Vermont Choral Union marks 50 yeas with concert series

Fifty years ago, University of Vermont professor James G. Chapman founded the Vermont Choral Union ? a community-based a cappella choral group. The ensemble of 36 singers is still going strong, now with Middlebury’s Jeff Rehbach at the helm. Rehbach will lead the Vermont Choral Union in three anniversary concerts next week: at the Mahaney Center for the Arts at Middlebury College on Friday, at the McCarthy Recital Hall at St. Michael’s College on Saturday and at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier on Sunday.
The Choral Union typically sings music from the Renaissance to the present day. The upcoming performance “Wings of Song” will feature works drawn from five decades of Vermont Choral Union repertoire. A special choral suite was commissioned and composed for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary by award-winning composer and 2001 Middlebury College graduate Christina Whitten Thomas. Thomas lives in Pasadena, Calif., where she spends her days composing and teaching private piano, flute and voice lessons. She is also a staff soloist and alto section leader at La Canada Congregational Church.
Thomas composed the Choral Union’s anniversary piece for 8-part choir and flute, set to poetry by three Vermont writers: “I Was There” by Jay Parini, “Canticle” by Abigail Carroll, and “Green and Gold” by Jean Killary.
“I often approach composition as if I am writing a story. There is the prologue, the exposition, increasing conflict, climax, resolution, epilogue,” Thomas explained. “In choosing a poem, I look for some technical aspects like length, structure, imagery that might be captured effectively through music, clear, singable words.”
The hour-and-a-half concerts will also include 18th-century psalm settings by historic Vermont figures such as Justin Morgan and Elisha West, researched and brought to light by Professor Chapman. Works on the program from other composers, like William Byrd, Heinrich Schütz, Johannes Brahms, Josef Rheinberger, Maurice Duruflé, Charles Villiers Stanford, Francis Poulenc, Samuel Barber, Will Todd and Randall Thompson, bring to life texts from church traditions, theater and romance, and the natural world.
“The Union’s been winging its way into the future,” Rehbach said, explaining the program title “Wings of Song.” “There’s a sense of soaring and taking flight in this year’s program.”
Rehbach grew up in the Rochester, N.Y., area, where he was raised playing the viola and violin and singing in the church choir. He went to Cornell University for Chemical Engineering, but by the time he was a senior he was a music major. He stayed on for six years to work in the university’s music library; that’s when he earned his Master’s Degree in Musicology and got his first conducting jobs. He also picked up a Master’s in Library Science from Syracuse before coming to Vermont in the early ’80s for a job in the Middlebury College music library. “The job shifted as times changed,” he said. In 2010, he retired, and a year later became the Choral Union’s director. Rehbach was well suited for the job, with 25 years of directing the Middlebury Congregational Church choir, not to mention his love of music.
“What motivates me?” He asked himself during a recent interview. “I love having a piece of music take shape. I love working with singers of different backgrounds and abilities come together to create something beautiful. Whether it’s 600 years or six months old, it’s exciting to work together to figure out how we shape the music so that it flows and conveys the composer’s intent.”
Members of the Choral Union are as committed to digging into the music as their conductor.
“Jeff Rehbach is one of the best choral directors with whom I have sung, and working with him is a joy,” said Rob Liotard, a Starksboro resident who’s been singing with the Vermont Choral Union since 2006. “Singing is an intellectual, physical and often spiritual experience … it is amazing to be inside the instrument that is the chorus.”
“The warmth of the Vermont Choral Union’s sound is a perfect metaphor for its members, who make new additions like me immediately feel welcome and part of the VCU family,” said Jon Randel, a Middlebury resident who is in his first season with the ensemble. “Add to that the opportunity to work with excellent singers and an insightful director, and singing with this group is both meaningful and enriching.”
“For me, singing is my time to center myself,” said Paul Schmidt of Bristol. “I liken it to meditation; when the group feels the music, we move together, every voice adding to the symphonic whole. As the last chord of the song finishes reverberating through the hall, I often feel myself wake up as though from a long nap. It’s that feeling which I hope to pass on to the audience.”
Next Friday’s performance at the Mahaney Center for the Arts, 7:30 p.m., will be the premiere of Thomas’s work. Thomas said she hopes the work will be performed again. Tickets for the Middlebury concert will be available at the door. Cost $12 for the public, $10 for college ID holders and $6 for students. For more information and advance ticket sales visit www.vtchoralunion.org.

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