Almost Nine Decades of Artistic Excellence
"Language is not subtle enough, tender enough,
The almost nine decade history of the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix (OMC) encompasses over a thousand performances in a variety of venues, both in this country and abroad, and over 3500 rehearsals in preparation for those performances. The group has performed in Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and ten European countries, as well as many cities in the United States, including Hawaii. In 1964, the group was given the designation "Arizona Cowboy Ambassadors" by then governor Paul Fannin. During its history, the group has received countless other acknowledgements and awards, and the roster of members has numbered well over a thousand since the group's humble beginnings at the close of 1929.
But the story of OMC goes beyond these facts to the hearts, souls, and voices of the members and directors who have been part of Orpheus over the years. The story of Orpheus lies in the deep felt passion for music and art found in the hearts of these men as well as in the enthusiastic response they have received from their audiences for three quarters of a century. This, indeed, is the true story of the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix.
During the Chorus' history, performance venues have spanned the range from supermarket openings to the great Concert Hall of Vienna, Austria. In its beginning years, the group performed at the local mortuary in a broadcast over Radio Station KTAR. Membership has varied as well, from as few as 21 members during World War II, when many of the men, including the young director, served proudly in the military, to as many as 100 members, with a list of alternates who waited patiently hoping for the opportunity to be part of the performing group. Men from all walks of life have been part of the chorus history. Included among many occupations are teachers, students, businessmen, ministers, attorneys, doctors, salesmen, law enforcement officers, and construction workers, to name a few.
The group has, throughout its history, relied on the enthusiasm and support of its audiences. Benefactors have included governors, mayors, and councilmen as well as numerous businesses and countless generous individuals. Senator Barry Goldwater was a regular contributor to and public supporter of the group. Directors have waved the baton in front of the group for as little as a year and as long as 33 years. They have been as old as 76 and as young as 24 while leading the group. Practice locations have varied, and the styles of music and dress have also varied over the years.
But in the midst of all these variables, there have been several important constants. The group has always rehearsed on Tuesday nights, there have always been enthusiastic audiences, and the members have always shared a love of music. More often than not, the group performed several concerts a year. In the 1963-64 season the group gave 37 performances here and abroad. Most importantly, the group has continuously performed at least two concerts each season (except for the fall concerts of 1943 and 1944) from its beginnings to the present day, making it the longest continuously performing arts group in the state of Arizona.
Congratulations to the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix and to its loyal, enthusiastic audiences for its many years of joyful song!
The very first Orpheus Chorus debuted in the Spring of 1900. The April 4, 1900 edition of the Arizona Republican announced the formation of the Orpheus Club. It consisted of 25 members, both male and female, and was directed by A.N. Benham of Oakland, California, who, it was reported, was "the most efficient musical director on the coast." The article noted that the "members are chosen solely with reference to voice and knowledge of music. Merely ornamental and social features have not been sought. No one was taken in on account of social standing. Thus, there is no waste timber in the club." Unfortunately, waste timber or not, the group vanished into history in a very short time.
THE ORPHEUS CLUB: 1929
Nearly 30 years later, on Monday evening, November 4, 1929, the first meeting of what was first to be known as the "Orpheus Club" was held at the Y.M.C.A. The following morning, a small article appeared in the Arizona Republican announcing the formation of the group:
"A Phoenix men's chorus was organized last night at the Young Men's Christian Association when a group of singers formulated plans and elected temporary officers which will be replaced by permanent officers at a meeting in December. L. Douglas Russell was selected permanent director of the new chorus. Twenty attended the meeting. Plans for a concert and occasional radio broadcasting were discussed. Tuesday was set as the date for the next meeting to be held at the Masonic Temple at 7:45 pm."
Only two weeks after that first article appeared, another noted:
"Thirty singers have been accepted as members of the Phoenix Men's Chorus, following completion of the audition program. The audition was based on tone quality, the ability to carry a tune, and sight-reading. The club was recently formed to give men interested in singing an opportunity to meet and sing together. Installation of officers will be held at the first meeting in December. Other officers besides Director Russell include Ralph Sarager, assistant director, and Robert Mund, temporary chairman of the executive committee."
The group adopted a constitution and by-laws and elected its first official officers on December 17, 1929. Mrs. Al Moriarity was the group's first accompanist.
