The Octet organizes 75th anniversary concert

Warren Hunke ’42 and other members of the original Octet gather around a piano, in their trademark tuxedos for their performance. Photo courtesy of Chris  winters ’95
Warren Hunke ’42 and other members of the original Octet gather around a piano, in their trademark tuxedos for their performance. Photo courtesy of Chris winters ’95

This Saturday, on Homecoming, the Williams Octet will perform a concert in honor of the group’s 75th anniversary. The Reunion Concert is an exciting moment in a long musical history. The group was founded in 1940 by the director of the Williams Choral Society, Robert Barrow.  Way back when, he took it upon himself and “hand-picked eight of his best singers to be a SWAT team of sorts,” and thus the Octet was born, said Kevin Weist ’81, the coordinator of the reunion. The group went through a series of evolutions, current Octet co-president Brian Astrachan ’16 said: “They started performing in tuxedos, and then the group developed from there.” Although the group now has 14 members (not quite an Octet) and no longer performs in tuxedos, it has retained the same spirit and values over the years.

The Octet held its first alumni reunion concert back in 1975. Warren Hunke ’42, the group’s first musical director, organized this first reunion and continued to do so year after year. Before the birth of these annual reunions, the Octet experienced its only period of campus inactivity in its 75-year tenure; it disappeared in 1956 due to many members of the group enlisting in the army and the fact that the jazz ensemble was trumping a cappella singing in popularity.

It was the new tradition of Octet reunions that brought the group back to life. “In 1977,” Weist said, “a couple of sophomores, Mike Battey [’80] and Steve Colella [’80] went to the reunion concert and saw an opportunity to revive the tradition of all male a cappella singing on campus. They rebooted the group … and it has been alive and thriving ever since.” Hunke, who is now remembered as the great maestro of the group, helped Battey and Colella reform the Octet.

Full Octet reunions now occur every other Homecoming. For Astrachan, the memories from his sophomore year homecoming are incredibly special and a reason to be excited for the next one: “[It] was probably the best experience I’ve had at [the College], seeing how tight-knit the Octet is going back 60-plus years.”

This year’s 75th reunion is going to be a special one, with a record number of returning alumni. In total, 64 Octetors will perform: the current members and 50 alumni, extending as far back in class year as 1949 and from as far across the globe as Brazil and China.

According to Weist, it will also be “truly an intergenerational group with guys ranging in age from 18 to 94,” and, unlike past reunions, will include many young alumni from the last five years. This age range means that “the audience can expect a full range of music from the 1910s to the 2010s!” Weist said.

For Weist, coordinating the 75th reunion has been a positive experience. “I’m a TV producer, so organizing a reunion is a lot like producing a show.” Weist also expressed how much of a group effort the planning process has been. “Thankfully, there are a lot of people who help out – from the organizing committee all the way through, each individual guy who learns a song just so they can come sing it with us,” Weist said.

At the reunion this weekend, Octet members past and present will get a chance to see how, despite generational changes, the group has remained the same at heart. “I saw that a lot two years ago at the reunion concert when everyone was singing together, talking about very similar stories,” Astrachan said, “We told one alum from the ’80s a story about the group from that year, and he told us almost the exact same story from 33 years before. So it’s different, but it’s kept the same passion for music and love for each other.” Weist shared a similar sentiment, saying, “When we start singing, it’s like we’re all the same age.”

The 75th reunion will also be a special moment in the lifelong impact that being a member of the group has on all of its members. “Practically every wonderful thing in my life is directly related to my having been in the Octet,” Weist said, “My best friends, my favorite pastime, several fun job opportunities like writing songs for Sesame Street and for a couple of feature films … I even met my wife because she saw me in the Octet and thought, ‘Who’s that guy?’ And now I have two kids, both of whom sing, one of whom is in a male college a cappella group of his own … The Octet casts a strong spell … and the song lingers on.”

Astrachan shares this sentiment; even as a current member who has not yet experienced life after the College, he’s aware of the lifelong community that comes with being an Octet alum. “What’s so telling about the group is that at every wedding, every funeral, [the] Octet’s singing,” Astrachan emphasized, “At every wedding and funeral of every Octet member, the Octet’s there.”

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