A Collaborative Chorus: The Yale Camerata, 1985–2024

January 29, 2024

— By Laurie H. Ongley

In 1985, Marguerite L. Brooks and the Institute of Sacred Music invited New Haven community members to join Yale affiliates in a fledgling chorus, the Yale Camerata. The walls separating campus from city, thus breached by music, remain open to this day. After nearly forty years the Camerata is performing under its second permanent conductor, Felicia Barber, and it is flourishing.

The Camerata is an auditioned chorus populated by musicians from widely divergent backgrounds. Graduate students from all disciplines sing alongside teachers, lawyers, architects, Yale faculty and staff, occasional undergraduates, and one or two exceptionally accomplished high school students. Some community members who sang for decades are proud to have helped educate the choral conducting students who pass through in two-year cycles. A substantial number of singers are Glee Club alumni who enjoyed singing as undergraduates and relish the opportunity to continue performing choral music at Yale.

View a slideshow of Camerata life over the last four decades

  • group singing
    Yale Camerata in its first season, preparing for a concert with accompanist Tim Smith at Church of the Redeemer, fall 1985
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    Yale Camerata rehearses in Battell Chapel, circa 1990.
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    Yale Camerata rehearses Haydn’s Creation in Woolsey Hall, circa 1990.
  • people singing
    Yale Camerata performs Haydn’s Creation in Woolsey Hall, circa 1990.
  • people singing
    Camerata performs Haydn’s Creation in Woolsey Hall, circa 1990.
  • people singing
    Camerata rehearses Handel’s Dixit Dominus in Battell Chapel with David Willcocks.
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    David Willcocks conducts Camerata in Handel’s Dixit Dominus, Battell Chapel.
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    Camerata rehearses Poulenc motets in Battell Chapel, 1990s.
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    Marguerite Brooks with conducting student Bradley Wells, circa 1997.
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    Camerata poses before a concert in Battell Chapel, circa 2000.
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    Chamber Chorus before concert in Battell Chapel, 2002.
  • choir in Woolsey Hall
    Camerata and members of the New Haven Symphony perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor in Woolsey Hall, 2004.
  • Choir on stage
    Applause following Krzysztof Pendericki’s Credo with Camerata, Glee Club, Philharmonia, and Elm City Girls’ Choir, Woolsey Hall 2005.
  • woman conducting
    Marguerite Brooks at chamber chorus warmup, Greenwich, Connecticut, November 2015.
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    First Camerata rehearsal of the season, in Marquand Chapel, September 2016. Photo credit: Laurie Ongley
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    Camerata members take a break from rehearsal weekend, Marquand Chapel, 2016. Photo credit: Tyler Gathro
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    Yale Camerata performs Herzogenberg’s Die Geburt Christi at its annual Advent concert in Battell Chapel, 2016. Photo credit: Robert Lisak
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    Marguerite L. Brooks smiles from the alto section while one of her conducting students leads Camerata, rehearsal weekend 2017. Photo credit: Robert Lisak
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    Camerata members pose outside the renovated Hendrie Hall, rehearsal weekend 2017. Photo credit: Robert Lisak
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    Camerata dress rehearsal for Advent concert in Battell Chapel, Rheinberger, Der Stern Bethlehem, 2018. Photo credit: Laurie Ongley
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    Camerata concert in Battell Chapel, October 2019. Photo credit: Robert Lisak
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    Yale Camerata rehearses for its annual Advent concert in Battell Chapel, 2019. Photo credit: Laurie Ongley
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    Dr. André J. Thomas in the Camerata’s Advent concert, performed on video, 2020.
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    Still from the Camerata’s virtual Advent concert, 2020.
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    Still from the Camerata’s virtual Advent concert, 2020. Video design credit: Camilla Tassi.
  • screenshot of faces
    Still from the Camerata’s virtual Advent concert, 2020. Video design credit: Camilla Tassi
  • person playing harp
    Harpist Violetta Maria Norrie and conductor Joe Lerangis prepare to record video for Camerata’s virtual Advent concert, 2020. Photo credit: Laurie Ongley
  • two people playing harp and drums
    Video artist Camilla Tassi and percussionist Russell Fisher prepare to record video for Camerata’s virtual Advent concert, 2020. Photo credit: Laurie Ongley
  • group playing instruments
    Video artist Camilla Tassi records conductor Joe Lerangis and socially distanced strings for the Camerata’s virtual Advent concert, 2020. Photo credit: Laurie Ongley
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    Conductor André Thomas with Camerata in Woolsey Hall, Advent concert, December 2021.
  • woman speaking
    Felicia Barber speaks to the audience in Woolsey Hall, October 2023. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro
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    Yale Camerata tenors performing in Woolsey Hall, October 2023. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro
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    Yale Camerata in Woolsey Hall, October 2023. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro
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    Felicia Barber and Camerata in semicircle, Woolsey Hall, October 2023. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro
  • woman conducting
    Felicia Barber conducting in Woolsey Hall, October 2023. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro
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    Sopranos and altos performing in Woolsey Hall, October 2023. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro
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    Camerata members performing in Woolsey Hall, October 2023. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro
  • choir singing in concert hall
    Yale Camerata concert with mezzo-soprano soloist Adriana Zabala, October 2023.

