Tag Archives: John Ohanian

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.

Legendary Painting Restored; Prints On Sale Now

In the fall of 1946, Westport artist Stevan Dohanos invited 5 students from the 40-member Staples High School band — led by John Ohanian — to be models. Dohanos was creating a Saturday Evening Post cover, and needed musicians.

The quintet — Ed Capasse, Bob Nash, Evelyn Bennett, Steve Sefsik and Robert Barker — came to his studio. He paid them $30 each — over $400 today — to sit still for 30 minutes, as if playing their brass instruments. The cover ran on October 19, 1946.

Ed Capasse was in the upper left of StevanDohanos' painting. He went on to become a noted Westport lawyer. Here's his yearbook photo and writeup.

Ed Capasse was in the upper left of Stevan Dohanos’ painting. He went on to become a noted Westport lawyer. Here’s his yearbook photo and writeup.

In 2001, Staples Players director David Roth selected “The Music Man” as a mainstage production. His promotional poster was a takeoff on Dohanos’ iconic painting. Cast members Jonathan Adler, Trey Skinner, Samantha Marpe, Steven Fuertes and Hayden Moskowitz modeled.

Staples Players' 2001 poster.

Staples Players’ 2001 poster.

This year, “The Music Man” returns. So does the poster. This time Julien Zeman, Tucker Ewing, Maggie Foley, Nick Rossi and Colin McKechnie sat for a photo. (You can see Jacob Leaf — who plays Harold Hill — in the sousaphone reflection.)

...and the 2016 version.

…and the 2016 version.

Now – in honor of the upcoming performances of “The Music Man” — Dohanos’ painting is back in a position of honor.

In 1946, the artist donated the original to the Westport schools. For decades it hung in the Staples band room. Later it could be seen in the principal’s office, then outside the first selectman’s office in Town Hall.

Now a treasured masterpiece of the Westport Public Art Collections Committee, in 2014 the organization raised funds to have the painting conserved and returned to full brilliance.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos' 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos’ 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Yesterday, it was unveiled and hung in its new position of honor: the Staples auditorium lobby. On hand were Players co-directors Roth and Kerry Long; First Selectman Marpe (whose daughter posed for the 2001 poster), and principal James D’Amico.

“Music Man” audiences this weekend and next will enjoy the restored painting (along with the other posters). So will theatergoers for years to come.

“The Music Man” posters in the Staples lobby.

But now anyone can enjoy the painting in their own home. Recently, Art Collections Committee members found a trove of prints that Ann Sheffer made for a fundraiser in the late 1980s.

They’re on sale again, as a fundraiser for 3 worthy organizations: Friends of Westport Public Art Collections, Collections, Staples Music Parents Association and the Westport Historical Society.

Sales take place at “Music Man” performances this weekend and next, as well as online. Just click here to own a piece of Westport (and musical) history.

(“The Music Man” performances are Friday and Saturday, November 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Sunday, November 13 and Saturday, November 19. Click here for tickets. They’re also available 30 minutes prior to the performance in the Staples High School lobby, as available.)


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Candlelight 2015: A Concert For The Ages

Hundreds of alumni — from as far away as California, and as long ago as the 1950s — poured in to the Staples High School auditorium, for last night’s 75th anniversary Candlelight Concert.

At the end of the emotional evening, they poured onto the stage for Staples’ largest-ever “Hallelujah Chorus.” In addition to the traditional choral singers, several former orchestra members brought their instruments on stage too.

Candlelight has inspired musicians and concert-goers for three-quarters of a century. Here’s to the next 75!

Wellington Baumann holds his candle proudly, during the "Sing We Noel" processional. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Wellington Baumann holds his candle proudly, during the “Sing We Noel” processional. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The timeless "Sing We Noel" processional. (Photo/Kerry Long)

The timeless “Sing We Noel” processional. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Among the programs on display was this. The 2nd verse of "Sing We Noel" is no longer sung -- making it a lost verse from a carol that (except for Staples) is now quite obscure.

