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  Striking a new chord
By Daniel Ausema '99
 
 

This fall the music department at Calvin is presenting a lecture recital called "Lengthening the cords, Strengthening the stakes." The recital will feature Charsie Sawyer speaking about and singing the music she has been researching, music by female composers and by African American composers, music that often is underrepresented in traditional music departments. Balancing out Sawyer's part, John Hamersma will perform on organ the traditional songs found in most music departments.

John Hamersma
John Hamersma

The image that gives this performance its name, of enlarging a tent and making sure the support stands firm, demonstrates the attempts by Calvin's music department to celebrate increasingly diverse music and people but also hold onto the traditions that make the present possible. "We want a department that has deep roots, a strong sense of tradition.and yet is becoming increasingly diverse," department chair Calvin Stapert explains.

This recital encapsulates the changes within the music department over the past decade and points to the exciting future that department members envision.

The most visible sign that the department is changing is the diversity of the professors. Of the 13 full-time professors in the department, four are female and three of these four are from an ethnic-minority tradition, making the music department the most diverse at Calvin. These four women, Sawyer, Hyesook Kim, Pearl Shangkuan, and Peggy Wheeler, all came to Calvin in the past decade.

Pearl Shangkuan
Pearl Shangkuan

"[The addition of these staff members] shows tremendous effort on the part of the department to diversify," Shangkuan says. Shangkuan had not heard of Calvin College before she responded to the national search for a conductor for the Calvin Oratorio Society three years ago. She now conducts the Alumni Choir and Lyric Singers in addition to the Oratorio Society and teaches courses in conducting and choral literature.

"Still," Shangkuan adds, "the goal of the department is to include others not only for the sake of diversifying, but for their own merit."

Charsie Sawyer
Charsie Sawyer

Dr. Sawyer's coming to Calvin was, Sawyer states, "God's timing." She had been living in North Carolina and touring with a local opera company when her husband got a job in Grand Rapids. They had lived in the area previously-she had even taught voice lessons at Calvin before getting her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan-and she did not want to come back.

Word of her return, however had reached the music department. When everything had been packed up in her house in North Carolina and everything disconnected except the phone, she received a call from John Worst who was then chair of the department. Trudy Huizenga was retiring and they needed a new voice professor. "The job," she says, "was waiting for me."

Dr. Sawyer believes the diversity of the department is one of its important offerings for students. "It's very good for students to see the world does exist beyond one culture-you have to be able to branch out and bloom in different areas."

Visible signs such as this are important to department members, but they are not the focus in a department devoted to music. New and old members of the department feel that the changes over the past decade have created energy and excitement that infuse everything the department does.

The number of music majors each year has hovered right around 50 in recent years. But this constant belies the steady increase in the number of students who major in something else but are still involved in the music department.

Calvin Stapert
Calvin Stapert

According to Stapert, the number of students taking private lessons has risen dramatically in recent years. The Fine Arts Center is running out of practice rooms to accommodate everyone. Even more, the number of students participating in performance has grown. The orchestra this past year was the biggest ever, and the two bands and various choirs are all on the verge of being too big.

Shangkuan has seen this growth dramatically in the Calvin Oratorio Society. When she first came to Calvin in 1998, students made up ten percent of the 200 to 250 members of the choir. This past year that number reached forty percent.

This increase is especially surprising because of the many claims students have on their time. "[Today's affluence] has made a significant difference in the claims we can make on a student's time," Hamersma says when reflecting on the changes in the nearly 50 years he has taught in the department.

Stapert agrees. "It's not that they have any more time on their hands. I think success breeds success; students have heard the band, orchestra or choir and want to be a part of that."

The performances by the Oratorio Society and other ensembles have long been the measuring stick of the music department and performance continues to be central to its work today.

The Oratorio Society performed Haydn's Creation this spring to a sold-out audience. The performance received a glowing review in the Grand Rapids Press. Handel's Messiah continues to bring in the crowds every December. "The West Michigan community expects [the Messiah] to be as good as the symphony or better," John Witvliet, director of Campus Choir, says.

This tradition is as strong as ever, but the diversity of the department is also showing up in performance. Choirs are doing more music from outside the European tradition. In the spring semester of 2000 for example, the Calvin College Campus Choir performed in concert with Coro Cántico Nuevo, a Hispanic choir from New York City.

The performance combined songs from Latin America, Europe and the United States, ranging from contemporary praise songs to songs penned by Beethoven and Bruchner; the choirs sang in English, Spanish, Latin, Catalan and Guaraní, an indigenous language of South America. To end the concert, both choirs together sang the Genevan Psalm "Song of Simeon," a song that has become a tradition at Campus Choir performances.

The Fall Music Festival especially demonstrates the wide range of music being performed by the department. "It's a real kaleidoscope of musical styles," Stapert says.

The Gospel Choir also brings other musical styles to the department. Even though the choir is run by students, it maintains a close connection to the department through its director, Charsie Sawyer.

