Tag Archives: George Weigle

Happy 90th, George Weigle!

In his long and storied career as a Staples High School choral teacher, George Weigle influenced thousands of students. 

Barbara Sherburne was one. Today — as her beloved former teacher turns 90 years old — she offers this tribute.

George grew up in Parkersburg, West Virginia. At West Virginia Wesleyan College he spotted a woman from Norwalk, Connecticut named Eleanor, singing in a talent show. He told a friend, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” It was love at first sight.

George graduated in 1950, 2 years before Eleanor. They married on August 21, 1954. After 63 years, their marriage is still going strong.

George studied for a year at Boston University after college. He taught school in West Virginia, then returned and earned his master’s in 1954 from BU. In 1980, West Virginia Wesleyan presented him with an honorary doctorate.

In 1954, George heard about an opening at Bedford Junior High. He got the job, and after 5 years moved on to Staples High School. He taught there until 1988. Eleanor taught at Bedford Elementary School from 1954 until 1961. Some years later, she began private tutoring.

George Weigle in a classic pose. (Photo courtesy of Ken Lahn)

George started the Orphenians in 1960. He named the group after his Orphenian quartet, led by his college music professor. Of course, Orpheus was a legendary Greek musician.

George continued the Candlelight Concert tradition, begun in 1940 by John Ohanian.

George and Eleanor bought a house on Robin Hill Road. They’ve lived there ever since. George told a fellow Westport music teacher — John Hanulik — about a vacant plot next door. The Hanuliks moved there in 1960, and John lived there until he died. Marie, his wife, still lives there. Having 2 incredible music teachers live next door to each other for so long is amazing.

I was a student at Long Lots Junior High, in a music class taught by Mr. Hanulik. One day, Mr. Weigle came to speak to us about Staples. He seemed very stern, and scared me. Mr. Hanulik had an incredible sense of humor. I thought, “Uh oh.” I needn’t have worried.

George Weigle took the Orphenians around the world — to Austria, Romania, Poland, Spain and many other countries. His first trip was to the Virgin Islands (above) in 1966. (Photo courtesy of Jon Gailmor)

When I was applying to colleges, Mr. Weigle suggested West Virginia Wesleyan. That’s where I went. He wrote me freshman year, “Don’t burn the candle at both ends.” I wound up getting mononucleosis. I guess he saw something coming that I didn’t.

George was also choral director at the United Methodist Church, for 43 years (1954 to 1997). I sang at the Saugatuck Congregational Church, just up the hill from the Methodist Church. George invited me to join his adult choir, when I was still in high school. I’d do both, running down the hill to get to the Methodist Church in time. I sang whenever I could under George’s direction. When my mom passed away in 1978, he was part of the quartet that sang at her service.

I’ve known George for a very long time. We communicated regularly all these years. He frequently sent me cassette tapes of Sunday services at the Methodist Church. He always sent a Christmas card, as did John Hanulik. They often arrived on the same day — and occasionally they chose the same card.

George was like a father figure to me. I have a hard time believing he is 90. You can send cards to him at 10 Robin Hill Road. I’m sure he would appreciate hearing from you. He touched so many lives in so many ways.


Bonus George Weigle feature! In 2004, I interviewed the retired choral director for my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. Here are some excerpts:

In 1954 John Ohanian brought me in for an interview. He took me to meet [principal] Norm Flint about an opening at Bedford Junior High. No one told me the kids had driven 3 choral teachers away the previous year, so I took the job.

It was tough. Every morning Eleanor had to push me out the door. Every student had to take general music. My first 9th grade chorus had 50 girls. Gradually it got better. By my 3rd year we had boys singing in the chorus too.

I went to Staples the second year it was open. The only electives the kids were offered were art, music and home ec – not the zillions of courses they have today. John had established the choral program, and I was in the right place at the right time. It was a popular group, and I had the junior highs feeding me. Looking back, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. George Weigle directed these choir members in 1981 — as he did for 39 years.

We gave 4 Candlelight Concerts each year. I’d get called in between performances, and reamed out – maybe I didn’t interpret a piece of music as I should have. Looking back, I realize John was right.

