Lawrence University’s choir concert provides timely commemorations

Shannon Gravelle conducts Concert Choir while they perform “Kyrie from mass in E-flat" by Amy Beach. Screenshot from livestream.

Lawrence’s three choirs – Viking Chorale, Concert Choir and Cantala – performed their Winter Choir Concert on Friday, Feb. 24 in Lawrence Memorial Chapel. The program featured works by Black composers in honor of Black History Month. 

Conductors Charles Wesley Evans, Shannon Gravelle and Phillip A. Swan led the choirs through the performance. Guests Marty Erickson and Matthew Michelic accompanied the performers on tuba and viola, respectively. 

The concert opened with Viking Chorale’s performance of “Non Nobis, Domine,” a spiritual piece in Latin by prominent African American choral composer Rosephanye Powell. The piece’s simple refrain, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us / But to your name be the glory,” rose from a steady chant to a breathtaking crescendo. 

Charles Wesley Evans took the stage to explain the cultural significance behind the pieces, particularly the role that traditional spiritual pieces have played in African American history. Many of the selections in the concert were inspired by field songs, which enslaved Africans wrote during enslavement. 

The next piece, a serene rendition of Wendell Whalum’s “Lily of the Valley,” focused on remembrance, death and the journey to Heaven. The choir dedicated the concert to those who have been lost, including the three victims of the recent Michigan College shooting and Brianna Thompson, a Lawrence senior who passed away the previous Sunday. 

The concert also commemorated the one-year anniversary of the bombings that marked the beginning of war in Ukraine. First-year Bohdan Tataryn, a baritone from Viking Chorale who came to Lawrence from Ukraine this year, took the stage to recite a short Ukrainian poem in honor of the war’s victims and defenders. 

Viking Chorale finished their section of the concert with a second piece by Powell titled “Arise, Beloved!” Junior Kai Frueh accompanied them in this uplifting performance with a skillful, joyful demonstration on the piano. 

The Concert Choir and pianist junior Henry Giles delivered a reverent performance of “Kyrie from Mass in E-flat,” a selection from a 75-minute mass written by Amy Beach. The mass was premiered in 1892 by the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston but was not sung again until the 1980s. 

The Concert Choir’s following piece, “No Man Has Seen His Face,” featured music by Margaret Bonds and lyrics by Janice Lovoos. Bonds was one of the first widely recognized Black composers, and her work includes influences from pop music of the 1960s. 

Next came a dreamy performance of “Comet from Spheres of Influence” by Paul John Rudoi and Jim Togeas. According to Gravelle, the piece encouraged the audience to embrace the expanse of the galaxy. 

Like Viking Chorale, the Concert Choir also featured music from enslaved Africans. “Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler” by R. Nathaniel Dett was used as a number to signal that an enslaved person was being helped to freedom and provided support and courage for people escaping slavery. 

The final piece, “A Jubilant Song,” was adapted from Walt Whitman’s poem by Black composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Dello Joio. It concluded the Concert Choir’s brilliant showing with an energetic, vocally demanding exclamation point. 

Finally, Cantala opened their portion of the concert with a stunning rendition of Cantate Domino. Accompanied by senior Ami Hatori’s masterfully light piano, they swept the audience away with their rich, harmonious opening performance. 

The next two songs, “Winter Stars” by Sara Teasdale and “Patterns on the Snow” by May Sarton, celebrated resilience and perseverance. It took the audience on a journey through four realms: “the snow,” “the love,” “the living” and “the faith”. Each phase demonstrated a different type of heroic endurance and explored the process of letting go of the past and moving forward into the future. 

Tubist Marty Erickson accompanied Cantala during the Irish folksong “Sweet Molly Malone,” which tells the story of a young woman who died of fever. A performer dressed as a ghost took the stage to embody the song’s mournful theme while the tuba dramatized Molly’s tale. 

The penultimate piece, “Spes,” celebrated how humility and understanding foster hope. It combines the Latin text of Ecclesiastes 8:1, 8 with the words of Sami Finnish writer Nils-Aslak Valkeapää. Although Catholicism often clashed with Sami animism and shamanism in Scandanavia, “Spes” finds common sentiments of peace and wisdom. It also highlights the Sami people’s struggle to maintain their culture and nation while encouraging people to live freely and honestly. 

The concert concluded with “The Peace of Wild Things,” which was commissioned by Sarasota Young Voices director Genevieve Beauchamp in 2016 from a poem by Wendell Berry. It was written as a tribute to the composer’s late friend and collaborator Paul Caldwell. While it acknowledged the despair and struggle of life, it ultimately expresses finding peace in the human condition, closing with the lyrics, “For a time/I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”