This past January, a plaque was placed in Old Cabell Hall to commemorate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 visit to the University. His visage looked on as the University Singers delivered a breathtaking performance of African-American choral music — even taking time to sing one of King’s personal favorite pieces, “Precious Lord.”
As a prominent choir at the University, the University Singers has performed for multiple famous figures, ranging from Hillary Clinton to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil — the composer-lyricist team from “Les Misérables.” The ensemble also tours, sometimes traveling as far as Europe, and regularly collaborates with the Charlottesville Symphony Orchestra.
Although comprised of roughly 25 to 30 percent music majors, the choir is a diverse body of students. The singers represent all six undergraduate schools and range in age from first years to graduate school students. Just as this group embodies age diversity, Friday night’s repertoire was a celebration of a diverse choral tradition.
Conductor Michael Slon decided to briefly depart from the choir’s classical roots, instead leading the singers through a repertoire based in African-American tradition. The musical selections ranged from acclaimed anthems like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to lesser known pieces such as “Listen to the Lambs.”
Tristen Gulley-Davenport, a second-year College student, University Singer and concert soloist, applauded Slon for this stylistic departure. Not only was the performance an opportunity to pay homage to a less represented facet of choral history, but it also served as a learning experience for performers and audience members alike.
“I think that we tend to stick to [classical music], and a lot of people in the group have never done gospels or spirituals or hymns in such a large setting, or at all,” Gulley-Davenport said. “So, I think it was a really cool way to get people to have that experience of seeing different kinds of music.”
Gulley-Davenport said her choral experience was “exhilarating,” as she treasures the opportunity to sing alongside a group of 80 friends.
“The feeling of getting a huge chord ... When we are all singing our hearts out — it’s absolutely incredible,” she said.
Third-year College student and University Singer Joshua Stuart said he agreed that the choral environment is exciting.
“[Choral music is] more about making the music with the people that are in it,” he said. “It’s really beautiful when things [come] together.”
Friday evening, things certainly did come together. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been proud to have witnessed the singers’ outpouring of passion, musical precision and display of friendship.
As a continuation of the McIntire Department of Music’s spring performance series, the University’s Chamber Singers will be holding a concerted entitled “Passion Music” this upcoming Friday, April 14 at 8 p.m. Chamber Singers is a selective ensemble, comprised of students drawn from the larger University Singers choir.