“A Century of Song and Service”, The Thursday Musical Club celebrates itself as it sings the praises of local women

One winter night decades ago, in the midst of a Christmas concert at the Union College Chapel, the campus suddenly went dark — a power failure. But the concert did not stop. The women of the Thursday Musical Club, dressed in their finest, stood their ground, kept their composure, and never missed a beat.

Their director, Miss Helen Henshaw, had had them, as always, memorize their music. They knew their parts by heart.

By heart.

The chorus concluded its program to “fine applause,” says a contemporary account written by Margaret Young.

Henshaw, who directed the chorus from 1965 to 1980, will be honored this week along with the current director, Julie Panke, as the club celebrates its centennial with a concert honoring local women and highlighting their accomplishments.

Although the singers now use sheet music at performances, the club still has heart.

“Singing is not just about opening your mouth,” said Dianne Luci, the club’s president, who lives in Voorheesville. “It’s about refining and making the best music you can. Our concert features everything from classical to rock and roll. I like to be challenged. Julie Panke is a wonderful, wonderful director. She expects perfection.”

The club was founded in 1913 by Elizabeth Jones, whose husband worked as an executive for General Electric.

“She was a woman of leisure,” said Ann Tetrault, a retired teacher and a long-time singer in the choir. “We like to say, she got the teapot out and invited the neighbors in.”

The ladies, many of whom lived in the mansions in Schenectady’s GE Realty Plot, rehearsed at one another’s homes on Thursdays.

The social aspects of the club continue, although tea as been replaced by coffee and a potluck luncheon, and the singers now come from across the region and have a wider variety of backgrounds.

“For me and many of the women, it’s the fact that you can do it during the day,” said Luci of the club’s attraction with Thursday rehearsals. Her children are now grown and she has retired from her work as a dental hygienist; she is busy organizing church and community events and caring for her grandchildren.

Luci went on about female bonding, “I have a very loving husband…but I do feel the bonds women make are very special; you can’t compare them to your husband or boyfriend…It’s just different.

“I’ve met some women who just joined last year. As you get older,” said Luci who is 68 and proud of it, “you realize how much smaller the world is, how much we all have in common.”

“Fearless innovator”

The club has given two concerts a year, in good times and bad. “Even when war No. 1 came we carried on without a break, singing for different organizations to further the war effort,” Jones, the club’s founder, reminisced in 1950.

The songs for the centennial concert will reflect the club’s earliest era with a salute to the suffragettes written by Gwyneth Walker.

The 1920s’ Jazz Age is celebrated next with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and John Kander’s “And All That Jazz.”

“The melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with you when our love was new…Though I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain, my stardust melody, the memory of love’s refrain,” the women will sing, reprising the 1928 Carmichael tune that provided the soundtrack for an era.

That was the era when Henshaw, who had been educated in Schenectady schools, went to Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, one of the Seven Sisters, colleges founded for women when such education was considered radical. Henshaw graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1925 and attended the American Conservatory of Music in Fountainbleau, France.

She became a music teacher, organist, and choir director. She gave many public organ recitals and played at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

Henshaw, who introduced handbells to the Northeast in 1960, was active in the Thursday Musical Club for 50 years until retiring in 1980.

Once, when she directed a mass concert with the Mendelssohn Men’s Club of Albany, one of the Mendelssohn singers said, “Wow! That Miss Henshaw conducts with her eyebrows!”

“What made it more apt,” wrote Margaret Young, “is that the men’s conductor had gone through a spate of violent gestures to lead them.”

Young also wrote, “Helen was not only a fine musician, she was a fearless innovator.”

When she died, at the age of 95, she left 10 percent of her estate — $30,000 — to the Thursday Musical Club.

The April 7 concert will continue to wend its way down Memory Lane with George Gershwin from the 1930s and, from the World War II era, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Tetrault fondly remembers how the Andrews Sisters popularized the 1941 song as the draft was underway and sings in her clear soprano, “They made him blow a bugle for his Uncle Sam. It really brought him down because he couldn’t jam…Now the company jumps when he plays reveille…He plays it eight to the bar….”

But such pop tunes were not on the war-time programs.

For the club’s spring concert in 1942, in the midst of World War II, Josephine Antoine, coloratura soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, was the guest artist.

Dr. Elmer Tidmarsh — Henshaw’s mentor and the club’s leader for the longest time, from 1920 to 1965 — wrote in the program, “Music has long been recognized as an excellent source of morale in times of stress. Its sublime joy must be accessible to all who need it in these trying days. The Thursday Musical Club feels that the type of music it offers can contribute to both the morale and the cultural life of our community.”