L. Douglas Russell, who directed the group through its first year, claimed quite a background. According to information found on the first printed program, his "early instruction was received at Drake University and the New England Conservatory, subsequent training under Goetchius, Elson, Lamson, Wright and Saenger. Mr. Douglas has also played a number of leading opera roles, including roles in Lohengrin, Trovatore, Traviata, Tannhauser, Faust, Fra Diavolo, Martha, Maritana, Bohemian Girl and Robinhood."
Russell also reported that he had been the director of the Mendelssohn Club of Spokane, Washington; Apollo Club of Portland, Oregon; and the Apollo Club of Minneapolis, Minnesota - all male-voice choirs, "the latter being the largest male-voice choir in America."
After such a background of performance and directorship, it is unclear why Mr. Russell decided to come to Phoenix in the first place and why he decided to leave after one short year. However, during that first year, Russell directed the group through one formal concert, three additional performances, and participation in four musical programs in the Phoenix area, as well as regular radio performances including the opening program for the new Radio Station KTAR, where the Orpheus Club made its public debut on Christmas morning of 1929. The group's first season concert was performed for a "capacity audience of enthusiastic supporters" in early February of 1930 at the Phoenix Women's Club building. The group performed on KTAR radio the week before as a preliminary to the concert. The first song of the first formal concert was MacDowell's "Hymn of the Pilgrim."
An article in the Arizona Republican on February 15, 1930 noted that the early purpose of the group was "giving Phoenix a society of singers to add to the cultural advantages of the community. The men in the organization sing because of their love of music. Their work may not as yet rival the production of older and longer-trained choruses, their leader says, but the club is sincere in its effort to gain a state of ability where its concerts will prove a matter of pride to the city and to its membership."
ORPHEUS TAKES SHAPE: 1930-1938
Ralph Marquis succeeded L. Douglas Russell as director in the fall of 1930. Orley Iles succeeded Mrs. Al Moriarity as accompanist. The new director was a disciplined, serious musician who adopted tuxedos as the group's uniform and began charging admission for the performances. Marquis himself appeared in black tie and tails and worked very hard to produce music to fit his image.
With Marquis, the group entered a period of sustained growth and high standards of musicianship. However, to build membership, Marquis did not require auditions, knowledge of music theory, or the ability to sight-read music as a prerequisite for membership. The love of vocal music and the desire to sing were the only requirements for membership.
By late 1931 the group's membership had hit 88. At that point, Marquis included his own description of the group on the back cover of the concert program: "Eighty-eight Phoenix business and professional men constitute the present membership of the Orpheus Club - Arizona's premiere male-voice chorus. The club is a non-profit educational institution. Its members dedicate one evening each week throughout the season to the study of the best male-voice music our literature affords. The club has no "guarantors" - accepts no donations. Its expenditures are limited to the cost of music and smaller incidentals. Neither member nor director receives compensation beyond the pleasure derived from the study and performance of the finest and most rarely heard forms of music - male-voice chorus. The large and well-merited patronage of its concerts has placed the club on sound financial footing. A nominal admission fee to its concerts is charged only to provide music and auditorium expense for coming recitals."
By 1934, the group began singing regularly with the Phoenix Symphony, the Phoenix Woman's Club, and the Phoenix Musicians Club. The group continued to appear on the radio and regularly performed concerts for Arizona State Hospital patients. During Marquis' directorship, the group moved its practice venue from the Masonic Temple to room 509 of the Ellis Building, then to the Luhr's Tower in 1936, and finally to Phoenix Union High School. During the 1936-1937 concert season, the group performed at the University of Arizona in Tucson, as well as two appearances at State Teachers College (now Arizona State University).
During his tenure, Ralph Marquis established a solid reputation for musical entertainment. The chorus grew rapidly and the future direction of the organization was firmly set. To help finance the increasing activities of the chorus, associate memberships were sold at one dollar each. More than 900 memberships were sold per year, entitling the holder to attend all musical functions of the Club and a reserved seat at the two formal concerts each year. Marquis also helped to support the expenses of the group with his own personal funds.
1930-1938 were years that helped to shape the chorus and set the standards for performance in the future. The chorus became known throughout the state for its quality performances, its professional presentations, and the ability to perform a variety of music. During his seven years as director, Marquis gave 72 lectures on musical subjects in which he reflected his extensive knowledge of music.
Marquis reflected on the growth of the chorus under his directorship in a letter he wrote to a chorus member in May of 1954:.