He put me on a path, and guided me. I in turn demanded excellence from my students. I realize now that students understood what excellence was.

The program grew, and so did its reputation. The harder the music, the better they performed – and the more they wanted. I gave them stuff I didn’t think high school kids could do, like John Corigliano’s “L’Invitation au Voyage.” It’s an extended piece, very contemporary, a cappella with duos and solos. Paul McKibbins’ “Psalm 67,” which he wrote and dedicated to me and the Orphenians, was the second most difficult piece.

At the time I did not realize what we were doing, level-wise. Now I wonder how I taught it, and how they memorized it – extended stuff like Handel’s “Coronation Anthems.”

In 1960-61 I started a small group: Orphenians. We had auditions, and selected 24 to 28 singers. We met once a week after school at first, then twice a week. We did lose some of the guys to sports.

From its small beginning, George Weigle’s Orphenians grew enormously. In 2010, the elite group celebrated its 50th anniversary.

In 1966 we went to St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and in 1972 to France, Austria and Italy. We came in second in a choral festival in Italy. If I knew then what I know now, we would have been first. I didn’t recognize shadings of dynamics. From then on, I paid attention to it. We lost to a group from Oklahoma that met five days a week.

In 1975 we went to Romania. That was an adventure! A very poor country, with very friendly people. We had to be careful what we sang.

In 1978 we went to Poland. That was our first outdoor program. We sang the Polish national anthem. Afterward they told us that might have been too nationalistic.

In 1981 we went to Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. On July 4th we sang at Notre Dame – it was filled with Americans. They asked us to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which we’d never prepared. It went off okay.

In 1983 we went to Spain. We sang concerts to packed halls at 10 p.m. – it was still light. And in 1985 we went to England, Wales and Scotland.

In 2010 — the 50th anniversary of Orphenians — George Weigle guest conducted the current elite group in the finale, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Westport was growing, building schools, becoming more affluent. Parents wanted their kids to be in touch with the arts — not just academics. The quality of teachers was so high, because of who John hired – and fired. He made sure the right teachers were at the right levels. As a result kids attracted other kids, and it all just blossomed. Quality led to more quality. It was all because of John’s dream and perseverance.

I think students – particularly at the high school – need the arts, in order to be enhanced and broadened. Here in Westport we’ve got doctors and lawyers who have been exposed to the arts. Westport people perform, and they’re concertgoers, and they see plays. The arts are so important to a rounded personality. Singing and playing with other people is so important. You don’t always realize when you’re in high school how meaningful it is. Sometimes it takes decades to sink in. But it does. It does.

A lot of high schools have music. But not many have music at the level of Westport.

Everyone who ever sang for George Weigle remembers the experience. Jon Gailmor, who still writes, performs and teaches, offered these thoughts.

I was in the Class of 1966 at Staples. I was immersed in the performing arts, and they shaped my every waking moment in high school.

Jon Gailmor (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

With the Orphenians, I got my first taste of the power of music. I’ll never forget watching the faces of school kids in the Virgin Islands as we wailed away. And I remember watching senior citizens in Norwalk and Bridgeport being moved both to tears and guffaws by our songs. In the Staples a cappella choir and boys’ glee club, I experienced the indescribable joy of making a large, harmonious sound and filling auditoriums with its beauty.

I loved a lot of things about Staples, but it was music where I really found out who I was and where my passion lay.

I know quite a few fellow high school performers whose lives have been similarly sparked by our unforgettable musical experiences at Staples.

Today I make and perform my own music, while helping other folks discover their creativity through songwriting residencies. I can honestly thank those three amazing years with George Weigle and my Staples brothers and sisters for the enormous role they played in helping me find my passionate life’s work.

Orphenians: One More From The Road

Staples’ Orphenians fly home tonight from San Francisco.

They don’t even need a plane.

Last night, Staples’ elite a cappella group joined 9 other high school choirs, in a spectacular performance at sold-out Davies Symphony Hall.

