Virginia-Gene Shankel Rittenhouse

 1922 - 2011

Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, founder and artistic director of the New England Youth Ensemble, was an accomplished violinist, pianist, composer, and conductor. She toured internationally with the NEYE, a Seventh-day Adventist college-sponsored orchestra; performed as a recitalist and soloist with orchestras throughout the world; and received numerous awards in the United States and internationally during a career that spanned nearly eight decades. 
Virginia-Gene was Born in Leduc, Alberta, Canada, on October 15, 1922, the only child of George Edgar and Win Sally Osborne Shankel. Her father, a 1920 graduate of Walla Walla College, now University, was head of the English Department at Canadian Junior College, now Burman University, and her mother taught music. When she was three, her parents became missionaries in South Africa, where they taught at Spion Kop College. After the school was relocated and renamed Helderberg College in 1928, he became its principal (President) in 1936, following completion of a master's degree at the University of Washington while on furlough in 1932-1934. 
Virginia-Gene had started taking piano lessons from her mother at age six. While her father was in America on furlough, it became evident she had unusual musical gifts when she debuted at age ten on an American radio network broadcast, playing her own compositions.
At age thirteen she won a scholarship for study at the University of South Africa, auditioning on both piano and violin. A year later, she performed the Beethoven C Minor Piano Concerto with the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra, whose broadcasts were received as far north as Cairo, Egypt, and six months later was featured again with the orchestra, performing the J.S. Bach Violin Concerto in A minor.
Virginia-Gene was awarded a $2,500 scholarship, top music award in South Africa, by the London Associated Board Overseas for study at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1941, but because of World War II, she was allowed to take her studies in America.
She completed a degree in music Summa Cum Laude at the University of Washington in 1944, studied at the Juilliard School of music, and accepted a teaching position at Walla Walla College for the 1945-1946 school year, after her father, who was pursuing graduate study at UW, had been hired to teach history in the previous school year.
One of the most talked about events in Virginia-Gene's year at WWC was the premiere in May of her oratorio, The Song of the Redeemed. Excerpts from effusive articles in the school paper, The Collegian, before and after the presentation best tell the story:
Miss Shankel first received the inspiration to write the oratorio at the age of twelve while reading the book of Revelation.  Some of the original parts of the piece, composed at that age, are still retained in the completed work. The work portrays the triumph of the redeemed as penned by John the Revelator.
Columbia Auditorium, packed to the doors with expectant music lovers last Friday night, was the scene of perhaps the most noteworthy musical event in the history of our denomination. "The Song of the Redeemed," an oratorio written by Virginia-Gene Shankel and directed by Harold Mitzelfelt was presented for the first time.  The people, many of whom had come long distances to hear the work, were highly moved as scenes of heavenly glory unfolded through the inspired music of the oratorio's youthful composer.
She moved with her parents to Atlantic Union College in 1946, when her father accepted a position there as history teacher and academic dean.  She taught both piano and violin at AUC until the early 1950's. During that time, she completed an M.Mus. at Boston University, and married Dr. Harvey Rittenhouse on October 22, 1950.
Dr. Harvey, a cellist raised in a musical family, had graduated from the College of Medical Evangelists, later Loma Linda University School of Medicine, in 1943. He then served as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps in Europe until the conclusion of World War II, when he received a bronze star medal for his service in France. Upon his return to the U.S. he took residencies in internal medicine and surgery. He and Virginia-Gene met at the first North American Youth Congress in San Francisco, California, in 1947, when both were in the orchestra formed for that event.
After completing her degree at BU, she studied piano with Leon Fleisher and violin with Robert Gerle at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where she completed a D.Mus. in both piano and violin in 1963, a first at the school. She later studied composition in Fontainebleau, France, with noted composition pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.
When her father became academic dean at the SDA college in Jamaica in 1954, the family lived there until 1956 and again in 1961, where Harvey practiced medicine as a surgeon and Virginia-Gene taught music. They returned to the community near AUC in 1964, and five years later she started the New England Youth Ensemble.
The ensemble started in 1968 with a group of five students getting together to play in her living room. Positive reactions to local performances led to an expanded group, a performance at a General Conference Session, and an appearance at a World Youth Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1973, their first international trip.
The group of about 45 members has since that time traveled twice a year, performing countless times in the United States, Canada, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia. They have performed in numerous high-profile venues, including a first appearance in 1988 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. They would perform in that famous venue multiple times in the next two decades.
Anyone who worked with Virginia-Gene in her ensembles and on her tours through the years could speak of her indomitable enthusiastic spirit and the force of her vision and personality. I first met her when she came to Washington Missionary College, now Washington Adventist University to conduct a performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah in the spring of 1957. Whether it was an orchestra member or a soloist, in this instance her husband, she was very direct in rehearsals about what she wanted. Two years later I again witnessed this trait when I was a member of a college student orchestra formed to play for an event in the New York Youth Center. This directness and force of personality later helped shape the NEYE into a highly disciplined ensemble, one that created unforgettable and memorable experiences for hundreds of young musicians.