"In the Interim between 1931 and 1938, the club heard such assisting artists as Percy Grainger, Richard Crooks, Marie Zesch, Signor Persis and many others from the Chicago, New York and San Francisco Opera companies. Our concert programs indicated the strength of the club's ability to hold both its active and associate membership. When I started the club there were 25 active members. I started with a handful of subscribers. I built it up to one of the foremost musical organizations of the United States. Our program brochures were requested by the libraries of over 62 cities. Greet the club for me and give my kindest regards to the very few of the club's present members who were members during the seven years I directed the club. I have heard the club twice since 1939 in concert while visiting friends in Phoenix. I shall be in Phoenix several times this coming fall and winter. I hope to meet and hear the club again."
YOUTHFUL ENTHUSIASM: 1938-1941
David Murdock joined the group as a baritone in January of 1937. He had grown up in Tempe and attended Phoenix Junior College before going on to the University of Arizona for his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Music degree. During his time at the U. of A. he was on the football team, was considered an expert tumbler, was state high-diving champion, and was considered accomplished at the piano, as well as wind and string instruments. By the end of 1937 Murdock became Assistant Musical Director under Ralph Marquis.
In the spring of 1938, the Board of Directors of Phoenix Junior College requested that the Orpheus Club be officially associated with the College as part of their Adult Education program. At the same time, Ralph Marquis appointed David Murdock as director and retained the title of Artistic Director. David first directed the chorus at their Spring concert on May 10, 1938. Murdock composed a special choral number for the occasion entitled "The Desert." He had just turned 24 years old on October 27th of the previous year.
Murdock was a personable young man with a warm and winning smile who injected an element of fun into the group. He composed several choral pieces, which the group performed. During his directorship of the Orpheus Club, Murdock was also director of the Glendale high school band and glee club, and taught music there as well. He also directed the Methodist choir of Glendale.
In 1939, the group moved their rehearsal site to Phoenix Junior College, where they performed their first concert on Tuesday, December 11, 1939. It was also their tenth anniversary concert. The Arizona Republic announced the event the day before by proclaiming, "As one of the year's outstanding musical treats, the Orpheus Club of Phoenix will present its first concert of the 1939-1940 season tomorrow night in the auditorium of the new Phoenix Junior College. This will be the first public event of its kind staged in the new auditorium, which is considered to have the finest acoustics in Phoenix. The director is David Murdock, who is widely known as a composer, pianist, and conductor."
Murdock's last season concert was in the Spring of 1941 and his last performance as director of the group was on April 15, 1941 at Tolleson High School. During that last performance he directed the group in another of his own compositions, "Frisky Frog."
In the summer of 1941, Murdock was drafted into military duty. On August 11, 1943, First Lieutenant David Nathaniel Murdock, 7th Infantry, 3rd Division, landed with his men on the northern coast of Sicily. Later that day he was leading his squad as they attempted to secure the town of San Agata when he was killed instantly by enemy machine gun fire. He was 29 years old. His body was buried nearby in a military grave, where it remained until 1949 when his parents, Arizona Congressman John R. and Myrtle C. Murdock, brought his remains to their final rest at Tempe Double Buttes Cemetery.
In 1945, the Orpheus Club dedicated their spring concert to David Murdock. Ralph Hess, a member and future director, sang "Unsung" composed by David as a tribute to the former director. And at a ceremony at Murdock's burial in 1949, a commemorative booklet was distributed containing the recollections and tributes of literally hundreds of people who knew him.
He was loved by the men he led in battle. Many of those men contributed to the commemorative booklet and spoke of how he helped to keep their spirits up by performing for them on various "strange wind instruments" and by staging minor theatrical performances. They spoke of his friendliness and courage, and his inspiring leadership, which was expressed through individual concern for each of them.
Among the hundreds of testimonials contained in the commemorative booklet, two stand out from the rest in their description of David's love of life and the loss that was felt by his friends. One friend of the family captured an apt image of his directing style in saying: "He stood on the platform in all of his youthful enthusiasm conducting his chorus of middle-aged business men, then turned graciously to accept the well-earned applause with his winning smile."
Finally, in typical form, a future presidential candidate characterized his sense of loss in the following manner: "I liked David immensely. His cheerfulness and his friendliness always stuck out in any crowd. You and I and Arizona have lost a person the likes of which this country needs badly, and when I tell you his passing will be felt by all of us nearly as much as by you I mean it." Signed; Capt. Barry Goldwater.
