The Pomona College Choir (1920–present)

After the dissolution of the Choral Union in 1918, Professor Ralph Lyman was looking for ways to reestablish a large choral ensemble at the College.[1] In the spring of 1919, members of the Claremont Congregational Church choir (now United Church of Christ), joined Pomona’s Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs to sing Theodore DuBois’ cantata, The Seven Last Words of Christ at a Good Friday Vespers service under Lyman’s direction. A year later, in the fall of 1920, Lyman officially founded the Pomona College Choir, which immediately became the College’s only large mixed-voice ensemble.[2] This group averaged 150 singers in Lyman’s time, though in some cases the membership was expanded to nearly 200.[3] Its first performance, on 10 December 1920, featured Gounod’s Mass of St. Cecilia. At the time of its founding the Choir, like the Choral Union before it, was an extracurricular ensemble. Beginning in 1928, however, it was a credit-bearing academic course, which is still the case today. The Choir’s repertoire consisted mostly of large oratorios, with Handel’s Messiah enjoying the most frequency, including for Lyman’s final concert in January 1948. They almost always performed with piano or organ accompaniment, depending on the repertoire; there were no collaborations with the College’s student orchestra as there are today.

On Lyman’s retirement, the Choir’s leadership went through a series of changes. Initially, Professor Arthur Hitchcock ’24 led the group, but only for three semesters before leaving for Portland State University. He was followed by Professor Edgar vom Lehn in 1949, but he too left in short order, taking a position at Western Carolina University in 1951. Luckily, his successor, William F. Russell, had much more staying power, and he became one of the most revered conductors in Pomona’s history.

Professor Russell directed the choir for 31 years, from 1951 until 1982, continuing Lyman’s practice of performing large-scale oratorios and, also like Lyman, making Handel’s Messiah a regular fixture of its repertoire. In the early years, there were frequent collaborations with the Pomona College Band, which Russell also conducted. After 1962, there was always at least one collaboration each year with the Pomona College Orchestra, and the annual Christmas Concert often involved the services of the College Organist. Enrollment in the Choir continued to be well over 100, especially in Russell’s earlier years, with membership representing a broad cross-section of the student body, as it still does today albeit with slightly smaller numbers.

Just as Professor Bacon had spearheaded the effort to build Little Bridges in the 1910s, Russell led the effort to construct a new building for the Music Department. With insufficient rehearsal and studio space, it quickly became apparent that the Department had outgrown Little Bridges in just 40 years. Documents reveal that Russell was involved in discussions about adding more space as early as April 1953, just two years into his tenure and before he became Department Chair. Although the College was on board with the project, it took almost two decades for the new Thatcher Music Building to be built.[4]

As Thatcher was nearing completion, Little Bridges was found to be structurally unsound. In December 1969, it was condemned, and the Music Department was forced to take up residency in Holmes Hall. The question of what to do with Little Bridges caused a great deal of debate among students, alumni, and the administration because the building had become so central to the student experience. Although there was talk of tearing it down, doing so would have marked the removal of the most beloved building on campus. Thus, the alumni banded together and raised the funds to completely refurbish it. After two years of renovation, Little Bridges reopened on 11 February 1972, with a rededication concert by the Pomona College Choir and Orchestra.

Upon Professor Russell’s retirement in 1982, Professor Jon Bailey arrived from Yale to take over the choral program, leading the Choir and the (now combined) Glee Club for the next sixteen years. He immediately changed the Choir’s rehearsal schedule from five half-hour rehearsals during the noon hour to three weekly rehearsals; two in the evening and one at noon, and soon thereafter to just two weekly rehearsals on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. He set out to expand the repertoire of both the Choir and Glee Club to include more contemporary selections, and he initially continued the practice of regular choral-instrumental collaborations that started under Russell: in the 1980s, the Choir undertook performances with the Pomona College Orchestra, the Jazz Ensemble, and the choir and orchestra of the Joint Music Program at Scripps College.

When Bailey stepped away from conducting at Pomona in 1998, Professor Donna M. Di Grazia took over the helm, and immediately saw the size of the ensemble grow in her first year from the mid 50s to the high 80s/low 90s. Also, in her first year, she reestablished the collaboration between the Choir and the Pomona College Orchestra and its conductor, Professor Eric Lindholm as an annual affair. Di Grazia strongly believed in the importance of giving singers opportunities to sing with an orchestra, a perspective she gained from her own experiences as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis. Together, the PCC and PCO (as they are currently known within the ensembles) have performed many of the masterworks from the classical music tradition, from the Requiems of Brahms, Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and Duruflé to more recent large-scale works by Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, Bloch,and many others. (See full repertoire since 1998.) The Choir has also performed Handel (including Messiah), Bach, and other works with professional instrumentalists from the Los Angeles area, including an especially memorable program of music from Latin America in December 2018 featuring period instruments.