Among the programs on display was this. The 2nd verse of “Sing We Noel” is no longer sung — making it a lost verse from a carol that (except for Staples) is now quite obscure. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Dr. Robert Kwan accompanied the chorus and chorale. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Dr. Robert Kwan accompanied the chorus and chorale. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Vocal director Luke Rosenberg asks his chorale to take a bow. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Vocal director Luke Rosenberg asks his chorale to take a bow. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Adele Valovich's orchestra wowed the audience with 2 selections from "Coppelia Ballet." Nick Mariconda's band was similarly stunning. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Adele Valovich’s orchestra wowed the audience with 2 selections from “Coppelia Ballet.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Nick Mariconda's band added a big brass sound. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Nick Mariconda’s band added a big brass sound. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

World music is an important part of Candlelight. The African song "Noel" included rhythmic clapping by the a cappella choir. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

World music is an important part of Candlelight. The African song “Noel” included rhythmic clapping by the a cappella choir. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Don Rickenback's original production number included a Santa "Grinch." (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Don Rickenback’s original production number included this Santa “Grinch.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

David Ohanian -- son of Candlelight founder John Ohanian, and himself a world renowned French horn player -- guest-conducted the orchestra for the "Hallelujah Chorus." Former choral director Alice Lipson did the same honors with the vocalists. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

David Ohanian — son of Candlelight founder John Ohanian, and himself a world renowned French horn player — guest-conducted the orchestra for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Former choral director Alice Lipson did the same honors with the vocalists. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Alumni joined current singers and orchestra members for a memorable "Hallelujah Chorus." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Alumni joined current singers and orchestra members for a memorable “Hallelujah Chorus.” Click on or hover over this (and every) photo for the full effect. (Photo/Kerry Long)

A program from 1958 -- just one thread in an unbroken string of memorable Candlelight Concerts, from 1940 to 2015. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

A program from 1958 — just one thread in an unbroken string of memorable Candlelight Concerts, from 1940 to 2015. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Bonus feature: Joe Pucci’s video of the “Hallelujah Chorus:


“It’s All About The Music”

There were many highlights at this weekend’s 75th anniversary Candlelight Concert

Scores of alumni traveled from across the country to honor the music that meant so much to them, so many years ago.

Candlelight logoWorld renowned musician David Ohanian (son of Candlelight founder John Ohanian) and former choral director Alice Lipson guest-conducted the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

The fruits of hours of donated labor — searchable digitized recordings from as far back as 1953, scanned photos, souvenir programs — were on display in the lobby.

But one of the coolest surprises came right at the start of each show. The lights dimmed — and instead of the “Sing We Noel” processional, audiences were treated to a 9-minute video.

Created and produced by John Brandt — a 1961 Staples High School grad who sang for George Weigle back in the day — it honors the long legacy of Candlelight.

But it does much more than that too. In a series of clips and brief interviews, it offers a powerful argument for the importance of arts in education. Generations of Westport students have become better, stronger, richer people thanks to the school system’s music program. This stunning video is a tribute to the men and women — and the town — that gave them that gift.

Dost Thou Remember…?

As audiences settle in for Staples High School’s Candlelight Concert later this month — and tickets are going fast! — they’ll become part of a 75-year tradition.

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

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

Wonderful music, exceptional performances, the warmth of the holidays — all make “Candlelight” one of Westport’s premier events.

Among the concert’s most anticipated moments is the processional. Holding candles and moving solemnly, the choir sings a lovely, majestic carol.

“Sing We Noel” has become Staples’ own special song. You won’t hear it on the radio, or in church. The sheet music is out of print. It’s so obscure, you can’t even Google it. (The links that come up are not to the “real” one.)

“Sing We Noel” is such a tradition, it must have been sung at the 1st-ever concert — then called “Christmas Candlelight” — in 1940. Right?


John Ohanian

John Ohanian

The background of this majestic melody could have been lost forever. But last March, “06880” reader Linda Frazer emailed Donald Freeman. A resident of Westport for more than 30 years, and a 1967 graduate of Northfield School in Massachusetts, she had a question for him. Freeman is the stepson of John Ohanian, Staples’ music director who organized that inaugural Candlelight concert.

Frazer said that when she was at Northfield, “Sing We Noel” was the processional at their annual Christmas vespers concert. She checked with the archivist at what is now called Northfield Mount Hermon School. He traced the first mention of it back to 1916 (when it was listed as “Dost Thou Remember,” the opening words).

