Norfolk State University Choirs have been under the baton of outstanding, talented, and dedicated music educators since their inception. In 1945 Harry Savage became the first full-time music faculty member and choir director of what was then, Norfolk Division of Virginia State College. Savage laid the framework for the music department and organized the first choir. When Harry Savage returned to Richmond Public Schools as a music teacher in 1946, Naomi Pettigrew succeeded Savage as choral director, and she won first place in the Marian Anderson Award Contest that same year.
Music took a major thrust forward at Norfolk State College when Noah Francis Ryder was appointed choir director and first full-time Chair of the Music Department in 1947. Ryder was a prominent composer, conductor, and music educator who had previously conducted the famed Hampton Institute Choir. One of Ryder’s first goals was to unite the community’s support for the college by presenting cultural programs of the highest caliber. He was successful in this endeavor for the choir’s concerts were always “standing room only” events. Under Ryder, the choir was the chief ambassador for the rapidly developing college. The choir toured Virginia and the Eastern seaboard raising money for the young institution. Undine Smith Moore, John W. Work, and Harold J. Montague were some of the distinguished African American musicians who composed works for the choir during this period. Ryder also premiered over fifty of his own compositions with the choir. Former conductors of the choir include Reginald Parker, Ramon Williamson, Larry Palmer (who established the Concert Choir), Glenn Hull, and Carl G. Harris.
Dr. Carl Haywood, Director of Choral Activities and current conductor of the Concert Choir and Spartan Chorale, has enhanced the reputation of the concert choir and expanded the choral program resplendently under the auspices of the University’s motto—“The Institution of Choice.” The Concert Choir has received glowing reviews in concerts at Oberlin College, Westminster Choir College, The Cathedral of St. Paul (Detroit), Washington National Cathedral, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church (Charlotte), Second Baptist Church (Los Angeles), Sixth Avenue Baptist Church (Birmingham), Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church (Atlanta), (Christ Church Cathedral (Houston), Friendship-West Baptist Church (Dallas), and St. Agnes’ Episcopal Church (Miami), to name a few. The choir which performed twice at the White House is known for the beauty of its choral tone and the ability to render exemplary performances of choral works of the great masters, as well as authentic performances of Negro spirituals, and works by African-American composers. The choir appears regularly with the Virginia Symphony.
While the Concert Choir has released its fourth compact disc (Earth Songs: Voices Past and Present) and received rave reviews, the Spartan Chorale, hailed “The President’s Own,” has enjoyed equal success with its compact disc, “We Thank You.” The ensemble also received multiple standing ovations at its concert for the National Association of Negro Musicians Annual Meeting in Chattanooga.
The NSU Chamber Choir was created in 2003 to expand the offerings and productivity of the singers within the music department. It is under the capable leadership of Mr. Terry Butler, Assistant Director of Choral Activities, who leads the ensemble regularly in consummate performances throughout the region. The Choir is also a regular featureof Choral Evensong at Grace Episcopal Church, Norfolk.
Now in its third season under the direction of Mr. Frank T. Elliott, the Vocal Jazz Ensemble has undergone an exciting transformation. A combination of song, dance, improvisation, and collaborative ingenuity, has resulted in this extraordinary show choir that exhibits an alluring sensitivity for the jazz idiom. The Ensemble’s musical acumen however is not limited to jazz. In 2012, the Ensemble was featured in a special tribute concert to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The addition of the Spartan Chorale, Chamber Choir, and Vocal Jazz Ensemble have afforded the NSU Choral Program increased exposure, flexibility, and opportunities for choral participation.
NSU Choirs believes that for every season there is a song, for every day there is a melody, and for each moment, there should be harmony. Sing…Be…Live…See!