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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Mendelssohn Glee Club celebrates its 142nd season this year. The oldest men's chorus in the country was once the darling of Manhattan society, but it now performs in relative obscurity. Over the years, the club has suffered the loss of its concert hall and the decline in membership, money and prestige.

Still, reporter Lars Hoel tells us that the men of the Mendelssohn Glee Club are sounding better than ever.

(Soundbite of Mendelssohn Glee Club singing)

LARS HOEL: In an overheated church basement, two dozen men sit in folding chairs around the battered grand piano. They're trying to wrap their voices around the song for the club's upcoming Christmas concert. These are mostly untrained voices, and director Gene Wisoff is the man trying to train them.

(Soundbite of Mendelssohn Glee Club singing)

Mr. GENE WISOFF (Director; Conductor, Mendelssohn Glee Club): Okay. It sounds pretty decent. A couple of things that I wanted to point out - you guys are too loud at the top of page 4. The middle section was lovely. That was really - when you were humming, you couldn't open your big mouths. That was wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WISOFF: Okay. Bottom of page 4, last measure.

(Soundbite of Mendelssohn Glee Club singing)

HOEL: Gene Wisoff is the 15th Mendelssohn Glee Club director. He joins a roster that includes the composer Edward MacDowell who led the group in the 1890s. Other conductors were also the heads of Julliard and the Metropolitan Opera. Gene Wisoff's resume includes work as a ringer, a professional singer brought in before a choir's big concert to prop up the amateur voices. In 1970, the Mendelssohn Glee Club hired him to do just that.

Mr. WISOFF: I was a good reader, and I also sang nicely and well, and so I got hired. There was this local agent who sent singers to different situations. You'd call up and say, I need a tenor and I need a baritone to do this and the gig is this, and this rehearsal and they have to come in do the performance and I will pay them $125.

HOEL: Shortly after becoming director, Gene Wisoff discovered the Mendelssohn Glee Club continued to use ringers. He says the practice not only costs too much, it was bad for the club's artistic health.

Mr. WISOFF: When I came in '95 and I saw how much money they were paying to have ringers cover up what couldn't be covered up, I said, this is not the way to do it. Because if you bring singers in - ringers in - two weeks before the performance and you haven't do two rehearsals and then they sing the performance, what happens is the rest of the chorus is still singing the same notes they always sang or they're not singing it at all.

HOEL: These days the Mendelssohn Glee Club is singing better than ever, according to Allan Needle. He's been with the club off and on since 1961. Then, the conductor was Emerson Buckley.

Compared to Gene Wisoff, Needle says, Buckley wasn't all that demanding.

Mr. ALLAN NEEDLE (Member, Mendelssohn Glee Club): Buckley didn't seem to give a damn. I mean, maybe he did. But he didn't work with us the way Gene does. The results of our performances were amateurish, I believe, by comparison because of that. I never remember him stopping and working over a section to get it right. And I was - I often would wonder why - you know, why we don't correct these things, why didn't he correct these things.

(Soundbite of Mendelssohn Glee Club vocalizing)

Mr. GENE WISOFF (Conductor): Gian, I'm glad you looked up at me to the cutoff. That's good. You got to look up at me. Take a chance. The music is not on the pages. It's in your head.

Ready? Three, four.

(Soundbite of Mendelssohn Glee Club singing)

HOEL: The day before their Christmas concert, the Mendelssohn Glee Club is rehearsing in a small church on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It's a nice, little sanctuary but a far cry from the club's glory days over a hundred years ago when a wealthy member gave them a parcel of land at 40th and Broadway, along with the money to build the four-story Mendelssohn Hall. Boasting an 1,100-seat auditorium complete with pipe organ, the hall was the centerpiece of one of the most elite organizations in the country.

Gene Wisoff says the Mendelssohn Glee Club of that era reminds him of something out of a 19th-century operetta.

Mr. WISOFF: These are high-powered people, bankers, businessmen. It sort of reminds me of Dei Fledermaus with Orlovsky and this grand party. This is the event of the season, you know? And that's what Mendelssohn was. It was the event of the season, and only the rich and famous could go to those things and be invited. I mean, they didn't sell tickets. You were invited. And if you weren't invited, you weren't - you didn't count.

HOEL: Gene Wisoff says all of that is now ancient history along with Mendelssohn Hall, torn down in 1912. These days, the Mendelssohn Glee Club has difficulty filling even a small concert hall. Part of that is due to a decline in membership. The club has about 25 singing members, down from more than three times that many in its heyday. There's also a small matter of money. Wisoff says they're running out of it.

Mr. WISOFF: It seems as though the club's, I'd say in the last 30 years, forgot that they weren't rich anymore. And they just continued to spend money.

HOEL: Even though the club isn't what it once was, financially or socially, members agreed the quality of its singing may be the best it's ever been. The paid professional singers are long gone. And they don't seem to be needed.

MENDELSSOHN GLEE CLUB: (Singing) O sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation…

Mr. WISOFF: Stand off. Stand off.

MENDELSSOHN GLEE CLUB: (Singing) Sing all…

Mr. WISOFF: Again, Two, three, four, three, four, they enter.

(Soundbite of piano being played)

MENDELSSOHN GLEE CLUB: (Singing): Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation.

Mr. WISOFF: You have to tell them exactly what to do. That is, you say, I want you to start here at a certain fine, you get a little quiet here, then lift up, or hold this note just a touch long or make it build it shorter or something like that. So you got to tell them exactly what they supposed to do. And somewhere in all that, feelings will emerge. Of course, they think the music is on the page. They would swear the music - and the music is not the page. The music is in their heads. It's in your heart. It's not on that page.

MENDELSSOHN GLEE CLUB: (Singing) O come, let us adore him. O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

HOEL: In May, Gene Wisoff will direct the Mendelssohn Glee Club in the final concert of its 142nd season at a location to be determined.

For NPR News, I'm Lars Hoel.

MENDELSSOHN GLEE CLUB: (Singing) Whisper, whisper, Baby born today. Whisper, whisper, tiny baby, he sleeps in the hay. Whisper, whisper, baby born today. Whisper, whisper.

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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