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Choirs Come Together to Sing

It’s that time of year again when the St. Ambrose Music Department shows us all the hard work they’ve been doing this semester. The Winter Choral Concert is only a couple of days away, and we want to make sure that you know what to expect, and hope you will be able to enjoy the selection of songs, both Chamber Singers and University Chorale are singing. 

The concert is proving to be especially interesting as all of the songs chosen for the concert themselves are composed by African-Americans featuring many different styles of music. To explain what the Music Department is planning to do with this concert, I’ve asked the professor of Music and head of the Music Department, Dr. Nathan Windt, to share his thoughts on the pieces and what he hopes the concert will be like. 

Q: What do you hope the experience of the concert will be? Specifically by choosing music composed by African-American composers?

A: “I chose the spirituals not just because the majority of our rehearsals took place in February, which is Black History Month, but also because I think the concert spiritual is a genre that is enjoyed by singers and audiences alike, and also under-represented in concert programming. The choirs at St. Ambrose routinely perform African-American spirituals, but every 4-5 years, I like to program a concert either entirely devoted to the genre, or in this case, primarily including spirituals but also incorporating music by African-American composers in other musical styles and genres. I hope the experience for both the performers and the audience members is one of musical joy and thoughtful reflection on the texts chosen for the concert.” 

Q: What made you want to choose these songs specifically for the concert overall? Was there any music you liked, but didn’t want to include because you felt it wouldn’t fit the feel of the concert? 

A: “I keep a pile of music in my office (it never seems to get smaller) of music that I want to program, but it doesn’t always fit a particular concert, so I’ll save it for later. For this concert, I had a couple of selections I knew we were going to sing, and that framed the rest of the music I chose: Rosephanye Powell’s setting of Langston Hughes’ poetry, “To Sit and Dream,” and Moses Hogan’s “Hold On!” I then started to choose selections that complemented these selections. An example of this was a contemporary arrangement of “Hold On Just a Little While Longer,” which is not the same text as Moses Hogan’s arrangement but speaks to the same message of perseverance and endurance through difficult periods of life. It was written during the height of the pandemic in 2020, so I think it holds a broad message for all of us who have experienced that. I also chose some selections that were intentionally not spiritual arrangements, because the contribution of African-American composers is not limited to just the genre of concert spiritual. That said, there were some spirituals that I had to leave off the program, either because we had already sung them this year or late last year, or because we would not have had adequate time to prepare all the music to the level of excellence we expect in the choirs here.” 

Q: What are the specific challenges and advantages of singing spirituals?

A: “I think the challenges and advantages are clear. The advantages are, singers and audiences really enjoy concert spirituals, especially when they’re sung well. Broadly speaking, many pieces are in a faster tempo, employing syncopation (rhythms that fall on unexpected beats) and dynamic energy—all crowd-pleasers. It’s in this paradigm that the challenges of the genre emerge. The history of the spiritual comes from the terrible experience of enslaved Africans, so the “fun” we all feel in singing and listening to this music must be weighed in the balance of understanding the awful history of this genre. Additionally, even though slavery was officially abolished in 1865, we are still dealing with lingering racism in our society, so while there is enduring hope in these texts, it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile that with the reality that we live in a society that still shows hatred and bigotry. From a technical perspective of singing, the lyric diction in these songs takes time to practice—like singing in any language, in order to give the music the authenticity that the composers intended, we have to practice how we say the words so that they’re not only clear to the audience but also follow the language that the composer wanted us to understand. There are also physical demands: vigorous, repeated accents on loud dynamics, and in higher ranges in the voice can make singing these songs fatiguing. So, like any athlete, we’ve been training ourselves these past six weeks to have the physical discipline necessary to perform the music.” 

Q: Any lasting words to leave people planning on going to the concert or are now interested in seeing the concert?

A: “I would encourage the readers to attend this concert. It will change your mind on what makes up a “typical” choir concert, and the messages of perseverance, facing adversity, finding joy, and ultimately having hope, will provide inspiration that everyone can relate to their own lives, while also reminding us of the inherent dignity of our brothers and sisters of all different backgrounds.” 

If ever there was a time to see a concert, this is one to come to. Using a little bias in being a part of University Chorale, I can safely say this is going to be a very special concert to come to, and one I’m very excited to sing in myself.

Ethan Windt is a staff writer for The Buzz.