The Grinnell Singers are a group of people who are highly diverse in terms of their backgrounds, interests, and talents, but who are united in their love of singing and their dedication to the choral art. We perform music from a wide variety of traditions and locales — from Brahms to bluegrass, from Renaissance England to 21st-century New York. We pursue the highest musical standards, and we are committed to fostering an environment that is welcoming and supportive for each and every member. We gather together to create the community that is necessary for making music, and we craft musical performances as a gift to each other and to the wider world. We hold ourselves accountable to the #BlackVoicesMatter anti-racism pledge, which details specific actions that we can take as choral musicians to counteract systemic racism in our field, and we recognize that sustained critical interrogation and action are necessary in order to construct a more just and equitable choral community where all voices can flourish.
The 2021–22 Season
We are thrilled by the prospect of returning to sing together in the fall. We have some exciting and meaningful projects lined up. We are commissioning a work for choir and strings from Joel Thompson, the composer of The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. For this commission, we have formed a consortium with Harvard University, Macalester College, St. Thomas College, and the Ars Nova Choir of Boulder. Joel Thompson is an important American voice, and this commission project is likely to have an impact nationally. Another special opportunity we will have this year is our collaboration with the Lyra Baroque Orchestra, a professional ensemble from the Twin Cities. This will be our fourth collaboration with the ensemble; we are so fortunate to have developed this partnership with these outstanding musicians. We will perform a concert in Grinnell, and two concerts in Minnesota with the orchestra. We are performing a spectacular work by Jan Dismas Zelenka, his Missa Omnium Sanctorum. Zelenka is less well known than his contemporary J. S. Bach, but his music is every bit as brilliant. Together with the Zelenka mass, we’ll sing J. S. Bach’s Cantata no. 34 “O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (O eternal fire, oh source of love), which is one of Bach’s most exuberant and uplifting works, featuring high-flying trumpets and two thrilling choruses.
The 2020-21 Season
As with all the choirs across the world, this year was without a doubt the most challenging we’ve ever experienced. It was tough, but we found ways to cope and to keep the flame alive. In the fall, when the college was meeting exclusively online, we had virtual visits from various guests such as Joel Thompson (the composer of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed whom we are commissioning in the coming year), Mary Moore Easter (poet, and daughter of composer Undine Smith Moore, known as the “Dean of African-American Women Composers), Sarah Cowan ’08 (Grinnell alum and accomplished choral conductor), and the distinguished African-American composer Adolphus Hailstork. We produced several virtual choir videos: "Hands” by Jocelyn Hagen, "Mother to Son” by Undine Smith Moore (Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus," and we presented an online concert titled 2020: A Choral Odyssey. The “Hands” video was emailed by the college to thousands of Grinnell alumni as a holiday greeting.
In the spring, we began rehearsals with about half the choir that was present on campus. We rehearsed in groups of 10, 10 feet apart, with masks and shields, for a half hour at a time, in the Bucksbaum rotunda (which was chosen for its excellent ventilation). It was such a pleasure to have the opportunity to sing together, even though the restrictions made it hard to hear each other. On the plus side, each individual really had to learn to carry their part solidly on their own without relying on the rest of the section. At the spring equinox, we gathered at dawn at Gates Tower, as is our tradition, to greet the sun shining through the two perfectly aligned archways on campus. We were asked by the college Development Office to make a video for the alumni reunion, and a professional film crew flew in from New York to make a music video of “To Sit and Dream” by Rosephanye Powell. It felt Hollywoodish as we were ordered around by the director with a bullhorn, and as we tried our best to ignore the buzzing drone camera flying around our heads. We created the audio using the virtual choir procedures, and that audio was then synched up with the video materials. We ended the year with a lovely picnic for the 28 Singers who were on campus.
In past years, the Grinnell Singers have completed tours to Finland, Estonia, Russia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Their 2012 tour took them into Canada, with concerts in Chicago, Ann Arbor, Toronto, and Montreal, culminating in a concert at Boston University, and in 2013, they traveled to California, with concerts all along the coast, from San Francisco to San Diego.
