This year, the Calvin College Alumni Choir is marking 35 years of performances, worship leading, choral recording and worldwide ambassador efforts for the college.
Choir leaders and members reminisced about these years together, years that have developed lasting friendships, standing ovations on stages all over the world, increasing name recognition for Calvin College in choral circles and, above all, countless moments of spiritual leadership and insight through the gift of music.
The choir began as the Calvin Alumni Singers, when alumna Helen Hoekema Van Wyk (now a professor of music at Trinity Christian College) developed the idea of keeping the Calvin choral music experience alive.
Van Wyk wrote: “The beginnings of the Alumni Choir, truth be told, grew out of sadness. I was driving home in the fall of 1977 to Grand Rapids from Jenison where I had just taken my first teaching job. It was 4 p.m., and I knew the Capella rehearsal was starting. I felt a deep sense of loss and wistful feelings for my Capella experience, particularly the communal joys of singing fine music with people I loved.”
She continued the story. “Shortly thereafter, I invited a few of my singing friends who were working in the area to get together to sing for a few hours at my parents’ house. We had a great time and sounded fairly good, we thought. After a few more of these sessions—always punctuated with tea and cookie breaks furnished by my mother, Ruth Hoekema—we decided to offer our services to some local churches. We dubbed ourselves the ‘Calvin Alumni Singers,’” she wrote.
This ensemble started with six to 10 singers, depending on who could make a rehearsal or a singing engagement. Over the first few years, Van Wyk, then Kenneth Sweetman and then Roy Hopp led the growing group of vocalists.
In 1981, Anton Armstrong came to the Calvin music faculty and led the Alumni Choir into the national choral scene over the next nine years, culminating in an appearance at the national American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Calvin Alumni Association became a major funder of that trip so that Calvin could be represented at this level of choral musicianship.
Armstrong believes the choir has continued to raise the level of its artistry since he left to take the baton at his alma mater, St. Olaf College. He wrote to the choir on its anniversary: “You have come such a long way! This was most apparent during your fourth appearance at a national ACDA conference in March 2011 in Chicago. Your singing continues to model the beautiful sound and high artistry for which you have been consistently recognized these 35 years. Yet that recent performance transcended musical excellence and was a transformative spiritual experience, felt by the over 5,000 conductors and singers who heard you.”
Michigan State University music professor Charles Smith was the next conductor of the choir. Armstrong was finishing his doctoral degree at the university and as a result, Smith heard the choir many times. He writes that he mused to himself: “How could anyone in his right mind not want to conduct that group?”
Smith was the choir’s conductor from 1990–98 and reflected on his time with these Calvin alumni vocalists in this way: “When I think about the Alumni Choir, I remember beautiful tone; superb individual vocalism; spiritual connection to the music; a tremendous grasp of technique wedded to expression of the text and knowledge of the style; an almost inimitable sense of pacing and drama in music; and at the heart of it, an example of the lifelong-sought, elusive, sine-qua-non element of talent in search of artistic expression. How many times in adult life are we able to be a part of such an assemblage of experience, smarts and abilities?”
The Alumni Choir’s current leader, Calvin music professor Pearl Shangkuan, arrived in 1998. Under her leadership, the ensemble has expanded its reach globally, adding international tours to the many musical adventures from coast to coast in North America.
Shangkuan wrote about what she hopes to achieve as the conductor of the Alumni Choir, goals that transcend a particular performance or mastery of a particular work: “For me, it’s not just all about the music but also who we are as persons. We end each rehearsal with a time of prayer where choir members share news of joy or concern, and we keep each other in prayer during the week when we’re apart. I hope that choir members leave rehearsals with more than a musical experience; I also want our rehearsals to feed the spirit. To this end, I often start rehearsals with a short spiritual thought, often linked to what we’re singing.
“As a choir, we sing a lot of sacred music; much of choral music, in fact, has sacred texts,” she continued. “As a conductor, I find more meaning in singing such texts with hearts that believe in the words and its message. The difference is apparent in the singing. There is a God-shaped hole in all our hearts, both in people of faith and in those of no faith. We in the choir have the joy and privilege to share our faith in God through our singing. As a performer and listener, I know from my own experience that God’s presence can be strongly felt during a performance. This is what I hope for our audiences. And when we do something of great artistic beauty, we celebrate and point to the God of beauty and order.”
The Calvin College Alumni Choir, currently 47 voices strong, continues to inspire audiences who attend its concerts and listen to its recorded music. This spring, the ensemble will perform Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand with the Grand Rapids Symphony and Chorus on April 20 and 21, 2012. Then, the choir will close its 35th season with a May 12, 2012, concert titled “Where Love Dwells” in the Cathedral of St. Andrew.
Shangkuan hopes that by now, the Alumni Choir audience knows it will be in good hands for a musical and spiritual experience that delights and uplifts. She noted, “I hope that our audiences know we offer something for everyone—something familiar but with a different twist, or something new but not too extreme. It’s also important that I continue to grow as a conductor and for choir members to continue to learn new works. I think of programming like preparing a 12-course Chinese banquet—well balanced with a variety of ‘dishes’ that include different colors, tempos, textures and styles and which are ordered for maximum ‘taste.’ And in the midst of this variety, I work for a unifying force.”