Although choral-orchestral collaborations have been a hallmark of the Di Grazia years, she has also made sure that the Choir continues to explore the rich repertoire written specifically for choral ensemble alone (or with keyboard or chamber ensemble), offering works from a variety of historical eras, including ones by living composers. Like her predecessors, she has worked to showcase student singers as soloists while also maintaining the tradition established with the Choral Union of working with faculty and guest soloists, most frequently with Professors Gwendolyn Lytle and (more recently) Melissa Givens. Under Professor Lytle’s and Givens’ leadership, the choral program has enjoyed a very close relationship with the Music Department’s studio voice program, and many students involved in the choral program, Choir and Glee Club alike, have benefitted from the combined experience of individual and ensemble training as vocal and choral musicians.

Another Di Grazia-Lindholm collaborative endeavor was their advocacy for ensemble classes to be worth more than a quarter-credit, which the Choir and the Glee Club had been since the early 1980’s.[5] Because of their efforts, all Music Department ensembles have been half-credit courses since Fall 2005.

Philosophically, Di Grazia believes that the choral program is a place where students from all backgrounds and musical experiences can explore choral music at an intellectually stimulating and artistically high level. To that end, she continues to challenge the members of both ensembles, and to expand the repertoire they explore both in terms of musical difficulty and musical traditions. They have sung works in a broad range of styles and in over a dozen languages including Italian, German, French, Russian, Hebrew, Czech, Polish, Hawaiian, Latin, Quechua, Náhuatl, Chiquitano, Norwegian, and (of course) English.

Professor Di Grazia continues to uphold the fine standard for choral singing at Pomona College established by Professors Lyman, Russell, and Bailey, and has gained significant recognition from students, faculty, staff, and community members for her work with the Choir and Glee Club. To honor her first twenty years as conductor of Pomona’s choral ensembles, Megan Kaes Long ’08, Jackie Chen ’07, and Mollie Hochla ’10 organized a two-day reunion on 22 and 23 June 2018 that included alumni representing all but one class year from 1999 to 2021. Along with pianist Linda Zoolalian, 76 singers gave a 45-minute concert in Little Bridges, under Professor Di Grazia’s direction, featuring various selections taken from programs that the ensembles have offered since the fall of 1998.

[1] The information for this section comes from The Student Life (1920–26: Vol. 32–38); the William F. Russell files housed in Thatcher Music Building; The Metate of Pomona College (1928–98); interviews with various alumni; conversations with Graydon Beeks (2017-2020 passim), Jon Bailey (1 November 2019), and with Donna M. Di Grazia (4 March 2020); and extant Pomona College Choir programs. [back]

[2] The Student Life, 11 December 1920, 135. The transition between the 1919 Vespers ensemble and the founding of the Pomona College Choir is still a bit unclear. The ensemble listed in the service bulletin for that performance of the Dubois was identified as the “Pomona College Choir.” However, this service appears to have been an isolated event, and The Student Life’s account of it specifically mentions the two Glee Clubs as having sung in collaboration with members of the Congregational Church choir; it does not mention a “Pomona College Choir.” Our belief that the Pomona College Choir was not officially founded until 1920 is supported by the following information: (a) there is no mention of a Pomona College Choir between the April 1919 service and the 30 September 1920 issue of The Student Life, which reports that Lyman was holding “community choir auditions” that day, (b) the 11 December 1920 TSL review of the Pomona College Choir’s first concert, on December 10th, noted, “The chorus is an important addition to the musical life of the college”; and (c) extant programs going forward (May and December 1921, for example) suggest that the Choir was well-established after that December 1920 performance. Given this information, we believe that in the early years of the ensemble, the Choir was a town-and-gown affair, with a combined membership of students and community members. Although we don’t know for sure, it also seems reasonable to conclude that by the time the Choir became an academic class in the fall of 1928, the group’s membership consisted students exclusively or nearly so. [back]

[3] By comparison, the Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs each had approximately 30 singers each year. [back]

[4] There was a lot of consternation over where to place the new music building. Many trustees were adamantly opposed to placing any building opposite the President’s House, which would block the view of Little Bridges from College Avenue. Proposed sites included the sites of the present-day tennis courts, Memorial Garden, and Career Development Office. At one point, it was even proposed that Sumner Hall be torn down and the music building placed there. Ultimately, Thatcher would be built opposite the President’s House between Little Bridges and College Ave. [back]

[5] Students in the Choir had been awarded academic credit since 1928. We believe that prior to Jon Bailey’s arrival they received an eighth of a credit for their participation. [back]