The 2019-20 Season
We had a year of great successes, and great promise, during which we developed a highly capable 58-voice choir that was at the top of its game, with a wonderfully positive group spirit, ready to take on the world — and then came the crushing disappointments of the pandemic that has devastated choral singing. It has been hard, but through it all, we have emerged a resilient choir, ready to move forward and with a renewed and intensified commitment to our beloved art. We’ll linger just a moment to contemplate the tantalizing plans that had to be cancelled: We had a truly spectacular Central-European tour arranged, with 72 participants, funded through the college’s Innovation Fund, the Institute for Global Engagement, and the Music Department. We were to perform two concert programs, one orchestral and one unaccompanied, and we were to collaborate with numerous Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian singers and musicians. Music was to be a bridge that fosters connections between people who are widely separated by geography and culture. The tour also had official endorsement and support from the American embassies in the cities we were planning to visit. The Grinnell Singers were to perform three concerts of Mozart’s Requeim and John Rommereim’s Convivencia with professional orchestra and soloists, and three additional concerts that highlight aspects of American music. The choir’s performance at Bratislava’s RTV Auditorium was planned as a benefit concert for the Slovak Cancer Society. The tour included concerts in Des Moines, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava, Karlovy Vary (near Prague), Prague, and Brno.
But like so many plans of so many choirs around the world, this tour was not to be. We have maintained the strong group spirit we had developed before we were forced to separate, and we continue to engage in creative projects. We created two virtual choir videos, “Hands” by Jocelyn Hagen, and “Agnus Dei” by Samuel Barber. These videos are still in development, and they will continue to expand. It doesn’t substitute for the experience of singing together in real time, but it is satisfying nonetheless to still have the ability to create fine, subtle works of art together in this new medium. You can have a taste of the choir’s 2020 season from the videos we made just a few days before we had to separate: Song for Billie Holiday, by William Averitt, and Deep River, by Anders Paulsson. And here is a movement from our fall 2019 performance of Mozart’s Requiem, “Confutatis maledictis.”
As we look forward to the coming year, we face some uncertainty, but we also have some exciting plans that continue to inspire and motivate us. We are planning to commission a new choral work from the outstanding composer Joel Thompson. We performed Thompson’s beautiful “Hold Fast to Dreams” last year and found it to be so inspiring and uplifting. Joel Thompson is an important voice in today’s world, and we look forward to helping to bring his music into the world.
We’re also planning a complete performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil op. 37 in the coming year. This work is so filled with beauty; it is such an intense and rewarding experience for the choir to take this journey together through this 70-minute unaccompanied choral masterpiece. The Grinnell Singers have produced a fine recording of the complete work in previous years. Here is a sample from their recording, Movement II, “Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul.”
The 2018–19 Season
We kicked off the fall season with our annual retreat at CERA, the College’s nature preserve. We had a great time out in the country playing some games, hiking, brainstorming, discussing our plans for the year, and, of course, singing. In December, we performed a very special concert of Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio, Considering Matthew Shepard. This was such a powerful event; we had numerous people who reported to us that it was the most significant choral concert they have ever attended. One audience member even was moved to write several beautiful poems in tribute to the concert. “Considering Matthew Shepard” has quickly become one of the country’s most treasured choral works since its premiere in 2016. The work centers on the shocking story of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who in 1998 was beaten and left for dead for being gay. At that time, Johnson was profoundly affected by the news of Shepard’s death, as were so many were others worldwide. Yet his artistic response took many years to develop, as he contemplated and processed this deeply troubling story. Eighteen years later, Johnson finished composing what Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, called, “By far the most intricate, beautiful and unyielding artistic response to this notorious anti-gay hate crime.” Here is a recording of the final movement from our concert.
In March, we pursued an exciting collaboration with the Lyra Baroque Orchestra from the Twin Cities. Together with this professional period-instrument ensemble, we presented three performances of Handel’s Dixit Dominus (click for recording) and J. S. Bach’s Mass in A Major in Grinnell and in St. Paul and Rochester Minnesota. One of our most illustrious musical alumni, Thomas Meglioranza ’92, joined us as baritone soloist for these concerts. This is the third time that the Grinnell Singers have teamed up with the Lyra Baroque Orchestra. Our 2017 concerts, under the direction of guest conductor Simon Carrington, were hailed as “superbly nimble and confident” by the Rochester Post-Bulletin. Our first collaboration in 2015, on Handel’s Esther was also very successful. (Here’s a recording of Rosie O’Brien ’16, soprano soloist with the orchestra from our concert). We are so pleased to have this ongoing relationship with this fine ensemble, and their musical director, Jacques Ogg.
Following our Twin-Cities concerts with the Lyra Baroque Orchestra during the first two days of spring break, we continued on the road, performing concerts on our own on our spring-break tour, with performances in Madison, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; and Newton, Iowa.
The Grinnell Singers performing “All of Us” in collaboration with the choir of First Presbyterian Church in Newton, Iowa
Finally, the year culminated with a splendid performance of Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor in collaboration with the Grinnell Orchestra and the Grinnell Oratorio Society. It was a year filled with great variety that included no less than four major works (Considering Matthew Shepard, Bach’s Mass in A Major, Handel’s Dixit Dominus, and Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor.) The choir was noticeably quicker at learning new music by the end of the year after all of this intense music-making.
