The University of North Texas A Cappella Choir honors its 75th year of music making with songs that exalt service and celebrate peace.
If student singers merge art and technique, conductor Jerry McCoy said the concert should get awfully close to sublime.
The choir keeps the bar high and standards lofty, said McCoy, a UNT regents professor of music.
Wilfred Bain founded the choir in 1938, and the ensemble was part of the fast growth of the college’s whole music program. Bain took the A Cappella Choir on tours throughout Texas, including performances with the Dallas and Houston symphony orchestras. The choir also sang regularly on Sunday morning radio broadcasts.
Under Bain’s leadership, the A Cappella Choir became one of the factors that helped boost enrollment in the music program from 25 students to 400.
Bain later left North Texas to build the music program at Indiana University — one of the College of Music’s friendly rivals in luring the best and brightest budding musicians. Indiana University and UNT remain the largest music schools in the country to this day.
McCoy has been conducting the choir for 14 years, and excellence is still a marker of the A Cappella Choir.
“The students in this choir are the best of the 450 singers in the UNT choirs,” McCoy said. “It’s made up of graduate singers, mostly, but there are a few undergraduates and one freshman. This is a very talented freshman.”
Students with a lot of raw talent and an Olympic work ethic join the choir through fall auditions. To stay in the choir and graduate from it, McCoy said the artists have to commit to rigorous ear training, music theory study and a commitment to the choir’s unifying philosophy.
The philosophy is that the human voice can blend with other voices to make art, and fine art at that.
“These students leave here understanding that they are making a significant contribution to the world. All of these students will go on to become music professionals, whether they are going to be music educators or professional singers,” McCoy said.
He said the choir is part of the constellation of bright musical lights that bolster the reputation of the UNT College of Music.
“We’re not alone over here. We get a lot of support, from the college all the way to the president’s office. And the community supports us, too,” McCoy said. “There is a genuine interest in what we do out in the community, a love for the music we make.”
The anniversary program took about a year of planning. McCoy said he sought out music that pays tribute to significant moments in history. During the first half of the concert, the choir will perform Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing. Howell wrote the piece for John. F. Kennedy’s memorial service, and the choir will perform it to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the president’s death.
The choir will also perform a piece by Bono, the frontman of the rock band U2, about Martin Luther King Jr. “MLK” is a two-verse song the artist wrote as something of a lullaby. McCoy said he’s added text from presidential speeches about service, and text from the speeches of King.
Eriks Esenvalds’ A Drop in the Ocean uses the words of Mother Teresa woven in and out of disjointed phrases made up of slurs and words of hate and despair — “words that God must hear all the time,” McCoy said.
Noise and music collide and compete in the work, but it ends with the soprano line from the beginning singing words echoing Mother Teresa: “My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.”
The choir will also commemorate the 100th birthday of popular English choral and opera composer and pianist Benjamin Britten by performing the composer’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Also on the program, Vladimir Martynov’s Zapovedi Blazhenstv (The Beatitudes) and Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych.
McCoy said his students are always surprising him, bringing out unforeseen colors and drama in the music they perform.
“It takes incredible physical strength to sing this music for this amount of time,” McCoy said. “It requires attention to detail, then attention to being in the music. You know, there’s this line you never cross in performance because if you do, you lose control. They have to come to this concert rested. And they have to pace themselves. This is a lot of music, a lot of singing.”
The performance will second the mission of the choir if the musicians do their job. In a single span of time, the singers will build music out of silence and sound, music that lifts its audience out of their busy lives.
“This isn’t just music, in the same way science isn’t just a science and medicine isn’t just medicine,” McCoy said. “You go out and do what you do in the world to make the world different. There is entertainment music and there is fine art music. It’s the fine art music that we’re making.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
BLESSED ARE THEY
What: UNT A Cappella Choir 75th anniversary concert
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Winspear Hall at UNT’s Murchison Performing Arts Center, 2100 I-35E
Details: Tickets cost $10 for adults; $8 for seniors, non-UNT students, children and UNT faculty, staff and retirees. Free for UNT students with a valid ID.
On the Web: The concert will be livestreamed online at http://UNTmusiclive.com .