While traveling in a motorhome on a concert tour in the Northwest in 1977, the Rittenhouses were involved in a serious accident in which Harvey suffered extensive burns, broken bones, and spinal cord injuries that led to partial paralysis.  Although this ended his medical practice, following extensive rehabilitation he was able to resume travel with Virginia-Gene on NEYE tours to more than forty-five countries.
Many of the NEYE trips and performances, beginning in the mid-seventies, included choirs directed by James Bingham. With his arrival at AUC in 1985, the ensemble and the college's choirs worked closely together. In 1994 the NEYE relocated to Washington, D.C., to affiliate with Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, where Bingham also accepted a position as chair of the music department and director of choirs.
While working together at AUC, Rittenhouse and Bingham started collaborating with internationally noted composer John Rutter, who would conduct the NEYE more than sixty times in Carnegie Hall. It was a professional relationship that continued until her death in 2011.  In the spring of 2003, they presented an acclaimed concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which featured three of Rutter's works. It was the beginning of a two-year celebration of CUC's centennial.
A year later The Vision of the Apocalypse, an oratorio by Rittenhouse, was premiered in the main auditorium at Carnegie Hall on March 2, 2004. The performance of the work, conducted by James Bingham with a narration by Virginia-Gene, portrays the Great Controversy, the struggle between good and evil.  Participants, included an expanded New England Symphonic Ensemble; Columbia Union College Columbia Collegiate Chorale; Atlantic Union College Pro Arts International Choir; and soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass soloists.
The concert, given under the auspices of Mid-America Productions in New York, was the seventeenth to be given there by a CUC group that season and the one of the concluding events in the celebration of the college's centennial. The work was a new oratorio on the same topic as The Song of the Redeemed, which she had premiered in 1946, at the end of her year at WWC.  The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001 moved Rittenhouse to complete another oratorio in a more contemporary idiom on the same theme as her earlier work, a lifelong preoccupation with her. The capacity audience responded with an enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation.
Rittenhouse was active for nearly ten more years after that performance, conducting the NEYE at the General Conference Session in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010.   At the age of 89, she was still practicing three hours a day on violin and piano, planning to write a third book and record some of her compositions, including a Jamaican Suite for violin and piano that she had written while living in that country, and taking another concert tour to South Africa.
In her lifetime she had been a recipient of numerous awards, including the previously mentioned London Associated Board Overseas Scholarship, the New York Concert Artists Guild Award, the International Music Guild Award, and the New York Madrigal Society Town Hall Award. She was chosen as an Adventist Woman of the Year in 1989 and 1995.
Although increasingly frail in her later years, she was active with the NEYE until her death following a fall in her home in Sterling, Massachusetts, the last day of August 2011.  She was 89.
Memorial services were held in the College Church, South Lancaster, Massachusetts, on October 14, and in the Spencerville, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist Church on October 22, 2011. Both included numerous musical selections by soloists, an orchestra which included present and past NEYE members, and appropriate readings and responses. Harvey would die the following year on February 11, 2012, at age 93.
Sources: "G. E. Shankel and Daughter to Join WWC Teaching Staff," The Collegian, February 8, 1945, 1; Life Sketch, printed program for Memorial Services, October 14 and 22, 2011; Alita Byrd, "Remembering Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse," Spectrum, 2004,; "Virginia-Gene Shankel Applauded at Lyceum," The Lancastrian, Atlantic Union College newspaper, March 25, 1949, 1; "Miss Shankel Featured on Lyceum Series," The Collegian, May 4, 1944, 1; Record Liner biography, Cathedral Records CRLP 804; Listed as either a B.A. or B.Mus., in different sources; "Oratorio Choir, Orchestra, Premiere "Song of the Redeemed," The Collegian, April 18, 1946, 1; "Friday Evening Oratorio Assisted by Choral Groups, Orchestra," May 2, 1946, 1; Billie Jean Fate, "Musically Speaking," The Collegian, May 9, 1946, 2; "In Memoriam," (February 14, 2012); "Musical Family in Final Lyceum," The Student Movement, Emmanuel Missionary College school paper, April 24, 1930, 1; 1947 meeting; Nicolas Slonimsky, Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, (New York, Schirmer Books, 1992), 222, 223; Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse interview with Dan Shultz, September 24, 2003; Dorothy Minchin-Comm and Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, Encore, the Story of the New England Youth Ensemble Association, (Boise, Idaho, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1988); James Bingham, email exchange, March 2009; interview with me, September 23, 24, 30, 2003; Nicolas Slonimsky, 1564, 1565; "New England Youth Ensemble Touring SA, What’s on Durban," August 2, 2005;; "Virginia-Gene Shankel Winner of National Contest" The Lancastrian, December 17, 1948, 1; Memorial Services Printed Program listings; Lincoln Steed, "Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse: Dialogue with a musician with an up-tempo vision for Adventist education," Dialogue,14(3) 1, 2; "Music groups return from Carnegie Hall," Columbia Union College website, 19 April 2005; Kara S. Watkins, "Hope and Glory," Columbia Union Visitor, August 2009, 18; Jennifer Mar Barizo, "Her Music Continues," Adventist Review, December 8, 2011, cover feature, 18-21; Email contact with Preston Hayes, autumn 2008; Personal Knowledge: I played in three orchestras under her direction in 1957, 1959, and in 1985. We maintained contact through the years, the last being an interview in September 2003.