THREE STEP IN: 1941-1947
During the period following the departure of David Murdock and the beginning of the 33 year tenure of Ralph Hess, three directors stepped in to keep the Orpheus Club together and performing during turbulent times.
After David Murdock was drafted, a Franciscan priest took over the directorship. Father de Silva was stationed at the Franciscan Renewal Center known as La Casa de Paz y Bien, located on what is now 52nd Street and Lincoln Drive. He was recognized as an accomplished musician and showman and had been known for his interest in music and community activities. His combined talents of musician and healer were desperately needed during these early war years, and he did much to boost and maintain morale. He led the group for two years until his expanding ministerial duties required that he step down as director.
Elmer Grundy, who directed the group from the fall of 1944 to the fall of 1945, succeeded him. Early in the war, the membership was faced with the grief of losing a promising and much loved young director to the war effort. The number of young men being drafted depleted the roles of the chorus from nearly 100 to less than two dozen. At one point there was talk of discontinuing the concerts until after the war. However, it was decided that the tradition should be preserved. One concert a year, during the spring, was held at Phoenix Junior College auditorium. Coffee and donuts were served afterward and the inspirational music contributed to the morale of the people on the home front
From the spring of 1946 through the spring of 1947, the Orpheus Club was directed by Lee Miller. In the spring of 1947, Miller appointed Ralph Hess to be his assistant. Miller then asked for a leave of absence to return to Oklahoma to complete his education, and Ralph Hess became the director. Later, when Miller returned, the board voted to keep Hess as director - a role which he maintained admirably for 33½ seasons until he retired at the end of the 1978-79 season.
THE HESS YEARS: 1947-1979
For the next 33½ seasons, under the directorship of Ralph Hess, the Orpheus Club experienced tremendous growth and development. During this period, new members were required to audition and possess at least a basic knowledge of music. In 1960, the club officially changed its name to the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix. It achieved international attention and took over the sponsorship of the Phoenix Boys Choir, an alliance that lasted from 1953-1972. Also during this time, the chorus expanded its performance schedule to include numerous formal and informal performances each season.
The first noticeable change occurred during the first concert. Until that time, the concert brochures contained a list of the songs to be performed and often provided the names of the chorus members. In addition, the audience might expect to see various poetry and brief references from classic literature. At the first concert directed by Ralph Hess on December 9, 1947, the concert brochure contained, for the first time, nearly two dozen paid advertisements from businesses and organizations in the Phoenix area. It was clear from the onset that Ralph Hess was a businessman as well as a musician.
Ralph Hess was not satisfied performing in Arizona alone. He believed that the quality of the group warranted adventures to other countries. So, beginning with a trip to Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1954, the group began a series of tours that included six performances in Europe as well as appearances in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The group also managed to squeeze in a trip to Hawaii. As a result, then Governor Paul Fannin proclaimed the group "Arizona's Cowboy Ambassadors" in 1964.
But one of the greatest of all honors to befall Orpheus happened on November 17, 1961. President John F. Kennedy was in Phoenix that day to attend a dinner to honor Senator Carl Hayden. The event took place at the Thunderbird Room of the Westward Ho Hotel. The men of Orpheus were invited to sing the National Anthem that evening at the dinner, and President Kennedy later remarked that it was the most stirring performance of the National Anthem that he had ever heard!
ORPHEUS CLUB ADOPTS THE PHOENIX BOYS CHOIR
Jim Masten, an employee of A.L. Moore Mortuary, coordinated the company's sponsorship of the Phoenix Boys Choir from 1947-1952. In '52, Masten moved to Coolidge to buy a cotton hauling business. The mortuary felt it could no longer support the boys choir, so the choir disbanded that year. However, the Orpheus Chorus stepped in and offered to take over sponsorship. The mortuary donated the risers, music and uniforms to the care of the Orpheus Chorus.
During the '52-'53 season, fate played a hand in the course of both groups. That year, the cotton crops were rained out and Masten's new business failed. He moved back to Phoenix and was persuaded to take over coordination of the boys choir for Orpheus. Starting in 1954, the Phoenix Boys Choir appeared each year with the Orpheus Chorus at their annual Spring Concert.
In April of 1955, Serge Huff was appointed as the official director of the Phoenix Boys Choir. During the 1960-61 season, Harvey Smith became director and Hazel Smith the accompanist for the boys. The Phoenix Boys Choir achieved distinction in its own right during the 1960s, including appearances in Hawaii and San Francisco, as well as with the Phoenix Symphony. The choir released its first album in 1971, and in 1972 the Phoenix Boys Choir Association voted to assume sponsorship of the choir.
