It was after twilight one night in early December, the winter of my first semester at Oberlin. My French House quadmates were elsewhere for the evening, so I was left to my own devices. I drifted past one of my favorite spots, the quiet courtyard of Asia House, and glanced at the ivy-covered rear of Fairchild Chapel, which was illuminated beautifully against the nearly starless midwinter sky. A performance? I wondered and obediently followed the glow, like a moth to a flame.
I pulled open the heavy doors and peered into the lobby. I could faintly hear the sounds of a mid-size a cappella choir - rich, pure intervals resounding off of ancient stone walls. The usher politely handed me a program: works of the North-German Baroque, sung by the Collegium Musicum. I stepped into the packed chapel and sat cross-legged on the floor of the center aisle - the only seat to be found - and so began my love affair with Collegium.
I signed up to audition for the group amidst rehearsals for Caroline Jackson Smith’s Winter Term production of “The Wiz” at Hall Auditorium, my vocal chords exhausted from belting in the pit chorus for 6 hours a day. The sound I had heard in that chapel was the stuff of dreams. I had sung in choirs for years growing up, but had never encountered a student group of that caliber. There was an electrifying combination of warmth and transparency that I could not forget. I had to be a part of it.
Professor Steven Plank was alone at the organ in Fairchild Chapel when I arrived the afternoon of my audition. The glow and mystique of that night were gone, replaced with a small, bearded, bookish man who would become one of my principal mentors at Oberlin. He asked me to sing several scales and sightread a few things; I was rusty, but those skills weren’t gone. My aural skills from my days as Peabody Children’s Chorus “Solfege Queen” remained intact. When we were done, he gazed at me over his spectacles and said, “Well, that’ll do. Just don’t push.”
My first few rehearsals were perilous - I stood next to the brilliant tenor Thatcher Lyman, who went on to sing with the powerhouse Oberlin-based group Uncloistered, who was mentored by the Hilliard Ensemble - I was so intimidated that my knees quaked. What I loved most, however, was the joy in each singer’s face as we tore through Monteverdi, Byrd, Taverner and Josquin, among many others.
Monday and Wednesday afternoons, beginning promptly at 4:30 in Fairchild Chapel, were brief windows of respite from our otherwise whirlwind college lives. In my last semester at Oberlin, before leaving to study abroad in Paris, I wrote a paper for Professor Plank’s Research and Writing class on the history of Collegium at Oberlin. I had the opportunity to interview the founder of the ensemble, L. Dean Nuernberger, who lives a quiet life not far from the Oberlin campus. Early members of the ensemble who are now at the forefront of early music include Benjamin Bagby (of Sequentia) and one of the founders of Hesperus.
During my last few weeks, the “small group” - a select subset of the choir - read some music together, some new, some old. Professor Plank pulled me aside and asked, “Well, Martha, what are they going to do on Mondays and Wednesday afternoons? Charter you a private plane?” I have not returned to campus since graduation, but when I do, it will be on a Monday or a Wednesday, promptly at 4:30.