Out Loud and Outside

October 19, 2020

Charlotte Maskelony ’21

socially distanced student musicians rehearsing together.
Gregory Ristow leads the Oberlin College Choir through a rehearsal outside the lower level of Mudd Center. Ristow found the acoustics of the space make a suitable stand-in for Oberlin's concert halls during times of pandemic.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97

Oberlin College Choir sings in different ways for a different world.

In recent weeks, Oberlin students walking across Wilder Bowl may have heard a surprising sound emanating from Mudd Center—singing. On Friday, October 23, the Oberlin College Choir will perform its first concert of the year live from the Mudd Center patio.

Under the direction of Gregory Ristow, the choir will sing, socially distanced and wearing masks, from a series of descending steps that lead to the lower level of the library. Singers will face in toward the library, and their sound will be projected back out toward Wilder Bowl.

The concert can be experienced via live stream on Vimeo, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

In selecting the program’s repertoire, Ristow was mindful of Oberlin’s continuing efforts to foster a more equitable and diverse conservatory education, an initiative developed this summer in tandem with Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar’s Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity.

Gregory Ristow
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97

“It’s our responsibility as conductors to recognize that the choices we make in programming today will determine the canon tomorrow,” says Ristow, director of conservatory vocal ensembles. “As our nation responds to the killing of Black people in racist acts of violence, I wanted this program to seek greater racial equity, so that we can prepare our young performers to create a more compassionate and just music industry and world.”

The program includes Margaret Bonds’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers, derived from the famous poem written by a young Langston Hughes; Joel Thompson’s Hold Fast to Dreams and The Caged Bird Sings for Freedom, based on the Maya Angelou poem; and Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Dunbar Hymns, based on the poetry of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. 

Also included are pieces custom-made for outdoor, evening performance: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Calme des nuits (“like the night”) and Les fleurs et les arbres (“the flowers and the trees”), and selections from Felix Mendelssohn’s Im Freien zu singen, Op. 59—which literally means “to be sung outside.”

“I always think What is rep that needs to be heard right now?” says Ristow. “My goal, beyond pure academic education, is to select music that speaks to this moment in time. Because as performers and as audience members, thoughtful repertoire can guide how we experience music and how we experience life.”

In October 2019, the main library of Mudd Center was named the Mary Church Terrell Main Library in honor of the 1884 graduate, a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the NAACP. 

“It feels especially important to sing these texts beneath the Terrell Main Library,” Ristow says.

Many professors have adjusted their class goals to help students graduate with skills for the new remote world, and Ristow wants young musicians to understand the possibility for ensemble work.

“We’ve been blessed with delightful weather as we prepare for this concert, and now I’m setting the choir up for the second part of the semester after the weather turns when we transition largely to online, improvisation-based singing,” he says. “So for each rehearsal, I’ve been sprinkling in at least one improvisation exercise that we do in small groups, spread out throughout Wilder Bowl—which has been a lot of fun.

“All of us have something musical to say, and for many people, the trick is finding games that get us past the fear of saying those things musically. I hope it’s been a joyous experience for everyone and a chance for the choir to get to know each other in smaller groups, beyond the 40-some singers as a whole."

Perhaps now more than ever, finding joy amid times of fear is a goal well worth pursuing.

“We still have all the goals of a normal semester: building their performance skills, their collaborative skills, and their empathy toward one another,” Ristow says. “Now we have an additional focus on improvisation to highlight how much the students as performers bring to the performance process, and how much is possible in this new world.”

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