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Women's Chorale concert marks decades of music, warmth

The MIT Women's Chorale celebrates its 69th holiday season this Sunday, Dec. 16 with its traditional concert followed by refreshments. The concert featuring music by Bach and Berlioz, Randall Thompson's "Alleluia" and music from Handel's "Messiah" will start at 3 p.m. in Killian Hall.

The chorale has been conducted by Nancy Kushlan Wanger since 1970 (Wanger joined the group as a singer in 1968) and is accompanied by Kaoria Fukino. Formed in 1933 and supported by the MIT Women's League, the chorale is one of MIT's warmest and most welcoming interest groups, members say. The group includes women from many different countries and all across MIT, including staff members, students, researchers, and wives of faculty and graduate students.

Connie Kowalski joined the Women's Chorale in 1961 and has been singing with it consistently, except for a five-year hiatus while her children were young, and is now its chair.

"The life of this group took on new meaning this fall, I believe. We had an enormous response to the flyers, and everyone who came to that first rehearsal was aching to sing," she said.

Back in 1961, Kowalski was newly married--a "'dame' as spouses were called then," she said. "I always loved singing although I had no musical training. In this group it's helpful, certainly, but not essential. There were no auditions and it was in the evening, so it seemed perfect for me."

Four decades later, the chorale remains perfect, Kowalski said. "I would like potential members to know we are welcoming and willing to help each other ... and not just with music. Some of us have become friends of many years."

Jennifer Recklet, program coordinator for spouses&partners@MIT, joined in 1995. She immediately felt at home. "Have you ever seen the Emma Rogers Room? It's like no place else at MIT. It's a beautiful, beautiful room," she said. "When I walked in, the atmosphere was lovely. I was greeted by a member and enjoyed participating in the break, when we all introduce ourselves. It's a great way to meet people at MIT and make connections. It's also comforting to be part of a sense of history and tradition here."

The first singers in the Women's Chorale were wives of MIT faculty. An influx of new members joined in the 1940s, many of them wives of scientists working at the Radiation Laboratory in Building 20 during World War II. In 1951, wives of Harvard faculty were invited to join, and in 1973 the group was opened to all women in the MIT and Harvard communities.

This year's concert reflects not only those institutions, but also a younger group outside the college sphere. Students of the Mother Caroline Academy, a high school for girls in Dorchester, will lend their voices at the Dec. 16 concert.

"This is a totally new thing for us, to include these young women in our rehearsals and to give them the opportunity to observe women working together to produce an event," Recklet said.

Twelve members of the chorale serve on its board, organizing rehearsals and concerts, membership, finances, publicity, hospitality and the music library. The chorale has an extensive collection of music for women's voices.

Recklet particularly recommends Sunday's concert for attendees with children. "We sing songs from 'The Book of Beasts'--animal songs that are great for everybody. Children get to try conducting (it's a nice way to introduce them to music) and audience members get to sing during our traditional carol sing. And there's wonderful food at the end," said Recklet.

But it's the chance to sing in a group both inclusive and committed to excellence that attracts new members to the Emma Rogers Room on Thursday nights.

Mary Ellen Gearin joined the chorale in 1992 and began working at MIT in 1996. "My sister was a member, and I was looking for a singing group. I had sung four-part women's music in college ... and learned a lot through that. I had some music training as well; l played flute up through high school, so could read music," she said.

"Inclusion is key. This is a group that prides itself on inviting women to join," Gearin continued. "Although we have many long-term members, it's not a clique. I visualize us with our hands out to bring people in. New folks are joining all the time, so we are pretty good at it. For many who are new to the area or the US, it becomes a base of sorts, an anchor, or as one graduating student said, a family base."

For more information on the MIT Women's Chorale, go to the group's web site or call Jennifer Recklet at x3-1614.New members are welcome to attend the chorale's first spring rehearsal on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7:45 pm in the Emma Rogers Room. The group will accept new members until Feb. 21.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2001.

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