Heralding the holidays with the Heinz Chapel Choir


Photo courtesy of Nadine Sherman

The Heinz Chapel Choir, which consists of 46 students, performed its holiday concert “To Make Music in the Heart” on Tuesday evening.

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Contributing Editor

While all students have been occupied with exams and final projects since arriving back from Thanksgiving break, some are also working singing for sold-out crowds in one of the most historic buildings on campus into their schedule. 

The Heinz Chapel Choir performed their holiday concert “To Make Music in the Heart” Tuesday evening in Heinz Memorial Chapel, the third of six performances in their annual holiday concert series. About 80 people attended the concert, which was free for all members of the community to attend. The ensemble, formed in 1938, is the University’s mixed-gender a cappella choir, which currently consists of 46 students.

The performance consisted of three sets of three to five songs each, as well as “audience carols” such as “Silent Night” that are sung with the audience and accompanying organ interludes. Songs ranged from 20th century compositions, such as “Frosty vs. Rudolph, The Reboot,” to a Psalm sung in Hebrew.

As the music moved through the chapel, so did the singers. The singers performed in different areas of Heinz Chapel, beginning above the audience in the balcony for set one, then singing amongst the audience in the outer aisles of the chapel and in front of the audience at the sanctuary for set two and ending once again in the aisles during set three.

Susan Rice, the director of the Heinz Chapel Choir and a senior lecturer in the music department, said she believes the chapel itself is an important element of the holiday concerts.

“The beauty of the space is such a gift,” she said. “We are so blessed to have that building on campus and for space and time to be made for us to make music in it.”

The holiday concert series is a long-standing tradition for the choir and has grown over the past decades from a single concert event to a multi-day ordeal. According to Rice, the holiday concert evolved into a six-concert series during the time of her predecessor, the late John Goldsmith, who directed the choir for 25 years. As the choir grew in popularity, their shows would always sell out and extra performances would be added.

Now, there are four public concerts — which require advance purchase of tickets — and one free campus concert, as well as a private concert for Chancellor Gallagher and his invited guests. WQED-FM plans to broadcast the concert on Friday on the radio and via audio livestream.

This year’s series has also sold out, with about 420 tickets sold for each of the four public performances. Iain Crammond, a senior English writing and film studies double major and the president of Heinz Chapel Choir, said he has enjoyed performing sold-out shows throughout his four years at Pitt.

“It’s such a rewarding experience to engage with not just the University community, but the greater Pittsburgh community who are coming to our concerts,” Crammond said.

The holiday concerts often coincide with the last week of classes — which is known to be a busy time for students — but Crammond said performing offers him a sense of refuge from the chaos of classes.

“For me, it’s something that I look forward to. It’s work, but it’s a step away from all of the other crazy things that are happening in life,” he said. “It’s wonderful to be able to be with other like-minded people who share this passion for music and pursue excellence in our craft together.”

The choir begins preparing for the holiday concerts in the beginning of the semester, with auditions for new members during the first week of classes. Twice-weekly rehearsals follow for the newly established ensemble, which begins work on the repertoire performed for the Pitt Choral Showcase in early October. After this, the choir embarks on an overnight retreat in mid-October, where Rice said members bond and begin working on the rest of the performance material for the holiday concert series.

“The whole semester feels compressed and feels urgent, kind of all the time. The learning trajectory has to happen in such a way that we are prepared enough to feel confident walking into the first concert,” Rice said.

Out of the 46 students in the choir this semester, 22 of them are new members, something Rice said occurs every few years and has been difficult as well as rewarding.

“This happens every three or four or so years where we have a big chunk of new people. It’s really nice when the returning members will do the thing that we pride ourselves on in HCC, which is that kind of mentoring and helping people to acclimate, which just becomes more critical in years like this,” she said.

Chloe Weiss is an undecided first-year who joined Heinz Chapel Choir at the beginning of the semester. While she was researching Pitt during her college search last year, she discovered the choir and said she was immediately drawn to it.

“When I was looking at Pitt initially, I was like, ‘Wow, I have to do this.’ So when I got in I started practicing right away. The music and the people just seemed so kind,” she said.

Weiss said the people she has met while in the group have helped her adjust to college life as well.

“These people are more than just your fellow choir members — they’re like family,” she said. “They’re really great friends and [joining Heinz Chapel Choir] was such a great way to get involved.”