Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
September 13, 2006
DeKalb — Eric Johnson’s eight years leading NIU’s choral programs tell him that a singing trip abroad sparks an amazing fire beneath his students.
Good thing, too: This fall brings a unique and exciting challenge that will require every drop of dedication and enthusiasm he and the choir can muster.
NIU’s Chamber Choir recently returned from a week’s residency at the historic Worcester Cathedral in Worcester, England, where 18 students performed Evensong services nightly from Aug. 7 through 13 and the Sunday morning service.
Come November, the group will perform as one of only eight choirs in the United States selected to sing at the National Collegiate Choral Organization’s national conference in San Antonio, Texas.
To prepare for San Antonio, Johnson and the choir will need to pack the equivalent of a year’s worth of preparation for the England trip into about 75 days.
“I’ve found after every international tour a huge bump in energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the program. The students have a deeper understanding and appreciation of what’s artistically possible,” says Johnson, an associate professor in the NIU School of Music and its director of choral activities.
“Once you’ve attained that new level of aesthetic performance and understanding, it opens broad new horizons of artistic possibilities. Students are more musically curious. They are more intellectually curious. They are disciplined and driven.”
Amanda Brex, a senior music education major from Barrington, has enjoyed the journeys with Johnson.
“I’ve gone on choir trips before, but not with a choir at this level,” Brex said. “For me, because I’m going to be a music teacher, I learned how to have everyone get along with each other, and what needs to be done in preparation for these performances.”
The summer began with an invitation to perform as the featured choral ensemble at the summer retreat of the Illinois American Choral Directors Association.
NIU’s Chamber Choir sang July 13 at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington for an audience of the state’s top collegiate and public school choral directors. Many NIU students were reunited with their high school directors, Johnson says, and the choir was showered with praise for its 45-minute, memorized concert of difficult music.
“We’re generating a higher profile for our choral program in the state. At that concert, we performed for 120 really well-informed people who live and breathe choral music,” he says. “The directors I spoke with afterward told me, ‘I had no idea Northern had that kind of talent,’ and, ‘I was stunned and amazed at how phenomenal they were.’ ”
That amazement carried on to England, where the choir so impressed its hosts that an open invitation to return was offered at the week’s end. “We were very, very well received,” Johnson says. “We were told, ‘You sang in the tradition as if you’d done this all your life.’ It was very musical.”
Of course, Johnson and his students spent the week in amazement.
Their original booking came through an audition to replace British cathedral assignments in August when resident cathedral choir is on vacation.
Worcester Cathedral was first built in the 700s, and its majestic architecture and subsequent renovations through the ages paint a vivid picture of English history. King John, who signed the Magna Carta, is entombed there. Its library of Medieval works reflects centuries of history and is home to the original manuscript of “De Consolatione Philosophiae” by Boethius.
At each night’s Evensong – a service completely in song – the choir performed about 40 minutes of different music, including that day’s assigned Psalms and an anthem. The choir, which rehearsed every afternoon for two hours to prepare, also performed a Magnificat (“Song of Mary”) and Nunc Dimittis (“Song of Simeon”) nightly.
“This was a real immersion into the professional choral experience,” Johnson says. “This could have been some of the finest choral singing they’ll do for the rest of their lives.”
“We sang as a part of their service every day, also known as Evensong. It was interesting because we do not have this in the states, and it was quite an overwhelming experience because the cathedral was gorgeous. In America, we do not have any buildings that date back to the 700s, so it is not like you can experience something like that here,” Brex said. “It was just a great experience, and I may never get do something like it again.”
Next comes the Texas performance.
Chamber Choir will perform at the first national conference for National Collegiate Choral Organization (NCCO). The charter members of NCCO represent the most elite and active collegiate choral directors working today. The NIU Chamber Choir has been given the prestigious honor to open the conference Thursday, Nov. 2.
Only five days later, the 65-member NIU Concert Choir will join forces with the Chicago Sinfonietta to perform Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The Tuesday, Nov. 7, recital is the choir’s second collaboration with Maestro Paul Freeman’s Sinfonietta.
“About every other year, we sing with a professional orchestra. It’s great visibility for the university to sing in downtown Chicago with a professional orchestra and a wonderful experience for our students,” Johnson says, recalling performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” and Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.
“I am proud of both the NCCO performance and the Orchestra Hall invitations,” he adds. “These performances highlight the depth of talent and high artistic standards our choral students achieve day in and day out.”
Most of Johnson’s students are bound for careers in music education or professional performance.
Alumni of his choral program are performing in professional choruses such as the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Grant Park Symphony Chorus, New Classic Singers and St. Charles Singers. Many also teach choral music in public schools throughout Illinois.
The opportunities they gain through the choral program to travel and sing in “historic and majestic spaces” as they build friendships and memories are “almost inexplicable,” he says.
And Johnson is happy to provide it all.
“My students develop a love for choral music that extends far on beyond graduation and achieve an expertise in the choral arts that will enrich their lives personally, and the communities in which they live, for years to come,” he says, “which is the most I could ever hope for.”
# # #