By Laura Barlament
Traveling and spreading the joy of music have always been part of the choral tradition at Wagner College.
The first reference to an organized student singing group is found in a May 1931 German Lutheran church newspaper, Der Lutherische Herold [The Lutheran Herald]. In a “Report on Mission Work Among Immigrants in New York Harbor in the Year 1930,” Pastor E. A. Sievert describes worship services he is conducting on Ellis Island. A photo accompanying the story shows four members of the Wagner College Glee Club on their way to Ellis Island to support the pastor “with music and song,” as he writes. “May God reward them for what they have done for these people who often feel unfortunate,” he concludes.
Up to this day, the choir continues to help students find their voices, discover the vast cultural riches of music from all ages and all around the world, and share the joy of human harmony with audiences locally, around the United States, and beyond. As the cover notes of the choir’s 1975 album puts it, they are Wagner College’s “ambassadors in song.”
What follows is a glimpse into the history and the lived experience of the Wagner College Choir — one of the few institutions within the College that has such longevity and continuing vitality.
“No other course at the College was, I think, capable of offering its students the prospect of realizing so much of their own potential [as was choir]. … We learned many specific things that can be cast in an academic mold. And we built a community among ourselves, one we were thrilled to share in the best possible ways with anyone who would show even the slightest interest, one that endures to this day. Night after night after night, ten measures into the first piece we sang, we had reached out and invited audiences to take part in it, and they did. I can’t remember a single instance of an audience not responding with enthusiasm that sometimes surprised even them.”
— Gene Barfield ’75
Founding: Silas H. Engum, 1935–43
The choir was founded in 1935. Silas H. Engum, its first director, represents the choir’s roots in the Midwestern Lutheran tradition, shaped by F. Melius Christiansen, the genius of a cappella choral singing from St. Olaf College. Engum was one of his students, as were most Wagner choral conductors who followed him through the early 1980s.
The Wagner College A Cappella Choir, as it was known, performed only religious music with no instrumental accompaniment (as the designation a cappella indicates). The 1936 Kallista boasted that Wagner’s choir “sings in the style of the famous St. Olaf choir” and that its 40 members were selected from 85 applicants.
The choir went on its first tour in March 1939, visiting nearby areas: Long Island, New Jersey, and central New York State. During the following years, it expanded its travel to Pennsylvania and western New York State. The choir also performed regularly for radio broadcasts on major New York City stations.
War and Post-War Period: John L. Bainbridge, 1944–49
Starting in 1942, the impact of World War II on College life, including the choir, was significant, as most young men were drafted into military service. The choir was briefly disbanded during 1943, and Engum left the College. But by early 1944, the choir had been reorganized as an all-women’s ensemble under the direction of music professor John L. Bainbridge. During the post-war enrollment boom, choir membership exploded, reaching its all-time high point of 80 members in the spring of 1948. The choir gained popularity through local concerts and radio broadcasts. It resumed touring in 1946, appearing throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
The choir’s first-ever LP recording was made in 1949. A superb Juilliard-trained organist, Bainbridge did not stick strictly to the Lutheran a cappella tradition. The LP represents Bainbridge’s mix of repertoire, from the sacred and classical to the secular and popular. Although the album cover features the words “Wagner College A Capella [sic] Choir,” some of the selections are accompanied by organ and piano, as appropriate for those varied styles of music.
The Establishment Era: Sigvart J. Steen, 1949–68
Sigvart Steen ushered in a long-lasting and very memorable era of the Wagner College Choir. Dynamic, intense, and committed to choral excellence, Steen was already a noted conductor when he moved to the New York City area in the summer of 1948, so that his wife, contralto Margery Mayer Steen, could further her operatic career. A graduate of Luther College and St. Olaf College, he had conducted the U.S. Navy’s Great Lakes Blue Jackets Choir and founded the Luther College Nordic Cathedral Choir. In the fall of 1949, Wagner College hired Steen as professor and chair of music and choir conductor.
The Choir’s Home
Also in 1949, the College purchased the old Ward family estate, located across Howard Avenue (then known as Serpentine Road) from the main campus. Today, it’s the location of the Wagner football stadium; but from 1949 to 1992, the 18-acre property included a gracious 19-room mansion built in 1867 by William Green Ward, a wealthy banker who had served as a colonel in the Civil War.
