14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 8, The Early College Choir Years (or, When Things started Getting Serious)

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

We segue today into the back-half of this 14-day series (though again, it may go longer than that—I certainly seem to have enough music to keep it going for a while!), where I think you’ll find the overall tone (no pun intended) of the music shifts more serious, particularly driven by my college-found love of choral music.

College choir in my undergrad was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience. I had decided near the end of high school to largely give up on playing the trumpet because having braces really sapped a lot of the joy of playing. It was this, combined with not being sure how I could make a living being a musician aside from teaching it (which I didn’t really see myself doing), that led me to be drawn to sign up for the UT Martin University Singers, the ensemble open to all on campus. It certainly helped that my sister was a music major and I’d gone to a few of her choir concerts while I was still in high school, and it definitely didn’t hurt that a cute girl named Karen from Jackson was going to be a music major and in the choir, too… (Yes, I can safely/largely attribute our relationship starting to choir, particularly choir tours.)

But then we started singing. And wow. It was…something. It wasn’t always perfect, it was sometimes a struggle to be artistic, but at its best (when we really did what Dr. Mark Simmons asked), there were so many life-changing, stunning moments. The music from the first couple years (Fall 2005–Spring 2007) included some of the most important choir music of that era and of all time: Samuel Barber, Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley, Mendelssohn and Bach and Haydn… it was a veritable choral music education. I still remember the feelings of making the auditioned chamber choir, the New Pacer Singers, which meant I was double majoring and working a part-time job (eventually, two 20-hour “part-time” jobs on campus when I started at the newspaper sophomore year) but I made both choirs work to the best of my ability. There was one semester or so where I had a class conflict with University Singers but still learned the music. I graduated in 2009 and Karen still had a year left, so on relatively short notice I learned the baritone music after a guy dropped for the 2010 tour. Choir wasn’t exclusively my life, but close!

The music from the first two years that really set me on my path to loving choral music as I do today was, perhaps clichédly of course, largely the music of Eric Whitacre. In my four years at UTM, we performed “Sleep,” “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine,” “When David Heard,” (which is so long it just simply isn’t performed all that often—seriously…good performance tempos yield versions 15–17 minutes long), “i thank you god for most this amazing day,” and I want to say we might have sung “Water Night” with a high school festival choir that Dr. Simmons was conducting. In the later years we also sang “This Marriage” and “5 Hebrew Love Songs,” and these last two Karen and I asked the New Pacers to sing at our wedding. From those first couple of years, it was Sleep, When David Heard, and Leonardo that just captivated me.

For all these songs tonight, I’m giving you some top-notch recordings, in particular starting with the Eric Whitacre Singers (his own hand-picked choir, so you know this is the kind of sound he’s looking for with his own music!) Sadly, none of these are of the UTM Choirs from that era.

Beyond the peak-Whitacre-era obsession (I grew up/more eventually…😁) I was completely enthralled by perhaps the most challenging and technically demanding set we sang in those first couple years, Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations, a musical setting of Irish poetry from James Stephens (1882–1950). If you’ve never heard Reincarnations, you have to listen to them. They are challenging. They are chilling. They were, at the time, the hardest music I had ever learned—and it took a lot of work to get the three movements down.

The last piece from this time period that was incredibly meaningful at the time was my first sung Requiem, by contemporary Canadian composer Eleanor Daley. This piece we performed on our 2005 Tennessee with UTM voice faculty member Dr. Amy Yeung, whose voice I thought was surely that of an angel. I was fortunate enough to have a little spare time later in college to study with her for one semester.

{Edited to update because I remembered that the first time we performed all of this on the 2005 Tennessee tour was at Knoxville’s Church Street United Methodist Church. Little could Karen and I have imagined at the time that just a few years later we would join that church and sing in its choir from 2010–2016!}

Not a perfect recording (there’s some skipping like it was ripped from a CD), but it has the score, which is a nice feature if you’re a choral singer listening for the first time and you’d like to follow along.

I spent a lot of my life in grad school (particularly when frustrated with some difficult social theory or with writing a dissertation…) wishing that I’d just pursued music in college, but now with the perspective of added time, I find that I’m happy where I’ve landed with a double-life as a (decently paid) geographer and (as of yet, not fully employed…) singer.

More great choral music (well, mostly…) to come, friends.

3 thoughts on “14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 8, The Early College Choir Years (or, When Things started Getting Serious)”

  1. Such wonderful music! You are fortunate that you had very fine musicians/professors at UTM to guide and inspire you. Your dad and I always enjoyed those choral concerts.

    Like

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