When Marguerite Brooks arrived at Yale in 1985 there was no graduate-level chorus. The Concert Choir had already been discontinued, with no replacement. Professor Brooks describes the Camerata in its first semester as “a ragtag group” singing Schütz, but after a joint performance of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with the Glee Club and the Yale Symphony, growth came quickly. In its second season the Camerata was already robust enough to sing Handel’s Israel in Egypt with a hired orchestra. For the next thirty-five years the Camerata continued to broaden its horizons, membership, and repertoire.

Although sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music, the Camerata has always sung both sacred and secular repertoire. To borrow a phrase from Yale composer and conductor Mark A. Miller, the Camerata’s conductors “draw the circle wide.” They have created a community of singers and a body of work that welcome all genres and all people. From Renaissance polyphony to a bluegrass mass to African-American spirituals to atonal and aleatoric works, in German and Latin and French and Russian and Spanish and Gaelic, the Camerata embraces all.

Throughout the Camerata’s history, its conductors have programmed works by living composers. The ISM has commissioned dozens of new works on behalf of the Camerata, including by Yale faculty and students. When confronted with unfamiliar and challenging music, the singers take a leap of faith, trusting that the conductors have chosen repertoire that they will find fulfilling. As one longstanding member of Camerata told Professor Brooks, “Maggie, we have the courage of your convictions.” The culture of commissioning new music is certain to continue, thanks to the Marguerite L. Brooks Commissioning Fund for New Choral Music. This fund, administered by the National Collegiate Choral Organization (NCCO), recognizes Professor Brooks’s “lifelong advocacy on behalf of composers from many varied backgrounds.”

The Camerata also has a tradition of collaborative performances of large-scale standard works. The Yale Glee Club, Yale Symphony, and Yale Philharmonia are frequent partners in concerts of favorites such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, requiems by Brahms, Mozart, and Britten, and oratorios by Handel and Mendelssohn. Large-scale concerts might be conducted by the Camerata or Glee Club conductor, or by a guest such as Marin Alsop, Nic McGegan, Krzysztof Penderecki, Helmuth Rilling, or Robert Shaw.

After thirty-five years at the helm of the Camerata, Professor Brooks retired in May 2020. Two festive concerts planned for her final semester at Yale, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and a world premiere by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Julia Wolfe, both succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Wolfe’s piece was ultimately premiered in 2022.) The Brooks era ended with a sigh rather than a gala, and singers retreated to their homes and quarantine.

