The Mendelssohn Club, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this season with a gala concert next Saturday, has proved that 80 guys singing together can be a good thing.
“Singing is fun,” said Jack Toohey, 91, and a member since 1952. “It gives me something to do on Wednesday night, and now it’s where all my friends are.”
Bill Brunnell, 79, and a member since 1959, said that even after 50 years, he wouldn’t miss a Wednesday night rehearsal at the New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Albany.
“Sometimes it’s cold and sleeting and hard to get in my car and drive over from Loudonville, but I do,” he said.
Clayton Besch, 78, said he has never regretted joining the club in 1956.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Satuday
WHERE: Chancellor Hall, State Education Building, Washington and Hawk streets, Albany
HOW MUCH: $16
MORE INFO: 371-4383 or www. mendelssohn.org.
“I met a bunch of guys in the service who were in the club,” he said. “Fifty percent of the members were doctors then but we all enjoyed music. You just needed to carry a tune. I got into a pattern of doing things. If it’s Wednesday night, it’s the Mendelssohn Club. So that’s it.”
Michael Donegan, 50, is one of the newcomers to the club, having joined last year.
“I come from a big Irish family and the club is the same way,” he said. “You know how when you get together, you’ll always crank up a few songs. It’s an enjoyable experience.”
The Mendelssohn Club was founded in 1909 by Dean Bradley of the Albany College of Pharmacy and Dr. Frank Rogers, the organist and choirmaster at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, who became the club’s conductor. Rogers recruited many men from area choirs to sing in white tie and tails at many of Albany’s civic and social events. By 1915, annual concerts were given at Chancellor Hall, the site for this year’s concert, which remained the club’s primary concert venue for the next 75 years until it moved to The Egg.
In 1934, Rogers died and a succession of conductors followed, including Metropolitan Opera baritone Reinald Werrenrath, Joel Dolven, Carl Steubing, Larry Coulter, David Griggs-Janower, Myron Hermance, Jeffrey Vredenburg and currently Victor Klimash since 2001. Famous singers appeared as guests over the years, including Marian Anderson, film star Nelson Eddy, Maureen Forrester and Eileen Farrell.
Besides the two annual concerts, the club or its members sang in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, at Albany’s Tricentennial, Albany’s First Night and Tulip Festival, at local professional or college hockey and basketball games, horse races, and at the Mormon Tabernacle as the featured chorus during the 10th InterMountain Choral Fest in 2000.
“They loved us in Utah,” Brunell said. “It’s a magnificent hall and it was a big thrill for a number of us.”
Last year, the club sang for the first time with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra.
The repertoire over the years has changed from singing mostly serious music to include several popular works. On Saturday, there will be pieces by Handel, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Bizet and Weill as well as such tunes as “Deep Purple,” “Seeing Nellie Home,” “Ride the Chariot” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The club has an eight-member music committee, which, after consulting with Klimash, chooses the programs from its extensive music library, much of it inherited from other organizations that the club has outlived, Toohey said.
Most of the singers come from a musical background. Toohey’s mother loved his voice, he said, which he used in church choirs and the Junior League Follies.
“I tried barbershopping but it’s kind of boring. It’s too structured,” Toohey, a former life insurance executive with MassMutual, said. “The Mendelssohn is more interested in music.”
Brunell said he’d been singing all his life and in 1955 after discharge from the service, he joined Capital Hill Choral Society.
“A friend was in the Mendelssohn,” he said. “I was enthralled with men’s voices and went to one of their concerts in 1958. I’d never heard any as good and I told my wife after that, I’ve got to join this group.”
He became one of the Mendelssohn Quartet that for 25 years entertained in schools and museums.
“We were three doctors and me — the only accountant in the group — and we liked to think we were the best in the nation. Now those three are dead,” Brunell said.
Besch always enjoyed singing and sang in barbershop quartets in college, he said. As a swimming pool designer and consultant, he got around the New England area and eventually joined a local church choir before a friend from the club persuaded him to join, he said.
Donegan, a lawyer, used to sing in the University Chorale at the University at Albany and in a church choir in Altamont. But a veterinarian friend and club member he had known for a long time kept urging him to join the club.
“I wanted to get back into formal singing and I loved the challenge of new pieces,” Donegan said. “So I joined and loved the group’s camaraderie and I enjoyed the discipline of rehearsal, especially singing in foreign languages. I also love the age range.”
Klimash, who is considered a disciplinarian when he’s on the podium, must like the results he’s coaxing from his singers.
“I stand in the front row where the rich blend from the timbres makes me feel good,” Brunell said. “I can tell when we’re really doing well because Vic looks like he’s in seventh heaven.”