NATHAN REIFF'S HARVARD GLEE CLUB BANQUET SPEECH
Members of the Harvard Glee Club:
With the end of the semester at hand, and as I’ve reflected back on the past nine months, I’ve been struck by a number of questions: first, just how did this school year go by so quickly? Then: did we really do as many projects as it seems like we did? Finally: could I have ever imagined that, after years at a certain school in New Haven, I would come to feel (in such a short time, no less) not only welcome but also at home at Harvard?
While I can’t claim to know the answers to the first questions, I do have an idea about the last. Back in September, Harvard was new to me and I was brand new to this place, to the Glee Club, and to all of you. Frankly, none of us really knew what we were getting ourselves in to. But at every step of the way, beginning with auditions, our first rehearsals, our fall retreat, and on and on throughout the year, the members of the Harvard Glee Club have welcomed me with openness, patience, and a commitment to music-making and camaraderie that I’ve found to be a hallmark of the group. For that, all that I can say is that I’m immensely grateful. Thank you.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with a group of wonderful, dedicated musicians, to work alongside brilliant and inspiring colleagues, both at the podium and at the keyboard, to work with the most committed, selfless, and hardworking student leaders I’ve ever met. I’m grateful for the times and experiences that we’ve shared this year, from the mixture of hisses and applause I heard as Andy dragged me off the risers to conduct the football songs at Woolsey in November, to putting together Oedipus Rex with the orchestra for the first time, from performing in incredible venues on tour and taking the most stylish transportation possible to the art museum in Winona, MN, to an impassioned, deeply moving performance at Memorial Church in the spring that saw the group continue to unearth new emotional and musical facets of pieces like "Lowlands" and "Motherless Child". There are many, many other moments like these—too many to list here—the sum total of which has offered me a glimpse into the incredibly special thing that is the Harvard Glee Club.
Tradition is a critical part of any choir, and when that choir is closing in on two centuries of history, it’s safe to say that tradition runs deep, to put it mildly. Tradition can be what makes a group unique; it is capable of aiding in the creation of bonds between individuals who experience that group at the same time as well as between those whose experiences span different generations or eras. However, tradition can also be isolating. Membership, shared history, group lore, customs—even something as simple as kissy sounds or “ayyy”—all of these things create in some way a group of insiders who know what’s going on and a group of outsiders who don’t. The questions we received from students at our workshops in St. Paul were a reminder of this. I’m not suggesting that a group like the Glee Club should or could do away with tradition, not at all. However, it’s something we must think about, particularly about this other side of the tradition coin—and, as evidenced by ongoing discussions about issues of gender, membership, wardrobe, repertoire, and so on, it’s clear that the group does engage many of these issues with great thought and care. This is an ongoing process, of course, and it’s likely that these conversations will never (and should never) be truly complete.
For me personally, the issue of tradition as isolator was on my mind as I began this school year. Having observed some of the ways that other ensembles around the country maintain traditions, I expected to feel like an outsider. And I did, at least at first. Even now, there’s no way I can claim to know all or even a lot of those intangible elements that make HGC HGC. But what became clear to me, even from the very beginning of our work together, was that the Harvard Glee Club as a group does not endeavor to wield its sizable body of traditions and customs in such a way as to leave people in the dark. Of course I can only speak of my own experience, but any feelings I had of separation, of outsiders and insiders, dissolved quickly. If ever I was wondering about something unique to the Glee Club, all I had to do was ask…and sometimes not even that, as group members have been eager to share explanations of everything from past musical projects to powerball. To me, this seems to be just one small manifestation of “unity,” of course, the third of the group’s cardinal virtues. It’s a reflection of the passion and the love that the members of this group keep in their hearts.
Speaking of cardinal virtues, I thank you all for always bringing all four of them to bear in each rehearsal and performance we share together. Choirs around the country (and even the world) may have many qualities in common, but it’s not often that you come across an ensemble that is so consistent in this way. As you doubtless know, conducting is not an exact science—in fact, it’s very far from it. It requires a certain amount of trial and error and experimentation—always some, possibly a lot, hopefully not too much. As the group has been open and welcoming to me personally and with regard to traditions and customs, so too have I felt that same openness and patience when I’m waving my arms around on the podium. Thank you for that as well.
Finally, I spoke a moment ago about connections between members of the Glee Club. This year, like any other, is a snapshot of the group at a particular moment. Beyond this year, the Harvard Glee Club will of course continue to make music, to share in tradition while continuing to develop new pathways. No matter what, though, it will necessarily be different from this year. To the seniors of the group and any other members who may be leaving us come the fall, I have relished our time together, though it was just a few short months. And for all of us, I hope that we will look back to the 2017-2018 Harvard Glee Club as a special thing, a group that aimed for (and attained) excellence in many ways, a group that remained grounded in decades of history and tradition while examining the past with a critical eye and striving to forge its own path into the future, and, most importantly, a group of individuals who loved and cared for one another as much as for the music we made. Thank you.
Posted on September 5, 2018