Anchored by a Tradition of Excellence
by Victoria Kidd - Assistant Director of Advancement Communications
To the accompaniment of a drenching March rainfall, associate conductor Jennifer Sacher Wiley gracefully took the stage in Carnegie Hall's Isaac Stern Auditorium, one of the nation's most recognized classical music venues. As she lowered her baton, four older women sitting in a tier box overlooking the stage instinctively, proudly, rose from their seats to sing the alma mater. In a moment, the packed house - 2,800 strong - was on its feet in recognition of the music that has been the rallying call for generations of Susquehanna students.
The richness of 200 choral voices fell over the audience like a wave crashing on the sand. A few moments later, principal conductor Cyril Stretansky strode briskly to the podium. A low rumble from the stage intensified as the performers ' students, faculty, staff and alumni of Susquehanna University - tapped their feet on the floor in a traditional welcome for a leader who has inspired the musical ambitions of innumerable students through the years.
For the next two hours, the Susquehanna University Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra enchanted the house with an enthusiastic and compelling performance of choral and orchestral pieces, one composed by a faculty member for the evening, another arranged by an alumnus. An employee of Carnegie Hall, accustomed to listening to some of the world's top musicians, later remarked that the SU chorus of amateur and professional voices was among the best she had heard.
When the seeds of the March 7 performance were first planted one and a half years earlier, the notion of the Susquehanna chorus and orchestra appearing in the august and venerable Carnegie Hall seemed far-fetched. Who would pay for the event? Would the hall be available? Would anyone come, and if so, how would they get there?
The driver for the event was the university's sesquicentennial. In the winter of '06-'07, those responsible for planning the 150th anniversary of Susquehanna were already thinking about a signature event to kick off a year-long celebration. In the past, major events were often accompanied by a combined performance of the chorus and choir - a so-called Masterworks concert. When the new music building was dedicated, the Masterworks Chorus was asked to perform. Would it be appropriate to bring them to a more prominent venue off campus and in the process give them the recognition they deserved?
At the incipient stages of these discussions, it was learned that Stretansky, the eminence grise of the music faculty, would be retiring in 2008 after 35 years of service to the university. The convergence of the sesquicentennial, Stretansky's retirement and the willingness of an anonymous donor to support a prominent event suggested the timing of a performance and helped cement the format as well. Would it not be poignant to bring together 35 years of alumni to perform under Stretansky's baton?
With the calendar bringing more urgency to the conversations, the names of other venues were bandied about, including the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. But it was judged that no place had the gravitas of Carnegie Hall. "We kept circling back to Carnegie Hall as the gold standard," says Ron Cohen, vice president of university relations.
Valerie Martin, dean of the School of Arts, Humanities and Communications, recalls sitting at a meeting in April 2007 with a number of key decision makers. Someone gave the signal to call. "I remember getting up and going to a phone to check Carnegie Hall's availability," Martin says. "Sure enough, everything was booked, but two dates had no deposits. One was March 7." Martin grabbed the date and put down the $15,000 deposit needed to secure it. And the rest, as they say, is history. "Just as the branches of the Susquehanna River come together near our birthplace in Selinsgrove, a confluence of our past, present and future was revealed at Carnegie Hall on March 7, joining hearts and voices among many generations in celebration of where we started, where we have been and where we will go," says Susquehanna University President L. Jay Lemons.
Designed by architect and cellist William Burnett Tuthill, Isaac Stern Auditorium has been a premier classical music performance space since its opening under a different name in 1891. Such legends as Gershwin, Bernstein, Ellington and Armstrong have graced its stage. Its striking curvilinear design is accentuated with intricately carved, gold-trimmed walls. Hardwood and red velvet add character and richness to the hall.
Aside from its elegant décor, the auditorium is distinguished by acoustic excellence. "It has been said that the hall itself is an instrument," said the late Isaac Stern. "It takes what you do and makes it larger than life."
Indeed, many of those who attended the performance felt it was larger than life. Nearly 300 students, alumni, faculty and staff gathered in New York to perform. Audience members, from homemakers to CEOs, came from across town and across the country for this colossal event in the life of the university. Whether direct descendants of the Susquehanna experience or cousins twice removed, they came bearing memories of how Susquehanna had changed their lives or the lives of their loved ones. And in the process, a new memory was born - the memory of an evening filled with immense pride, camaraderie and superb music.
More than 100 of the alumni performers traveled from across the country to sing in the chorus, many for the sole purpose of "singing for Cy" one last time. "Any chance to sing with Professor Stretansky is a wonderful experience," says Peter de Mets '93, artistic director of the Chamber Arts Guild in Newton, Pa. "I couldn't wait to stand up there and perform for him one more time." Another singer, Rebecca Edwards '80 Elkins, came from central Nevada, overcoming record-setting snowfall to perform with the maestro. (See related story.)
The evening was marked by another distinguishing moment as well: the world-premiere performance of Rain, River, Sea, written by Associate Professor of Music Patrick Long. Long sculpted a composition representing the passage of a single day - one full of energy and contemplation. "When I was asked to write this piece, I knew almost instantly how it would sound, how it would feel and what it would be about," Long says. "The University Theme for the year was 'Water,' and, of course, we're named after a river, so I decided to set different texts about water in its various forms."
In his program notes, Long pointed to Susquehanna as the inspiration for Rain, River, Sea. "The campus of Susquehanna University appears to be a place of peace and repose, with its stately buildings sitting quietly under the trees. But beneath the surface it is a place of countless thrilling journeys. It is fitting for a college to be named after a river. Just as waters fall across a vast landscape, flow together for a time in a river, and then reach the infinite possibilities of the sea, so does college provide a time and place for each student's passage."
