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Three Iowa Choirs Sing (Or Sign) American Originals

Credit Wartburg College, Wartburg Choir
Waverly, Iowa's Wartburg Choir performing "Ain't No Grave" on tour in Eisenach, Germany.

Choral groups around our state have canceled or postponed concerts until it’s safe to congregate. Instead of “Big Lists Of Choral Events,” we're going to start sharing videos of some of our favorite choral performances from around Iowa. 

This batch features settings of American texts by American composers. The first is a gospel classic choreographed with elements of ASL, the second is a beautiful realization of James Agee, and the third has an original text written for Drake's new choral director, composer Eric Barnum.

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The Wartburg Choir - Ain't No Grave

This setting of “Ain’t No Grave” by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory lends itself to light choreography. The composers hoped that performers would incorporate elements of American Sign Language, and when they do, the choreography can create a unique interpretive experience for hearing audiences. In this performance from a 2017 trip to Germany, the entire Wartburg Choir is choreographed, with lead singer Samantha Hallgren providing their signed interpretation.

The joy radiating from the choir and conductor Lee Nelson might put a smile on your face. Watch the whole thing to see the soundless verse near the end.

The Chamber Singers of Southeast Iowa - Sure On This Shining Night

The Chamber Singers of Southeast Iowa were one of the select choirs invited to sing in the 2017 Carnegie Hall performance of the Requiem by Kim Andre Arnesen. That Norwegian composer invited them to return to Carnegie this coming April to sing in his Magnificat, but the event has been canceled because of COVID-19.

In their hometown of Fairfield, the Chamber Singers have performed to large audiences since their founding in 1991 by Elaine Reding. Here's a 2011 video with her conducting them in Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure On This Shining Night.” The composer says that the James Agee poem needs music with a “long, lyrical line," and the Chamber Singers keep that line aloft from beginning to end without a hint of effort.

The Drake Choir - Prairie Elegy, a new work by Eric Barnum

Last year, I wrote about the retirement of Drake choral director Aimee Beckmann-Collier, who led the group for three memorable decades. She’s now working on a remarkable retirement project, and her legacy at Drake is being carried forward by one of our era’s finest choral composers, Eric Barnum.

Here’s a video of the choir earlier this month singing a new composition by Barnum. The text is by Charles Anthony Silvestri, a Kansas based author with a highly developed gift for writing poems that resonate most when sung. (He wrote the text of the first piece featured in our Choral Iowa series, "Over Havet.")

This new work begins by describing the prairie lying still as storm clouds gather; even the birds fall silent. We then hear not just the passing storm (the singing sounds like rain) but also the prairie’s vast time scale, from its prehistory under oceans to its present under pavement. Barnum’s music conveys it all in seven profound, evocative minutes. 

Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host