Frazer noted too that Freeman had attended Mount Hermon in the 1950s. (He used the surname Ohanian when he was at Bedford Elementary School. Entering Bedford Junior High, he changed back to his birth name. After 8th grade, he left Westport for boarding school.)

Believing “Sing We Noel” to have been part of Candlelight since 1940, Frazer asked Freeman if he had any older relatives who attended Northfield, and might have inspired Ohanian to bring the song to Staples.

Don FreemanFrazer was right — sort of. It came from the private school — but not when she thought.

Freeman said that Ohanian first heard “Sing We Noel” when he and his wife — who died in September 2014, at 101 — attended a Christmas vespers concert. Ohanian introduced it the next year. Freeman thought that might have been 1955.

He was exactly right. I know, because I’ve been privileged — in the days before the 75th anniversary concert — to listen to early recordings. The first time it appears on a record was 1955.

The song sounded as beautiful then as it does now. And though it took 15 years for Ohanian to add “Sing We Noel” to the program, it’s impressive to think that for 60 years, Staples and Northfield share a song that has been lost everywhere else in the world.

BONUS FUN FACT: The rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” that concludes Candlelight was not part of the original program either. Ohanian introduced Handel’s very well-known oratorio in 1954 — the year before he brought “Sing We Noel” here.

Candlelight logo


Calling All Candlelight Connoisseurs

Next year, Staples’ Candlelight Concert celebrates its 75th anniversary. Hallelujah!

To mark the occasion, the music department — in conjunction with Class of 1961 grad John Brandt — plans a spectacular video.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old.

Candlelight originator John Ohanian was known for his meticulous attention to detail. The organizers of next year’s celebration have learned his lessons well.

Thirteen months ahead of time, they’re already searching for archival material. They need programs from before 1961 (the 1st one — 1940 — would be golden).

They’d like still photos, and of course recordings — either vinyl, old Beta videos, even reel-to-reel tapes.

Please send in jpeg or .wav format — or simply in its original form. All material will be copied and returned. Send to: Adele Valovich c/o Staples High School, 70 North Avenue, Westport, CT 06880. You can email her at  avalovich@westport.k12.ct.us, or call 203-341-5128. The deadline is December 12.

Now let hosannas ring…

Choir member Michael Sixsmith was part of the always-evocative "Sing We Noel" processional. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

A recent Candlelight processional. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

Candlelight By Day

For nearly 70 years, the local holiday season was heralded by Staples’ Candlelight Concert.

Founded in 1940 by legendary music maestro John Ohanian, it’s survived wars (both military and cultural), changes in education, and the school’s move from Riverside Avenue  to North Avenue.

Alumni -- like these choir members from 1979 -- attend the Candlelight Concert every year.

Sure, a couple of decades ago, the band joined the choir and orchestra onstage.  But the concert may still be the only place in the world the haunting and obscure “Sing We Noel” processional can be heard these days.

Yet now the Candlelight Concert is starting to fade away.

Last year the long-standing performance schedule — Friday night at 7 p.m., Saturday at 7 and 9:30 — was changed.  The 1st Saturday show was moved 5 hours earlier — t0 2 p.m.  The evening performance began at 8 p.m.

The same times are set for this year.

The idea was to provide more opportunities for parents for young children, and senior citizens.

That’s commendable.  But it misses the mark.

Young kids are not the target audience.  And seniors could be served by a dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon — an idea the music teachers favor.


The final Saturday show has always been the most festive — high-energy, emotional, a true kickoff to the holiday season.  It’s been something Staples musicians look forward to their entire high school careers — because the seats are filled with alumni.  All are invited on stage for a rousing finale:  the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Alums — off in college, or no longer in town but back for the holidays — know there will be seats available at that final show.  They don’t get them ahead of time, as concert-goers do for the other ones.

The new schedule — with 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. shows — means that hundreds of musicians spend an entire Saturday, right before the holidays, backstage or onstage.  That’s a lot to ask.

Then there’s the ambience.  “How can you have a Candlelight concert when there’s sunlight streaming in the back door?” one frustrated performer asks.

Some traditions change.  Some are worth saving.

For 7 decades the Candlelight Concert — twice on Saturday night — was one of the best.