The New England Youth Ensemble

Since its founding forty years ago, the New England Youth Ensemble has become a household name in Adventist churches, an acclaimed ensemble both here and abroad. It has traveled more widely than any other Adventist music group, taking countless tours in the U.S. and throughout the world. Under its professional name, the New England Symphonic Ensemble, it is a resident orchestra at Carnegie Hall, where it has performed more frequently than any other orchestra in the country.

The ongoing story of the New England Youth Ensemble, now in existence for forty years, is a one of record-setting accomplishments and numerous accolades. Its successes can be attributed to its director, Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, accomplished violinist and pianist, an unstoppable woman with a dream and the determination to prevail, whatever the cost.

Hundreds of students have played in the ensemble and sung in choirs assisting it, performing in dozens of countries around the world. Their work and that of Rittenhouse and the choirs' directors have inspired and uplifted numberless persons in enthusiastic and grateful audiences everywhere.

The NEYE began when Rittenhouse formed a small ensemble of her students in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, and started performing locally. Positive reactions to these appearances led to an expanded group and, in December 1969,participation in a Christmas program at the First Unitarian Church in nearby Northboro, Massachusetts. In that same month, they also played for a Kiwanis Luncheon in Worcester, at the request of that community's orchestra director. It was during this time that the group became known as the New England Youth Ensemble.

In 1970, they played at the General Conference Session in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This exposure led to an invitation for them to play at the All-European Youth Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, in July 1973. This was the first international trip for the ensemble, which now numbered 25 students, including the four children in the Taylor Family String quartet. After a five-day en-route stop in Iceland, where they played four concerts and did extensive sightseeing, they traveled on to Scotland.