The group sang its last concert with Orpheus in March of 1972. That year, the boys traveled to Europe and appeared in Vienna, Austria.
ORPHEUS BECOMES INTERNATIONAL
In February 1954, two buses of Orpheus singers made their way to Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. When they were ten miles from the city, they were met by a police escort, which brought them through city traffic with sirens blaring. The first of three concerts was given to an audience of 1000 invited guests in the museum auditorium of the University of Sonora. The second and third concerts took place the following day on the steps of the university's library and were repeated for the local radio station later that day. As a result of this tour, the group became notice for their international goodwill.
Two years later, building upon to the success of the first trip, the group planned a trip to Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. Guadalajara was considered to be the musical capital of Mexico. The chorus drove to Nogales, walked across the border, and then boarded a bus for the airport for their flight to Guadalajara. Their two hour concert at the DeGallado Theater was tape recorded for use at other venues in the area.
In that same year, the governor of Sonora invited the group back to Hermosillo. The three-day tour fell on Mexican Flag Day. The trip also followed an unpleasant incident in Denver, Colorado, in which a national women's organization had refused to allow a boy of Mexican descent to carry an American flag. Understandably, this caused a negative reaction among many Mexican officials and citizens. When the group arrived in Hermosillo, they brought small American flags and passed them out to the Mexican children and restored a sense of goodwill once again. However, proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the group was "rewarded" for their kindness when crossing back into the United States. It seems that there were reports of an epidemic of some sort in Mexico. When the U.S. health officer asked them if they had proof of vaccination it appeared that none had thought to bring medical records with them. They were all given complimentary vaccinations as a "welcome home" gift at the border.
Again in 1957, the Orpheus members drove to Nogales and walked across the border to participate in Cinco de Mayo festivities. Their scheduled performance in a bullring was poorly attended and so they moved to a bandstand on a city street corner.
In autumn of 1957, Julius Festner, a member of the chorus, sent a tape from one of the Mexican performances to friends in Germany. As a result, the Orpheus Chorus was invited to participate with nearly 40,000 other singers in the Third Austrian International Song Festival to be held July 17-20 of the following year. Since the group only had $1000 in their treasury, they asked individuals and corporations in the community for help. Levi Strauss donated $15,000 in Wrangler jeans and shirts for the uniforms, and Eugene Pullium and Goodyear Tire Company each donated $2500. The spring concert had netted $5000 due to the famous guest pianist, Alex Templeton, and a variety of gifts were received as a result of a newspaper ad. And while money was being raised, Ralph Hess prepared the singers by doubling rehearsal times so that the men would be well practiced and memorize their music. In addition, his uncle, Homer Hess, acted as voice coach to work with the men individually.
The itinerary included Shannon, Heidelberg, Augsburg, Salzburg, Vienna, Landeck, Geneva, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. The group was given the name "Cowboy Ambassadors" for the first time and was officially recognized for their representation of the United States at the Brussels Universal and International Exhibition of 1958 by the United States Department of State.
In 1962, the chorus was invited to participate in the 100th Anniversary of the Saengerbund in Essen, Germany. The trip was much easier to finance than the first European trip due to the sales of their first record album. Two of the songs from this album were on 5,500 jukeboxes in the state of Arizona. This time the group took six dancers from St. John's Indian School to demonstrate the unique culture of the southwest.
Two years later, the chorus performed in Toronto, Canada for the Rotary International Convention, where they received a standing ovation from 15,000 people. As part of the tour, the group performed in Quebec City, on the deck and ramps of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, three concerts in New York at the World's Fair, and, through a connection with Del Webb, sang at the opening of a Yankees games in Yankee Stadium. In Washington, D.C. Congressman John Murdock and his wife Myrtle, parents of one time Orpheus director David Murdock, personally guided the group through a tour of the Capitol.
In 1966, the group sang five concerts in seven days in Hawaii, the most moving of which was the singing of the National Anthem and "Let Their Be Peace On Earth" on the deck of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. The U.S. Navy provided a special motor launch for the group and gave them a private tour of the Pearl Harbor area. The group paid tribute to their Hawaiian experience by performing an all-Hawaiian song program in their Spring 1967 concert in the newly completed Grady Gammage Auditorium.
