A History of the Choir
Music has always been an important part of the life of the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists. The first choir was formed by David Hamilton, one of the founding members of the church, when the group met at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School. As they planned their Christmas service for 1989, they decided to get together the many gifted singers in the congregation for an impromptu choir. David Hamilton was the conductor. They sang several songs during that first service and the groundwork was laid for today’s strong music program.
This first small group of “pick-up” singers led to the current 25-voice choir that presents a diverse selection of music both sacred and secular. Sometimes, they even sing in English!
The history of the choir is often divided into the “Genevieve years” and the “Jamie years”.
Early in 1990 Dr. Genevieve McGiffert, a charter member and professional teacher of singers, assumed volunteer responsibility for developing the choir and music program.
The Genevieve Years
Early in 1990, when the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists were barely a year old, Genevieve McGiffert, a charter member and a professional teacher of singers, assumed volunteer leadership responsibility for developing the choir and the congregation’s music program.
The choir, comprising some twenty singers, made its debut on March 18 at the ordination of WUU minister Roy Reynolds. A month later, on April 15, the choir performed for the first time in a Sunday service, held at Clara Byrd Baker School, singing “For the Beauty of the Earth” by John Rutter.
Membership during Genevieve’s tenure as music director soon stabilized at around twenty-five. The number of “choir Sundays” rose from under twenty in 1990-1991 to twenty-five in 1995-1996. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter provided opportunities for special musical fare. So, too, did Charter Sunday in February each year. In addition, the choir contributed enthusiasm and talent to “Come to the Cabaret,” kicking off the 1993-1994 pledge campaign in March 1993.
The choir sang for the dedication of the congregational hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, on October 25, 1993, and also for the dedication of the Worship Building, March 31, 1996. The program for the latter event included Haydn’s Little Organ Mass and selections from Adolphus Hailstork’s I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble.
Soloists at Sunday worship services included such outstanding Williamsburg-area singers as Georgeann Paddock, Douglas Price, Daren Basnight, and Kayla Werlin, as well as individual choir members.
Besides performing twice monthly from September to June, the choir assisted in funeral or memorial services for WUU members or associates: Rolf Winter and Leona Dubnick in 1993; Jamie Fahs in 1994; Ericka Bishop and Joe Litterer in 1995.
Under Genevieve’s leadership, the music committee and the congregation established a tradition of an annual Sunday service devoted to a variety of musical offerings. At the close of her term, the choir issued its first taped recording.
During Genevieve’s six years as conductor, George Rublein served as piano accompanist for rehearsals and services, with back-up from David Hamilton, Vicki Hall, and Mildred Andrews. Bets Bartholomew and Elizabeth Hollis served as librarians. Rehearsals were held in Genevieve’s home studio throughout her tenure.
In addition to attracting new members each year, the choir exhibited remarkable continuity over time. Singers who joined in the first year or two under Genevieve’s baton and who remain members today (September 2000) include Merry Feyock, Beverly and Roger Baldwin, Ruth Fraser, Mary DeLara, Vicki Hall, Richard Wallsom, Michael McGiffert, Don Ackley, David and Donna Stanford, Margo Schaefer, and Linda Lane-Hamilton.
Shortly before Genevieve retired from duty, members of the church registered many up-beat responses to the music of the church in a survey of congregational activities. “I wish the choir sang every week!” wrote one. “The music program is wonderful,” said another. A third expressed “hopes for an inspired replacement for Genevieve.”
The Jamie Years
The inspired replacement was already waiting in the wings. Passing the baton in June 1996, Genevieve McGiffert wrote to the WUU Board and congregation: “Last Sunday was a memorable and bittersweet occasion for me. My beloved choir sang for the last time under my direction. . . . I am deeply grateful for the appreciation shown by the congregation.”
“I know,” she continued, “that the choir anticipates with excitement the arrival of the new director. We believe that she, Jamie Bartlett, will be pleased to find such a good choir and will help it grow in musical service to our feeling of spirituality.”
Under the direction of Dr. Jamie Bartlett, the Williamsburg Unitarian Univeralist Choir has continued to enhance the worship experience. The tradition of a musical Sunday has continued and for the past four years has included major pieces accompanied by instrumental ensembles.
In November 1999, the inaugural St Cecelia service, the choir featured Gloria by Antonio Vivaldi. The performance included two Williamsburg-area singers in solo performances: soprano Pat Rublein and mezzo-soprano Barbara Marchbank
In November 2000, the choir’s offering was the Magnificat by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Solists included Pat Rublein, soprano, Barbara Marchbank, mezzo-soprano, Will DeLara, baritone, and John Laury, tenor. Subsequent services were: Missa Brevis (K. 194) by Mozart in2001; the music of Aaron Copeland with guest conductor Gigi Paddock in 2002; Mass in G by Schubert in 2003; and Missa Brevis by Hayden in 2004.
Jim Hall has produced CDs highlighting those special performances as well as annual “Retrospectives” of music from the year.
The choir has added to the life of the congregation in other ways as well.
In 2000, noted Sufi musician Latif Bolat visited the church for a unique concert that included choir members, singing in Turkish, as backup.
A youth choir program is also part of the program. The younger UUs Sing three or four times a year during services.
In August of 2006 The first ever Tabernacle Choir sang. Anyone who wanted to sing gathered an hour before the service and with just that one practice sang Blue Boat Home composed by Peter Mayer, and there was additional violin accompaniment.