Songs of WO

Continuum - Songs of WO

There’s something about former Denison Singers director William Osborne that keeps his singers coming back for more. Osborne directs the group in 1964.

There’s a small room below the stage in Swasey Chapel.

It isn’t fancy—in fact, it isn’t decorated at all—but for years, that space came alive through the colors and sounds of a group of singers. They came to the room—and eventually to Burke Recital Hall and the Swasey stage itself—to prepare for performances. For concerts, the musicians usually dressed in severe blacks and whites, moving carefully, if at all. In the many practice sessions that led to such moments, they assembled with cheerful greetings, a collegiate assortment of dress, and a very different sort of intensity.

But in 2003, those good feelings were dampened. The Denison Singers had just heard that “WO” (pronounced “woe”), as the members of the group have called their director throughout the years, had announced his retirement from his position as Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts. A beloved and revered Denison institution of more than four decades was about to come to an end.

The Denison Singers began back in 1961 when the group was founded by William Osborne, not yet then “WO,” and not quite yet the holder of a doctoral degree in the musical arts from the University of Michigan. The group was originally named the Denison Madrigal Singers, and their purpose was to fill an ensemble-sized gap alongside the Chapel Choir and the Concert Choir, both large choruses with histories of their own.

Two dozen students responded to the original invitation sent out to campus through The Denisonian, and by the time the first few rehearsals had shaken things out, the group had settled to a comfortable and evenly geometric 12, a size typical in the choir’s early years. The Mads, as they were known to one another and their more familiar fans, began giving local concerts in 1962 and touring in 1963. They were asked by Bea Stephens, the director of the alumni office, if they would perform for alumni groups in other cities the following year. One such concert in Indiana was hosted by Richard Lugar ’54, who was then head of the local alumni club prior to his terms as mayor of Indianapolis and as a U.S. senator. The singers performed in 24 states, plus Washington, D.C., and they traveled internationally on 12 foreign tours that took the group to Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Russia, among other destinations. The last journey overseas included a stop at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where the group sang for a Mass.

Even so, the travel and the special opportunities, like singing back-up for notables like Andy Williams and The Chieftains, were secondary to the music itself and the people who were singing. “Thinking back to my time in The Denison Singers, there remains the sense of adventure and achievement that came with rehearsing and performing, and the fun we had getting it all together,” says Judy Pistor Hildesley ’66. “My most vivid memories are not so much of tours and performances, but of the weekly sessions in the basement of Swasey Chapel.”

Some 260 musicians could call themselves Denison Singers when the metaphorical curtain came down after 42 years under Osborne’s direction. As alumni of both Denison and The Denison Singers, surprisingly few of whom had actually majored in music, they continued participating in vocal performance. Jeff Langer ’02 notes that “almost all of us sing in some realm of our lives,” whether in community choruses, church choirs, or local theatre.

So it should come as no surprise that when Osborne sent out the call for the first reunion in 1981, just as with the original 1961 invitation, there was a strong and passionate response. Some 50 alumni turned up in Granville to rehearse alongside current students, and by reunion’s end, a multi-generational concert took place on Swasey’s stage. A new tradition was born.

They’ve continued to meet regularly for reunion concerts (including three get-togethers held in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Osborne set up his retirement base), and this June nearly 80 alumni returned to the college for the 50th anniversary of the group’s founding. The chapel on the hill was the scene of rigorous twice-daily practices, which culminated in a concert on the Swasey stage. The program consisted largely of repertoire from the Singers’ past and was chosen mostly by the participants. The concert also featured the first performances of two works that were composed especially for the occasion by members of the group. It was The Denison Singers’ 588th appearance.

Just like in the beginning, The Denison Singers came to sing; they came for the artistry; they came for the fellow- ship; they came for another chance to be part of something. But they came for another reason, too: for WO himself. After all, here was a retired director whose former students—who by now had other lives with jobs and wives and husbands and kids and grandkids—wanted to travel great distances for another chance to perform. And, of course, performing is what they do best. Maybe it’s the discipline he instilled in them. Maybe it’s the high standards he set for them. Maybe it’s the challenging repertoire he chose for them. Or maybe it’s just that he had the same expectations of them that he had of himself. After all, his long-time motto for The Denison Singers was actually more of a mission statement: “Attempting the impossible, achieving the improbable.”

Published July 2011