The next year, the third European tour in ten years took the men to Portugal, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. While many of the cities were simply sightseeing stops for the chorus, the men still often performed spontaneously for the locals, and their daily practice sessions were often attended by many people who were within earshot. The chorus performed formally in Madrid, Wuppertal, Copenhagen and Oslo, to sell-out crowds each time.
In 1971, the group was again invited to be part of 5,000 choruses from all around the world in the Fifth International Song Festival in Vienna. The group decided to take advantage of the opportunity and included visits to Shannon, London, Rome, Vienna, and Munich. After the concert in Vienna, the group went to Copenhagen and then home. Attending the Vienna performance were the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, the Chancellor of Austria, and Mayor of Vienna, all of whom gave special acknowledgement to the chorus. Once again, "Arizona's Cowboy Ambassadors" made their mark.
In 1972, the group celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the directorship of Ralph Hess with a gala dinner and tribute at the Del Webb Townhouse. Along with countless accolades, Mr. Hess was dubbed "Mr Music of Arizona." He was also honored as "an esteemed friend, educator, musician, churchman, Rotarian, and Scout Leader."
In June 1976, the Orpheus Male Chorus was again in Berlin to participate in the celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States. This again was an extended tour and gave the chorus members the opportunity to visit with their colleagues from the Wuppertal Schubert-Band group, who hosted Orpheans in their homes for several days. The Chorus sang in an amphitheater in Cologne, a church in Wuppertal, from the rooftop of the Hilton Hotel in Berlin, and in Kongreshalle for the formal concert. The group also had the opportunity to perform informally in Haydenshalle and Zurich.
Throughout these tour years, the Orpheus Chorus gave numerous impromptu performances in hotel lobbies, airports, and the city streets where they traveled. Often the size and dress of the group drew attention and requests. As a result of the group's international acclaim, it was the subject of many articles in prominent local and state magazines and newspapers. In addition, they received a number of awards and commendations. The same was true for its director, Ralph Hess. He became widely known for his dedication and musical skills and was awarded countless commendations in his own right.
ORPHEUS TURNS 50: RALPH HESS RETIRES
Orpheus turned 50 in 1979. A Golden Anniversary Dinner was held on April 3, 1979 at Del Webb Townhouse. Phoenix Mayor Margaret Hance offered remarks and tribute. The Schubert-Bund Male Chorus made their third trip to Phoenix in order to share in the festivities with their comrades of several joint concerts over the years.
Shortly thereafter, Ralph Hess retired after nearly 34 years of service to the Orpheus Chorus. It was almost a year long process to find and appoint a new director. In the interim, Paul Morrow, a longtime assistant director took the reins through the 1979-80 season.
During the summer of 1979, the group toured England, Scotland and Wales, where they gave a total of four concerts.
THE LAST INTERNATIONAL TOURS: 1980-1991
Larry Wittig took the reins as director for the 1980-81 concert season. Wittig was music instructor at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix. Under his guidance, the Orpheus Male Chorus began an effort to bring younger members into their ranks. It met with limited success, as many of the new members only stayed for one year. However, continued efforts eventually brought younger members who remained with the group.
In 1985, the chorus began performing at the Sun Dome in Sun City. They sang there for three seasons, but the venue was huge and the concerts proved to be less than successful financially for the chorus and for the Sun City Rotary Club who sponsored them.
In 1986, the chorus had planned another concert tour of Europe. However, due to political unrest in the Middle East, many members felt uneasy traveling abroad and the tour was cancelled. The following year, the chorus did successfully tour Australia and New Zealand. They performed along with the Sydney Male Chorus in the university auditorium. The group also did two joint concerts with the Cairns Choral Society on the northeast coast of Australia. In Christchurch, New Zealand, they again performed a joint concert with the Christchurch Liedertafal. Finally, the Orpheus Chorus of Phoenix performed with the Orpheus Chorus of Wellington, New Zealand, in Wellington Cathedral. The final concert of the tour took place in Auckland, where the chorus participated in a joint concert with both the Te-Atatu Mens Choir and the North Shore Male Voice Choir.
In 1989, the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix celebrated its 60th Anniversary of continuous performance. An anniversary dinner was held at the Doubletree Greenway Inn. Don Knotts served as master of ceremonies, and James Sedares, acting director of the Phoenix Symphony, was the guest speaker, using the opportunity to encourage the support of the arts.
Larry Wittig resigned as director in 1991 when the membership was between 85 and 90 members. Ed Hermanson took over the director ship for the 1991-1992 season.
