Carrying a Joyful Tune

Tracing its inspiration back to World War II, a gift to support the Harvard Choruses honors the Fromm family’s multigenerational commitment to inclusion by expanding access and building community through music

The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum hosting Joyful Noise at Sanders Theatre
The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum hosted Joyful Noise at Sanders Theatre for “Boundless Realms of Joy”—a weekend-long residency in 2014 that included a performance and a symposium featuring musicians, researchers, and disability advocates.

In December 1933, Rosa “Kaethe” Goldberg Fromm entered Gestapo headquarters determined to persuade authorities to free her husband, Walther, who had been arrested for signing a petition. Three years later, Kaethe, Walther, and their three-year-old son, Guenther, dodged bullets at a border crossing as they fled Nazi Germany, eventually landing in New York City to restart their lives as Kate, Walter, and Gary.

Kate put their small savings toward rescuing extended family still living in Germany, sponsoring nearly a dozen relatives to come to the United States. Kate’s commitment to justice endured as, over the years, she and Walter helped refugees and asylum seekers from all countries navigate new lives in America just as they had done. Kate would go on to be president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that advocates for and provides vital services to refugees across the globe.

“Immigrant experience is anxiety after anxiety, and I think that makes you either totally intolerant of anyone else or very sympathetic to others,” explains Susan Fromm Shimelman GSAS ’64, Walter and Kate’s daughter and Gary’s younger sister, who was born in the U.S. “Their interest was always in helping both their direct community and the wider community adjust to the vicissitudes of life in America.” 

The first in his family to go to college, Gary completed degrees in industrial management and mechanical engineering before earning his PhD in economics at Harvard in 1961. After his parents died, Gary honored their lifelong dedication to helping others by making a gift to establish the Walter and Kate Fromm Endowment Fund at Harvard.

The fund’s impact—supporting and enhancing the Harvard Choruses’ programs focused on historically underrepresented groups—has been shaped not only by his parents but by his children, Allison and Elizabeth, as well as his granddaughter, Katie. And with additional support through a recent gift from Gary’s friend Maurine Haver, the Fromm family endowment—which traces its inspiration back to World War II—will continue to foster music and community at Harvard and beyond for years to come.

Two images: one of Gary, Kate, and baby Susan in 1942 and one of Gary, Kate, Walter, and Susan in 1957
LEFT: Kate, Gary, and baby Susan in 1942

RIGHT: Gary, Kate, Walter, and Susan celebrating Walter and Kate’s 25th anniversary in 1957

Fine-Tuning a Vision

Gary knew he wanted to support choral projects that would provide access and rich experiences to those who typically have limited opportunities for choral singing. Since 2000, he had been moved by Joyful Noise—a chorus of adults with physical and neurological challenges, including those living with brain injuries—founded by his daughters, Allison and Elizabeth, with help from their mother, Sandra Berkman Fromm MAT ’55. Based in southern New Jersey and Delaware, the chorus connects people who share a passion for singing, creating an atmosphere where members can discover their voices and express themselves through music. Allison directs the ensemble and Elizabeth is a member.

“My father knew Harvard had a strong choral program, and he thought about the work we were doing with Joyful Noise,” explains Allison. “He saw the endowment as a possibility to create access to music for people in multiple underrepresented communities.”

Serendipity played a hand in the endowment’s next steps. Allison had met Andrew “Andy” Clark, director of choral activities and senior lecturer on music at Harvard, in 1999 when they were both participating in a summer choral festival. Allison was developing Joyful Noise and Andy was starting a summer music camp at the Woodlands Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of children and adults with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

After reconnecting, the two began collaborating on various projects. In 2014, Allison invited the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum—a nationally acclaimed choir of Harvard College students led by Andy as music director and conductor—to join the Joyful Noise singers in New Jersey. The Collegium reciprocated with a weekend-long residency, “Boundless Realms of Joy,” hosting Allison and Joyful Noise and their beloved mentor, Alice Parker, at Sanders Theatre for a performance as well as a symposium featuring musicians, researchers, and disability advocates.

“To be singing from the stage of Sanders and to get a standing ovation was an amazing experience for our Joyful Noise singers,” says Allison. “Singers within the Collegium were caught up in the emotion of it. That is the power of music.”

Out of the success of that weekend came the Harvard choral program course “Music and Disability,” which launched in 2016. These types of collaborations have informed the vision for the endowment fund in expanding Harvard’s work to create inclusive musical spaces.

“The endowment itself was an opportunity to make a statement about our values,” says Andy. “It allowed us to experiment, to dream big, and to think about how choral music can be a vehicle of community empowerment, justice, and investment.”

A group photo of members of Joyful Noise with Alice Parker, Allison Fromm, and Elizabeth Fromm
Composer, conductor, and Joyful Noise mentor Alice Parker (front row, second from left), with Allison Fromm (front row, third from the left) and Elizabeth Fromm (front row, far right) celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in January 2023

Joining the Chorus

Today, the endowment supports many programs that embody these values, including Cambridge Common Voices (CCV), an inclusive community chorus established in 2018 in partnership between Harvard College and Lesley University’s Threshold Program, a transition program for young adults with diverse learning challenges. CCV’s singers include students and alumni from Harvard and the Threshold Program, as well as the Perkins School for the Blind and the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts. The ensemble strives to frame disability as a facet of human diversity worthy of appreciation and broaden the concept of choral music and how it can be experienced and enjoyed.

