‘Sounding Joy!’ – a classic Vermont chorus – is now quiet

RANDOLPH — Sounding Joy!, the noted Randolph-based auditioned chorus, is disbanding after almost three decades of singing together. Founded in 1984 by Marjorie Drysdale, the group has performed throughout Vermont, presenting music from the 16th century to the present.
Sometimes the music was delivered in standard concert format, but often it was served up on a platter of music, stories, scripts, costumes and food.
By the end of its run, Sounding Joy! had brought performances to the Vermont Statehouse, Mead Chapel at Middlebury College, the Vermont History Expo, the Calvin Coolidge birthplace, the Governor’s Ball at Norwich University, the Barre Opera House, and a dozen other venues.
Twice, the singers were featured performers on Vermont Public Radio.
“I have so many endearing and enduring memories of Sounding Joy!,” recalled Drysdale, a singer and teacher with degrees in music from Middlebury College and the University of Michigan. “We had our hits and our flops (just 12 people attended one concert), but we stayed together through thick and thin. To me, there’s nothing quite like making music together and sharing it with others.”
Marta Borgstrom of Randolph has been accompanist for all 27 years — while also serving as music director at Bethany Church and as the accompanist for the Randolph Singers and Chandler Music Hall’s annual July 4 youth musicals. She recently retired as Randolph Elementary School’s music teacher.
“To participate in a quality choral group and not have to travel any distance has been amazing,” Borgstrom commented. “Sounding Joy! was an amazing group in a small town with local talents. It was a privilege to accompany and sing in the group.
“We traveled on an incredible highway of many different musical styles.”
This past winter, Sounding Joy!’s singers gathered to reminisce and thank their long-time director. There was some sentiment to continue with a new director, but most felt it had been a “good run.” Most are continuing to enjoy choral music with other area choruses, such as the Randolph Singers.
The Early Years
Sounding Joy! first built its reputation with a series of “madrigal dinners.” The 16 original singers, adorned in period costumes, performed music of the medieval and Renaissance periods, woven together with entertaining dialogue written by Drysdale and bass Charles McMeekin. Dessert specialties from the singers’ kitchens made the evenings complete.
When Sounding Joy! sang alone, it stuck to music appropriate for small choruses, such as Renaissance motets by composers such as Byrd and Palestrina. The Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes the Brahms Zigeunerlieder, Randall Thompson’s “The Peaceable Kingdom” and his “Frostiana” were also presented. Sometimes, the women sang alone, as in the sumptuous “Songs from the Rig Veda” by Gustav Holst, scored for women’s voices and harp, and in Brahms’ Opus 17, folk songs for women’s voices, harp and horn.
Through the years, the group expanded from 16 to 24 singers, and has presented works covering six centuries of choral music. Ten years ago, it became a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, with a volunteer board of directors from the community, presided over by board President Peter Nowlan.
When Drysdale got a hankering to perform larger works, she invited other groups to join hers. Sometimes, those groups invited Sounding Joy!.
“By collaborating, we were able to perform many of the great masterworks,” recalled Drysdale, “such as Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah,’ the Mozart Requiem, Faure Requiem, Durufle Requiem, Bach Magnificat, Bach cantatas, Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana,’ and Haydn’s ‘Lord Nelson’ Mass.”
Choral collaborators included the Randolph Singers, Northsong of Newport, the St. Michael’s College Chorus, the Middlebury College Choir and the South Burlington Choral Society.
Collaborating orchestras included the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra under former director Brian Webb and current director Lou Kosma; the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra under two directors as well, Catherine Orr and Paul Gambel; the Middlebury College Orchestra; and, last summer, the Central Vermont Chamber Music Festival.
Sounding Joy! member Dan Pritchard recalled that he especially loved singing the great Faure Requiem under Kosma’s direction in 2005.
“It was an enormous privilege,” he said.
History in Music
Programs linking music to history continued to be a specialty. Presented in the early 1990s, “Songs of the Civil War” was so successful that it was repeated several times, including twice in the Vermont Statehouse (at Farmers’ Night and at the rededication of the Cedar Creek Room).