Orphenians combined with other choruses from California, Arizona, Illinois and Tennesse — the culmination of 4 days of intense vocal workshops with internationally known Chanticleer.

Yesterday featured Chanticleer and the choirs in a day-long residency. Each performed individually on the stage, and attended master classes led by world-renowned operatic mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick.

At night, 300 singers joined with instrumentalists from the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, in a program featuring the West Coast premiere of Lars-Erik Larsson’s “God in Disguise,” and the world premiere of “Birdsong” by Zajick (composed for the occasion).

The Orphenians, in the after-concert glow of Davies Symphony Hall.

The Orphenians, in the after-concert glow of Davies Symphony Hall.

Rondi Charleston — whose daughter Emma Ruchefsky is an Orphenian — was awed by “these glorious voices blending together in beautiful harmony, floating over the full house. Our Orphs rose to the occasion, and achieved a new level of artistry. It was a magical evening full of hope for the future — of music, and humanity.”

Of course, as a parent she’s biased. Doug Bond — a 1980 1981 Staples grad (and former Orphenian, who traveled to Europe with director George Weigle) — might be biased toward the old days.

But Doug — who now lives in San Francisco — says: “Amazing voices! Amazing talent! A unique moment! Congratulations Orphenians and director Luke Rosenberg — you made an Orph alumnus proud!”

He adds that Chanticleer encouraged cell phone use during the concert, and gave directions on how to post videos to Vine.

To see all the Vines from last night, click here.

To view just the Orphenian videos from the 5-day adventure, click here.

(Be sure to right-click “Unmute” to hear these great voices!)

Orphenian Jacob Leaf posted this Vine video.

Orphenian Jacob Leaf posted this Vine video.

Remembering Bob Genualdi

Robert Genualdi — known to generations of Westporters as Staples’ superb orchestra conductor, who went on to further careers and renown as headmaster at Fairfield High School, then director of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras — died yesterday morning in Bridgeport. He was 84.

Genualdi was part of Staples’ legendary 1960s music department, teaching and leading with John Ohanian, George Weigle (who turned 87 on Friday) and John Hanulik. A string bass player, he received degrees from the University of Miami, Northwestern and Bridgeport. He played under the baton of Arthur Fiedler.

Robert Genualdi

Robert Genualdi

Genualdi’s love for music led him to play in symphonies and chamber music ensembles; judge competitions in many states; conduct at festivals; and compose several music compositions, and 2 works for full orchestras.

Genualdi moved into administration, serving as Staples’ vice principal in 1971-72, then acting principal twice (1972-73, and 1975).

In 2004, I interviewed Genualdi for my book, Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. He said:

When I came to Staples in 1960 I had already spent 8 years teaching in northwestern Illinois, so I was not a novice. But Staples was by far the biggest school I had ever worked in.

It was such an exciting place, in many ways. The students were bright and ready to learn. There was a decent amount of diversity, with old-line Westporters and people who had recently moved in from other places.

And then – the icing on the cake for me – there were the arts. You had parents who were professional musicians, artists and actors, and they were so involved in making Staples a place that supported the arts. It was a very exciting time for me.

The campus was volatile, in a largely positive way. There was something wonderful about the way people interacted with each other. And the teachers very much cared about students, and the school.

Bob Genualdi, doing what he loved at Staples in 1970.

Bob Genualdi, doing what he loved at Staples in 1970.

I had terrific opportunities there, in the classroom and then as an administrator. (Assistant superintendent of schools) Frank Graff got me out of the classroom. I’d been the Westport Education Association president, and he berated me – kindly. He said if I really wanted change to happen, I could do it from the inside. It was easy to criticize from the outside, but he wanted me inside.

When I was acting principal, there was a lot going on: modernization, a reduction in staff because of declining enrollment, and the Staples Governing Board was being challenged by the Board of Education for taking too much power. I was in the middle on a lot of those issues.

It was a special school – a wonderful, unique place. It started with the staff, then the students, and of course the community. And not just parents of kids in the school – you had alumni, and people like Alan Parsell and Ed Mitchell. Plenty of people had a lot of pride in Staples, because it was the only high school in town.

