“Experience” Chorale

Grace Christiansen

This past weekend Lawrence University hosted the “EXPERIENCE American Choral Masterpieces” concert. More than 300 voices joined together in the final concert on Sunday, Feb. 24. Many of the singers involved were high school students, coming from 20 high schools in six states throughout the country, as far away as Washington and Vermont.The students were chosen by their choral instructors at home for their exceptional musical abilities. Also involved were Lawrence’s own Concert Choir, Cantala Women’s Choir and Viking Chorale.

The concert was made possible because of a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was generously matched by Lawrence. Professors Bjella and Swan applied for the grant in September 2006, heard back in April 2007 and began planning almost immediately. “It’s been in the works for well over a year a year and a half,” said Professor Swan.

The weekend began with a rehearsal at 7:00pm on Friday, Feb. 22 and ended with the concert at 2:00 p.m. Sunday. The concert focused exclusively on works by American composers, including Samuel Barber and Aaron Copeland.

However, the concert also included the premiere of “Careless Carols,” a piece by Andrew Rindfleisch that was commissioned specifically for the event. Another exciting part of this performance was guest conductor Charles Bruffy, who is the artistic director of both the Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale, and has been anointed as the next great American choral conductor.

“We wanted to find the best conductor, artist, and educator who could work with both Lawrence and high school students,” Swan said of Bruffy. Bruffy worked with the students over the weekend, bringing the choirs to the stunning level of musicality heard at the Sunday concert.

Of the process, Swan commented, “We started working with 300 or so singers coming from various parts of the country and so an immediate goal is to establish the rules and our M.O., and just to identify the standards by which we would pursue the music.”

He went on, “With 300 people being virtual strangers, trying to establish a rapport within the ranks and with me as well as creating an environment that is supportive of each individual’s contribution — well, we did that right away”.

Bruffy was also very impressed by the level of preparation among students. Because students all knew their parts ahead of time, Bruffy said, “We could just start working on the details of the music right away. By Sunday they had become a really finely tuned instrument. To have that kind of symbiosis and synchronicity with a choir of 300 who were strangers just 24 hours before and to have experienced that evolution — it’s a rare thing.”

Bruffy praised Lawrence as much as he did the student choirs. “It was an incredible offering that Lawrence made to the choral academic and artistic world, and the Lawrence choirs performed at a very high level, showing all of the guest singers and audience members the quality of education that occurs here,” he said.

“Many of the singers left with enthusiastic anticipation of the possibility of attending Lawrence and studying with the voice faculty here”.

One goal of the weekend was to give the visiting students the opportunity to perform “music that most high school programs wouldn’t be able to achieve,” and to help everyone involved grow as musicians. Said Professor Swan of the event, “This weekend took the word ‘experience’ to its deepest meaning for the students. They had a more in depth idea of what music is about.”

Swan added, “Students were able to see a master at work in his craft and how passionate he is about his art, and how that passion can impact the greatest to smallest detail. And that’s something that will change them forever.”
Creating change for the students and making them more aware of musicality was one of the major goals and accomplishments of the weekend. Said Bruffy, “For the students to participate in an experience of this magnitude could not help but be a life-changing experience — and it was.