Chorale of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges Expands for Virtual Performance
Because the group’s preparation for and performance of J. S. Bach’s “Dona nobis pacem” was done online, the Chorale was able to welcome alumni singers from around the world to participate.
There was one silver lining to the pandemic canceling large group-singing events: if groups like the Bi-Co Chorale were going to have to rehearse and sing their annual choral masterwork performance virtually, its membership could expand. Unbound by geography, conductor Nathan Zullinger opened up the group’s admission to alumni, as well as staff and faculty, who lived far beyond commuting distance.
Over 200 singers expressed interest and 140 eventually assembled online to learn, practice, and record J. S. Bach’s “Dona nobis pacem” accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra of local professional musicians. (The video of the Chorale’s virtual performance—pieced together from more than 150 individual audio tracks by Alexander Brusencev, an audio engineer from Frankfurt, Germany—premiered New Year’s Day 2021.)
“I’ve always loved the B Minor Mass, but particularly the last movement,” said Zullinger, who was inspired to add “Dona nobis pacem” to the repertoire after hearing it on a playlist during a walk over the summer. “It is a culmination of the complete work, but also projects forward in the most universal terms. The piece spoke to me in a very different context this summer, and I knew that it could provide a point of focus for our work this fall.”
The group met Wednesday afternoons to work on vocal technique and explore the history of the “Dona nobis pacem” text. Some of the singers were on campus, logging in from laptops in their dorm rooms and attending rehearsals in an open-air tent on Lloyd Green, while others joined from much farther afield.
Frank De Mita ’81 Zoomed into rehearsals from his apartment in Athens, Greece, despite the fact that they started at 11 p.m. local time for him. The former classical and near eastern archeology major had been a Chorale member for four years as a student—as well as a three-year member of the Bi-Co Chamber Singers—and found ways to keep singing in the decades since his graduation, most recently as a member of the Edinburgh International Festival Chorus, as, pre-pandemic, he lives part-time in Scotland. But he was particularly excited by Zullinger’s invitation to be back in his college choral group, albeit remotely.
It was like being back in a classroom after many years and I don't think I fully realized just how much I missed that experience,” said De Mita. “… It was special—in spite of the [technical] challenges—to work on a piece as thoroughly as we did the Bach 'Dona nobis pacem' movement from the B minor Mass—a mere three-minutes and 20 seconds or so of music—and really get under its skin. I've missed having such opportunities to develop a deep knowledge of a musical work, and the past few months were wonderful.”
Sandra Tamarin ’13, a former biology major who lives near Philadelphia, was part of the Chorale for two years during her time at Haverford and had continued singing with them on and off since her graduation. But she was particularly grateful for the opportunity this year, when so much else was canceled or postponed.
“I think that reaching out to the community and inviting past participants to return was a brilliant idea—chorale is a very social activity, perfect for a year that’s been startlingly lonely, and judging by the number of people that showed up every week, a lot of people felt the same way,” she said. “Of course I would have preferred to be there in person, and to get a chance to hang out with friends, but it was still nice to be able to see faces over Zoom and to know that there were all these people taking the time out of their day to be present.”
In addition to the rehearsals and the lectures, Zullinger also brought guest clinicians to the weekly meetings to discuss singing technique and their own compositions. Both De Mita and Tamarin said that the most meaningful part of the semester was the visit by Joel Thompson, composer of The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, that included viewing a performance of that piece, which uses, as text, the last words of seven unarmed African American men killed by police or authority figures. Thompson’s virtual visit, said Zullinger, was an opportunity for further discussion about race in classical music and choral singing as a healing force.
A new College fund, the Music Virtual Chorale Project, established in 2020 by Benn '62 and Eva Sah, supports production costs associated with virtual concerts, including sound engineering and editing. The Chorale’s virtual performance of the “Dona nobis pacem” is the first to be supported through this new project.
“I’m proud that, at the end of an impossible year, we can summarize all our efforts in these three simple and timeless words,” Zullinger said. “Though we miss performing together in the traditional sense, we still have important work to do.”
The spring session of the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Chorale will begin in early February. Sessions will be streamed live, and all students, faculty, staff, alums, and friends of the colleges are invited to participate, whether near or far. Contact Nate Zullinger at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the list.