Dr. André Thomas became interim director of the Camerata in fall 2020, in what had been designed as a one-year, on-campus appointment. During the entire 2020–2021 academic year, Covid restrictions prevented Dr. Thomas from meeting the Camerata in person. Rehearsals took place on Zoom, and performers submitted recordings of themselves singing the concert pieces. A sound engineer and a video designer fashioned the individual recordings into online performances. Dr. Thomas made the best of a difficult situation: he invited a series of prominent conductors and composers to meet virtually with the Camerata, and he invited singers from all over the United States to participate in rehearsals. Audience members tuned in to concerts from around the world, and the Camerata took part in a Brazilian choral festival without ever leaving New Haven. Nevertheless, community singing at its best requires physical community, so Dr. Thomas remained with Camerata for a second interim season in 2021–2022, this time in person. In an era when performing ensembles around the country sputtered and died, Dr. Thomas ensured that the Camerata not only survived, but prospered.

Dr. Felicia Barber assumed leadership of the Camerata in 2022. At the start of her second year as conductor, Dr. Barber welcomed a record number of prospective singers to choral auditions. Today the Camerata has the vibrancy and joy of pre-pandemic singing, with a renewed appreciation for live music-making.

The current Camerata roster has grown in its representation of singers from the BIPOC community. The presence of a vibrant African American female conductor on the podium has undoubtedly made an impact. In her previous position at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, Dr. Barber was the first African American female director of choral activities at a non-historically black college or university. As a lifelong singer and performer of choral music, Dr. Barber did not see herself represented in the profession, and she is keenly aware that her mere presence helps diversify music at Yale and beyond. Her programming intentionally encompasses diverse styles, genres, and cultures, and a significant portion of the Camerata’s current repertoire highlights the work of BIPOC composers.

From the beginning, the Camerata fostered musical partnerships between Yale and New Haven. This year Dr. Barber is acquainting herself with existing city ensembles and area musicians, with an eye toward strengthening ties established by the Music in Schools Initiative at the Yale School of Music. Joint endeavors between Camerata and talented singers from all over New Haven could begin as early as 2024–2025. In the meantime, the Camerata has three large-scale collaborative events planned for this spring term:

  • February 11, a joint concert with the Yale Glee Club on the theme “Arise, My Beloved.” The program will include settings of this text from the Song of Solomon. The featured work will be a Te Deum by José Nunes Garcia, an African-Brazilian composer contemporary with Beethoven.
  • April 3, a joint performance with the Yale Glee Club and Yale Symphony of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. This moving work was commissioned in 1962 to celebrate the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II. Britten incorporated verses by World War I poet Wilfred Owen into the Requiem, adding poignancy and modern relevance to the Latin text. (The concert will be reprised on April 7 at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City.)
  • May 5, a hymn festival in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Institute of Sacred Music. This ecumenical concert with the theme “All Creation Sings” will highlight the diversity of creation and our duty as faithful people to care for it. Joining the Camerata will be a community choir, a brass ensemble, gospel instrumentalists, and organists Dr. Nathaniel Gumbs and Dr. Bruce Neswick. Drs. Barbara Brown Taylor and James Forbes will serve as the guest speakers. Experienced choral singers can register to participate in the choir.

Each of the Camerata’s three conductors provided the leadership, perspective, and focus that was needed at their respective time. Marguerite Brooks ignited a spark and cultivated its flame for 35 years, building a community that would outlast her tenure even through a global pandemic. André Thomas nurtured the flame and kept it alive during turbulent times. Felicia Barber is guiding the Camerata into its next chapter, retaining its essence while shaping it for the next generation. When Professor Brooks was asked about her wishes for the Camerata’s future, she said, “I hope they keep building and keep evolving. I know they are doing just that, because I have seen Felicia’s work firsthand.” Audience members and singers agree that the Camerata is thriving as it looks toward its next forty years.


Laurie H. Ongley has been an intermittent member of the Camerata since 1987 and was a manager at the Institute of Sacred Music from 2015-2022.