MU School of Music Ensembles to perform The Abyssinian Mass by Wynton Marsalis

Damien Sneed with Masters of Music student Bruno Bastos Do Nascimento

Guest Conductor Damien Sneed with Masters of Music student Bruno Bastos Do Nascimento
Photo by Bachelors of Music in Music Education student James Shemwell

Author: 
Susan Worstell

In 2008, nine-time Grammy Award winner Wynton Marsalis was commissioned to compose a piece of music commemorating the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. This Thursday evening, April 20, 2017, MU’s Choral Union, University Singers, and Concert Jazz Band will combine to perform this wonderful piece.  Last year, a colleague at MU mentioned the piece to Director of Choral Activities, Dr. R. Paul Crabb.  He thought it would be a good fit for the school’s community and student choir, Choral Union.  The school’s top student choir, University Singers, joins Choral Union each semester and this year, the Concert Jazz Band, conducted by MU Jazz instructor Josh Reed, will be added to the mix.

The Abyssinian Baptist Church commissioned the piece as a celebration of the gospel music which has so long been a tradition of their establishment.  They wanted to reach out and incorporate as many faiths as possible, also wanting to include non-believers as well.  Dr. Crabb comments, “The purpose of the piece is meant to promote unity and collaboration not only in music but in all aspects of life.”  He feels it’s important for people to come together for a purpose, putting aside personal opinions and beliefs, and just celebrate being together, celebrate being human.

Departing from their usual genre of more traditional choral music, the choirs as well as Dr. Crabb have been challenged to learn a new style of music with challenging rhythms and notes.  Dr. Crabb said he was not trained in this style of conducting and has spent much time learning how to best lead the choir in rehearsals. He is very pleased with how the choirs have embraced the challenge and worked hard to learn something so different to them. Choral Union community member Pat Timberlake comments, “It has been really inspirational learning to sing Wynton Marsalis's wonderfully original and creative The Abyssinian Mass. It's a beautiful truly original American work.”  Alan Luger, also a Choral Union community member, adds, “Preparing and performing this mass in the jazz idiom is unlike anything else I've done in 70 years of choral singing. And to be conducted by a genius like Mr. Sneed was the frosting. Brilliant experience.”

The School of Music is very honored to have award winning guest conductor Damien Sneed join us for this concert.  Mr. Sneed conducted the Mass at its premiere in 2008 and at the original recording at Lincoln Center in New York.  Also joining the choir are the four soloists from the recording: Patrice Eaton, Matia Washington, Justin Michael Austin, and Djore Nance.

Sneed, who conducts and performs all over the world, traveled to Columbia earlier this month to work with the choirs, sparking much energy and excitement in the group.  Says Masters of Music student Kiernan Steiner, “Preparing for our performance of the The Abyssinian Mass, under the direction of Damien Sneed, has been an incredible experience.  Sneed’s energy and commitment to expressing the music has been invigorating for our choir and I am excited to share this experience with our community.”  Choral Union community member Arthur Mehrhoff comments, “As a boy growing up in north Saint Louis in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember sometimes hearing music coming from neighborhood African-American churches and wondered what that service was like, what the music meant to the people inside. This concert and guest conductor Damien Sneed have offered me meaningful and valuable windows into that world, maybe even a door, and I simply hope to enter them and respectfully experience this great tradition as fully as I can…”  

When asked about the diversion from the usual repertoire, Crabb replied that he’s in education and feels it is important to not only stretch himself to learn new things, but also to afford the same opportunity to the singers. Music Education major Sarah Schulte greatly appreciated the opportunity, commenting “Working on The Abyssinian Mass has been absolutely incredible thus far.  Mr. Damien Sneed has truly enriched the experience by stretching our musical minds-his comments have really allowed us to help this work not just be a notated piece of music, but a living, breathing, art form that is constantly changing and evolving.  Plus, we've had so much fun!”   Echoes Journalism major and University Singers member Samantha Stokes, “It's been a great experience to immerse ourselves in a different style and learn more about gospel music. Mr. Sneed's conducting is so different from what many of us are used to, but it's been a fun challenge to adapt to his techniques and learn from his style.”

The choir hopes the concert will inspire the audience to open their minds, to enjoy the music, and to celebrate being together.  The concert will begin Thursday, April 20 at 7 pm in Jesse Auditorium – Jesse Hall, MU Campus. Tickets are available at the Missouri Theatre Box Office, 573-882-3781, or online at concertseries.org.  Live audio streaming will also be available, https://music.missouri.edu/concert-audio-streaming.