We are often asked “Isn’t it a little difficult to
go out and do these concerts just by getting together for only four days
each summer?” Our answer is always the same. “All the men volunteer
their time because they love to sing four-part male choral harmony.”
While it is difficult for all of the men to schedule the time and exert
the effort, it is worth it because they bring joy to themselves and to
In the words of one of our past conductors, Larry
Coulter, “It is always a mystery to me that these men, most of whom have
not seen each other in a year, can come together, and in a couple of hours
produce the results that you will hear tonight. Let us just say that we
love to be here and we hope that our audience will love to hear us.”
It all started in 1953, when Rolland E. Heermance,
our founding conductor, and a group of men thought that it would be
interesting and fun to sing together at a town celebration in
Massachusetts. They were asked to return the following year. Rolland, a
true gentleman, had attended Ithaca College, studying voice, and later
settled in Catskill, New York, where he founded the Catskill Glee Club. The group returned to Massachusetts the next year, and the Yankee Male
Chorus was off and running.
All sorts of logistics problems became an annual
part of the event including: meals, lodging, concert locales, soloists,
staging, air conditioning or lack of it, having enough copies of music, to
name a few. Grafton, Vermont, population 432, was having its 200th
anniversary celebration in 1953. During the evening of that celebration, YMC began what was to become a series of annual concerts that has seen 50
straight appearances through 2003 in that beautiful town.
The members of the first Yankee Male Chorus came
mainly from the Catskill Glee Club, the Middletown Glee Club, and the
Manufacturers Chorus. Singers came from all over New England, New York,
and the Middle Atlantic states. It was a diverse group of men --
country folk, city folk, farmers, doctors, painters, businessmen, factory
hands, truck and bus drivers, musicians, and retirees. What they had in
common was the love for making music.
In 1960, the short life of the Yankee Male Chorus
almost came to an end when, tragically, Rolland Heermance was driving
people home from a church rehearsal and a car veered into his. He was
killed instantly. Since plans had already been started for that year’s
tour, Al Sparks stepped in to manage the tour and Clifford Ormsby, Ph.D.,
became the conductor.
Clifford, a native Vermonter, was a composer,
arranger, and conductor and was a director of music in Great Neck, Long
Island. He attended Ithaca College, Hofstra College, New York University,
and Columbia University. Having a summer home in Grafton, he had sung
with and been a guest conductor with the YMC and was already familiar with
many of the men and fit in perfectly.
In 1976, the Chorus was invited to sing at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, to celebrate the Bicentennial and had a most
successful performance. Cliff’s untimely death early in 1977 was cause
for great concern for the Chorus, but Lawrence Coulter came to the
rescue. Larry’s background in music was extensive, including Carnegie
University, Columbia University, and the Eastman School of Music. Larry
was an aviator in World War II, flying 53 combat missions; was a Japanese
POW for three years and was awarded seven decorations. He held the rank
of Lt. Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He conducted the Chorus
through 1993, when he retired.
Since Larry Coulter’s retirement, three
gifted men have shared the conductor’s podium -- Bruce J. Wagner, J.
Brian Steeves (who died in 2008), and the late Nelson G. Burhans. Nels
was active for decades as a soloist, manager, and conductor. He was
a man of great commitment and the driving force of the YMC for
decades. He died in March 2015 and will be sorely missed.
In 2008 former conductor of the Hendrick Hudson Male Chorus
David Lance was asked to conduct at YMC concerts. In 2012, with the
retirement of Nelson Burhans as a regular conductor, Michael Wright of
the Albany Mendelssohn Club joined YMC as a conductor.
Over the years many other talented
people have lent their expertise to the Chorus, including accompanists
Donald Brown, Barbara Sparks, and Patricia Osborn; soloists Walt McClure
and John McCullough; conductor Gene Wisoff; composer Stephanie Gelfan, a
Grafton native; poet laureate of Vermont William Mundell; librarians C.
Fred Seeger, William Yates, and William Murray; managers Nelson Burhans
and Arnold Jones, Jr; and staff assistants Pete Harrison and John Souza.
A typical YMC tour includes a three-hour rehearsal
on a Wednesday afternoon, followed by four concerts on Wednesday through
Saturday nights. Our home base has always been the White Church in
Grafton, VT. The concert at this charming old church is the highpoint for
most of the men. The acoustics there are hard to beat, and our unbroken
record of never missing a performance there is one of our proudest
traditions. However, all of the towns that we have sung in are important
to us and to the people who hear us. Summer visitors have been known to
arrange their vacations so that they can be sure to see and hear the
We look forward to many more years of singing in
the mountains and valleys of Vermont and New Hampshire, and we look
forward to seeing you soon. Without our audiences, we could not exist. Without the love of singing and the camaraderie that builds year after
year, the Yankee Male chorus would not exist.
--Compiled by Gloria and Sal Antignani, Grace McCullough, Nelson G.
Burhans, and Arnold Jones, Jr.