Founded in 1874 by William Wallace Gilchrist, Mendelssohn Club has been a major force in choral music in Philadelphia and beyond, with notable historic performances including the 1916 U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Other historical premieres include the first performance outside the Soviet Union of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, and the Philadelphia premieres of Brahms’ German Requiem, Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, Scriabin’s Symphony No. 1, and Bartók’s Cantata Profana.
Mendelssohn Club was founded in 1874 by William Wallace Gilchrist (1846-1916), one of the leading musical figures in nineteenth century Philadelphia. Gilchrist studied privately with Hugh Clarke (who was later Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania) from 1865-68. During this time Gilchrist was active as a baritone soloist at Holy Trinity and St. Mark’s Churches, soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society in productions of Messiah, Moses in Egypt and Judas Maccabaeus, and participant in a series of light operettas presented by the Amateur Drawing Room. In 1874 he was appointed organist and choirmaster at St. Clement’s, and he drew the original Mendelssohn Club members from the choir there.
Mendelssohn Club began as an eight-voice male chorus, but soon increased in size and added women’s voices. The first subscription concert was held in December, 1879, and included piano and cello solos as well as choral works. Gilchrist was becoming increasing well-known as a composer and concerts began to feature his works as well. In 1882 his setting of Psalm 46 won first prize at the Cincinnati May Festival, where the judges included Camille Saint-Saens and Carl Reinecke.
The range of Gilchrist’s musical activities is quite impressive. In addition to Mendelssohn Club, he also conducted the Germantown Choral Society, the West Philadelphia Choral Society, the Harmonia, the Harrisburg Choral Society and the Tuesday Club of Wilmington. He was organist and choirmaster at St. Clement’s, Christ Church in Germantown and for many years at the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem. He was a founding member of the American Guild of Organists and of the Music Manuscript Society, which promoted new music in Philadelphia. He served as head of voice instruction at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. He founded and conducted the Symphony Society of Philadelphia from 1893-1899. In the latter year he resigned the podium, probably so that it could be offered to the distinguished German conductor Fritz Scheel, who happened to be in Philadelphia at the time. The Symphonic Society was one of several orchestras which were reorganized as The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1900, with Scheel as conductor.
Mendelssohn Club’s long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra began under Gilchrist’s tenure with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Scheel’s baton in 1903. For the next thirty years the Orchestra and the chorus appeared on each other’s subscription concert series. In 1908 Mendelssohn Club gave the Philadelphia premiere of the Brahms Requiem and in 1916 provided more than 300 singers for the American premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.
Henry C. Smith III, 1960-1965
Robert Page, 1965-1978
Alan Harler became Mendelssohn Club’s twelfth Music Director in 1988 and served as Artistic Director from 2009 to 2015. He is a former Laura H. Carnell Professor and Chairman of Choral Music at Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music. In addition, he is an active conductor outside of Philadelphia, having performed regularly at the Festival Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the Aspen Choral Institute, and has given master classes and conducted performances in Taiwan and China under the sponsorship of the Taiwan Philharmonic Association.
Maestro Harler is a strong advocate for new American music. He was founder and director of the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble of Indiana. During his tenure with Mendelssohn Club, he has commissioned and premiered forty-six new compositions, including such major works as David Lang’s battle hymns (2009), Jennifer Higdon’s On the Death of the Righteous (2008), Andrea Clearfield’s The Golem Psalms (2006), Charles Fussell’s High Bridge (2003), James Primosch’s Fire-Memory/River-Memory (1998), Roberto Sierra’s Lux æterna (1996), Jan Krzywicki’s Lute Music (1995), Robert Stern’s Returning the Song (1994), Cynthia Folio’s Touch the Angel’s Hand (1994), Charles Fussell’s Specimen Days (1992) and Robert Moran’s Requiem: Chant du Cygne (1990). He conducted Mendelssohn Club in a critically acclaimed recording of the Moran Requiem for Argo/London Records in 1994. With the Temple University Concert Choir, he has presented many Philadelphia premieres, including Moran’s Hagoromo, Alfred Schnittke’s Requiem, and Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem. Maestro Harler has prepared choruses for many of the country’s leading conductors, including Riccardo Muti, Klaus Tennstedt, Charles Dutoit, Zubin Mehta, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Lorin Maazel, David Robertson, and Wolfgang Sawallisch.
Maestro Harler was honored recently with Chorus America’s prestigious Michael Korn Founders Award for Development of the Professional Art, and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia’s Honorary Lifetime Membership for a Distinguished Contribution to the Musical Life of Philadelphia.
Paul Rardin, 2015-present