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Fifty students will join faculty and staff members in presenting “1,000 Years of Bird Songs,” this year’s program for the annual Lafayette spring choir concerts, 8 p.m. Saturday, May 3, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 4, at the Williams Center for the Arts auditorium.

Sponsored by the music department, the event is free and open to the public.

Nina Gilbert, director of choral activities, will lead the Concert Choir, Madrigal Singers, and Faculty-Staff Vocal Chamber Ensemble. There also will be separate selections for the Concert Choir men, Concert Choir women, and Concert Choir women echoed by the Faculty-Staff Choir.

“Our bird songs range from a Gregorian chant about a turtle dove, ‘Passer invenit,’ to an avant-garde setting of bird calls, ‘Little Birds’ by Eric Whitacre,” says Gilbert. “Our music includes other songs of animals and nature too. We’re singing three love-song waltzes by Brahms about rainstorms and stormy seas, for example, and ‘Animal Counterpoint,’ a sixteenth-century Italian carnival piece featuring cats, dogs, owls, and cuckoos.”

Other highlights of the diverse repertoire, which features songs in English, Latin, German, Italian, and Slavonic, include:

  • “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern, arranged by Roy Ringwald, with the choir working with a manuscript from the archives of Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians;
  • A jazz vocal piece based on a keyboard Sinfonia by J. S. Bach that sounds similar to “In the Mood”;
  • “Priidite vospoim, liudiye” (“Come, O People, Let Us Praise in Song”), a Slavonic anthem by Drmitry Bortniansky, which Gilbert says “sounds like Mozart or Haydn with a Russian accent — it’s very interesting and beautiful”;
  • “Sweet and Low” by Gustav Holst, for double women’s choir, a lullaby with words by Tennyson, with rich echo effects;
  • “Hämärän ääniä” (“Evening Twilight”) by Leevi Madetoja, a song in Finnish, a language that more than 30 student choir members learned to pronounce during their European tour this winter;
  • three spirituals, including the much-loved “Ride the Chariot.”

The program also includes music related to visiting artists on campus this semester. Darmon Meader of New York Voices, which gave a concert and workshop at the Williams Center in February, sent Gilbert a vocal jazz arrangement of the Beatles song “In My Life.” Peter Phillips of Tallis Scholars, which presented a Williams Center concert earlier this month, coached students on two songs by 16th-century Franco-Flemish composer Thomas Crecquillon: “Kyrie” from Missa Domine Deus Omnipotens, and a canon, “Quicquid agas prudenter agas” (“Whatever you do, do it prudently”).

A group of 34 choral students traveled to Finland, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria during Lafayette’s January interim session between semesters, giving 11 concerts in six cities and learning first-hand about historical sites. The choir sang in the languages of the countries being visited, as well as in Latin, Irish Gaelic, and English. Twice in Budapest and once in Helsinki, local choirs joined the students in performing. They helped with style and pronunciation for Hungarian and Finnish songs, receiving guidance on American spirituals in return.

“Our guide in Hungary was very impressed with how well-educated we were — she’d never seen a tour group that recognized Gothic and Romanesque architecture before,” says Gilbert, who led the group along with Katherine Furlong, access services librarian.

The concert tour was enhanced by cultural and historical studies, including talks by guest speakers on history, politics, architecture, religion, and language, in addition to specialized musical topics. Students used their major fields of study in comparing various countries for the Lafayette course, Choral Music: Window to Culture.

“Scientists found interesting features in the physics of Finnish snow, and economics & business and government & law majors had observations about comparative infrastructure between, for example, Finnish and Estonian capabilities for snow removal,” says Gilbert. “In Hungary and Slovakia, students were able to see the efforts that countries made to preserve artistic and cultural sites while still recovering from destruction dating back to the Second World War.”

In Estonia, the Tartu University Chamber Choir hosted a post-concert party and taught folk dances. Elsewhere, students traded songs with hosts at dinner. Other highlights included being called the “most excellent choir” to ever visit Bratislava (Slovakia) State Conservatory by its deputy head, signing autographs at an English-language high school in Estonia, and meeting the U.S. ambassador to Estonia (thanks to Tallinn resident Rees Fischer ’90).

“I don’t know how many young American college students can say that they’ve witnessed, no less participated in, a Roman Catholic mass in rural Hungary, but we were given this wonderful experience in Szentendre,” says Steve Bayer ’04. “It was enjoyable and special to be a part of these people’s lives, if only for two hours on one Sunday.”

Gilbert holds a doctorate in musical arts from Stanford University, a master’s in music from Indiana University, and a bachelor’s in music from Princeton University. Before coming to Lafayette, she was lecturer in the department of music at the University of California, Irvine and served in a variety of roles. She also taught at Hamilton, Ferrum, and Wabash Colleges, the Hartt School of the University of Hartford, and Westminster Choir College of Rider University. She has numerous choral arrangements and editions in print and is associate editor of Choral Journal. She offers commentaries on choral topics for the “Performance Today” show on National Public Radio.

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