Ivalyn Leth(e)a Law Biloff
1906 - 1983
Ivalyn Biloff, a contralto singer and conductor, taught voice and directed the choir at Pacific Union College in the 1930s and 1940s. In her years at PUC and afterwards as a Seventh-day Adventist minister's wife, she sang often to great acclaim, featured as a soloist with the choirs while at PUC, at important campus events, and at later church events, including a General Conference Session in the 1950s.
Law was born in Southern China, on January 12, 1906, the oldest of five children of Dr. Law (Charlie Keem), a native of the country, and Edith Mary Miller Law, missionaries in China.1 Her father was a physician and singer and her mother a nurse and pianist who had graduated from Battle Creek College. She began music study at age eight with organ lessons from her mother.
In 1919, her father died in China and the family returned to the U.S. Six years later, Ivalyn entered PUC, where she completed a two-year normal course. Choir director George Greer encouraged her to continue for two more years and complete a music diploma which she did in 1929. At that time she started to teach voice lessons at the college and continued to study with Greer, who often featured her as a soloist with the choirs.
In 1937, she assumed direction of the vocal/choral program when he accepted a position at Washington Missionary College, now Washington Adventist University. Even though following an unusually popular director, she was successful and directed the college choirs for the next eight years. During that time she married voice student Reuben Biloff, who, upon graduating, became a Seventh-day Adventist minister.
Biloff completed a B.A. degree in music at PUC in 1939 and later did graduate study in music at the University of California at Berkeley and at Northwestern University. She performed regularly, assisting her husband in pastoral and evangelistic work, and sang extensively throughout the U.S. as a soloist in recitals, concerts, and oratorio presentations. She sang the contralto solos in the Messiah scores of times and conducted eight performances of the work.
She was also featured as a singer on two albums released by Chapel Records, Beautiful Hills and When God Is Near. The song The Beautiful Hills became a signature work. In 1989 a nephew, Roger Thiesen, prepared and released a memorial tape of her singing, edited from her Chapel recordings and other sources.
Go, Heralds of Salvation, a record of the Bay Area Symphonic Choir in San Francisco, under her direction, was also released by Chapel Records. In 1966 a recording of the Ivalyn Biloff Trio, which included Biloff, Alga Aaby, and Lavon Tryon, accompanied by Bernice White, was released as a custom recording.
She regularly featured music by Adventist composers, performing works by Kathleen Joyce, well known Welsh contralto regularly featured on the BBC; Marjorie Lewis Lloyd; Herbert Work; and her uncle, George B. Miller, among others.
Observations about her singing included "her singing touches my heart" and "when Ivalyn sings, the angels listen." Another music teacher, Sister M. Cecelia, on hearing one of Biloff's performances of the Messiah, wrote:
I enjoyed the concert very much, especially your conducting. I have been in the music field for over forty years as a director and as an auditor of many concerts. Your directing was all that one could wish. There were no unnecessary gestures or [distracting] mannerisms. . . . When I returned from the concert I sang your praises to the Sisters who did not attend . . . I do hope I have the privilege and pleasure of attending another concert under your direction.
Biloff not only enjoyed a reputation as a fine musician but also was known as a considerate, kind, and humble person who sought to glorify God with her music and live by the motto "Sing a Message." She was living in Lakeport Lake, California, when she died on December 12, 1983.
1 Ivalyn's parents were the fifth family sent by the church to serve in China. Her father, who was born in China in 1867, had come to the U.S. at age fifteen to live with relatives and pursue an education. He became a member of the church while living with them and later attended Healdsburg College, forerunner of Pacific Union College. He graduated from California Medical School in 1900 and began practicing medicine in Fresno. Four years later, he married Edith Miller and they volunteered to go as missionaries to his homeland. They arrived there in the summer of 1905 and a year later their first child, Ivalyn, was born. He died unexpectedly in 1917, and his widow and their three daughters and two sons returned to the U.S. While known as Charlie Keem in his earlier years in the U.S., at the time of his death he was known as Dr. Law.
Sources: Obituary, Pacific Union Recorder, March 19, 1984; Pacific Union College yearbooks; Interviews, Roger Thiesen, Mrs. Hagen Biloff, August 2008; Record Jacket Liners, Go, Heralds of Salvation and When God is Near, Chapel Records, ST 4015 and LP 5022, respectively; Roger Thiesen, flyer for compilation tape; obituary for Dr. Law Keem, Review and Herald, August 21, 1919.