Another example of the broadening range of styles is the contemporary classical music being used by bands and the orchestra. Hyesook Kim, the orchestra conductor, has especially explored this new style.

The Calvin Alumni Choir broadened its scope last summer with its first international tour, an exciting and groundbreaking tour through Asia. "We reached out to a part of the world where the connection is not as strong," Shangkuan said.

A sign that Calvin's musical reputation is spreading into other circles is a song that was commissioned in 2000 for the Campus Choir, "Christus Paradox, Choral Variations on 'Picardy.'" The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, for which Witvliet also works, published a copy of the song and made it available to choirs around the world. It was performed recently at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.

Students in the music department are excelling beyond just the traditional performances. The majority of music majors in the past have always gone into music education, teaching and conducting in schools around the country. Education continues to be the focus of many students, but recently the number of students continuing in graduate school and pursuing professional music careers has increased.

Mark Moliterno
Mark Moliterno

Students who dream of becoming professional singers can find tutelage in the department's most recent full-time appointee, Mark Moliterno. Moliterno came to Calvin in the fall of 2000 from a career as a professional singer in New York City. He had performed around the United States in opera and oratorio and with orchestras until life on the road made him give it up.

"My vision," he says, "is to bring to Calvin College more students who desire to be professional singers. My role is to attract that kind of student and provide the guidance they need."

Moliterno sees Calvin College as the ideal place for an aspiring musician to learn. "We have a whole philosophy of education that is important for people who will be in the artistic world," he explained. "In a professional musician's career you need God; otherwise that business will eat you."

David Fuentes, who has been at Calvin for three years, is also trying to prepare students for music after Calvin, especially graduate school. Fuentes teaches composition, form and counterpoint and a new course, form and syntax, which studies how people perceive music. Before coming to Calvin Fuentes taught at Berkely School of Music for ten years.

To better prepare students for graduate school, he is encouraging his composition students to prepare a portfolio of their work to show interested schools. He would also like to see courses in the future dealing with music in pop culture, including popular music and film scoring. These are issues, he says, that graduate students need to be familiar with.

Calvin's music department is also partnering with other schools through a Christian Coalition of Colleges program at Greenville College that starts this fall. The program offers two specialties, one in songwriting and the other in the business of music.

With all these changes there is a strong sense that the department is moving forward and helping each other along. "Everyone wants to see everyone else succeed. There's no competition," Hamersma says. "You don't often find that among musicians."

Several faculty members used the word "collegial" to describe the support they felt in the department. "The focus is not 'all these new members' but a very collegial synergy between long-time members and new members," Witvliet says.

Despite all these changes in personnel and programs, the traditions of the department hold a place of respect. This spring retired professor Howard Slenk created a sound and image presentation that celebrates the history of the music department.

The production begins with pictures, narration and recordings from six pioneers in the department, Reese Veatch, Seymour Swets, James De Jonge, John Hamersma, Harold Geerdes, and Ruth Rus. The second half is a collage of pictures and recordings of the recent and current professors in class, ensembles and performances.

"It's very important for members of the department to realize they are standing on the shoulders of their predecessors. That's very easy for young people to forget," Slenk says. "I was guilty of that myself."

The fact that one of those pioneers, John Hamersma, is still a member of the department helps keep the department in touch with its history.

Moliterno has found their presence helpful: "I have a strong sense of having joined a tradition. There are the bedrocks that have been here a long time and can keep us connected to those traditions. But they're very open to us too. Dr. Stapert," he adds, "offers amazing leadership."

Witvliet adds that "the past has cultivated an audience that is eager to hear us; it creates high expectations."

Building on those traditions, the music department has big dreams for the future. One is to have more musical theater. The department has already been involved in some theater in conjunction with the productions of the Calvin Theater Company, but the hope is to offer classes specifically geared toward it.

Dr. Sawyer would even like to see a major concentration in music theater. "Teachers invariably have to direct a musical when they start teaching," she says. "We need to make students versatile."

Also high on the agenda is a jazz program, perhaps instrumental and vocal. There have been short-lived jazz bands at Calvin in past years, but they always struggled to find the right person to direct it.

"We don't have a five-year plan," Hamersma says, "but one of the things we're looking at is offering a [Bachelor of Arts degree] in performance." If the BA program is approved, it would begin with voice, relying on the expertise of Sawyer and Moliterno and Trudy Huizenga, who has retired from teaching but continues to give lessons.

"We need to do what we can do well," Hamersma continues, "and we have the staff to do it in voice."

None of these future programs has gone through all the proper channels to be approved yet, but they represent the dreams of many in the department.

"I don't ever want to stop dreaming," Shangkuan says about the future of the choirs she directs and the department in general. "If a group doesn't dream and move forward, it slips backward."

Music Department

Student Awards
NATS Michigan State Vocal Contest winners

The Unknown Flower
Charsie Sawyer's latest CD

My Only Comfort
Calvin Stapert's book about Bach

Alumni Orchestra

Alumni Choir

Calvin Institute of Christian Worship

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