Wilton Singers bid fond farewell to founders

WILTON — A student holiday concert is not the most likely place to find inspiration, but that’s just what two couples — Jan and Al Galletly and Jan and Ed MacEwen — found when they discovered the Wilton High School Madrigals in 1982.

“We said, ‘we can do that,’” Ed said at his Wilton home last week, describing how a decades-long labor of love called the Wilton Singers came to be. He was joined by his wife Jan and the Galletlys who shared stories of how the group formed and grew and its long association with the Madrigals.

The couples met when Al and Ed both worked for GTE. The MacEwens already lived in Wilton and the Galletlys moved here as well. They have since moved to Ridgefield. They all had been involved in music all their lives. Ed and Jan first met in the junior choir at their church in Lakewood, Ohio.

After the concert they approached high school choral director Elissa Getto and asked if she would lead an adult group and it turned out she would.

Knowing they would need more than four people, they began recruiting from their church choirs and Getto asked high school alums. The group got underway with 17 people.

“The first place we performed was the Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse,” Jan MacEwen said.

“We were doing English madrigals,” Ed said, picking up the story. “One of the songs was ‘Fire, Fire’ and the schoolhouse caught fire. We wondered where we were going to sing next.”

The fire was quickly extinguished and the schoolhouse survived, as did the Singers.

One of Getto’s stipulations for directing the group was that they partied, so each rehearsal was followed by wine, cheese and conviviality.

“Thirty-seven years later and we’re still drinking,” Ed said with a laugh.

“That’s why everyone knows each other so well” and gets along so well, his wife said.

“With 40 to 50 singers now, it’s quite a party,” he added.

Early on the group’s members decided their raison d’etre would not be just performing but giving back as well, and so the concerts are fundraisers for scholarships they give out at the end of each school year. This year, they gave out two $1,500 scholarships to Wilton music students.

The group’s second director was Jim Wetherald, then the organist at the Wilton Presbyterian Church, who led the group for 20 years.

Expanded repertoire

After their initial concert, the group quickly dropped its all-madrigals format and branched out to a wider repertoire including popular songs, major works, and jazz. A signature of the group became its “feasts” and they focused on the Elizabethan period for several years.

Jan MacEwen, who was choir director at her church, heard about such a program at a college in Minnesota. “I thought, ‘we can do this,’” she said.

The first Elizabethan feast was in 1985-86 and they asked the high school Madrigals to be their servers and to sing.

The students were happy to do so but some of the boys balked at the request they wear tights to keep with period clothing. That is, until high school principal Don Holt, who was a member of the Singers, agreed to wear tights as well.

It was a real production with castles for the set and elaborate costumes — Al dressed as a jester and Ed was a monk selling indulgences.

The first year the Singers themselves peeled potatoes and washed the dishes. They also made the flaming plum pudding. “You never saw more versions of pudding,” Jan Galletly said. They served their own wassail — which they had carefully researched with a lively tasting party — recruiting their children to stir it with a paddle in a tub.

There were herald trumpeters and a fire juggler. One year the Wilton Playshop put on an Elizabethan drama during the show. Another year the Singers brought over a newly married bride and groom from next door at WEPCO.

Eventually they wore out the Elizabethan theme and turned to others including Give Me a B (2001), a tribute to Richard Rodgers called The Sweetest Sounds (2002), Wasn’t it Great in ’58? (2003), The British Invasion (2004), Anything Goes (2007), and Noteflix, Songs from the Movies.

The feast for Wilton’s bicentennial in 2002 was The Wedding of the Centuries and there was a Caribbean feast in 2004.

After Wetherald stepped down, the Singers had a few short-term directors until Kevin Cotellese stepped up four years ago and set about to expand the group to its present number of 42, including nine former members of a Wilton High School choir and seven music educators. He is also director of choral activities for Wilton High School.

Stepping down

The Galletlys and MacEwens were in their mid-40s when they started the group and decided to hang up their hats recently. Ed MacEwen lost his singing voice a few years ago and has been doing the stage lighting. Jan MacEwen stepped down last year. The Galletlys last performance was Dec. 7.

“To think it’s still going 37 years later, I never thought it would last so long,” Al said. “To have something to do we enjoy … it’s built and built.”

The group has been so popular, this year they added a third night to their December performances.

“It’s a good town thing,” Jan MacEwen said of the concerts. “It’s fun to see people milling about before sitting down.”

To honor the MacEwens, the group commissioned Connecticut composer Matthew Culloton to give a classic Christmas carol a new interpretation as a tribute to the couple. He coincidentally selected a favorite of Jan’s, the First Noel, which the Singers performed at each of their concerts this month.

“I loved it,” she said. “There’s no better tribute.”

The group has commissioned Chris Brubeck to write a Christmas song as a tribute to the Galletlys.

The Singers also published the following in their December program:

“The Wilton Singers are so very grateful to founders Al and Jan Galletly and Jan and Ed MacEwen for their years of tireless work, commitment, love and energy they’ve invested in the group, helping to make it such a special part of so many of our lives.

“We thank them too for enriching our individual lives as Singers, and for the contribution they’ve made to the Wilton community as a whole, which has generously supported our performances over these many years.

“We send our love, gratitude and all best wishes for a joyful and beautiful new chapter.”