The ensemble played an important role in the Congress, held in Edinburgh's famous Usher Hall. They opened the event with the Trumpet Tune and Air, a rousing prelude that was followed by the entry of Scottish bagpipers and flag-bearing delegates. They performed ten more times during the four-day event and closed it with a final concert.

The ensemble then had a brief two-day stop in London, where they played in the New Gallery Center, an Adventist outreach center in that city, before crossing the channel into France. They next traveled to the Ecoles d'Americaine de Fontainebleau outside Paris, where they gave a concert for world-famous composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger and other teachers and students at the music school. This discerning group's enthusiastic response during and after their performance was affirmation at the highest level, an exciting end to this first venture abroad.1

Beginning in 1974, the ensemble enjoyed the sponsorship of Friendship Ambassadors2, a cultural exchange program underwritten by the Reader's Digest and its former editor, Harry Morgan. Their first trip to Europe in this program was a tour to Poland that year. It began inauspiciously when during their first week there they were quartered in a woefully inadequate hostel. During that time, their interpreter and tour guide, who had an antipathy towards Christians and a preference for jazz, prevented them from doing any performing.

At the end of the week, Rittenhouse courageously approached officials in what was at that time a communist country and requested a new tour guide. Those associated with the program hastened to rectify the situation. They arranged for vastly improved lodging and assigned two new interpreters and guides, who scheduled seventeen memorable concerts for the group in the remaining two weeks of the tour. By the time they left, they had had an enormous impact on thousands and were told that a request had already been lodged for them to return to Poland.

When they returned a year later, assisted by a choral group conducted by Francisco de Araujo, they were placed under the oversight of the two guides who had salvaged the previous year's trip. Midway through this tour, they spent four days in Vienna sightseeing and playing during the General Conference Session being held in that city.

They returned to Poland where, by coincidence, U.S. President Gerald Ford and his wife were visiting while attending the Helsinki Conference in Finland. Last minute arrangements were made for the ensemble and choir to perform following the state dinner hosted by the president for the premier of Poland. The program was well received and as the final number, America the Beautiful ended, the Americans, who had literally been moved to tears, and others in the audience responded with emotional and heartfelt applause.

Following the concert, President Ford on his own returned to the site of the performance, where breakdown of the setup was occurring, wanting to personally thank the members for their concert. Once the group had reassembled, he stood in its midst and praised them for their music and representation of America's youth, finally exiting with a farewell. They received a thank-you letter from him a few weeks later.

In the decade following these initial forays into Europe, the Ensemble returned in 1976, one of the first two groups chosen to enter Russia under the sponsorship of Friendship Ambassadors. Following five days in the Warsaw, Poland, area, they entered Russia, where they performed for twelve days. They ended the tour with a concert in historic Leningrad and then had an impromptu visit at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music. The Associated Press spread the word about this groundbreaking trip and its successes; Radio Moscow released tapes of the group's concerts for broadcast across the country.

In those ten years, the ensemble toured to the Caribbean several times and to Canada, Austria, Romania, Israel, Hungary, France, and other countries in Europe, some of them multiple times. On those tours they performed in world famous venues, including Notre Dame and Chartres cathedrals in France; the Dom in Salzburg and the Karlskirche in Vienna; San Marco in Venice; as well as St. Martin-in-the-Fields and cathedrals at York, Leeds, and St. Giles in Great Britain.

They also traveled extensively in the U.S., playing in such nationally noted places as the Riverside, St Patrick's, and St. Bartholomew's churches in New York City and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. They have since performed numerous times in the latter's Sunday morning telecast of the Hour of Power.

The pace established in that first decade of travel that had started with the trip to Scotland in 1973 has continued now for over two more decades and into a new century. In that time, in addition to crisscrossing the U.S. numerous times and performing several times in Canada, the ensemble and assisting choirs have returned to the Middle East and Poland, Russia, England, and other countries in Europe including those in Scandinavia. They have also traveled to China and multiple times to South Africa and Australia and other islands in the Pacific.3 And the tradition of playing at the church's General Conference Sessions, begun in 1970, has continued without break to the present.

