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New Nittany Knights Barbershop Chorus director takes the helm

Graham Sanders teaches voice at Penn State and recently took over as director of the Nittany Knights Barbershop Chorus.
Graham Sanders teaches voice at Penn State and recently took over as director of the Nittany Knights Barbershop Chorus. Photo provided

When the Nittany Knights Barbershop Chorus takes the stage on April 30 for its annual spring concert, it will be led by a new director for the first time in 40 years.

In February, Graham Sanders was announced as just the fourth director of the chorus, which has been performing in the State College area since 1962. Sanders succeeds Joe Malafarina, who announced his decision to step down in 2015.

Paul Wagner, president and a tenor in the chorus for 28 years, said the search for a new director was more difficult than anticipated and lasted nearly six months.

“We had seven candidates that were all very talented, and we basically brought them in and auditioned them,” Wagner said. “But after we met with Graham we knew he was the one.”

Jim Kerhin, a lead singer in the chorus since 2005, attended the audition and said that when they asked Sanders to sing a song, nobody in the room expected what happened next.

“He just casually stood up and when he started to sing, the incredible power and strength of his voice actually shook the lights in the room,” Kerhin said. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Sanders, a native of Chichester, England, is a visiting artist-in-residence in the School of Music at Penn State, where he teaches voice. He came to the United States in 1984 and studied music at the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University in Bloomington.

In 1990 Sanders was awarded a scholarship to the Lauritz Melchior Heldentenor Society in Munich, Germany. He performed as an operatic tenor for 10 years in Germany before returning to the United States.

Sanders has been performing opera around the world as a freelance soloist since 2000, but this is the first time he has worked with a barbershop chorus. Still, he said, spreading the joy of music is the job of any singer or chorus, regardless of the means, and it is something the Knights have done well.

“It’s really unique, especially in a college town, to have a group like this outside of the university,” Sanders said. “Hopefully, we can become even more of a presence in the community.”

To achieve that goal, the Knights plan to rebuild their website, become more involved with social media and schedule more concerts.

John Bittikofer, a baritone and vice president of public relations, said that any time a group changes directors, the personality of the chorus changes as well.

“Graham is a very energetic and focused person,” Bittikofer said. “He has brought a new vitality to the chorus and we want to make the most of it.”

The Knights hope that under Sanders’s direction the chorus can improve and possibly compete in national barbershop competitions.

The national governing body of barbershop music is The Barbershop Harmony Society, which was started in 1938 in Nashville. The organization has more than 25,000 members and aims to preserve and encourage barbershop quartet singing. It hosts the annual international barbershop competition and sanctions all regional competitions and events.

The Knights perform in the mid-Atlantic region and have 35 active members.

In May the chorus will be evaluated in Harrisburg during a district competition. The Knights will perform, but not compete, in the event with the hope of scoring high enough to begin competing in regional events.

“It’s something we haven’t done in quite a while,” Bittikofer said. “We are working hard and, hopefully, we can do well, but mainly we are focusing on having a good concert in a few weeks.”

The concert is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 30 at the State College High School north building. The theme is “Puttin’ on The Ritz.” The chorus will perform show tunes and barbershop standards. It will be the first public performance with Sanders as director.

The concert will also feature a guest quartet from Illinois, After Hours. In 2015 the quartet finished eighth at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s international competition and has qualified for the 2016 international competition this summer.

The Knights will also welcome the Clef Hangers from Mount Nittany Middle School, directed by Alison Geesey. According to Sanders, the younger generation is the key to keeping the chorus strong and relevant.

“What I really hope to do is get us to the point where we can be ambassadors for the music,” Sanders said. “We need to reach the younger people and show them the power of music.”

Tickets can be purchased on the Knights website, www.nittanyknights.org.

Leon Valsechi is a Penn State journalism student.

IF YOU GO

  • What: Nittany Knights Barbershop Chorus’ “Puttin’ on The Ritz”
  • When: 7:30 p.m. April 30
  • Where: State College High School north auditorium, 653 Westerly Parkway, State College
  • Info: www.nittanyknights.org.
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