Robert Genualdi, from the 1976 Andrew Warde High School yearbook.

Robert Genualdi, from the 1976 Andrew Warde High School yearbook.

After Staples, Genualdi became a high school administrator in Fairfield. The 1976 Andrew Warde yearbook called him a “truly sincere, honest, and open human being (with) a real concern for others.”

His 3rd career was as music director and conductor of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras. He spent more than 25 years there, before retiring in 2007.

With his wife, violist Dorothy Straub, Genualdi helped organize and produce the national Jenny Lind Competition, for years a staple of Bridgeport’s Barnum Festival.

Funeral arrangements will be announced Monday, by the Spear-Miller Funeral Home in Fairfield.


Happy Birthday, Dear George!

Ssssshhh! This post is a surprise!

Tomorrow (Thursday, March 13), George Weigle turns 86. The longtime, much-loved Staples High School choral director still lives in Westport.

Dr. George Weigle

Dr. George Weigle

During his 3 decades of teaching — mixing passion and love with extremely high standards — Dr. Weigle changed countless lives, in countless ways.

Every year, alert “06880” reader Barbara Sherburne calls her mentor on his birthday. He’s always thrilled, and surprised she remembers.

This year, she suggests that many other Weigle-lovers do the same. His phone number is 203-259-9976.

“Keep it short,” she says of the conversations. “Don’t wear him out. Just say hello, a little chitchat.”

If you’ve got the guts, you might actually sing a few bars from an old favorite. “Ride the  Chariot.” “Sing We Noel.”

Or maybe “Happy Birthday To You.”

“Westport’s Got It All”

Back in 1985, the Marketing Corporation of America gave Westport a gift for the town’s 150th anniversary: a 30-minute video.

MCA is no longer around. Westport is no longer the “marketing capital of America.”

But the video — grandiosely titled “Westport’s Got It All” — has just been posted on Vimeo. It’s gone viral — at least, among Westporters and those who used to live here.

After nearly 30 years, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The video is filled with celebrities who lived here. Strangely — or, perhaps, understatedly and on purpose — none are named. Jim McKay reads a newspaper by the river. Harry Reasoner sits near a tennis court. Joanne Woodward has a cameo.

ABC's "Wide World of Sports" anchor Jim McKay sits on the banks of the Saugatuck River, in the town he called home.

ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” anchor Jim McKay on the banks of the Saugatuck River, in the town he called home.

Okay, so Rodney Dangerfield cracks, “The town of Westport has my respect.” But that’s the closest anyone comes to identifying him or herself.

The video opens with a cheesy, “Westport’s Got It All” song (including the line “Kids hanging out at the Dairy Queen…”). It’s sung by Westporter Dara Sedaka — Neil’s daughter.

But the pace quickens. There are shots of Main Street, the Playhouse, Staples, Compo, the downtown art show, Longshore, Cockenoe, the Levitt and the Memorial Day parade (ending at Jesup Green).

Most look pretty much the same today. But there are plenty of other places and things that are long gone: Remarkable Book Shop. The White Barn Theater. Mohonk House. Hay Day (in its original location, opposite Carvel). MCA.

And, of course, restaurants: Manero’s, Chez Pierre, Ships, Peppermill, Three Bears, Allen’s Clam House, Connolly’s … and on and on.

I found the voiceovers fascinating. Mason Adams, Alan Parsell, Herb Baldwin, Claire Gold, Julie Belaga, Dick Leonard, Cary Pierce — I recognized the voices of so many former politicians, educators, students and others.

Crusty Yankee Alan Parsell was 83 years old when he was interviewed for the 150th-anniversary video.

Crusty Yankee Alan Parsell was 83 years old when he was interviewed for the 150th-anniversary video.

