Women’s Choral Society Celebrates 80 Years of UO Scholarships
November 19, 2014—One of the oldest of the Willamette Valley’s performing arts organizations boasts a storied history stretching back to nearly a full century of continuous song. The tale of Eugene’s Women’s Choral Society is intertwined with that of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, a relationship that has proved valuable for both organizations.
The brainchild of alumnae of the University of Oregon’s local chapter of the Mu Phi Epsilon coeducational music fraternity, the Women’s Choral Society was founded in 1934 as the first all-women’s chorus in Eugene. In this, their 80th year, the ensemble—a fixture in the local performing arts community and frequent performers at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall—reflects on its history and looks forward to its future.
The WCS has a threefold mission that focuses on contributing to the musical life of the local community: financial aid to UO music students, performance of music of variety and quality, and bonds of friendship and joy from working and singing together.
Guiding Young Voices
Central to the WCS mission is the Densmore Scholarship Program. In the 1950s Maude Densmore, charter president and first accompanist for the WCS, established an endowment for scholarships for female UO vocal students. The fund began supporting students following Mrs. Densmore’s passing in 1955.
Through the support of community patrons, a second annual scholarship program was established in 1969 under the name of Maude’s husband, H. B. Densmore. Since 1955, these annual awards have not only helped deserving UO singers pay their way through college, they have also underscored the Women’s Choral Society’s commitment to education.
April Dimmick, a junior majoring in vocal performance, is a talented three-year recipient of the Maude Densmore Scholarship. Dimmick says that the scholarship has made a direct and immediate impact on her life.
“As someone with a fervent desire to become a professional musician, I was thrilled to be accepted as a music major at the UO,” says Dimmick, “but I was severely lacking the funds to attend and was very determined to leave college debt-free. Words cannot even begin to express how honored I am to be a Maude Densmore Scholarship recipient for three years in a row.”
As part of her scholarship, Dimmick is a featured solo performer each year at the society’s annual winter concert (as demonstrated in the below video). This year, Dimmick reports she will sing two solo pieces, and will also sing alongside the chorus for additional selections.
“Not only does the Densmore provide financial support for UO singers, it also provides them with a performance opportunity with the Women's Choral Society,” said Sharon J. Paul, professor of music and chair of the UO’s Vocal Performance and Choral Arts area.
“This enhances their musical opportunities during their tenures as students at the UO by helping connect their performance studies to real life work on the concert stage,” Paul added.
In addition to Dimmick, the 2014-15 cohort of WCS scholarship awardees includes Dylan Bunten and Alexa McCuen, both recipients of the H.B. Densmore Scholarship.
“Herstory” in the Making
From the very start, the WCS sponsored study and lecture classes led by University of Oregon music faculty members including Rose McGrew of opera studies, Rex Underwood of string instrument performance, Jane Thatcher of piano performance, and John Stark Evens of the vocal ensembles and choral area.
A call for members in the local newspaper netted over 300 applicants for the fledgling organization, of which 110 were selected to join Eugene’s first all-women’s choir. Directed by Evens and accompanied by Densmore, the group prepared and performed several pieces at the faculty lectures.
The first public WCS concert was given in 1935 in Beall Concert Hall. Since then, the WCS has performed at numerous pageants, conventions, and community events, including several concerts with the Eugene Gleemen and the Eugene Symphony, and for the opening celebrations of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts.
Today, the group is composed of around one hundred women, ranging in age from twenty to eighty. The ensemble is ably assisted by Vicki Brabham, who has provided musical accompaniment for more than ten years.
Choral director Jim Steinberger received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Oregon. He went on to teach in Pleasant Hill, Ore. (where he founded the Pleasant Hill Jazz Festival, one of the oldest and largest jazz festivals in the Northwest) and at South Eugene and Churchill High Schools in Eugene. Steinberger retired from teaching in 2006, allowing him even more time to devote to directing the WCS, as he has for the past 24 years.
“Steinberger does excellent work and is very well respected for his many years of involvement in music in our community,” says Paul. “The WCS represents a wonderful opportunity for women from all walks of life to unite through song.”
All good things come to an end, however, and Steinberger has announced his plans for retirement. It will be up to a new director to carry the WCS torch, and to ensure the same high standards of artistry.
As for Dimmick, she is grateful to the Women’s Choral Society for making her UO education possible.
“From getting the opportunity to work with the esteemed Matthew Halls when he comes to conduct our UO choirs to receiving Professor Mentzel's fabulous weekly voice instruction, none of these incredible experiences would be possible without this scholarship,” Dimmick enthuses.
The Women’s Choral Society will present its 80th anniversary concert at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 11, 2015 in Beall Concert Hall on the UO campus.