Yale Glee Club: Reuniting, And It Feels So Good The undergraduate ensemble celebrates its 150th anniversary this year — and, as decades' worth of alumni will testify, it's more than just an extracurricular activity.
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Yale Glee Club: Reuniting, And It Feels So Good

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Yale Glee Club: Reuniting, And It Feels So Good

Yale Glee Club: Reuniting, And It Feels So Good

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The TV show "Glee" can only dream of having as long a run as the Yale Glee Club. The university's choral group is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. And next weekend, when generations of glee club alumni head to New Haven, Connecticut for a reunion, Naomi Lewin will be there.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Neath the Elms")

NAOMI LEWIN: My freshman year of college, someone asked what I was majoring in. My immediate response was glee club. At Yale, glee club is an extracurricular activity, but I continued to major in it all through college. Singing has always been a big part of life at Yale, no matter what you're studying.

Vincent Price and William Sloan Coffin sang in the glee club, and so did Cole Porter, who wrote a football song celebrating Yale's mascot.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Bulldog")

LEWIN: Another alum is Richard Brookhiser, who's now senior editor at the National Review. In college, he was already active in conservative politics, so he enjoyed the wide cross-section of people he met in the glee club.

Mr. RICHARD BROOKHISER (Senior Editor, National Review): These were people who weren't into politics, or didn't share my politics necessarily. But when you were singing, that didn't matter because you were all focused on the music, and having a good time doing the music.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Every Time I Feel the Spirit")

LEWIN: The glee club performs a mixture of spirituals, folk songs and serious classical music.

Mr. BROOKHISER: And that also showed someone who was maybe snobbish like I was, that all these different kinds of music have a value.

LEWIN: The Yale Glee Club dates back to February 1861, and in all this time, there've only been seven conductors. Ninety-three-year-old Stowe Phelps sang under the fourth one, Marshall Bartholomew - known as "Barty."

Mr. STOWE PHELPS (Former Member, Yale Glee Club): "Barty" was a wonderful, affable teacher and conductor. He made us work hard and insisted upon perfection.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Shenandoah")

LEWIN: "Barty" arranged dozens of folk songs and spirituals for what was then an all-male glee club. Jeffrey Douma, current conductor of the glee club, says it was no wonder that a music publisher snapped up those arrangements.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Shenandoah")

Mr. JEFFREY DOUMA (Conductor, Yale Glee Club): From our vantage point in 2011, they seem very old fashioned, but they were very fresh, and very exciting, and that's why his collection of songs of Yale was the staple of male chorus repertoire for decades. Still is, actually.

LEWIN: "Barty" led the glee club for over three decades and his successor, Fenno Heath, spent nearly four decades conducting and composing for the group. In 1969, during his tenure, Yale went co-ed, and so did the glee club. Stowe Phelps was not the only alumnus to have mixed feelings about losing the male glee club.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Mother of Men")

Mr. PHELPS: There is a passion, there is a vigor, there is a forcefulness, which is more thrilling.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Mother of Men")

LEWIN: But the glee club survived and thrived as a mixed chorus.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Carmina Burana")

LEWIN: Yale Students down through the years have found the glee club's rehearsal room in Hendrie Hall a refuge from academic and other pressures. Roy Byrd was there in the 1960s when...

Mr. ROY BYRD: Being black at Yale was a big deal. Being black in the glee club was no bigger a deal than Yale generally. And in fact, because we had something in common with one another in the glee club, it was a small deal.

LEWIN: Byrd was also one of the glee club's soloists.

(Soundbite of Mr. Byrd singing "Ca' the Yowes")

LEWIN: Prochie Mukherji arrived at the Yale Law School in 1972.

Ms. PROCHIE MUKHERJI: There I was, a student from India, very far away from home, and the Yale glee club really was my door to making friends and to meeting people.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Fa Una Cazona")

Ms. MUKHERJI: It was a wonderful experience to have a common language in music.

LEWIN: Everyone agrees that the friends they made in the glee club are friends for life. Touring reinforces those friendships, with concerts across the country every winter, and tours abroad every other summer.

Conductor Jeffrey Douma considers the social element key to his group.

Mr. DOUMA: We're not only trying to serve the music and the composer, and we're not only singing for the audience, but we're also singing for each other. And we want to get it right for each other.

Ms. MARI OYE: One friend of mine jokingly called glee club a nostalgia factory.

LEWIN: Political science major Mari Oye is a senior in this year's group.

Ms. OYE: The continuity of glee club across time, for the last 150 years -that's something I hadn't thought about as much until my senior year. I'm hoping we'll still be kicking for the 200th reunion, and we'll be able to come back to Hendrie and bawl our eyes out.

LEWIN: Next Saturday's reunion concert will feature 75 years' worth of glee club members on stage together, from Stowe Phelps, class of 1939, through current glee club freshmen, class of 2014. And the current Yale Glee Club will perform at Carnegie Hall in April.

(Soundbite of Yale Glee Club singing "Bright College Years")

LEWIN: For God, for country, and for NPR news, I'm Naomi Lewin.

(Soundbite of music)

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

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