Going into the concert, Long said he hoped the event would feel like a "cross between a family reunion, a church service and a sporting event." His hope stemmed from the realization that music can bring about a range of emotional and spiritual experiences. "Music is the most abstract art form - it's really just the air shaking, and there is no 'right' way to hear a piece. The members of an audience sit together, sharing the experience, and yet each person may interpret and feel the music in an individual way," he says.
"We're all wanting to capture the moment," Long says. "Life is fleeting. Moments are flying by all the time, and we're always looking for ways to make a moment matter - to make it memorable and special. Live music at its best can do this better than just about anything."
Rain, River, Sea unfolded toward such a moment. From the primordial dawn of Rain through the sun-scorched journey of River and the twilight reflection of Sea, the audience was transported through colorful orchestration to a dramatic conclusion, set to John Masefield's poem I Must Go Down to the Sea Again.
Wiley led the orchestra and chorus through the three difficult movements with grace and skill, giving the audience an awe-inspiring audio and visual presentation. Like a Bernstein or an Ozawa, she moved her arms dramatically through a series of orchestral directions. She brought the piece home with a triumphant finish, arms flying in the air like those of a runner bursting across a finish line.
Emotions ran high as Wiley enthusiastically coaxed Long to the stage for a bow. The standing ovation continued as Maestro Stretansky returned to the stage for the finale, Gustav Holst's O God Beyond All Praising, arranged by Wayne Dietterick '74, coordinator of marketing and communications at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
The passage of students through the halls of Susquehanna has taken many forms over the past 150 years. The March 7 concert was a celebration of the lives of these students and of the institution. And clearly it was a celebration of the university's music program - superb in the training and performance opportunities it affords, unique in the close faculty mentoring it offers, singular in the strong ties it promotes among its students, and unusual in its willingness to expose the magic of music to majors and non-majors alike. The Carnegie Hall performers, reflecting on the thrill of the evening's performance, say these unique qualities of the music program have enriched their lives in countless ways.
David Fryling '96, associate professor of music and director of choral studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., credits Stretansky with giving him the training necessary to pursue a career in college-level choral music. "Cy provided key opportunities to me - and others before and after me - to be involved in the inside workings of the choral program, as well as to accumulate 'podium time' in front of choirs under his direction," he says. "This kind of personal attention and nurturing is not possible at most large universities at the undergraduate level and is a major strength of SU's music program."
Another distinction is the department's practice of welcoming non-music majors to its ranks. "It's a mark of strength in fine arts departments that all artists are welcome, who take their art seriously," Fryling says.
"One of the best parts of being in the music program at SU was the intimacy that it engendered among us, not just between music majors, but between music majors and non-major performers alike," he says. "Our experiences in rehearsals and on tour brought us very close together and demonstrated in a very literal way how music could connect such disparate disciplines from across campus."
From friendships to betrothals, the music department has borne many lasting relationships. "Some of our closest friends today are the friends we made in theatre productions and in the choir at SU," says Kelly Ryman '93 de Mets, director of marketing for the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., who is married to Peter de Mets, another graduate of the music program. "We celebrate holidays together and were there when each other's kids were born."
"We're also very important to each other professionally," she says. "There's a network of theatre arts administrators and musicians - all SU graduates - that work in the New Jersey/Philadelphia area. The close-knit group we formed in college now will call on each other for advice, and on more than one occasion we've each been in a position where we've either hired someone from SU or recommended each other for work."
Laura Tidemann '91 Dishong, a music teacher in the Moorestown, N.J., school district, says such cohesive relationships are established with faculty, too. "They treated us like part of their extended families. We knew where they lived. We had their phone numbers and could call them when we needed help. You just don't find that at other schools," she says.
The Carnegie Hall performance was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students, alumni and faculty alike. It will be recalled for many years as one of those events that stand out in the history of an institution. "When you get that many people together, all of them wanting to have an unforgettable experience, it's almost inevitable that it will happen," Long says. "There was a tremendous amount of momentum going into the concert."
Rachel Weir '09 was one of the student performers who kept that momentum going through months of rehearsals. "Seeing Carnegie Hall full of people just to see us perform was an amazing and inspiring feeling that I will never forget," she says. "We all worked really hard to make this event something that no one would forget, and I believe we accomplished our goal."
University historian Donald Housley, emeritus professor of history, was among the faculty performers who, as he puts it, "jumped into the fast-moving river" that is singing with SU's students. "You just try to keep your head above water and let yourself be carried along by the strength of the currents around you," he says.
Indeed, "playing at Carnegie Hall represents an attainment of fairly exalted musical goals," says David Steinau, assistant professor of music, a featured soloist in the performance. "With the central role that music has played in the history of Susquehanna, and continues to play today, I think the concert was a milestone. It looked back at what has been happening here so brilliantly for many years, but it also looked to the future with great promise," he says.
"All schools worth their salt present their essential selves through celebration of significant anniversaries," adds Housley. "Of course, symbolically and culturally, Carnegie Hall represents quality in its finest form. No one needs to be told what the aphorism 'Ready to play Carnegie Hall?' means." Linking the university to this symbol of high aesthetic quality and the make-up of the participants, both on and off stage,"suggests the breadth and length of the Susquehanna community as it moves through time and space," he says.
And as the university moved through time and space in that grand auditorium of Carnegie Hall, Dietterick says, Susquehanna spread its wings wider than ever. " Old SU's broad campus reached the sky on March 7."