Gesang Verein Harmonia: ‘The chorus was able to endure’

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Long standing members of the Gesang Verein Harmonia include from left: 35 year member Kateri Cohick, Bob Fredrickson, 43 years, David Craig, 30 years, Lili Purewal, 20 years, Teri Kanecht, 35 years, director Michael Connor, and Ellie Laver, 26 years. The backstage mural of a German countryside was painted in 1967 by past member Gene Sortman.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette continues its seventh annual Person of the Year series. Each day will shine a spotlight on each of the finalists. On Saturday, the Sun-Gazette will name its 2017 Person of the Year.)

For 125 years, the Gesang Verein Harmonia Club and Chorus have kept German heritage alive in the city, which has been no small feat.

The “it takes a village” mentality is alive and well in the chorus, and chorus members say it wouldn’t be possible without everyone’s inclusion and effort. With around 25 members, the chorus is always looking to add to its “family” of singers.

This was a milestone year for the chorus, which hosted the 85th state Saengerfest in June as part of its 125th anniversary year celebration. The Saengerfest, a festival of German singing groups, brought clubs from around Pennsylvania to compete on stage here. But that was just one part of the club’s anniversary year. It put on a number of performances, including one at the 500th Reformation Anniversary at a Pleasant Gap church that featured an all German service.

Gesang Verein Harmonia was formed in February 1892 by men of German descent ranging in age from 18 to 47. The club’s name translates to “harmonious singing society.” Founding members took the motto, “Awaken and promote the sense for the beautiful and noble, through the cultivation of song and social entertainment, especially among the younger generation.”

“This group’s longevity speaks to the heritage of Williamsport,” said Michael Connor, director who started singing with the group 13 years ago. “When the city was founded, you had different ethnic communities. There were several different clubs, even different German clubs. The heritage has been something important.”

As a music teacher at Central Mountain Middle School, he also feels his position with the Gesang Verein Harmonia Chorus is important, including pronunciation.

“I make sure that what I’m saying and teaching is authentic to the way it should be said or sung. Whether someone understands the language completely, it’s my job to get people to understand,” Connor said. “I try to keep it true to the real meaning of the song. It’s nice to have people who are native speakers help me, too.”

Dehlia Behpour is one of those native speakers, who is originally from Berlin and heard of the chorus after a recommendation of a friend.

“I was in a church choir and one of my friends in the choir said, ‘I’m singing in this German chorus and we are doing an Octoberfest concert.’ She thought since I’m from Germany and I get homesick, that I’d enjoy it,” Behpour said. “It was so wonderful to be there and hear all those songs … I grew up singing those songs. After I joined, some of the members remembered seeing me sway to the music in the audience.”

The chorus gave Behpour a way to preserve her language and to maintain her heritage so far from home.

“When you are displaced, for me, it’s nice to have that little piece of home.”

Behpour appreciates the steadfast presence of the club in Williamsport.

“What is the most amazing to me is how long this club has been around — 125 years, without pause. Without any interruptions. That means, even during war times, so many difficult time periods — yet the chorus was able to endure. Yes, there were times of thriving and surviving, but it persisted, it prevailed and overcame those obstacles,” she said.

Member Terri Knecht has been part of the chorus for almost 35 years, hearing about the club through family members and eventually bringing her mother on board to sing.

“First of all, I love to sing. It’s not something that everybody else does. We sing in German. And it’s not as difficult as it sounds. You can do it, you learn it. It’s the repetition,” she said. “The people that I have sung with all these years, they are like a second family.”

For Anne Doerr, being part of the Harmonia Chorus is a challenge, but in a good way. She followed her husband into the chorus after he joined in 2011.

“After I retired, the women asked me to join, I had gotten to know them. I thought about it for a while, and I realized it would be a good thing for me — a challenge. It’s good for your brain,” she said. “The singing was glorious — who wouldn’t want to be involved in that?”

Wayne Sager is a relatively new member but was always interested in the Harmonia. He was recruited for the Saengerfest. “I decided this was the time and I started to come to rehearsal and haven’t stopped since.”

Sager spent three years in Germany while in the Army and had longed to learn more about the culture, including the music.

“This area does have a great, strong German tradition,” he said. “I appreciate keeping the culture alive. The chorus has been doing that for all these years.”

Dr. Bob Fredrickson has been a member for 43 years, joining the chorus in 1974 after living in Germany while serving in the Army.

“At the time you had to be German, male and Catholic. They have dropped those a little at a time. Now we do have female members, and you don’t have to be Catholic. We have Italians, Polish — you name it,” he said. “The idea is that we continue the German tradition. We enjoy singing the German numbers, Mendelssohn, Bach, Beethoven.”

“They are an incredibly hard-working and devoted group of people to keep this thing going for 125 years, essentially when all the other clubs in the state have fallen apart,” said Conner. “But the community in Williamsport has kept this thing alive for 125 years.”