The Fromm Fund also supports collaborations around racial justice and celebrating the music of Black Americans. As part of the campus-wide Eileen Southern Initiative in 2022, the Harvard Choruses hosted “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” featuring Harvard’s Kuumba Singers and the Aeolians—the world-renowned choir from Oakwood University, a historically Black university in Alabama. The event honored Southern’s legacy as the first Black woman to receive tenure at Harvard and a prominent scholar of African American music and European Renaissance music.

Other focuses of the endowment include Harvard music programs in pediatric oncology clinics, senior care facilities, prisons, and juvenile detention centers, as well as Harvard College courses that utilize the arts as a catalyst for social impact.

“Music is the universal language,” says Allison. “Playing music and singing together can create a bond between people—even if they have very different life experiences, educational or economic backgrounds, religious or political views. There is a shared understanding that transcends boundaries and connects us all.”

Left: Cambridge Common Voices performing at Sanders Theatre in December 2023; Right: Cambridge Common Voices performing at Fenway Park in July 2023
LEFT: Cambridge Common Voices performing at Harvard’s “Comfort and Joy” community holiday concert at Sanders Theatre in December 2023

RIGHT: Cambridge Common Voices singing the national anthem at the Red Sox Disability Pride Day at Fenway Park in July 2023

A Little Help From a Friend

In 2022, the Fromm Fund got a boost from Gary’s friend Maurine Haver through the Haver Foundation. Maurine had come to know Allison and was invited to participate in a Joyful Noise rehearsal. She was immediately inspired by the profound impact that the activity of singing together had on chorus members.

“The idea of using music as a means of valuing all people is something that really touches my heart,” says Maurine, whose husband, George Joseph Feeney AB ’50, MBA ’52, was a Harvard alumnus. “Once I learned about Cambridge Common Voices and some of the other programs being funded through the endowment, I understood that this connection with Harvard could reach a larger and more diverse community of people. Contributing to that seemed like something I would like very much to do.”

The fund will also receive support through a bequest from Gary’s sister, Susan, and has welcomed memorial gifts from other family and friends of Gary.

“My parents would be stunned and very proud that a small family story has grown into a program that can reach so many at-risk people,” Susan says. “They would also be surprised that Allison and Elizabeth can carry a tune,” she jokes.

Music to Everyone’s Ears

Ongoing support from the Fromm Fund is enabling the Harvard choral program to chart a new course. “Being situated in such an incredible place that people look to for leadership, we can provide some exemplars for what choral education can be moving forward,” says Andy.

These initiatives include grants that will support undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and campus organizations in developing projects that explore new understandings of the intersections of art and society. The fund also provides additional infrastructure, including the staff and technology needed to facilitate inclusive education and music-making.

“Throughout his life, one of my father’s strongest connections was to Harvard,” says Allison. “He was proud of his parents and of their resourcefulness in running a business, creating a community, and assisting other people. Andy and his team at Harvard are invested in honoring all human beings, and that was something my grandparents recognized: that everyone has qualities from which all of us can learn.”

Left: Katie Fromm with Andy Clark backstage at Sanders Theatre; Right: Elizabeth Fromm and Allison Fromm
LEFT: Katie Fromm, great-granddaughter of Walter and Kate Fromm, backstage at Carnegie Hall in April 2023 with Andy Clark, director of choral activities and senior lecturer on music at Harvard. Katie’s school chorus sang with the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and 15 other choruses from across the U.S.

RIGHT: Elizabeth Fromm and Allison Fromm filming a television interview and Joyful Noise performance in 2019

Carrying a Joyful Tune


Cambridge Common Voices (CCV)

“Part of the work of Joyful Noise and CCV involves honoring everybody’s intelligence,” Allison says. “We wanted to create a collaborative environment within a chorus in which all participants have something meaningful to share. Our pandemic collaboration to commission and premiere composer Karen Siegel’s “Reunion” on Zoom (from six different states) was groundbreaking on many levels.”

Covering everything from Bill Withers and the Beach Boys to more traditional choral works by Handel and Britten, CCV has performed at varied venues—including a sold-out Fenway Park, the Jamaica Plain music festival, Harvard’s annual ARTS FIRST Festival, and the American Musicological Society—and in collaboration with the Boston Children’s Chorus and Emmanuel Music. CCV has commissioned several works from composers who identify as having a disability and also nurtures original compositions from songwriters within the ensemble. Currently, CCV is collaborating with composer and multi-instrumentalist Veronica Leahy AB ’23 to create a full concert of original music centering on the theme #AccessIsLove.

“The heart of choral music begins with listening,” says Andy, “and it’s the pathway to all we want to accomplish, both technically and artistically but also socially and culturally. Breathing together to create harmony means being part of a collective that brings each individual’s gifts, time, and desires to bear on a purpose toward unity.”