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Past and present, generations of University Singers united

Sunday, March 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:52 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
MU graduate student Meghan Callahan, left, and pianist Rachel Aubuchon organize sheet music before the University Concert Singers’ performance in McKee Gymnasium on Saturday.

The University Singers alumni who gathered at MU on Saturday hadn’t had the opportunity to sing together in more than a decade. But their performance voices must have come back to them naturally.

With no rehearsal and not even a minute to warm up, about 70 former members of MU’s premier choral ensemble sang of a beautiful “April Rain” on daffodils and trees, which contrasted sharply with the unusually chilly and snowy March afternoon. The performance also included a mixture of other classical and “old favorite” songs.

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Founded in 1946 by Paul Van Bodegraven, the University Singers has maintained a steady membership of around 50 performers over the last six decades. At the daylong gathering, alumni ranged from 21st century graduates to Marjorie Phelps, who was a member of the very first ensemble and has been singing since grade school.

“I saw in the invitation that they had our group’s picture in it, so I knew I wanted to come,” Phelps said. “Since I’m part of the first group, I guess I’m the dean of women at this get-together.”

Phelps became a high school government and economics teacher after graduating, and many other members from the ensemble’s earlier years graduated with degrees outside music. Randy Singer, who sang in the group in the mid-1970s, graduated with a business degree and is a funeral director in Chillicothe.

“I honestly never thought I was a superb singer,” he said. “But when I found out I got in, I jokingly said, ‘Our conductor must want people who love to sing, not ones who could take his job.’”

Singer said the ensemble would regularly sell out Jesse Auditorium and even got to travel to Washington, D.C., for a concert during the nation’s bicentennial.

In recent years, the group has gained a number of music majors and has performed in concert halls around the world, said Melvin Platt, director of the School of Music. Last May, the singers went on a 12-day tour to Prague, Vienna and Budapest. The group hopes to take another tour in about three years.

Paul Crabb, the ensemble’s conductor since 2003, said the group’s travels are part of keeping up with the performance music industry. But this reunion, he said, reminded the current members of the group’s history.

“You look at these people, and you realize that a lot of them are close friends,” Crabb said. “That sense of camaraderie is an influential and important part of their lives that I want the current students to instill in each other.”

The unity of the group was present during their performance at McKee Gymnasium, located on Hitt Street. After a few songs, the singers would take time out to mingle with each other, share laughter and recall memories of performances and bus trips gone awry.

Later that night, the current singers spread themselves among the former members and even serenaded them after dinner. Singer said he wants the current University Singers to feel like part of a continually growing family.

“I know that if I needed something, I could call any of my friends from the group, and they’d be there for me in a second,” Singer said. “This group gave me 40 lifelong friends that I can count on. This sense of friendship needs to continue throughout present and future University Singers.”


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