This year marks the 80th anniversary of the MIT Women’s Chorale, a vibrant musical organization with a rich history. To celebrate the occasion, the group will perform a concert in Cambridge, which is free to the public.
The concert will be held at 6 p.m. on May 11 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge. It will feature selections from Randall Thompson's "Frostiana," as well as samplings of Russian music for women’s voices and Nicola Porpora’s "Lauda Jerusalem.” There will also be a celebration for the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, an Italian composer known for his operas.
The group’s longest serving conductor, Nancy Kushlan Wanger, retired in 2008 after 35 years, and was succeeded that same year by the group’s first male and current conductor, Kevin Galiè, a professional musician. “It is a great honor to conduct such a venerable organization as it celebrates its 80th anniversary,” Galiè says.
Galiè, who holds a master’s degree in music from the Boston Conservatory, directs several other choruses in Boston, and is music director of the Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. He performs on various keyboards with Boston’s major musical organizations and is an orchestrator and arranger for widely performed ballet scores.
History and transformations
The group, founded in 1933, is the oldest continuously operating activity of the MIT Women’s League, which itself is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Over the course of the chorale’s history, it has evolved along with the changing roles of women, as they moved from largely domestic to more professional roles, says Sally De Fazio, administrative director of the chorale and wife of an MIT alumnus.
The first chorale singers were wives of MIT faculty, staff and students. The chorale’s founding director Willian Scatchard, who taught music at Smith College, was the wife of the renowned MIT chemist George Scatchard.
In 1951, the wives of Harvard University faculty were invited to join. The official membership lists of these early days reflected the times — where women were known only by their husbands’ names — with the singers listed as “Mrs. John Jones,” for example. In 1973, the group was opened to all women of the MIT and Harvard communities — not just wives. Now, the majority of members have a wide variety of careers.
“As might be expected, careers in the sciences and technology are well represented, but our members include professionals in medicine, law, information and library science, education, finance and business,” De Fazio says.
After Galiè became the director in 2008, the group experienced a significant resurgence in membership, growth in audience size and an expansion of its musical horizons, while concentrating on music written originally for women’s (or treble) voices.
“Leading the group is a wonderful opportunity to rediscover the vast and rich body of music written over the centuries specifically for women’s voices,” says Galiè, who recently led the group in recording a CD that includes a never-before-recorded 1905 French mass for women’s voices.
“Galiè’s orchestral expertise has allowed the chorale, which for decades sang almost exclusively with piano accompaniment, to perform with a wide range of instrumental ensembles, including chamber orchestra,” De Fazio says.
Performer Martha Janus, an administrative assistant in the Office of the Registrar, appreciates learning the history of the music from Galiè — which, she says, enhances her performance. “I love listening to Kevin's stories about the composers and arrangers of the music we sing; he provides a context which helps me better relate to the music, and I think that influences my performance of it,” she says.
Vibrant musical community
The chorale fills a unique role on campus, De Fazio says: It’s a concert chorus that singers may join without audition, which helps attract new members. Chorale performer Emily Fay says “the music is fun; it's challenging enough to be interesting, but not so challenging that it scared me away, even though I haven't sung in a choir for several years.”
“The chorale’s members are not only serious about making music, but are also serious about establishing a sense of community as they set about the joyous activity of singing,” De Fazio says.
Contributing to the group’s community spirit is its diversity among members, De Fazio says. “The international nature of the group — with its members hailing from more than a dozen countries during any given semester — has contributed to long-lasting, even hemisphere-spanning friendships,” she says.
Additionally, participants span a wide age range, De Fazio says. Current members range from their teens through their 70s, with some of the older members having sung with the group for decades.
“Uniting women of all ages around the common language of music, has, over the decades, promoted a special sense of community among our members,” says Jane Howard, the wife of a retired MIT staff member, who’s been singing with the chorale for 47 years.
Elaine Shapiro SM ’12, who sang in the chorus as an MIT student — and now as a busy professional — says she enjoys learning from the veteran singers. “I really enjoy being a part of a group with so much history at MIT,” she says. “It's fun to hear stories of life in the chorale and at MIT 40 years ago from members who have been a part of these communities for as many years.”
Grateful to have a place to set aside the stresses of her MIT doctoral studies for two hours a week, Carla Perez-Maritinez ’11 says, “I feel cared for by other members of the chorale, and we always have fun.”