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Choral arts remix

If the small group of young, male engineering and science students who made up Lehigh's glee club in 1875 could travel through time to Zoellner Arts Center today, they wouldn't believe their eyes: 192 singers, a dynamic, innovative conductor, a sophisticated, acoustically sound stage, a girl -- a girl? -- in a tutu, and ... a gorilla?

Welcome to Lehigh Choral Arts 2005.

In many respects, the choral arts program at Lehigh is different from what it was more than a century ago; the productions are far more elaborate and theatrical, and the singers now include women and local community members.

But in other ways, it's very much the same. Built on strong, rich traditions, the choral arts program continues to provide Lehigh singers with a musical outlet, as well as some of the happiest moments of their college careers.

"People who were in choral arts at Lehigh remember the performance, the sense of community, touring, the sudden understanding about great pieces of music," says Steven Sametz, the Ronald J. Ulrich Professor of Music and just the fifth director of choral activities at Lehigh in 130 years. "The experience becomes this vital part of who they become at Lehigh, and what their connections are and what their social life is all about."

But Sametz adds that those presently and formerly associated with choral arts at Lehigh are not just celebrating a strong program in this historic year. "It's also about the sense of community that has been created at Lehigh through singing," he says.

A connection that spans the decades

The year 2005 is a monumental one for all arms of choral arts -- it marks the 130th anniversary of singing at Lehigh, the 25th anniversary of Steven Sametz's leadership, the 20th anniversary of Lehigh Choral Union, and the 50th anniversary of the start of the tenure of the beloved late Robert "Boss" Cutler.

For more on Bob Cutler's career at Lehigh, read Remembering the Boss.

The two biggest groups under the overarching umbrella of Lehigh Choral Arts are the Lehigh University Choir and the Lehigh Choral Union. The 50 mixed voices of the auditioned choir come from all majors of the university, not just music majors. The group gives four annual concerts on campus and has toured internationally to Russia, Germany, France, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Korea, and throughout the U.S.

The Lehigh University Choral Union -- Sametz's brainchild -- is a non-auditioned group of 150 singers composed of students, faculty, staff, and Lehigh Valley community members.

"At any point in time, I don't think I would have looked at choral arts any differently. It's just that now we're coming up for air long enough to take note that we've created something really great," Sametz says. "It's incredibly heartwarming."

To celebrate, Sametz has devoted the weekend of April 2 and 3 to choral arts. "We'll be performing the greatest hits, I'll be writing a new piece, we'll do a retrospective repertoire chronicling the 130 years on April 2 as part of a concert titled I Have Had Singing," Sametz says. "We hope to involve alumni in some way during the Saturday night concert. And April 3 will be devoted to a memorial service for Bob Cutler, alumni partying, singing, story-telling, and reflection."

(Click here for tickets to I Have Had Singing.)

Also part of the 130th celebration was a theatrical choral performance that took place in October titled Visions, Evocations, and Dreams.

"This production was wild and crazy -- I loved it," says Todd Hunter '05, joint international relations and marketing major and member of the choir. "Usually we are 200 people in tuxes holding folders and singing, but not in this concert. We took off the tuxedos and moved around the stage -- there was a circus on stage complete with a marching band, an Indian dance troupe, and a 35-foot puppet of Lord Vishnu that rose from the stage amidst smoke and fog."

Not to mention the guy in the gorilla suit and the ballerina in the tutu.

In organizing the celebratory events, Sametz has received a flurry of e-mails from alumni from as far back as 1937 who are planning to attend. "People still feel very connected to the experience," he says.

"Doc" Sametz:
Teacher, sculptor, and friend


Lehigh Choral Arts has had its largest growth spurt in the past 25 years under the leadership of Sametz, the gifted musician Lehigh singers affectionately and respectfully refer to as "Doc."

The other four men who led the generations of Lehigh singers were J. Fred Wolle, T. Edgar ("Pops") Shields, William H. Schempf, and Robert "Boss" Cutler.

Sametz came to Lehigh at the tender age of 25 directly from a doctoral conducting program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he's been gifting Lehigh singers with his talents and his friendship ever since.

"Steven has extraordinary ways of getting us to produce music and the ability to teach us how to use our voices to convey the ideas that are inherent in music," says Natalie Foster, associate professor of chemistry at Lehigh and a Choral Union member. "He is brilliant."

Kate Rooth '06, an environmental science/political science major and assistant manager of the University Choir, concurs. "Doc is by far the most experienced director I've ever worked with. He has a way of taking any group and producing results almost immediately," she says.

What comes up over and over when Lehigh singers talk about Sametz are the techniques he uses to improve the overall sound of a large group. "He can make you do things without your realizing," Rooth says. "If I'm having trouble hitting a high C, he tells me to change the position of my arm and it ends up just floating out."

John McNulty '93 recalls Sametz's ability to get "blood from stone."

"We were the lumps of clay that would never be a 'David' or 'The Thinker,' but with a lot of work could be sculpted into something beautiful in our own right," McNulty says. "Not only did he choose to teach us, the lumps, but at times I think he almost preferred it."

Choral Union member Wayne S. Mery, a systems programmer at Lehigh, says Sametz always thinks of those who will hear the music. "Ultimately, he's thinking of the audience and he
has interesting, sometimes humorous, ways of manipulating the choir and sound so the work is presented in the best possible light. He never allows us to be mediocre."

Sametz's singers also feel privileged to be able to sing his hot-off-the-presses originally composed works.

"We get a piece of music on Nov. 8 that's dated Nov. 8," Foster says. "This thing was just written! And we're learning how to convey the composer's intention and how to bring it to the audience -- the first people to turn it into music, and that's amazing."

Sametz is more than just a conductor and a composer, though. He also is a true friend to all the voices that sing under his direction.

"When choir practice is over, you can sit down with Doc and have dinner or invite him over for a good time," Rooth says. "When I come back to Lehigh in five years, Doc is one of the people who I will sit down and chat with."

Tyler Tate, who came back to the choir as a graduate student, says, "Sametz is in love with his art, but he's also a people person. You can go to talk to him about the music or just about life.

Posted on Friday, January 21, 2005

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