It’s a tame version of the lunchroom scene in Fame.
Andrew Maskoff sits at the piano, fingers flying across the keys, tapping out song snippets from various genres.
Scores of students walk in, or hop in, or however one describes the gait of teenage girls and boys. They grab their black choral books. Some sit, others buzz about chatting or singing a few notes or a lyric. I’m watching them from my folding chair, trying to keep my laptop on my lap.
The Orphenians, a prestigious audition-only group of a cappella singers, were founded in 1960 by then-choral director, the beloved George Weigle (1928-2018). The name is derived from Orpheus, the Greek god of music. The singers tackle challenging pieces like "Dominus Vobiscum" composed by Sydney Guillaume and John Corigliano's "L'Invitation au Voyage."
Around 2:55, their accompanist, the accomplished Dr. Robert Kwan, walks in amidst their cheers and calls.
At 3:00 p.m., most are seated when choral director Lauren Pines steps to the center and calls out, "Hello, Orphenians!"
"Hello!!" they call back.
And rehearsal begins. After a few warm-up exercises, Lauren turns to me and whispers, "It might be good that you're here; they're exceptionally well-behaved."
George began his choral career at Bedford Junior High in 1954. "No one told me the kids had driven three choral teachers away the previous year, so I took the job," he once reminisced.
A few years later, he moved to Staples and set to work, starting his Orphenians, as well as bolstering the choral program established by his predecessor, John Ohanian.
By 1966, the "Orphs" were good enough to perform in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. As the years passed, they performed at festivals in Italy, France, Austria, Poland, Romania, and more.
Just this summer, they traveled to Hawaii for the International Luau of Song Choral Festival.
Numerous times throughout the years, the Orphs have traveled to San Francisco as one of ten high school choirs selected to participate in the prestigious Chanticleer National Youth Choral Festival, a four-day program in which they receive instruction from internationally respected performers and choral instructors.
Ten years ago, they rocked the Staples Field House with the iconic '80s band Foreigner, singing with them the band's biggest hit, "I Want to Know What Love Is."
But their largest audience was in 2015, at Yankee Stadium. In front of thousands of baseball fans, the Orphs sang a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, receiving extended applause. Staples then-principal John Dodig wrote, "I couldn't help myself. When I heard a family sitting in front of us saying that the Anthem never sounded so good, I had to say: 'They're mine'… Even in the horrible heat and humidity in the stadium, I had goosebumps all over my body."
As a bonus, they met game-goers Jimmy Fallon and Lorne Michaels.
But despite their global acclaim, back in Westport they're best known, for now, for the Candlelight Concert.
John Ohanian began the Candlelight Concert in 1940 (then the Christmas Candlelight Concert); a respite for war-weary residents. The concert showcased every facet of the music program - bands, orchestras, choruses. In 1960, George added the Orphs.
Orphs sang their signature challenging material for these concerts, such as Mendelssohn's "Weihnachten" and bespoke material. They continue to do so 63 years later.
This year, they're premiering "I Found the Light," a new work by former Orphenian and lauded composer Jake Landau. Jake says it's "a secular piece designed for performance around the winter holidays, about 7 minutes long, following the journey of one walking home through winter snow."
As much as the students love singing in the concerts, some admit they prefer the downtown caroling. Zoë Schwartz, section leader of the sopranos, says, "I love caroling in downtown Westport; it's so cool to see everyone."
Rohan Wadhwani agrees, "We don't really do pops in Orphenians, so caroling is fun. We once went to a country club, and there were a bunch of little kids who were enjoying it."
It won't surprise anyone to learn that the teens in this exclusive ensemble are accomplished in myriad ways.
Alyssa Lee is the president of Staples Players and co-runs the Asian Students Association.
Deneil Betfarhad is also in the jazz band, pit orchestra for Staples Players, symphonic band, played trumpet in western regionals and all-state band, and was an alternate in nationals, and is captain of the water polo team. He and Zoë co-founded an a cappella chorus with Lauren Pine's choral direction.
Wunderkind Ethan Walmark is in the jazz band and Choralaires and wants "to go to college and be a famous musician singer/songwriter."
(I spoke with these Orphs during a snack break. Robert brought doughnuts, so trying to land interviews was like catching descending locusts during the apocalypse. I hope I have all of my information straight, and sincere apologies for any errors.)
These young adults enjoy the challenge and appreciate the beauty of their music. Perhaps now, perhaps later, they'll realize the other critical role the Orphenians play in their life. "Singing and playing with other people is so important," George explained. "You don't always realize when you're in high school how meaningful it is. Sometimes it takes decades to sink in. But it does. It does."
Thank you to 06880DanWoog.com, from which much of this information was gleaned.
Staples Music Parents Association
Many of the Music Department initiatives would to be possible without the contribution of SMPA and its members, including the Candlelight Concert, Pops, travel, feeding musicians during long days of rehearsals, commissions, sound system, and much more.
The donation link is StaplesMusic.org/SMP
Adam Kaplan ‘08, a Broadway star (Newsies/A Bronx Tale) and former Staples Player, credits his training as an Orphenian for helping him boost his career.
In a wonderful twist, the musical that inspired him to pursue performance was Staples Player’s 1995 West Side Story which starred our November ’23 cover feature woman, Alisan Porter, as Anita.