By Jaci Wendel
Men in black tuxedos and women in black choral gowns stood in the breezeway behind Connelly Chapel, gathered in a semi-circle. In the middle of the semi-circle, standing on a chair, was coordinator of choral activities and director of the DeSales Chorale J. Bennett Durham, who had the difficult job of giving a pep talk to the singers who would perform their last concert of the year, while at the same time holding back his own emotions about conducting his final concert with DeSales.
This spring concert, performed on Friday, April 21 and Saturday, April 22 at 8 p.m., was Durham’s final choral concert as conductor. Next year, Durham will move into his role as director of the exploratory studies program and instructor of education, a transition that was reflected in the messages of some of the songs in the program.
“With this particular concert I was processing my own experience more directly than I had in many other concerts. Some of the music that ended up in it was music that I wanted to do but didn’t have the opportunity to do yet, and other music was music that I thought directly spoke to stories that are resonant in my life right now,” said Durham.
After opening with the powerful “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” the ensemble moved on to two reflective and meditative French pieces, “Notre Pere” and “Cantique de Jean Racine.” From there the Schola Cantorum, the select audition choir, performed a series of Renaissance pieces, including “Jubilate Deo,” which Schola Cantorum performed at the Academic Excellence Mass.
Durham believes that this was one of the strongest pieces of the concert and is happy that they were able to perform it at the Mass.
“Songs like that that are with a little bit of piano and in a more contemporary choral style… that kind of stuff is stuff that this particular group of Schola does really well,” he said. “I would put that up against anything.”
From there began a set revolving around themes of human unity that are found in South African culture. Durham, along with freshman soprano Jeneen Gallik and the rest of the ED475 education for the human good class, traveled to South Africa over Spring Break, so reflections on what Durham experienced while he was there made their way into the concert.
Singers all began off-stage, with freshman soprano soloist Isabel Fernandez beginning the song. Slowly, singers—beginning with the women and then adding the men on the second verse— made their way to the steps of the risers and formed three distinct groups. During an instrumental break, singers from each group intermingled and interacted with one another, sometimes shaking hands or sometimes hugging, until three rows of mixed voice
parts emerged to end the song.
The next piece, “Tshotsholoza,” also incorporated movement; during the last refrain of the song, freshman tenor soloist Derek Miller led the choir to the back of the chapel in two distinct lines to envelop the audience, invoking the notion of the human community living in unity by the fact of our equality. Durham also said he wanted to represent the South African philosophy of “Ubuntu,” meaning the belief in a universal bond that connects the shared experiences of humanity.
Schola then sang a “farewell set” that included “The Turtle Dove” with freshman tenor soloist Chris Smith, “Red is the Rose” with junior soprano soloist Kayla Alderfer and “Sure on This Shining Night,” as well as a song sung only by the seniors of Chorale based on the words for the Irish blessing. This set, for Durham, was the high point of emotion for the concert.
“The farewell set was sort of the emotional arc of deciding to take this next step,” said Durham, referring to his transition to his role in the exploratory studies program. “While I know that it’s the right step for me to take right now, it’s not without some pain, some sorrow, some sadness about what I’m leaving behind.”
The title of the concert came from the song “Sure on This Shining Night,” the lyrics of which are taken from a poem by James Agee: “Sure on this shining night/ Of star-made shadows round/ Kindness must watch for me/This side the ground.”
Durham interpreted these words to be indicative of the leap that the narrator must make from this side to the other side of the ground, and finding “hope and wonder and beauty in what lies ahead.”
The concert ended with a set of upbeat worship songs, one from Schola called “My Good Lord’s Done Been Here” and two from Chorale called “Old Time Religion” and “Praise His Holy Name.” “Old Time Religion” featured a variety of soloists and “Praise His Holy Name” also ended with an improve gospel style solo by Jaci Wendel.
When it comes to his new role in exploratory studies and education, Durham feels that it is a very bittersweet transition.
“I am excited about that step as hard as it is to leave the choirs, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do that here,” said Durham. “When we had the opportunity to do this exploratory studies program, it was one that suited both an interest for me and a need for the University because I think that we didn’t have a lot in place to formally assist students who were undeclared, and I think that that’s an important part of what we do here.”
Durham hopes to find a way in the future to incorporate music into his life even in this new role.
“For me this has always been not about the music as much as it’s been about people… the music is a vehicle for something else that’s telling people stories. It’s experiencing emotion, it’s trying to find a sense of meaning and purpose in life,” said Durham. “I hope that I’ve been able to do that through choir, but I’m seeking to do that here [in the exploratory studies program]: help people understand themselves better, find a sense of purpose and move towards that.”