THE PUSH FOR ARTISTIC QUALITY: 1992-2006
In 1992, John T. Brown was appointed music director. Mr. Brown was a music educator and church musician who had been active in the Phoenix are since 1978. At the time, he was completing the course work for a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting at Arizona State University. Current singing members who had observed his choruses over the years solicited Mr. Brown.
That same year, the chorus members voted to emphasize artistic quality. Mr. Brown was hired to recruit a younger membership, improve the performance and singing skills of the chorus, and expand the audition criteria for membership to the chorus. In response, he began implementing vocal training, more challenging music, and longer and more intense rehearsals with an emphasis on music reading skills. With John Brown came a drive to achieve musical excellence and a new level of professionalism. The new mission of the chorus was evidenced by a change in appearance and an expansion of the musical repertoire to include classical masterworks, contemporary and current works for male chorus, folksongs, spirituals, Broadway tunes, and works from the musical theatre.
Orpheus participated in the Missoula International Choral Festival in 1993 and, in that same year, produced first versions of season brochures and began silently moving away from the “Arizona's Cowboy Ambassadors” image toward a new identity.
This was a difficult time for the chorus. While a number of members wanted to keep the traditions of the group that emphasized social gathering, as did many community choruses of the time, many Orpheus members wanted to see the group move in a new more artistic direction. As a result of this struggle, the chorus began experienced an exodus of members. In 1994, 25 members chose to leave the Chorus and attempted to establish another group continuing the same tradition as before. By 2000, the Chorus consisted of 40 members. This also put a financial strain on the group.
But the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix continued to move forward in spite of, or perhaps as a result of, these challenges. In 1995, the chorus represented the United States and Arizona on a goodwill tour to Europe to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. That same year, the chorus won its first Arizona and Phoenix Arts grants and released its first compact disc entitled Sing Out the News. Financial challenges were met with an endowment started by the members, and the chorus initiated frequent fundraisers that celebrate the arts and invite the patronage of those dedicated to preserving and enhancing the arts in Phoenix and Arizona.
One of the greatest achievements of the leadership of the chorus has been the development and implementation of a Board of Directors. The chorus members voted to adopt new bylaws to allow for the establishment of such a board and established a search committee to recruit members for the board, which met for the first time on July 7, 2001. In April of 2002, the chorus was awarded a three year Capacity Grant from the City of Phoenix Arts Commission.
In 2004 Joseph Choi became the Artistic Director. Also, 2004 was the 75th anniversary for Orpheus. In celebration of that anniversary, Orpheus commissioned a new work by the contemporary New England composer Gwyneth Walker: a triptych of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems.
During the 2004-05 season, Orpheus sang the National Anthem for the Diamondbacks. Orpheus also established a Scholarship Fund to underwrite the attendance of Phoenix area high school students at the Northern Arizona University's Summer Music Camp. In addition, Orpheus performed with the Phoenix Children's Chorus and the Movement Source Dance Company.
ENTER ROBB BUTLER AND RON RHODE
In the spring of 2005, Robb Butler accepted the Artistic Director position with Orpheus. Mr. Butler brought not only his expertise in choral direction, but also his experience in performing opera. Robb was finishing his doctorate in choral conducting at Arizona State University and was music director at a local church. Robb brought extensive experience as an opera singer with the Santa Fe Opera Company and the Aspen Music Festival, and as Chorus Master of the Denver Opera Company and Associate Conductor of the Denver Chorale.
At nearly the same time, Ron Rhode became the regular accompanist for Orpheus. Ron came to Orpheus as an accomplished pianist and classical pipe organist. He is an internationally renowned theater organist and has the distinct honor of having played virtually every major theatre organ installation in the world. Ron was awarded "Theatre Organist Of The Year - 1989" by the American Theatre Organ Society and was the Featured Organist for the Silent Sunday Series (silent movies) at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix since its inception in May of 1999. Ron's flexibility to move between piano and organ gave additional options in the range of music available to the choir. His theater organ skills have been given freely to support both the regular and benefit performances of the chorus. The arrival of Robb and Ron resulted in Orpheus' continued growth in artistic quality.