“Interweaving strands”

The second half of the centennial concert will open with a piece commissioned for the occasion — Valerie Crescenz’s “There’s Nothing That a Woman Cannot Do.”

Commissioning Crescenz was Panke’s brainchild. “We had sung one or two of her works and liked them,” said Panke. “She had contacted me and thanked me. We corresponded a little…We gave her some guidelines. We wanted it to be about our group…The goals for the women who preceded us remain the same today,” she said.

Panke listed three common threads that have woven the club’s women together for a century: sharing the joy of singing, forming friendships, and being involved in the community.

“She asked us to submit what we accomplished individually,” said Panke, explaining that Crescenz’s piece includes solo “snippets” sung by women who wrote of their careers, volunteer work, and families.

“I serve my church as a music leader,” sings one.

“I worked hard to become an accountant,” sings another.

“I care for others as a nursing assistant,” sings a third.

“I devote myself to my home and family,” sings a fourth.

Crescenz, who lives in Pennsylvania where she teaches music and performs, will attend the April 7 concert in Schenectady with her daughter.

The songs after “There’s Nothing That a Woman Cannot Do” pick up where the timeline left off, with Broadway’s Golden Era in the 1950s and ’60s, the songs of Panke’s youth, before moving into folk and rock.

She was born in Sheboygan, Wisc., a city on the shores of Lake Michigan. Her mother was a choir director and Panke started taking piano lessons in the third grade, sometimes substituting for her mother as a teenager.

She went on to Lawrence Conservatory in Appleton, Wisconsin with the idea of becoming a music teacher but “got sidetracked with liberal arts” and majored in political science. Panke continued with graduate studies in political science at the University at Buffalo where she met her husband, all the while singing, including with a group that performed with the Buffalo Philharmonic.

She sang to her children when they were young. “My oldest, he had autism…He had very good pitch and was a singer and liked to imitate the songs he heard,” she recalled. “He had a very good memory for music. That was a pleasing aspect of his childhood.”

She sang to her daughter, too. And her daughter, now grown, remembers as a favorite, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” an African-American lullaby that the Thursday Musical Club has performed.

Once her kids were older, Panke finished her musical degree so that she could be a choral director. “I was looking for something to call a profession,” she said.

She has directed various church choirs since 1991 and also directs Capital Community Voices, a mixed group, as well as the Thursday Musical Club, which she began directing in 2003.

“It’s very gratifying to work with women,” Panke said. “The repertoire is very rich….In the past 25 years, more and more has been composed especially for women. Up until that time, female high school and college groups for women used to be second-best.”

Working with the Thursday Musical Club, as she does with any group, Panke said, “I try to apply good rules of choral singing to produce the best sound we can. We have a variety of voice types and ages so it is challenging…I emphasize uniformity of vowels and articulation, proper breathing.”

The centennial concert is unusual for the Thursday Musical Club, said Panke. “We’re doing songs from the popular culture. We thought it would be pleasing to our audience,” she said.

A script, written by club member Jo Quinn, traces the history of the Thursday Musical Club in the context of local history, highlighting the accomplishments of women who left their mark on the Schenectady area.

“Our scriptwriter was very skillful in interweaving the strands,” said Panke.

Tetrault, who said the idea “just came into my mind,” described Quinn as “a fantastic human being, very much into history.”

She went on, “We have invited women from our community, like Karen Johnson,” she said of Schenectady’s first and only female mayor. “We call them living legends.”

The script will be read by Elaine Houston, a television journalist and women’s advocate.

“Music really speaks to people,” said Luci. “I hope everybody will be able to sit back and enjoy the music.” She went on about the April 7 concert, “It will bring back nice, fun, memorable times they’ve had in their lives.”

Panke concluded, “It’s humbling to be only the second female director of a group that has existed for 100 years. I hope I can do my part.”

****

“A Century of Song and Service” will take place on Sunday, April 7, at 2:30 p.m. in the First Reformed Church in Schenectady’s historic Stockade, at 8 North Church Street.

Elinore Farnum will accompany the chorus on piano and organ.

Guest artists will be The Musicians of Ma’alwyck, a chamber ensemble featuring Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, Petia Kassarova, and Timothy Newton.

Tony Riccobono and Leonard Tobler will accompany the chorus on bass and drums.

Light refreshments will be provided.

General admission is $15 with a three-dollar discount for seniors and students.

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