||Lift Every Voice and Sing – An American Masterpieces Choral Festival
January 25-27, 2008
Lift Every Voice and Sing – An American Masterpieces Choral Festival brought performers, educators, choral enthusiasts from as far away as Winston-Salem to Houston to study and perform American choral music. Under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt and Barbara Wesley Baker the massed choir of 300 people presented a concert ranging from the music of Aaron Copland to Moses Hogan. Acclaimed young composer Christopher Theofanidis, was commissioned to write a four-movement work for a cappella chamber choir and Angel Lam, an emerging Asian-American composer wrote a work for the massed gala choir. Lectures, masterclasses, in-school session, and a composer’s forum provided insightful educational opportunities throughout the Festival. Rounding out the array of offerings were individual performances by Houston area choruses ranging from the Rice University Chorale to the Salvation Army Harbor Light Choir.
American choral music was addressed in the broadest possible terms. The two primary choral conductors were selected for their individual strengths and areas of expertise. Barbara Wesley Baker is an acknowledged expert in Spirituals and Gospel Music. Based in Washington D.C., Dr. Baker travels throughout the world introducing the vocal approach that makes this literature come alive. (She recently returned from Italy on such a mission.) She took a choir of 300 singers from a cross-section of backgrounds and produced thrilling performances at the Gala concert. She was joined by some of the finest Gospel musicians in southeast Texas.
Joseph Flummerfelt, Musical America’s 2004 Conductor of the Year, brought the wealth of his stellar career to his role as co-director. From his wide knowledge of American choral music he selected folksongs and concert works that challenged even the most seasoned singer in the massed choir.
The breadth of American choral music could not possibly be contained in one concert, so Spotlight Concerts featuring individual choirs were planned throughout the Festival. Invited choirs included noted university choruses from Rice University and the University of Houston; the Advanced Chorus from Parker Elementary School, a Grammy Award-winning magnet school for the arts in the Houston Independent School District; the Gospel Choir of Greater St. Matthew Church; and the Harbor Light Choir maintained by the Salvation Army. Each member of the Harbor Light Choir is recovering from some form of addiction and their testimony as well as their music is inspiring, especially to the young members of the audience.
A vital part of the NEA’s mission in establishing these nationwide festivals was to increase Americans’ knowledge and appreciation of our nation’s musical heritage. Lift Every Voice and Sing took this mission very seriously.
High school and college composers received individual lessons from Christopher Theofanidis, professor of composition at Yale University. He and Dr. Thomas Conroy, a young composer who received his doctorate from The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, conducted a Composer’s Forum at which a wide range of topics important to aspiring composers were addressed.
Dr. Flummerfelt held a conducting masterclass for six young conductors. The number of participants was limited in order to provide adequate teaching time for each conductor. The Concert Choir from Sam Houston State University, under the direction of Dr. Allen Hightower, served as the masterclass choir.
Houston is home to one of the acknowledged American music experts in the country, Dr. Howard Pollack, Professor at the Moores School, The University of Houston. His books on Aaron Copland and George Gershwin are considered essential reading for all students of American music. Dr. Pollack delivered a major address outlining Aaron Copland’s impact on American choral music.
Dr. Barbara Baker presented a workshop addressing performance practices of American spirituals. Historically informed performances are not the sole province of Baroque music by any means, and a lack of understanding of the style and interpretive methods of Spirituals and Gospel music can prevent some conductors from approaching this music feeling that they are unqualified. Within the space of an hour, and thanks to the excellent Concert Choir from Prairie View A&M University directed by Dr. Jan Taylor that served as the demonstration Choir, the joys of this music were made available to all in attendance.
Christopher Theofanidis was selected to write the major commission for chamber choir based on his significant achievements in the opera and orchestral fields and the complete absence of any choral music up to that time. His recent commission by the Houston Grand Opera, The Refugee, opened to great acclaim. His four-movement work, Messages to myself, commissioned for this festival and premiered by the Houston Chamber Choir, is a major addition to the a cappella repertoire.
Angel Lam is an emerging composer with an impressive record for one so young. Her compositions were selected by Yo Yo Ma to appear as part of his Silk Road Project. The organizers of Lift Every Voice and Sing felt it was important that one of the new works created for the Festival represent the story of an American born in another part of the world. Ms. Lam did this beautifully with her setting of a nursery rhyme she recalled from her childhood in Hong Kong.