The Ward house became the choir’s home for about 35 years. The long schlep from the main campus to the Music Building (as it was known) for choir rehearsals, in all kinds of weather, is a leitmotif of chorister lore. During most of the Steen years, these rehearsals took place daily, first thing in the morning. Once the students reached the building with its wraparound porch, they ascended a large stairway to the second floor, where the choir used the old home’s ballroom as its rehearsal space. This special place — a beautiful old house devoted to the art of music — bestowed a certain romance upon the choral identity at Wagner College.
Steen took the choir on 16 tours across the United States and Canada, plus one time to Europe, when they were invited to sing at the convention of the Lutheran World Federation in Hannover, Germany, in July and August of 1952. The only American college choir at this event, they were received rapturously by large audiences.
The regular tours were three-week journeys, undertaken during January and February, by bus or by train. The timing often meant extreme winter weather. In 1955, they traveled 3,500 miles throughout the Midwest and Canada, singing for as many as 13,000 people during their travels. Washington, D.C., became a regular stop starting in 1956. In 1960, the tour incorporated 18 states, from the Midwest to California and back through the South. In 1962, they appeared in Florida for the first time, as part of an 11-state tour.
Rehearsing and Performing
“On the first day of rehearsal, we were given music and told that it would be collected within a week. Wow! We spent a great deal of time in the piano room of our dorm trying to memorize the music and be prepared for the collection. Fortunately, there were many choir members who had been in the choir for several years and were able to carry the bulk of us while we learned as we went along.
“The concerts were always a cappella. Our full attention was on Dr. Steen. And we ended each concert with ‘Beautiful Savior.’ We would all sing the first verse and then, as we began to hum, Dr. Steen would point to one of the choir members, and have them sing the next verse. They all sang so beautifully.”
— Gale Tollefsen Bellafiore ’61
On the Road
“In January or February of 1951, while traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike en route to New Kensington, west of Pittsburgh, we stopped for lunch at the midway rest area, where we ran into the Concordia College Choir, led by Paul Christiansen, son of F. Melius Christiansen of St. Olaf College fame. We had an impromptu mini-concert as dueling choirs. It was a great time. Back on board the bus, Dr. Steen told us that the reason we were required to wear jackets and ties, and dresses for the women, was so we would appear as professionals. The Concordia students were wearing army fatigues, jeans, etc. They looked rather ragtag and sloppy compared to us — point made.”
— Bill Wehrli ’53
Around the United States
“The single most important part of my days at Wagner was my membership in the choir. The extended choir tours defined those years, when we sang in Lutheran churches, colleges, and famous concert halls around the country. Night after night for three weeks we rolled along, our concerts following church suppers given by our hosts; afterwards we stayed in people’s homes. In the days before ‘reality TV,’ I experienced the diversity of the lives of everyday folks in many different parts of our country.”
— Caroline Runyon Zuber ’58
Genesis of a Choir Couple
“I met June Billings, my future wife, on the 1956 choir tour. … I took an immediate liking to her …. [Before tours,] the choir seniors would convene in order to determine which guys would chaperone which gals while on tour. As it happened, another bass also had his eyes on June, but I persisted, and won. The rest is history: 59-plus years of marriage to this very bright and beautiful Swede. We always describe our relationship as a ‘college choir marriage.’ June and I still sing together at Hope Lutheran in Bozeman, Montana.”
— Jeff Safford ’56 M’59
Passing of the Baton, 1969
Steen was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 1965. Nevertheless, in January-February 1966, he led the choir on a 7,000-mile, 24-concert, coast-to-coast journey, which concluded with a sold-out homecoming concert at Philharmonic Hall (now known as David Geffen Hall) in Lincoln Center.
In December 1968, “Steen was vigorously rehearsing the choir for its annual Christmas Concert when he fell seriously ill and was admitted to the hospital,” writes his son, Richard Steen, in a biographical essay. “He had in fact made music with his students up to the week before he succumbed to the fatal illness on December 20, 1968.”
Steen left his choir with a complete plan for another coast-to-coast tour in January and February of 1969, crossing the breadth of Canada and returning via the Upper Midwestern U.S. The choir’s 60 members unanimously voted to go on with the tour in Steen’s memory. His widow, Margery Mayer Steen, as well as Walter E. Bock, Wagner director of church relations, accompanied them. A junior music major, Allan DiBiase ’72, who had been working as Steen’s assistant and rehearsal accompanist, was selected as the conductor.
Baptism by Fire — or by Ice?