Rittenhouse, in an interview with Lincoln Steed in 2001, when asked about any incident that stood out in her memory after all her years of traveling, recalled a concert given in a stadium at St. Petersburg in 1997. The response of the crowd of 15,000 during and following the concert, which was given as part of an evangelistic series, moved her deeply. While there, she and the ensemble witnessed the baptisms of hundreds of persons.4

Beginning in 1975, when Araujo and the Takoma Chorale under his direction had joined the ensemble for its second tour to Poland, the NEYE began traveling with choirs on some of their tours. One of these in the 1970s included James Bingham's symphonic choir from Kingsway College. The directors enjoyed the many experiences of working together that followed in that decade, and in 1985, when Bingham became chair of the music program and choir director at Atlantic Union College, where Rittenhouse and the NEYE were based, they began performing and touring together on a regular basis.5

In 1988, when Bingham's Collegiate Choir was invited to perform in Carnegie Hall as part of the Mid-America Productions program, Rittenhouse suggested they include the NEYE as the assisting orchestra. The reception for that concert in May 1988 led to an invitation for a return engagement in November.

The second concert featured violin soloist Lyndon Taylor and the choral music of noted English composer John Rutter, who prepared the choir and orchestra for the performance. The success of that venture led to an ongoing collaboration with the composer in subsequent concerts at Carnegie Hall and other venues as well as a concert tour in South Africa.6

In 1994, Rittenhouse and Bingham accepted positions at Columbia Union College in the Washington, D.C., area. Rittenhouse and the relocated NEYE Ensemble now joined with Bingham's CUC choral groups to continue touring and performing concerts.7

In May 2003, they presented a gala concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring Rutter and his music. In this program, which launched a two-year celebration of the school's centennial, Rittenhouse conducted Mozart's Die Zauberflote Overture to open the concert and Bingham began the second half by conducting Vaughan William's Serenade to Music. Guest conductor Rutter conducted two of his well-known and popular works, the Gloria and Requiem, and closed the program with Feel the Spirit, a recently composed medley of African-American spirituals featuring the choir and orchestra and soloist mezzo-soprano Sylvia Twine. The concert ended with a three-minute standing ovation.8

The use of soloists with the NEYE is a longstanding tradition that started in its earliest concerts. Sylvia Twine is but one example of recent vocal soloists that included Alex Henderson, a tenor who appeared with the orchestra more than any other.

Instrumental soloists are most often students from within the group. Once they have demonstrated they are ready, they must be prepared to play on short notice at any time on a tour, called upon at random by Rittenhouse, sometimes even in the middle of a concert. Many well-known Adventist musicians have started or were given a boost in their career as soloists while associated with the ensemble.

Violinists Lyndon Taylor, Carla Trynchuk, Lynelle Smith, Dawn Harmes, Naomi Burns Delafield, and Preston Hawes have all served as both concertmaster and soloists. Other soloists have included violists Lucy Taylor and Laurie Redmer (Minner) and pianists Eileen Hutchins and Jacquie Schafer (Zuill), the latter also serving as principal player in the second violin section.9

It is a tradition in the ensemble that members of the group support and affirm each other at all times, especially when one of them is featured as a soloist. The constant touring and arduous schedules have led to rules and protocols of the road, one of which is that complaining is not an option.

There are worships on a regular basis, and prayer circles when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Friday Night Prayer Fellowships, when possible, help create a spiritual and caring dynamic within the group.

Since some of the touring occurs in the school year and is in conflict with school schedules, study times are set aside on the bus as it travels between concerts. Members of the Ensemble have been able to do well in their studies in spite of absences from classes.

