, outstanding organizational ability and persuasive ways, works hard at making every singer feel special. He has long since earned his niche as a well-loved and respected director of UAMC.
One of the first changes made during the de Frece years was concert attire. Until 1986 women wore their own long evening gowns in a variety of pastel (and some not-so-pastel) shades, and the men wore dark suits and black bow ties. Now a uniform costume was chosen for the women: fuschia cocktail length dresses and charcoal hose. The men at first wore white shirts and black ties; they graduated to tuxedos in 1999. In 1990-91 the women had another dress change: fuschia dresses were out, and green cocktail-length dresses were in. Finally in 1996-97 the women’s costumes modulated to the present classic long black evening gowns in an easy-care stretch velvet that travels well. The navy blazers and gray skirts and pants (“grazers and blays”) that took generations of choristers to school concerts have now been replaced by less formal attire: blue jeans and dark green T-shirts sporting the UAMC logo (which was adopted in 1992), with the first two measures of the U of A Cheer Song on the back.
One of the more crucial de Frece decisions was the return of choir auditions. The change took place, not without some opposition, in the third year of Bob’s tenure. Bob now spends five full days in early September auditioning nearly 200 prospective members - seven minutes per applicant - such is the demand. Returning members are not required to re-audition.
Another change has been the addition of the Faculty of Education Handbell Ringers to UAMC concerts, which began in 1988 (irrepressible Bob again: “Handbells are like ginger ale: you can add them to anything.”) and, more recently, other instrumentalists - all from the multi-talented ranks of the Mixed Chorus.
The repertoire has become increasingly wide-ranging and challenging, encompassing several languages and every style, from Renaissance motets to folk and humanitarian songs, from Broadway show tunes to Ray’s popular Gospel Mass and Zimmer’s Mother Africa. Concerts now close with the lovely Good Night as singing choristers, handbell ringers and the conductor recess up the aisles in single file until no one is left on the darkened stage except a small instrumental ensemble.
In 1997 the spotlight at the Horowitz Theatre faded for the last time on Helen Stuart, the longest serving accompanist of the Mixed Chorus, who formed a unique eleven-year musical partnership with Bob de Frece. This creative partnership was typified when together they collaborated on a delightful cantata, covering in clever text and music the history of the UAMC in a nutshell, for presentation at a banquet preceding the fiftieth anniversary concert. (Fortunately this remarkable opus is preserved on the fiftieth anniversary CD.) Bob has often said of Helen Stuart, “She could read my mind!”
Rehearsals, which used to be held in Med 158, Ag 345 and for a short time in Fine Arts 1-29, are now held in Education North 2-115, an amphitheatre with good acoustics, and seats guaranteed to make one sit up straight!
On the business end of things, the Mixed Chorus now has its own well-equipped micro-office in the Education Building, and supports a website and two e-mail lists for easy communication among members and executive.
At the first rehearsal in the fall of 2002 a choir newsletter made its inaugural appearance, welcoming new members, introducing the executive and bringing everyone up to date on choir doings. The Mixed Chorus used to be dependent on grants or other financial assistance from the provincial government or the University. As that help began to dry up, the UAMC turned to bingos, and more recently to very lucrative casinos. In addition, the choir gained the support of the UAMC Alumni Association, a group that has dedicated both volunteer hours and financial support to the choir.
Bob de Frece and the UAMC celebrated the new millennium by moving their annual concert to Edmonton’s fine new concert hall, the Francis Winspear Centre for Music. With sell-out crowds ever since, they have never regretted the move to the larger venue.
Two years later, changes were made to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols - an event added to the Mixed Chorus agenda in 1981 at the invitation of the University Chaplains Association. This Christmas celebration, originally held in Convocation Hall, had a modest following on campus, but with a collaborative effort between Bob de Frece and U of A organ professor Marnie Giesbrecht the timing of the event was changed and the program revised, drawing a much larger audience. In 2002 the Festival of Nine Lesson and Carols was moved to the Winspear Centre and is thriving in that milieu.
Spring tours continue to be the highlight of the UAMC year. The Mixed Chorus has now performed in over 140 communities in western Canada and the U. S. The old homemade coke-box-and-plank risers have been replaced by a newer (and safer!) riser system. Free school concerts are still given wherever the Mixed Chorus sings; they are tailored to their young audiences, with the addition of action songs (e.g. The Unicorn) and a soup?on of palatable music education. Both children and teachers love them. Spring tours are always a time of farewell for graduating choristers, and tears are inevitable when continuing members serenade their departing friends with a verse of “God be with you till we meet again.”
Little did Gordon Clark know the legacy he would bequeath the University of Alberta when in 1944 he and a group of enthusiastic young singers formed the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus. In a series of torch-passings, each succeeding conductor has stood on the shoulders of those who came before him, and each has had his own vision and has left his unique stamp on the choir. After six decades the UAMC continues to be what it has been from its inception: an accepting and enfolding family, a close community-within-a-community, a communion of dedicated amateurs who sing for the joy of it, and one of the University of Alberta’s most valuable ambassadors, both throughout Alberta and beyond its borders. Long may the Mixed Chorus continue to “Ring out a cheer!”
Original: Alumni Chapters