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Inspiring Music Abounds at National Choral Directors Convention: Part 1 of 2

“15,000 music geeks will be in Minneapolis this Week” was a headline from the Minneapolis Star Tribune on March 5. That headline referred to the National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association, which took place from March 8 – 11 in Minneapolis, MN. Held in the state of 10,000 lakes and 10,000 choirs, over 15,000 conductors, composers, students and singers attended from all over the globe. We attended to perform, network, connect, learn, be inspired, or all of the above! Because so much occurred at the conference, I will only focus on a few of the performances in Part 1.

One of the hallmarks of this convention was hearing exceptional choirs from all over the globe. Hundreds of choirs auditioned to receive a handful of select spots. According to Dan Wagner (Director of Music at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville, IL), “If a choir is accepted to sing at this conference, you can be certain that they sing at an incredibly high level of musicianship. They will be warmly and enthusiastically received, as they should be.”

The Reed Academy Middle School Mixed Choir from Springfield, MO performed a diverse program with heart on every piece. For those of you who know middle schoolers, this is no small feat; it shows the hallmark of their gifted teacher, Daniel Gutierrez. I was most impressed by the conductor’s courage. The program started off with a movement from the Gloria by Vivaldi, a work that most of the listeners most likely knew. I was impressed that did not dissuade the conductor from selecting such a well-known work to perform at a major conference. Later in the concert set, the conductor stepped off the stage and didn’t conduct. This also showed incredible courage and trust between singers and conductor. Check out one of the pieces they performed earlier in the year:

Another ensemble that left a mark on me was Cantamus, an auditioned women’s choir from Iowa State University. Their performance, conducted by Kathleen Rodde, not only contained musical diversity, but emotional diversity as well. For example, one of their pieces was Da Pacem by John Meuhleisen. Sung in Latin, the translation is “Give peace, Lord, in our time, because there is no one else if not You, our God. Give piece to every heart. Give peace.” The piece featured a soloist, who captured a yearning for peace on a visceral level. Other pieces included a wide variety of emotions that the singers communicated and I felt. It reminded me that music is a tremendous vehicle to convey and express the full range of human emotion. In addition, singers wrote short impressions about each piece in the concert program. This helped connect me to the performance and showed the depth of feeling the singers in the choir.

I was extremely fortunate to attend the performance of the Wartburg Choir from Wartburg College in Iowa, conducted by Lee Nelson. Kristin Moroni, conductor of the Women’s Choir at Illinois State University, had this to say about their performance:

“I also most fondly remember the Wartburg College Choir’s performance. For their final piece, they performed “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” by Paul Caldwell & Sean Ivory with an ASL interpreter, and the choir signing on the refrains….I was already in tears when the voices dropped out on a refrain and the choir continued to sign it! There was so much beauty and, dare I say, music in that silent refrain; experiencing music as a hearing impaired person might experience it, struck a still deeper chord with me. After this particular performance, I was ‘all cried out.’”

Unfortunately I was unable to watch all of the performances. Luckily I heard from a few others from Mari Ésabel Valverde, composer, who was impressed by the West Orange High School Bel Canto Advanced Women’s Choir. She loved the politically and ethnically diverse repertoire and make-up of the ensemble. One of their pieces included quotes from the massacre at the Orlando Pulse massacre in 2016. Check them out in one of their past performances:

In addition, she loved the effective programming of the Flower Mound High School Men’s Chamber Choir. One of the pieces, me(n), by Joshua Shank, included quotes from the choir about what it means to be a man. She was impressed that they were able to sing with such vulnerability in high school.

Other performances that made an impression on me were Cantus, Mount San Antonio, St. Olaf Christmas Festival, the Minnesota Chorale, the Atlanta Master Chorale, Inner Mongolian Children’s Choir, the Orphei Drängar (a renowned men’s choir from Sweden), and others. In all cases, each of the choirs demonstrated exquisite technique and connecting to the music on an emotional, human level. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I include more reactions about the conference!

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