“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 an enthusiasm that sometimes surprised even them.”
Gene Barfield ’75 wrote the above sentences about his experience with singing in the Wagner College Choir more than 40 years ago. The memories of that time linger so powerfully, he says, that they still bring tears to his eyes.
I can testify that the Wagner choir still has the same magic today. I think of a concert at Trinity Lutheran Church on a Sunday in March of last year. I arrived late, feeling harried. As soon as I sat down in the quiet church, the choir started singing Virgil Thomson’s arrangement of the 23rd Psalm (to the tune by William Bradbury and words by Isaac Watts). My skin tingled; my body relaxed. In short, I was transported. I stayed in that state of wonder for the rest of the concert, a tour through multiple styles, times, and traditions of vocal music.
It feels so ancient and yet so alive, this tradition of 50 or so young people using their bodies, minds, and hearts as musical instruments. Their blended sound reaches you directly, through vibrations in a shared space, with all the warmth of a human touch. In this world where people interact with each other more and more through the mediation of electronic screens and sounds, a choir concert exercises a primal power.
I began to appreciate this art form even more last fall, when for the first time in my life I sang in a choir — the Richmond Choral Society of Staten Island, which has a remarkable record of 65 years of performing great choral music.
In the alto section I found friends like Gale Tollefsen Bellafiore ’61, who sang in the Wagner choir under Sigvart Steen. She’s been with the Richmond Choral Society since 1972 — nearly four and a half decades. In the 1980s, she participated in the summer choral workshops of the revered conductor Robert Shaw, even joining his international choir in France in 1988. She is still singing.
The choir is perhaps the longest-enduring student group within the institution of Wagner College. (This history is the subject of a feature in the fall 2016 issue of Wagner Magazine.) It’s a tie that binds the Wagner generations together and gives so much that is good to students and to the world. May it endure for many more generations to come.
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine