Photos by Pat Brown
Conductor Meredith Bowen leads the Radford University Chorus and volunteers who answered the call to add their voices, making the chorus bigger and giving it a fuller sound. Bowen enlisted help from community singers for a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” on April 24. Graduate student Cynthia Flanagan is accompanist for the group at rehearsals, but a full orchestra will be added on performance night.Pat Brown
The enlarged chorus makes a big, balanced sound now, enabling them to tackle what Bowen calls “a big piece of music,” Mozart’s Requiem, an iconic classical piece that includes 14 movements performed over a 40-minute period.
In addition, students can practice their teaching skills and observe the commitment of the community singers.
Moreover, Dr. Bowen gets to conduct her favorite requiem while applying experience during 16 years of working with community choruses, as well as in academia.
“There’s something about the amateur singer,” she said before a Monday evening rehearsal at Covington Center on the RU campus recently. “They are doing it for the love of music.” The community singers bring “something so joyful’ to their experience in the chorus, Bowen said.
Her chorus of about 65 members was “very soprano and alto heavy,” she said. Many of the volunteers from the community are tenors and basses. “They have bigger instruments,” she said, referring to the men’s lower-range voices and larger lungs. Consequently, “They are louder.”
“The balance is quite good now,” Bowen said.
Bowen expects to have a least 80 people on risers when the curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. April 24 in Covington Performance Hall. The university roster includes 65 chorus members and 30 community members have volunteered. During rehearsals, 50 music majors in the group help teach difficult harmonies to others at Bowen’s request.
The group has been practicing since Jan. 23. These days Bowen stops them to work on pronunciation (Mozart’s work was written in Latin) and other fine points.
During a late March rehearsal, she stopped the singers to get the tenors to master a slippery spot. “Where did you find that note, tenors?” she joked. They laughed and then she taught them a trick for finding their pitch.
“What is the dynamic level?” she asked the whole group. She coached them through techniques for singing more softly then tried the same passage again.
“Fantastic,” Bowen praised. “Really good work.”
“I’m very confident in my singers,” she said during an interview. They learned their music really quickly.” She was already familiar with the classical piece after having both sung and directed it on several occasions.
“The only thing I’m a little anxious about is the orchestra,” she confessed. The expense of hiring a full orchestra is prohibitive, Bowen said, so she tapped into the RU orchestra, which lacks a wind section. She scouted out volunteers wherever she could among her university protégés, then fanned out to the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and Virginia Tech faculty. She still had to come up with funding to entice wind musicians.
Though she works with her singers every Monday night, she will rehearse with the full orchestra only once: the night before the performance.
“It’s important that our students have an opportunity to sing with an orchestra,” Bowen said, explaining that a piano makes one’s note obvious, but different techniques are needed when singing with an orchestra. “It’s an exercise in listening and being confident,” Bowen said. Four students will perform solos during the event.
“Sit by somebody who isn’t your same part,” she told her singers at a March rehearsal. Typically singers sit in sections according to their voice range or “part”: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.
To attain a fuller sound, she asked her singers to stand. She created opportunities to make them laugh, even comparing her energetic directing style to bad dancing.
To remind singers of the music’s requirements for varied volume, she told them to stand tall when they were supposed to be singing loudly and to bend their knees when they were supposed to be singing softly.
“Good for you,” she complimented. And it was time for a break in the two-hour rehearsal.
“I was genuinely surprised at the turnout,” said Missy Caton, a senior soprano from Salisbury, Md. The community volunteers “all show up every week,” she said. “I think it’s awesome.”
Graduate student Katie Metzler of Floyd agreed. “Students get a chance to practice teaching,” she said, explaining that music majors lead warm-ups and run small-group rehearsals called sectionals. “It’s less intimidating than just sticking you out in front of a class.”
Some of the community volunteers have a connection to the university. There’s Dave Zuschin, who teaches music history at RU but has a background in choral conducting. “I’ve missed performing,” he said.
Radford resident and university nursing instructor Kate Brennan answered the call for community singers. “They are amazing,” she said of the student performers. “I just draft off the kids.”
Dave Knight of Radford said joining the chorus afforded him “the opportunity to sing with a high-quality chorus again and exercise some rusty skills singing a major choral work with an orchestra. I hope for future collaborations.”
The criteria for assisting the university chorus is simple: singers need to have some previous choral experience; there are no auditions.
In late March, Bowen took a poll. Would the community members and college singers like to collaborate again next spring?
The answer was yes.
The past and the future
Mozart wrote his Requiem in 1791, the last year of his life. It wasn’t complete until a count, an amateur composer, finished it. “He may have wanted to pass it off as his own,” Dr. Meredith Bowen said.
A requiem is a mass for the dead and grew out of traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Originally, a priest spoke the words of a requiem, but composers like Mozart created musical works that utilized and were inspired by the church text.
Each movement of a requiem is expected to have its own personality, Bowen explained. Her favorite movement, a double feuge, “is like a complex puzzle. It’s really fun.”
To observe the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Bowen joined with other singers at Westchester College in Lansing, Michigan to perform a “rolling requiem.” Some 150 singers drew standing room only crowd and raised $2,500 for the families of victims of 9/11.
Bowen said she chose Mozart’s Requiem for RU’s concert because, “I’m brand new to the faculty and in a new job to do the most beautiful music and get people excited about it.”
In the future, she wants to see the university’s collaboration with the community grow. “I would like to have 200 people,” she said. “I would love to have the people of Radford singing.”