The singing voices crescendoed in the auditorium as conductor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu encouraged them, “Take off! Take off!”
However, he stopped the 300 singers to ask for an even bigger sound from the altos, suggesting, “Channel that ‘Big Mama’ sound.”
The choir tried the crescendo again, filling the Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica, before quieting their voices to a whisper of singing. As they continued singing, Wondemagegnehu warned them about the next part, “This is a bizarre part. Jesus take the wheel! Hopefully you can find the notes. Good luck.” But the basses and tenors hit all the right notes and he commented, “Looks like Jesus took the wheel,” prompting laughter from the choir.
At times singing with them as he conducted Z. Randall Stroope’s “Omnia Sol,” Wondemagegnehu concluded at the end, “Isn’t that a gorgeous piece of music?”
Students from Esko and East high schools and St. Scholastica sang next to adults as part of the community choral event Saturday. Singers traveled from the Gunflint Trail, the Iron Range and points east of Ashland to join in Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s inaugural “Bring the Sing” event in Duluth.
The brainchild of Wondemagegnehu, MPR’s manager of the choral works initiative, a second Bring the Sing event is planned for May 21 in St. Paul. They’re hoping to expand the program to more locations next year, said Jen Keavy, MPR’s senior communications manager.
The success of Saturday’s event in Duluth showed that a community choral event can work and it can be done by communities around the country, he told the choir gathered at St. Scholastica before singing the final song of the day.
“I’m never going to forget this moment,” he said.
Wondemagegnehu said the idea is to make choral music more inclusive. His high school choir teacher changed his life, he said, but he also thinks about how many people don’t have that opportunity as he did. Classical MPR wants to create an opportunity for people to sing.
“It’s not about the performance. I like to tell choirs all the time, ‘We don’t perform to impress, we sing to inspire,’” he said.
Having 300 people sing together for the first time was a “powerful statement” about the choral scene in Duluth and Minnesota, he said. He’s been immersing himself in the Duluth music scene this week, sitting in with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and area schools, and it’s been an “extraordinary” experience.
“People are singing up here. They are all about singing and it’s been special to see and be a part of,” he said.
Saturday’s three-hour event included a rehearsal and recording of five choral songs that will be streamed online on Classical MPR’s Choral Stream and broadcast on Classical MPR’s radio station on a date yet to be determined.
St. Scholastica junior Danielle Brino thought it was great that songs performed at the college would be recognized by Classical MPR, putting St. Scholastica on the same level as schools like Luther College that have more well-known choral programs.
“It’s really cool. We’re such a small, tiny school in Duluth,” she said.
For St. Scholastica senior Kaitlyn Young, Saturday was her last time singing as part of a large choir before graduation. Choir has been a part of her high school and college life, providing a relief to school stress, and she hopes that she can find community choirs to join in her post-collegiate life.
“It’s empowering singing with people who are singing their hearts out,” she said of Saturday’s event.
Duluth resident Gaelynn Lea was a guest musician Saturday, performing “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” with the choir providing a choral background to her singing and fiddling.
Directed to join in as Lea began the song’s chorus, 300 voices harmonized with Lea as she sang the lyric, “I love you.” She strummed her bow across the strings, the deep sound resonating around the auditorium to conclude the song. A moment of silence followed before the choir broke into a loud applause.
Afterward, Lea said she was impressed by the addition of a choir to her music. It was the first time she’s had a group that large singing with her and it added more energy to the song, making it an “intense experience, in a positive way,” she said.
“Trying a new method changes the vibe and you realize that a song has a static form, but then it can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. Even when you perform, it can be performed differently. That’s one of the fun things about live music, I think,” she said.
Duluth is supportive of the arts and musicians are supportive of each other, she said, adding that she knew many of the people in Saturday’s choir.
“Everybody wants to see everyone do well and have fun and be supportive. That’s what music is about in Duluth,” said Lea.