“My mother used to sit by the piano, singing Stephen Foster melodies,” explained Drysdale. “‘Beautiful Dreamer’ was her favorite, so I sang that love song myself, in her honor.
“My mother also introduced me to the sorrowful ballad, ‘The Vacant Chair,’ about a family that is mourning the loss of a fallen soldier. When my mother heard that we were doing a Civil War program, she dashed to the piano and actually ripped that song from her favorite book of ‘Heart Songs’ and gave it to me.
“We sang it in our program, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
At one point, the singers brought the Civil War program to the Warren Church, where it happened to catch the ear of Vermont’s foremost Civil War historian, Howard Coffin, who found himself transfixed.
In a letter of appreciation, Coffin wrote, “I grew up hearing the haunting songs of the Civil War. But I never heard this wonderful music performed so well as on a spring night by Sounding Joy! of Randolph.”
Borgstrom said that the history-themed concerts were “an education for me. The hours of historical research and creating narratives made for outstanding programs. They were my personal favorites.”
This show was followed by a “USO Show” of big-band songs from the 1940s, a collaboration with the legendary central Vermont band The Keynotes, conducted by David Ellis. Throngs of people came to listen and to dance, or, in ’40s parlance, “cut a rug.” The program was repeated in Barre and later recorded for broadcast on Vermont Public Radio.
More recently, historical narratives were worked into a program of traditional Scottish songs, and a concert of music by colonial composer Justin Morgan, the famous horse breeder.
The most successful of all the historical presentations by Sounding Joy!, though, may have been its 2009 celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
Illuminating the musical selections, three narrators pieced together the story of Lincoln’s private and public life, and Coffin himself recited the Gettysburg Address.
In a letter of thanks, Lee Moore, then a newcomer in town, described the concert as “a truly stellar performance. We brought our neighbors and they were moved to tears. We resolved to make ‘Sounding Joy!’ concerts part of our regular schedule.”
Vermont Composers
Sounding Joy!’s history of adventurous programming included championing newly composed music by Vermonters.
Two complete programs featured compositions exclusively by Randolph area composers, demonstrating to the whole state the talent in this small central Vermont town.
The first program, presented in 1993, honored the work of five local composers — Gwyneth Walker, Erik Nielsen, Kathy Eddy, Justin Morgan and even E.E. Bagley, who lived briefly in Randolph and may have composed his famous “American Emblem” march here (which SJ members played on kazoos).
In March of 2000, in a collaboration with the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Catherine Orr, Sounding Joy! performed new works by Walker, Dennis Kitsz and David Gunn.
That was followed the next year by the chorus’ participation in a Randolph Composers Concert at Chandler Music Hall, with music by Walker, Eddy and Nielsen. The program, which included a symphony by Sounding Joy! member Eddy, was recorded on compact disc.
Sounding Joy!’s final performance came just last December, as it was joined by the Randolph Singers, a children’s chorus, and a local orchestra.
Featured on the program was “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” a composition that Drysdale herself had written, based on a poem by New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once more using music to illuminate history, bringing a gripping 170-year-old tale to new life in 21st-
century Vermont.
Children’s Chorus, Too
Nothing pleased Sounding Joy! more than to be able to create what became known as the Sounding Joy Children’s Chorus.
It began when, in 1987, Drysdale invited the local high school group, “The Upbeats,” to join Sounding Joy! in bringing one of its madrigal dinners to life. “They were a delight!” she recalled.
In 1991, elementary children sang the chorale melody in Bach’s Cantata No. 4, “Christ Lag in Todesbanden.” In 2005, they joined Sounding Joy! and the Vermont Philharmonic in singing the Faure Requiem.
Through the years, the children’s chorus also participated in themed shows, such as a costumed presentation of sentimental favorites from the 1800s, a Christmas piece with a Mexican theme featuring steel drums, and a show of Latin American folk songs in Spanish. They also performance John Rutter’s glorious “Mass of the Children” with the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra.
Marjorie Drysdale hopes to continue with the youth chorus for several more years.
“None of us will be around forever. So I want our youth to be given as many opportunities as possible to develop a love for music,” she explained.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Herald of Randolph.

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