An enthusiastic group of amateur singers met at the Riverdale Country School in October, 1964, in response to a notice that the Riverdale School of Music was planning to sponsor a choral ensemble open to members of the community. That meeting led to the first concert of the newly-formed Riverdale Choral Society in February 1965 under the direction of Theodore Ashizawa. At the end of the first season, Mr. Ashizawa’s career led him to California. James Cullen, a choral and instrumental conductor and singer in Philadelphia and New York, was readily granted the post of music director. Under Cullen’s leadership the Society grew in size and skill. The first holiday concert in December 1965 began a schedule of performances which to this day has included annual spring and fall concerts at a variety of venues, including Wave Hill, the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, Good Shepherd Church in Inwood, Lovinger Theater at Lehman College, and the New York Botanical Garden. For the past several years, RCS has been presenting its semi-annual public concerts in the beautiful chapel at the landmark Christ Church Riverdale, where weekly rehearsals also take place.
In the summer of 1984 invited members of Professor Cullen’s various choral ensembles were combined to form the Kean-Riverdale Singers to perform a cultural good-will concert tour of Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1989 RCS singers joined conductor Cullen for a similar concert tour of Spain and Portugal, performing Fauré’s Requiem with chamber orchestra. On both tours, concert halls, ancient churches, and town squares were the settings for highly successful concerts welcomed enthusiastically by thousands of listeners. At the end of the 1990-91 season, James Cullen’s retirement to Cape May, New Jersey, ended his remarkable tenure as conductor of RCS. After a lifetime of distinguished music-making, Mr. Cullen passed away at his home in Sarasota, Florida, in 2008.
An extensive search for a new conductor for the chorus led to hiring of the Society’s prodigiously gifted and dynamic young director, David Crone. Mr. Crone put his stamp on RCS with his inspired direction of works ranging from Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from The Mount of Olives and Schubert’s Mass in G to A Garden, an exciting recent work by New York composer Jonathan Elliott. Mr. Crone remained with the group until 1997.
Mimi S. Daitz became the music director of RCS in September 1997 and served until December 2007. To fulfill her ambition to help all of the chorus members become musically literate, she instituted a small-group sightsinging workshop for those just beginning to master the complex skills involved in understanding musical notation, rhythmic coordination, and melodic reading–skills she had taught during her many years in the Music Department of City College. Daitz usually organized concert programs so that the repertoire alternated standard works of the choral repertoire during one semester, and less familiar pieces for the next concert. During her ten and one half years as music director, the chorus performed three times with large area orchestras (the Bronx Symphony Orchestra and the New York Symphonic Arts Ensemble), traveled to Havana in May 2001 to sing in the International Choral Festival of Cuba, and joined in song with over 20,000 choristers in the Estonian United Choral Festival in July 2004.
Our present conductor, John Lettieri, served as our accompanist on piano, organ and harpsichord for eighteen years before rising to the position of music director in 2008. His longstanding relationship with the group has served well in enabling him to select exciting and challenging repertoire that stimulates further musical growth of the chorus, to conduct rehearsals and concerts in a relaxed yet exacting manner, and to imbue the singers with a love of the work involved in learning and polishing musical gems from many periods, styles, and cultures.
Since October 1970 RCS members have gathered in nearby retreat centers in rural settings for autumn rehearsal weekends that combine intense rehearsal, socializing, and recreation. Each spring, the chorus spends one or two Saturday mornings rehearsing and then enjoys a leisurely lunch together, giving members extra time to socialize. The warm and supportive relationships among the Society’s members are one of the most notable and significant traits of the group, and have been commented upon and admired repeatedly by guest artists and newcomers to the chorus.
RCS offers service to the larger community through its regular performances for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, many of whom cannot travel to concert halls. Other community outreach activities have included singing at the annual Riverdale Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, the Holiday Lights Festival at the Bronx Zoo, and a School District 10 choral concert.
Less spectacular but very important to our continuing viability is the work of our officers and committee chairs. Mundane tasks of running a performing arts volunteer organization are all accomplished by the executive board and other chorus members without the help of any professional staff, with the notable exception of our music director. Repeated grants from the New York State Council on the Arts (through the Bronx Council on the Arts) and from the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (through the office of Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz) have substantially offset our ongoing expenses and enabled the chorus to continue to present quality concerts to the community.