I am writing these Choral Cues during the final week of classes at Mansfield University, where we have been teaching “online” since March 12, when the Chancellor of the PA State System of Higher Education announced that no face-to-face instruction could take place. In the Music Department, this meant all performances for the remainder of the semester had to be cancelled. My groups lost six concerts: two performances of Handel works by the Festival Chorus, a presentation about “Stars” by the Chamber Singers scheduled for the Planetarium, and three performances by the Concert Choir, including one at the Pennsylvania State Music Conference. In addition, six members of the Concert Choir, who were to be featured soloists with the MU Symphony Orchestra in the Concerto Concert (yes, instrumentalists also often sing!) were unable to experience this wonderful opportunity. Thus, there were lots of devastated students, particularly seniors who missed the final performances of their college careers.
Two weeks later, the Chancellor extended the ban on face-to-face instruction through the summer, eliminating all of the summer camps and impacting the Concert Choir European Tour! I won’t deny that this situation has been the most challenging and disappointing in my professional career. These concert events and tours involve months of planning and to lose them, just weeks before they are to be shared musically, is devastating.
Fortunately, the weekend we learned that summer classes were moved online, Interkultur, the organizers of the Choral Olympics, announced that the World Choir Games, the focus of our July international concert tour, were postponed to July 2021. Gratefully, our travel company, Encore Tours, agreed to move the trip exactly one year later, same time-frame and same cost. This provided the needed uplift to gather steam again for me, personally, and, of course, for the Concert Choir students! Also, given the days of social distancing, I have taken the opportunity for reflection and to give thanks for some special events that took place before March 12.
One of them was the honor to conduct the Pennsylvania Music Educators District 10 Chorus held in Boyertown in January. Jeff Brunner, 2005 MU alum, organized this festival featuring more than 200 students from 45 schools! They performed eleven selections in a variety of languages, more than half of them from memory. I was amazed and so appreciative of Jeff’s wonderful organizational skills. An additional challenge for me was the fact that I was in a cast and using a rollator as the result of a broken ankle two weeks earlier! Boyertown was very accommodating. Note the happy picture!
Just one week before activities across the region closed down, the American Choral Directors Association Eastern Region Conference took place in Rochester, New York, from March 4 through 7. As President of the ACDA Region, this was my project since taking office in 2016. My team and I organized the event rooted in the principles of equity, justice, inclusion, and diversity around the theme “Open Ears, Open Hearts.”
The American Choral Directors Association has always embraced excellence in performance, but, more and more, we have learned about the importance of singing in all aspects of living: to heal, comfort, and enlighten. Humans have known for thousands of years that music can be a path out of troubles or sorrows and into joy and ecstasy. Over the three-day conference, the 756 registered attendees had the opportunity to hear twenty-one concerts, learn from more than forty presenters on a wide variety of topics, participate in six reading sessions, experience a worship service, and watch young conductors acquire new leadership skills. Hopefully, they left with an increased awareness of the power of music to transform lives for the better.
While I was too busy to attend all of the events, there were several highlights for me that I will never forget! The American Spiritual Ensemble presented two concerts entitled “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit” and also participated in the Worship Event, “Singing with the Spirit.” The members of the ensemble are solo singers as well as choral artists and have appeared in theaters and opera houses around the world. Everett McCorvey, a tenor soloist himself, founded the group in 1995. This amazing professional choir performed at Mansfield University in 2011 and 2013 during their Black History Month tours, highlighting their mission to keep the Negro Spiritual alive. Their dramatic renditions of America’s great art songs left a powerful impression. With Dr. McCorvey’s dynamic leadership at the conference, the ASE again inspired numerous standing ovations and these spontaneous comments:
“I have no words. Outrageously moving. A mountaintop experience. Breathtaking. Incredible concert. I cried at least ten times. One of the best concerts in my entire life! Blew me away!”
The worship event “Singing with the Spirit” was also very powerful and featured spoken commentary by Eileen Guenther, author of the book “In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals.” Alden Wright, an Eastman graduate student, provided music on the church’s Fisk organ. During the service, there was a video presentation acknowledging 20 ACDA Eastern Region members who had passed away in the last two years.
The wonderful Boston-based chamber choir, VOICES 21C, presented a program entitled “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest.” VOICES 21C aligns itself with issues of compassion, love, and non-violence, representing the voices of the silenced, the forgotten, and the marginalized. Tours have taken the choir to France, Israel, Palestine, and Mexico. André de Quadros, Professor of Music at Boston University and well-known peace and justice activist, constructed a three-part program covering Women’s Oppression and Triumphs, Forced Migration, and Race and Incarceration in the U.S. The choir included “spoken artist” Halim Flowers in the performance. He had been wrongfully convicted and in prison for twenty-two years! His poise and hopeful words were remarkable! The entire performance made us think more deeply how music can be a force for good. Some of the comments by attendees were:
“Absolute knockout. Stunning. Very thought-provoking. Highlight of the conference for me. Powerful and profound. Changed my life!”
In making the selection of Rochester as the site of this 2020 conference, I spoke with William Weinert, Director of Choral Activities at the Eastman School of Music. His suggestion to present Britten’s War Requiem sealed the deal! Many thanks to William Weinert and the more than 300 musicians who performed Britten’s War Requiem with Tami Petty, soprano; Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor; Malcolm J. Merriweather, baritone; the Eastman Chorale, Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman Philharmonia, Repertory Singers, Women’s Chorus; the Bach Children’s Chorus, Karla Krogstad, Director; and the Genesee Valley Children’s Choir, Amy Cochrane, Director. The audience, again, was enthusiastic:
“Bravo! Outstanding performance. Brilliant. Monumental.”
It was an exciting week filled with many thrilling moments along with some intensity as the corona virus pandemic was developing across the country. I will always be grateful to have completed that conference successfully, allowing those of us in attendance to experience some lasting memories of wonderful singing!
While the Endless Mountain Music Festival is another casualty in live performance, we are planning some virtual events to keep our love of music nurtured through the summer. Stay tuned! I will refrain from writing about the fall, even though the concert dates are on the calendar. At this time, contingencies in music-making are still under consideration given the daily reports of COVID 19. We all certainly hope to be together again in the near future!
I would like to conclude with a piece of music that, in a way, captures our need for singing in troubled times: “How Can I Keep from Singing.” This is a performance of Ronald Staheli’s setting by the Mansfield University Concert Choir during the World Choir Games in Riga, Latvia in the summer of 2014. The soloist is Sarah Polinski.