“The train trip across Canada and back across the northern USA was during one of the coldest years on record, culminating in -40º temperatures, the trains freezing to the tracks, and delays in the Rockies due to avalanches. We performed at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and some very large cathedrals and churches in Canada. … It was a true ‘baptism by fire.’”
— Allan DiBiase ’72
Growing the Tradition: Arnold Running, 1969–79
Hired in the fall of 1969, Arnold Running, like Steen, trained in the F. Melius Christiansen tradition at St. Olaf College. Before coming to Wagner, he experienced great success as a choral director at Parsons College in Iowa and Augustana College in South Dakota, leading both ensembles on tours of the United States and of Europe.
A highlight of the Running years was the choir’s return to Europe. Running led the choir on three month-long trips, in May–June of 1972, 1975, and 1978. Every year the choir tour began or ended in Bregenz, Austria, where Wagner College had operated a satellite campus since 1962. Other tour stops included Munich, Berlin, Hannover, Darmstadt, Bonn, and Stuttgart.
Running continued the Steen tradition of extensive annual U.S. tours, although the travel time was reduced from three to two weeks. Running also introduced some significant innovations: The choir’s first tour under his direction included 47 choir members — and 15 instrumentalists! Traveling in New York and New England, the choir and chamber orchestra performed a challenging program that included Renaissance music and 20th-century compositions, as well as a selection of folk songs, hymns, and spirituals. At the end of the March 1977 tour, the Wagner College Choir made its second appearance in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.
A Gentle Man
“Although I was a nursing major, my four years at Wagner centered around the choir. I was too immature to appreciate what a fine human being Dr. Running was. His patience, kindness and musicianship seemed to know no bounds. I sang with some very fine choral conductors for about 30 years after graduation, but I always have kept a very special place in my heart for Dr. Running and his ‘Love Principle.’ Once a year or so, Dr. Running would explain to the choir that his approach to making music with others was to approach every rehearsal with love. When he did that, everything simply worked out the way God planned.”
— Kristine Iwersen Moore ’77
“What Dr. Arnold Running managed to bring forth from us, most of whom were not music majors, continues to astound me to this day, more than 40 years later. We did not believe, at times, that we were capable of creating such magic.”
— Gene Barfield ’75
A Part-Time Interim: Richard Steen and Jan Meyel, 1979–86
Dr. Running’s former students say he was forced to retire in 1979. It was a time when the College was at its nadir, veering to the edge of bankruptcy. The Ward house was closed in 1984, because its heating system was deemed irreparable. Neglected, the grand old house fell victim to vandals and fires; it was demolished in late 1992 or early 1993. North Hall (today’s Reynolds House) housed the music department, and the choir rehearsed in a Spiro lecture hall. The choral directors were part-time instead of full-time faculty, limiting the choir’s activities. Yet students from this time still recall the joy of the music they made.
Sigvart Steen’s son Richard grew up at Wagner College and became a musician himself. In fact, he gave his first voice recital in Guild Hall in 1968, with Allan DiBiase as accompanist. A graduate of St. Olaf College and the Yale School of Music and former music professor and choral conductor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, he served part time as Wagner’s choral director from 1979 to 1981. He led the Wagner College Choir on a wide-ranging tour in March of 1980, encompassing nine states and Washington, D.C.
Jan Meyel, an affable and talented vocalist who performed internationally, then took over as choir director from 1981 to 1986. Former students like Annmarie Lambiasi ’85 remember his “larger-than-life personality,” his warmth and humor. The choir did not go on tours, but performed at local churches and on campus, with repertoire ranging from Lutheran hymns to classical pieces to Broadway medleys.
One Harmonious Voice
“I joined the Wagner College Choir in the fall of 1979. … Dr. Richard Steen was the choir director, and his passion for music was demonstrated at each and every practice and performance. The choir included a diverse group of male and female students, who came together at least twice a week, to create one harmonious voice. While we all were different majors, at choir practice and performances, we were all the same: singers. … Being a choir member provided me with discipline, time management, and leadership skills. All of these have added to my success as a nurse leader today.”