Here are some of the things they said:

  • “Nothing goes on here that people aren’t concerned about. For every issue, there are at least 10 sides.”
  • “I’m worried the town is losing its mix of a variety of people.”
  • “Westporters have extraordinary aspirations for their children. And they’re willing to pay for it.”
  • “I work 2 jobs, 90 hours a week, to keep my head above water here.”
  • “Westport has the sophistication of New York, the exuberance of a California town, the quaintness of New England — and a sense of humor.”
  • “We do have latchkey children, as more and more parents go off to work.”
George Weigle conducts the Staples Orphenians. They sound great in the video.

George Weigle conducts the Staples Orphenians. They sound great in the video.

  • “It’s a very loving community, in many ways.”
  • “We draw people into town, to go to the theater and movies.”
  • “The Post Road is a disaster. But every town has its Post Road. This one looks better than many.”
  • “Commercialization has really changed this town. It’s been good and bad.”
  • “It’s a generous, gregarious, outgoing town.You can dress any way you like. You can be anyone you want to be. That’s the uniqueness of the community.”

That was Westport, 1985. Thanks to MCA, we’ve got a video record — promotional, but still pretty honest — of who we were.

What’s happened in the past 28 years? Are we better, worse, just different — or the same — as we were back in the days when big cars roamed Main Street, the Church Lane YMCA was still new, and people came from out of town for the movies?

Click on the video below (then wait 10 seconds to begin). Then click “Comments.”

(Click here if your browser does not take you directly to Vimeo.)

Luke Rosenberg: Staples’ Masterful New Maestro

In some towns, filling the position of choral teacher is a “meh” task.

Westport is not “some towns.”

When Justin Miller suddenly resigned as Staples’ instructor in August — after 2 years on the job — administrators were under the gun. They had to hire someone to oversee the high-profile position — teaching choral music, directing the choir and elite Orphenians, creating memorable music for the Candlelight Concert.

And they had to do it with the school year just a couple of weeks away.

Fortunately, the position was posted the same day Luke Rosenberg expanded his job search to Connecticut.

Luke Rosenberg

The Michigan native had moved to Brooklyn the month before. His spouse had gotten a graphic design job in New York. Neither had ever lived in the city — or knew much about the East Coast.

“I thought finding a job would be easy,” says Rosenberg, who had served as  choral director in Caledonia, a Grand Rapids suburb with a great performing arts program and first-class facility he calls “upper middle class like Westport, but more spread out.”

But there was a hiring freeze in New York City, and leads proved fruitless. Eventually, a friend asked if Luke was looking in Connecticut.

“I had no idea it was so close,” he says.

He saw the just-posted position in Westport. He knew nothing about the town. But he did his research — including reading every page of the school district’s website. Photos of Staples reminded him of Caledonia High (click here to see why). When he interviewed on a Friday, he was prepared.

On Monday he met with superintendent of school Elliott Landon. (That’s proof of the importance Westport places on its choral director.) Almost immediately, he was offered the job.

Rosenberg flew back to Michigan to get his car. He drove east quickly, and saw his choral room for the first time.

There was music to order, a rehearsal schedule to arrange, a program to lead.

The Staples choral program has a rich history. In 2010, the elite group celebrated its 50th anniversary.

One of Rosenberg’s first acts was to add events. A fall “parlor concert” of choral music was added (it’s tonight in the auditorium, at 7:30). A new spring concert will include all the choirs.

Rosenberg also started learning about Staples’ music tradition.  The choral program — including the 72-year-old Candlelight Concert, which flourished under George Weigle and his successor, Alice Lipson — are among the town jewels.

“Tradition is important,” Rosenberg says. “Especially in a close community, it’s important to keep links to the past.” Rest assured, Westport: the blue robes,  “Welcome Yule” processional, production number — all will remain.

However, Rosenberg adds, it’s important for a new director to add his own spin.

He hopes to bring “a sense of Cambridge — like an old English candlelight ceremony” to the concert. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “You want to let the music wash over you.”

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.

Rosenberg plans to reintroduce downtown caroling. His singers will carol in New York too, on December 21. And he will add a performance, by Orphenians and the chamber orchestra, of Schubert’s “Mass in G.”

Rosenberg has already made a few changes. He’s opened Orphenians up to all grade levels. (It was previously restricted to juniors and seniors.)