In the summer of 2006, under Robb's guidance, Orpheus auditioned for and was invited to participate in Kathaumixw, a week long international choral festival held every other year in Powell River, British Columbia. Daily activities included massed choir rehearsals, performances, and sightseeing. Orpheus performed numerous formal and informal concerts during the week as well as taking in many of the performances of other participating groups and investigating the rich history of the region. Performance venues ranged from the formal concert hall to the local shopping mall, but in every location the audiences and performers joined in a delightful experience. The festival culminated with a massed choir performance including Giuseppe Verdi's Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore under the direction of internationally known conductor Fred Sjöberg. As a result of the group's performances, Orpheus won second place in the "adult equal voice" category of the festival.
One of the highlights of Orpheus' 2007-2008 season was a performance of the Requiem, op. 9, of Maurice Duruflé, with the Phoenix Boys Choir, alumni of the Phoenix Boys Choir, the Tucson Boys Chorus, the Cincinnati Boys Choir, and members of the Phoenix Symphony, all under the direction of guest conductor Francis Bardot, known in France for his work with children's choirs. Two performances were given, one in Phoenix and one in Tucson, with the Tucson performance being recorded for later broadcast over Tucson's public radio station.
Orpheus' accomplishments were growing under Robb's direction, and the quality of the chorus was increasing. However, the push toward more complex works came at a price. The very broadness and diversity among the singers that made Orpheus a great organization proved to be a problem. Although the membership almost unanimously expressed a desire to take Orpheus "to the next level", for many of the members the time and work requirements to make that goal a reality were simply not practical. Frustration grew and enrollment began to decline.
THE DOCTOR IS IN: 2009-PRESENT
Orpheus recognized that if it was going to prosper, it needed to re-examine its musical identity and establish more attainable goals. To attract new membership, Orpheus would need to appeal to a broader group of men with a wider age range and a variety of musical backgrounds and skill levels. In 2009 the Chorus selected Brook Carter Larson as the Artistic Director. Dr. Larson came to the Chorus from Arizona State University, where he had taught for six years and was the founder of the Sun Devil Singers and the ASU Men's Chorus. Brook received his Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting from Arizona State University and holds degrees from Bowling Green State University (Ohio) and Moorhead State University (Minnesota). Brook has kept busy in his field, acting as a director and/or clinician for various youth honor choirs and was the Repertoire & Standards Chair for Male Choirs for the Arizona chapter of the American Choral Directors Association for eight years. "Doc", as the Chorus members fondly call him, has brought new energy and focus to the group.
With its renewed vision for stability and growth, the chorus leadership felt it was desirable to provide both assistance and backup to the Artistic Director. Thus, in 2012, the position of Assistant Conductor was created. Dr. Carric Smolnik was hired to fill the new position. Carric came to Orpheus with his Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting from Arizona State University and wide experience conducting groups including the Arizona Desert Choir and numerous other groups at ASU and at his undergraduate alma matter, BYU. Carric is also an accomplished pianist and frequently works in both rehearsals and performances in addition to his conducting responsibilities.
REBUILDING THE FUTURE
Orpheus continues to re-establish its identity within a competitive and vibrant Phoenix arts community. In 2010, Orpheus became the lead organization in the Boys to Men project. Each year, high school boys' choral groups are invited to meet and participate with Orpheus and other adult male choruses from the Valley. The goal is to instill in these young men the joy and satisfaction that music can bring through one's lifetime.
Orpheus is also re-establishing its identity in the community with benefit performances and outreach activities. In 2010 Orpheus performed for the Washington Carver Museum and Community Center. In 2011 Orpheus performed for the Westminster Retirement Community and Hospice of the Valley. In 2013 and 2014 Orpheus was honored to appear at "A Love Not Forgotten", the annual Gala of the Alzheimer's Association Desert Southwest Chapter. Other outreach activities include Habitat for Humanity, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and Feed My Starving Children, in addition to work assistance days for several local individuals and organizations. The Chorus' identity with the community has also been enhanced by performing the National Anthem for the Diamondbacks each season!
Led by the untiring efforts of the Chorus leadership and staff, the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix has experienced a resurgence. Today, membership stands at 75+ dedicated members. The Chorus is recognized for its convincing and meaningful performances on a wide range of music literature. Orpheus is increasingly recognized for its outreach to the community and is working to secure permanently its future and its place as the oldest continually performing chorus in Arizona. It is certain that the future will bring the best that is yet to be seen and heard!
ORPHEUS DIRECTORS & ACCOMPANISTS
1929-30 >> L. Douglas Russell / Mrs. Al Moriarty
DISCOGRAPHY (pre-1995 incomplete)
1962 >> First Record Album