— Lorraine DiBartolo Flood ’83, MSN, RN
A Turn of Fortune: Castleberry, Gardner, and Unger, 1986–96
The choir’s fortunes started to turn around in the mid-1980s. A new music department chair, Ronald Lee (a graduate of Luther College, where Sigvart Steen had founded a famous Midwestern choir), hired David Castleberry in 1986 as the first full-time faculty member and choir director since Arnold Running’s retirement. During his four years, this Texas-trained musician built the choir back up from around 20 to more than 40 members. The choir resumed its annual spring tours starting in 1988, a tradition that has continued unbroken to this day. In addition, in May–June of 1990, the choir went on a 20-day Europe tour, performing in Germany, Austria, and Italy. “For me, it represented a culmination of four years of building,” Castleberry says.
When Castleberry departed Wagner to become the choir director at Marshall University, he connected the department with another excellent conductor, Patrick Gardner, who led the choir until 1993 — when he went to Rutgers, where he is still director of choral activities. Jeffrey Unger, who was previously a high school and college choral conductor in New Jersey, then led the Wagner College Choir for three years. Gardner and Unger both maintained the choir’s local performing schedule and annual tours in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
A Unique Sound
“I was a music major with a concentration in voice at Wagner, but one reason I loved the choir so much was that it wasn’t all music majors. We just had everyone who liked to sing. We had a unique sound, with beautiful trained and untrained voices, all voice types. Dr. Unger was a perfectionist. One trick I learned from him, which I still use when I’m directing shows at Shawnee Playhouse [a regional theater in Pennsylvania], is to position the voices in the ensemble for the best sound, matching up different timbres and vibrato. Also, from Wagner College Choir I learned to love all different styles of music. There are so many types of pieces out there for choir, so many styles and sounds you can get.”
— Sara Schappert Ferguson ’97
Expansion and Excellence: Roger Wesby, 1996–present
Roger Wesby came to Wagner College in 1996 with wide-ranging musical and cultural experiences that he has poured into his work with the Wagner College Choir. His wife, Barbara Wesby, is the choir’s accompanist and an adjunct faculty member who teaches composition and musicianship. Both are composers as well, and they have had long experience with teaching music in El Salvador and Costa Rica as well as in the United States. In addition, Roger Wesby has a background in jazz: For quite a while early in his career, he says, he was torn between pursuing classical trumpet, jazz trumpet, and choral conducting. He even had his own big band in Costa Rica, before he finally settled on choral conducting as his main focus, returned to the United States after 14 years abroad, and earned choral conducting degrees from the Westminster Choir College and Indiana University.
Every year, Wesby has led the choir on spring tours covering the Northeast, the Southeast, California, and Florida. Along with choir alumni, the Wagner College Choir returned to Germany and Austria in 2013 — the first such trip since the Castleberry choir’s in 1990. Under Wesby, the Wagner choir has joined other U.S. choirs several times for concerts in Carnegie Hall, and they have performed great works such as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Brahms’ Requiem, and Orff’s Carmina Burana. And the innovations continue: In March of 2017, they will strike out into uncharted Wagner Choir territory, with a 10-day tour of Spain.
Fitting with his diverse background, Wesby says, “There is worthy music in every genre.” The choir’s repertoire now includes music ranging over a 500-year span of history by composers and folk traditions from around the world.
A Proud Choir Alum
“Being a member of the choir was one of the best things I did after I transferred to Wagner from a state school in Massachusetts. I was the choir tour manager my junior and senior years, planning a Northeastern tour in the spring of 2005 and a Florida tour in spring of 2006. So many memories were made on those trips, meeting new people and building stronger friendships. Another [highlight] would be performing at Carnegie Hall in the fall of 2003. … Looking back, I still can’t believe I sang at Carnegie Hall. Dr. Wesby was one of the most important people of my college career at Wagner, and I thank him for all of his support, guidance, and believing in me for my three years at Wagner. I was also a member of Espresso and Stretto, close harmony jazz ensembles, and loved that as well. I’m a proud Wagner College choir alum and wouldn’t trade my time at Wagner for anything in the world!”
— Kara Plant McEachern ’06
Growing in Musicianship
“I came to Wagner knowing that I would enjoy the college choir, because my friend Sylvia Maisonet ’16 told me about the fun she had in Dr. Roger Wesby’s choir. On the first day of choir, we did vocal warm-ups that I’d never encountered in my previous years in choir. It made me feel excited to join such a professional and hard-working group of musicians. … The music we encounter on a weekly basis ranges from sophisticated Aaron Copland pieces to soulful jazz masterpieces by the Wesbys to dramatic Bach chorales. As an aspiring musician, college choir has taught me to be disciplined, humble, and versatile as a singer and composer.”
— Ariel Ubaldegaray ’18