“It’s an awesome ensemble,” he says of the elite traveling choir. “I want to bring in the best musicians — whatever their grade. The better the ensemble, the more enticing it will be to everyone.”

With 33 singers — the most in years — it’s perfectly balanced: 8 basses, 8 tenors, 8 altos and 9 sopranos.

Rosenberg is understated, but his enthusiasm is palpable. “Orphenians can be fantastic,” he says. “They have the potential to blow people out of the water.”

He recently met Alice Lipson, his predecessor. “She’s wonderful,” he notes. “She was so great and helpful, especially with Candlelight.” He has not yet met the legendary Dr. Weigle.

Michael Sixsmith, Mikell Washington and “Santa.”. The Candlelight Concert includes both traditional music and a jazzy production number. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Lipson brought multicultural music to Staples. Rosenberg hopes to expand it. He envisions a spring concert with music from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.

He’d also like to resurrect some of the international tours, pioneered by Weigle  and continued by Lipson.

“Change is always difficult,” he acknowledges. His students are “very respectful,” but he could tell in the beginning they were uncertain what lay ahead.

“Once they realized I know what I’m talking about, they understood we can do great things together, and we started working well,” he says. “And once they heard a really good chord locked in, there were goosebumps.”

Westport audiences, he hopes, will feel those goosebumps too.


50 Years Of Orphs

For 22 years, Alice Lipson has said “It’s all about the music.”

With all due respect to the veteran Staples choral director, she’s wrong.

It’s all about the music — and the people.

Alice Lipson, always smiling. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

Last night, several hundred people came — from as far away as Florida — to the  Staples auditorium.  They paid tribute to 2 other people who truly are all about the music:  Lipson and her predecessor, George Weigle.

Fifty years ago, Weigle founded Orphenians.  For the past 22 years Lipson has led the elite singing group.  They are the only 2 conductors in its half-century history.

Lipson is retiring this month, so last night was a chance to say thanks — in words and song — to her, to the founder, and to the Orphenians program itself.

The 2 conductors — she still youthful, with her long, flowing trademark braid; he still hale, hearty and commanding in his 80s — walked onstage together, earning a rousing standing ovation.

Lipson put her Orphenians through their paces — a rigorous program (the night after the senior prom!) including motets, Billy Joel tunes and solos, all in a variety of languages.

George Weigle applauds past and present Orphenians. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

Professional musicians showed their prodigious talents, making sure to thank that same Staples stage for helping launch their careers.

The entire Peterson family — Brad (Class of ’75), Abby ’76, Katie ’00, Sarah ’04 and Scott ’12 — sang the poignant “Lonesome Road.”  It’s all about the music, indeed — and about passing it along, from generation to generation.

Finally dozens of alumni gleefully mounted the stage.  They — Orphenians from the founding year of 1960, along with members who will continue the tradition next year under Director #3, former Orphenian Justin Miller — performed a rousing rendition of the traditional penultimate number “Ride the Chariot.”

Jon Gailmor -- Staples '66 -- has, like so many former Orphenians, made music his life's work (and joy). (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

Weigle pronounced it “the loudest” performance of the spiritual he’d ever heard.

“And,” he added, “the most spirited.”

After he “guest conducted” the finale — “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” — alumni, current Orphenians, parents and friends lingered.

They exchanged memories and email addresses.  They hugged.  They looked back on 50 fantastic Orphenian years, and looked ahead to the next 50.

It was all about the music.

And all about the music program that George Weigle started, Alice Lipson nurtured, and they proudly played a part in.

Music, Alice Lipson always stressed, is a family affair. Professional musician Jeff Southworth accompanies his son Alan (Staples '10) on the haunting song "Home." (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

Alice Lipson conducting the Orphenians for the last time. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

The Baton Passes From Lipson To Miller

For 21 years — always seen from behind — Alice Lipson’s flowing, braided hair has been the “face” of Staples choral music.

Next fall, the director’s hair will be much shorter.  And male.

Justin Miller has verbally accepted an offer to succeed Lipson — retiring after 35 years in the Westport school system — as director of Staples’ choruses, choirs and Orphenians.