In March 2004, Bingham conducted the world premier of The Vision of the Apocalypse, an oratorio by Rittenhouse, in Carnegie Hall. She narrated the presentation, a dramatization of the Great Controversy between good and evil as portrayed in Adventist doctrine, assisted by the New England Symphonic Ensemble (professional branch of the NEYE), the CUC Columbia Collegiate Chorale, conducted by Bingham, and the Atlantic Union College Pro-Arts International Choir, conducted by Araujo. The capacity audience responded with an enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation at the end of this Mid-America Productions sponsored concert, the seventeenth to be given in Carnegie Hall that year by a CUC music group.10

Rittenhouse, born in Canada, spent her childhood in South Africa, where her father, George E.Shankel, was president of Helderberg College. She was a performing and composing prodigy who, at age ten, debuted in a network broadcast, performing her own compositions. At age thirteen she won a scholarship scholarship for study at the University of South Africa on both piano and violin.

She started her career at Walla Walla College, now university, in the fall of 1945, a year after completing a music degree at the University of Washington. She taught for one year, before going to AUC, where she taught violin and piano until the early 1950s. During that time she completed an M.Mus. at Boston University and married Harvey Rittenhouse, a surgeon and musician. She completed a D.M.A. at Peabody Conservatory in 1963.

The Rittenhouses then worked in Jamaica from 1954-56 and also in 1961, where he practiced medicine and she taught music. They returned to live in the community near AUC in 1964 and, five years later, she started the Ensemble.11

The work performed at Carnegie Hall was a new oratorio on the same topic as a previous one, The Song of the Redeemed, that she had premiered in 1946, at the end of a year of teaching at Walla Walla College (now University). She had started writing portions of the earlier oratorio at age twelve, inspired by the book of Revelation.12 The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, moved Rittenhouse to complete another oratorio in a more contemporary idiom on this theme, a lifelong preoccupation with her.

The New England Symphonic Ensemble is now the official orchestra- in-residence at Carnegie Hall for Mid- America Productions. Preston Hawes, who serves as concertmaster and associate conductor, assists Rittenhouse in her work with that group.13 The NEYE under Rittenhouse and the Columbia Collegiate Chorale continue to tour internationally and in the U.S., taking two trips a year, with Bingham serving as the primary conductor.

Now that the NEYE is in its fortieth year, the question, "How much longer will the NEYE continue?" is heard with increasing frequency. The answer lies with Rittenhouse, who seemingly unfazed by the passage of time, would probably respond in amused wonderment with one of her own, "Why do you ask?"

Dan Shultz


1 Factual information about the NEYE, its beginnings, travels in its first twenty years, and the dynamic and practices within the ensemble, is based on information provided in Encore, The Story of the New England Youth Ensemble, Dorothy Minchin-Comm and Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1988.

2 This program, originally the Ambassadors for Friendship, now the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, started in 1973. The NEYE was one of the first ensembles chosen to participate in a program, which in subsequent years has sent hundreds of ensembles overseas, including a number of SDA school groups.

3 Additional sources for this listing of countries include an article in Dialogue by Lincoln Steed, "Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse: Dialogue with a musician with an up-tempo vision for Adventist education," 14(3), 20,21, 2002; Articles in 2003 and 2004 IAMA Notes, fully listed in endnotes 6 and 9.

4 Steed, article mentioned in endnote 3.

5 Dan Shutz, "Music at Atlantic Union College," IAMA Notes, Winter/Spring 2003, 16.

6 Steed, article mentioned in endnote 3; Music groups return from Carnegie Hall, CUC website, 19 April 2005; see also endnote 7.

7Interviews: Virginia Gene Rittenhouse, September 2003 and April 2009; James Bingham, email exchanges in March 2009.

8Dan Shultz, "Columbia Union College at Kennedy Center," IAMA Notes, Summer/Autumn 2003, 3-5.

9Biographies for these persons available at

10 News note in IAMA Notes, Summer/Autumn 2004, 20.

11 See complete biography for Rittenhouse at this website.

12 "Oratorio Choir, Orchestra, Premier Song of the Redeemed," The Collegian, Walla Walla campus newspaper, 2 May 1946; Billie Jean Fate, Musically Speaking column, The Collegian, 9 May 1945.

13 Email exchange with Preston Hawes in autumn 2008 and information in the resulting IAMA biography.