Glee Club '66 tour alums re-create melodic diplomacy

When members from the Cornell Glee Club’s 1966 tour of Southeast Asia joined the current singers on stage Sept. 19 at Bailey Hall, passion poured through the music. The audience replied with a standing ovation, making it a Homecoming concert for the ages.

During the 1966 spring semester, 41 members of the Glee Club – using musical currency to transcend economic and cultural differences – played a three-month goodwill tour of Southeast Asia on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. As the U.S. became mired in the Vietnam War, the State Department urgently needed diplomacy throughout the region, and the Glee Club provided that harmonious statesmanship.

Led by its conductor, Thomas A. Sokol, professor emeritus of music, the club traveled through Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, giving more than 100 concerts, as well as television and radio performances. An estimated 100 million people heard the group sing.

After Saturday’s concert, Robert Isaacs, professor of music and the group’s current conductor, told alumnus Jack Austin ’66, “Watching you guys walk out on stage … there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Austin replied: “It’s exciting for us alumni to be back and do this. The response tonight was much more intense than I think we had anticipated.” The concert was so important that Bill Melvin ’68, who had been conducting business in Indonesia, flew 10,000 miles to be on the Bailey Hall stage.

Adam Perl ’67, Christian Kelly ’16, Chris Wolfrom ’16 and Jacob Cohen ’16 organized the reunion. Twenty of the original 41 tour members performed at the Homecoming concert. They opened with “Sri Lanka Matha,” the national anthem of Sri Lanka. For many decades after the tour, the club’s recorded version was heard on Ceylonese radio. The group also sang a Filipino folk song, “Ang Dalagang Philipina,” and a high-energy version of the spiritual “Ride the Chariot,” arranged by William Henry Smith.

Before the traditional Cornelliana selections, Southeast Asia tour alumni joined current Glee Club members for the choir’s seven-part Franz Biebl arrangement of “Ave Maria.”

The Bailey Hall audience was treated to a short video of movie clips – taken on an 8 millimeter Kodak home movie camera – featuring tour stops in Ceylon, Hong Kong, the Philippines and ground zero at Hiroshima.

In the regular Glee Club concert, the choir premiered “Outstare the Stars,” a commissioned piece composed by Jens Klimek, a German music teacher whom Isaacs initially discovered on YouTube. The piece features text from legendary Cornell English professor Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.”

The group also performed an Irish folk song, “The Minstrel Boy,” arranged by Jameson Marvin; “Gagot,” a 2014 Haitian composition by Sydney Guillaume, sung in Haitian Creole; “Praeter Rerum Seriem,” a benchmark in Renaissance music by composer Josquin des Prez, which gave an opportunity to feature the women of the Cornell University Chorus singing from the Bailey Hall balcony; the spiritual “I’m Building Me a Home,” arranged by Uzee Brown Jr.; and the fun Italian folk song “La Banda,” arranged by Antonio Pedrotti.

Earlier on concert day, in a coincidence, Glee Club alumni Dan Kuhr ’13, Noah Kaminsky ’13 and Patrick Chamberlain ’13 visited the Buffalo Street house where club members had lived. The house’s current residents, learning that Glee Club alumni were in their midst, went into the house and returned with a floral vase – a gift from Korea – initially presented during the 1966 Southeast Asia tour. When they moved, club members had forgotten to take the vase. Kuhr, Kaminsky and Chamberlain returned the vase to the 1966 tour members after the concert.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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