Syracuse University Magazine

Perfect Harmony

Perfect Harmony

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

By Christine Yackel

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

Being a new member of the University Singers, which requires an annual audition, can be a humbling experience. In high school, the students were most likely featured soloists, but in college, they soon learn that nearly everyone is at the same level of musicality. “I quickly discovered I’m not the only one who can hit the high notes,” says Godzak, who sings tenor. “In choir, everyone has their own job to do, and finding your role is the most difficult part because everyone wants to be a leader. I had to take a step back and realize I didn’t have to be the showstopper.”

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 last spring, 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. “Our first concert in a gorgeous 19th-century church in Paris wasn’t up to our high standards because we were jet lagged, exhausted from sightseeing, and distracted by being in a foreign country,” says music education major Rachel Heyman ’16. “I’ll never forget the talk Dr. Warren gave us after the concert. It was the turning point, because all of us realized we needed to get it together and refocus.”

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.”

Warren says he always dreamed of taking the choir overseas, but winning the grand prize was far beyond his expectations. Now it is on to Varna, Bulgaria, where the University Singers will compete in the European Choral Grand Prix in May, along with the individual winners from 2015. “We have to be there because only six choirs in the world are invited,” Warren says. “Chancellor Syverud, a choral singer himself, describes this as the ‘Final Four of Choral Competitions.’ I think it’s a wonderful metaphor that connects with a lot of people.”

Competing in the European Choral Grand Prix is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Godzak and Heyman, but so is their college graduation, which will be held on the same weekend next spring. Godzak says his mother is OK with him missing graduation because she knows he has his heart set on going to Bulgaria—as does Heyman. “This time we’ll be competing with a completely different mindset,” she says. “Now we know what it takes to win.”


Professor John F. Warren, director of choral activities at the Setnor School of Music, conducts the University Singers, who won an international competition in France last spring.

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 SU’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. Soule Leiter ’66, G’76, who sang in the Hendricks Chapel Choir as an undergraduate and was a member of the Oratorio Society for 18 years, says during performances there can be a magical moment when everything comes together. “In an instant, the conductor, orchestra, and singers become one, and it touches your soul,” Leiter says.

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.” During the 2015-16 season, the group is scheduled to present the Fauré and Brahms requiems, Handel’s Messiah, and the premiere of Cre­do, a choral piece composed by Setnor professor Joe Downing for the Oratorio Society and the combined choirs of six local churches.

Linda Saul, senior project manager for the Department of Enterprise Process Support at SU, is in her 31st year as an Oratorio member. “I know inside what it means to me to sing with this group, but it’s difficult to put into words,” she says. “The unity and teamwork required to produce such beautiful music and depth of feeling is thrilling. And I’ve gotten to know some really interesting students. I’m so grateful to the University for continuing to support Oratorio because it means so much to the members of the chorus and community.”


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.”

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. One of the great campus choral traditions, the choir provides music for the Sunday morning United Methodist Ecumenical Campus Ministry service, as well as for such special events as the annual Holidays at Hendricks—the group’s biggest artistic endeavor. “The choir is a sanctuary for me,” says Veronica Ortiz-Calderon ’16, a television, radio, film major in the Newhouse School who hails from Puerto Rico. “Taking a break from my high-stress, day-to-day commitments to sing together is really a blessing. Once you become a member of the choir, you’re family for life, and that’s how we like to treat each other—with love and acceptance always.”

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.” «


Professor Peppie Calvar, assistant director of choral activities at the Setnor School of Music, conducts the Hendricks Chapel Choir at the annual Holidays at Hendricks concert.


Concert Choir

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

The Women’s Choir offers SU 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 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.


Alumni of the Hendricks Chapel Choir rehearse a hymn with student choir members in preparation for the Sunday service during Orange Central 2015.

Photos by Steve Sartori

Holidays at Hendricks

Carol of the Bells from Syracuse University News on Vimeo.

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