He is only the 3rd choral director in the past 51 years.  From 1959 to 1989, George Weigle held the post.

It is a position of great tradition — as Miller well knows.  A Westporter from 1st grade on, he sang for Lipson between 1998 and 2001.

Justin Miller holds up the "Choir of the World" trophy last year in Wales.

It is a position of great importance t00 — and Miller is up to the task.  Not yet 30, he is a founder, past president and current musical director of the Westminster Chorus.  Last year they were crowned international champs — winning the “Choir of the World” Pavarotti Trophy in Wales — while in 2007 they earned an international chorus gold medal.

In Wales they beat out choirs from major American universities, and accomplished European choirs.  One judge called them “musical butter — soft, inviting and delicious.”

The chance to return to Staples — where he acted in “Chorus Line” as a freshman, toured Scotland with “Pippin,” and led the now-legendary barbershop group the Testostertones — lured Miller east from California, where he now teaches.

“Westport is a really special community,” he says.

“As a student teacher, and through festivals I’ve been a part of, I’ve learned it’s hard to find an entire town that is as involved in the success of its high school as Westport is.

“There are strong programs in other places, but there’s something special about Westport.  It’s why I wanted to come back.”

He double majored in choral directing and music education at Chapman University, then began work on his master’s.

Miller has found success out West.  In addition to Westminster, he was part of 3 international chorus championships with the Masters of Harmony.

Though young, he has held choral leadership positions for years — directing, as well as handling budgets and preparing for competitions.

Miller traveled to Westport over his spring break from Tesoro High School in Orange County to interview with teachers and administrators, and teach a freshman chorus class.  Fortuitously, superintendent Elliott Landon was in Los Angeles during our own spring break, and interviewed Miller there.

How does he feel about replacing Lipson, a legend?

“I can’t replace her,” Miller says.  “She’s been there so long, and so much of the program is representative of her.

“There are things I’ll do differently, because we’re different people.  But luckily I was in choir and Orphenians.  I know her style.  Hopefully I can make it a smooth transition.”

One difference:  He hopes to introduce “modern composers, who are rock stars in the choral world,” into the repertoire.

He would like to enter more festivals and contests, and sing for other schools and choral directors.  “Their feedback on what we’re doing is important,” Miller says.

He may also incorporate his Testostertones experience into the curriculum, organizing small ensembles with contemporary music.

And he might reintroduce Fine Arts Nights — a Lipson innovation — with evenings of musical theater, pops and classical music.

“Alice had the benefit of coming from a middle school,” Miller says.  “I don’t know many people at Staples any more.

“I look forward to getting to know the juniors and seniors.  The more a choir feels like a family, the more quality work we’ll be able to do.”

As Alice Lipson passes her choir family on to Justin Miller — the next leader, and young enough to be her son — she knows the next Staples chorus generation is in good hands.


(Click here for the Westminster Chorus in action in Wales last year — and here for a great YouTube video of Miller’s reaction at the international championship presentation.)

Calling All Orphs!

This year, the Staples Orphenians celebrate 50 years as an elite singing group.  Director Alice Lipson is planning a special event for June 6.  Highlights will include the traditional invitation to all alumni to sing “Ride the Chariot” — and the appearance of Orphenians founder Dr. George Weigle. He will guest-conduct the penultimate “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

To make this extra-special, the word must spread far and wide to former Orphs.  There are hundreds of old (and less-old) singers to locate.

In addition, Lipson is looking for programs from 1961 through 1965, 1967-68, 1971, 1974-75, 1982, 1984, 1993, 1997 and 1999.

Also:  photos from any year.

Please send contact information, programs and photos to Alice Lipson, c/o Staples High School, 70 North Ave., Westport, CT 06880.  Her email is alice_lipson@westport.k12.ct.us.

Save the date:  Sunday, June 6.  A reception in the Staples auditorium lobby at 6 p.m. will precede the 7:30 concert.

Start rehearsing now!

The 2009-10 Staples High School Orphenians.