The 2017–18 Season
We started of the year by loading up a school bus and heading out to the CERA prairie for a retreat. It was a great way to start to build a team and for the new folks to get to get acquainted with the “old” folks.
One special project we pursued in 2017–18 was our collaboration with the Al-Bustan Takht ensemble, a professional group from Philadelphia who are steeped in Arab musical traditions. This project offered us an opportunity for substantial engagement with Arabic music and poetry. The collaborative concert consisted of music that combines Arab musical traditions with Western choral and instrumental traditions. Composer Kareem Roustom visited Grinnell in the fall to work with the choir, meet with student composers, and to give the Grinnell musicians a sense of the musical tradition. The composer Kinan Abou-afach also visited in February to work with the choir, and the Al Bustan Takht Ensemble then came to Grinnell for three days to rehearse and perform with the Grinnell Singers in late February of 2018.
Another exciting project we pursued was the performance of Caroline Shaw’s recent work, To the Hands. Caroline Shaw is the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music — and the only woman to ever receive that award. Her piece focuses on the issues of refugee resettlement and homelessness. Rather than charging a fee for the performance materials, Shaw provides them for free with the strict stipulation that the ensemble must make funding efforts to contribute toward the resolution of these problems. The musical work uses phrases from the poem inscribed in the Statue of Liberty and holds them up to the listener as a provocative challenge. We performed in a special fundraising event in Marshalltown to benefit Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown. We also raised money at our regular concerts to benefit Lutheran Immigrant Services and Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown. Here is a recording of our performance of “To the Hands” in Dallas, while on tour in March.
We completed a tour to New Orleans, with concerts in Des Moines, Lawrence, Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, and New Orleans. In April, following our tour, Anthony Fu ’19 worked with the choir as part of his Mentored Advanced Project in choral conducting. Anthony conducted the choir at each of the tour concerts, and in May, he conducted the choir in a short concert of “Aesop’s Fables” by Bob Chilcott. Here’s a video of Anthony Fu ’19 conducting the choir on Brahms’s “O schöne Nacht.”
The 2016–17 Season
The Grinnell Singers had an action-packed year in 2016–17.
One highlight came in March when our tour performance with the Lyra Baroque Orchestra was hailed as “superbly nimble and confident” in a Rochester Post-Bulletin Newspaper review. The ensemble participated in a two-week residency with the renowned conductor Simon Carrington (founding member of the King’s Singers and professor emeritus at Yale), who conducted the group together with the Lyra Baroque Orchestra, a professional period-instrument ensemble based in the Twin Cities. This was the second collaboration with this outstanding ensemble, and it was so successful that we have established a regular relationship with the group, and we are looking forward to another collaboration with them in 2019.
Over the course of the year, the Grinnell Singers also participated in a performance of Handel’s Messiah, and the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms — two of the most celebrated choral/orchestral works in the repertoire. A rich and rewarding year of choral music.
The Singers have produced two recordings:
- a CD of the complete All-Night Vigil by Rachmaninov (audio sample track of Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil Movement 9) — hailed for its “consummate artistry” by Iowa Public Radio host Kurt Snook, and
- Seeking After that Sweet Golden Clime, a varied collection (sample track of The Spheres by Ola Gjeilo) with Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year as its centerpiece.
They have been honored with two ACDA convention invitations.
The ensemble regularly performs works by its members, and a number of students in the ensemble have gone on to careers as composers. We were proud to see that works by Grinnell Singers alum Jisoo Ben Kim ’08, for example, was performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The performance by this world-class choir was facilitated by the fact that the Grinnell Singers had taken the time and effort to record these works, which helped them to be published — which in turn brought them to the attention of the LA Master Chorale.
Each year, we have a composition contest to provide Grinnell students the opportunity to have their music performed by the choir.
In addition, in previous years the ensemble has commissioned several major composers. In 2006, the Singers commissioned an extended work from the 2005 Pulitzer Award winner, Steven Stucky in a consortium with the Kansas City Chorale, the Phoenix Bach Choir, and Seattle Pro Musica.
The Grinnell Singers’ 2012 season featured the premiere of a commissioned work, “Anything Can Happen,” by Mohammed Fairouz (sample of 3rd movement from Fairouz’s “Anything Can Happen”). In pursuing this project, the ensemble formed a consortium with three of the country’s most distinguished choirs: the Back Bay Chorale and the Marsh Chapel Choir of Boston, Scott Jarrett, Conductor, and Cantori New York, Mark Shapiro, Conductor. Through these commissioning projects, the Grinnell Singers are playing a role in advancing the choral art in the twenty-first century.
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