A Commencement That’s Only the Beginning

In its first year with a new director, Muhlenberg’s Chamber Choir took the stage at three graduation-related events.

By: Meghan Kita  Wednesday, May 30, 2018 00:28 PM

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Chris Jackson (center), director of choral and vocal studies and lecturer in music, leads Muhlenberg's Chamber Choir during the College's 170th Commencement. Photo by Paul Pearson.

On February 28, the 26 students (including 23 underclassmen) in Muhlenberg’s Chamber Choir received letters from President Williams asking them to stay on campus to perform with a “world-famous choral composer” who would be present for Commencement. When the College announced that it was Morten Lauridsen, who’d be receiving an honorary degree, it was a big deal.

“I’ve been doing his music for years,” says Adam Cantor ’21, a theatre and computer science major.

The College hosted interactive discussions with the four honorary degree recipients as part of the Commencement festivities, which is why the Chamber Choir was asked to stay—they sang three of Lauridsen’s pieces during his 50-minute talk on Thursday, May 17. The College invited the group to be part of the Baccalaureate and Commencement ceremonies as well.

For Chris Jackson, director of choral and vocal studies and lecturer in music, these were the kinds of performances he’d hoped to guide the group toward when he took over the role at the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year.

“As far back as my initial interviews for the position at Muhlenberg, I identified that the choral program here could and should become a more meaningful part of the fabric of the campus community,” he says. “These students are giving up a week of their summer, dedicating hours to rehearsal and giving of their intellect, empathy and musical talents. This is a visible demonstration of what I believe to be one of the most important lessons we can teach: Each individual is responsible in the shaping of their community.”

Music has long been a part of Muhlenberg’s Commencement—the Allentown Band, the country’s oldest civilian concert band, has performed at the last 47 ceremonies—but in the past, the only vocal performers were graduating seniors singing the national anthem and the College’s alma mater. This year’s itinerary maintained those traditions and added a musical interlude—the Chamber Choir’s rendition of Stephen Paulus’s “The Road Home”—between the address from Robert Loeffler ’70 and the announcement of two faculty teaching awards.

“It’s really nice to be a part of the Commencement ceremony,” Cantor says. “We’re contributing to the community in a way that we haven’t been able to do before. It’s broadening our horizons.”

“I can say goodbye to my friends without attending the ceremony; it’s not necessarily something I would go to if I weren’t performing at it,” adds Alice Banta ’21, a theatre and music major. “But it’s nice to perform for the campus—so much of what we do is performing for our own sake.”

Chamber Choir members don’t get academic credit for participating, nor is there any other tangible incentive to be part of the group. Jackson, who previously was director of choral activities at Lycoming College, notes that the students who participate in Chamber Choir do so because of their passion for singing.

“Their care, their wealth of performing experience, their skill and their love of a challenge—it's these traits that set them apart from other groups I have conducted,” he says. “And, it is important to note, this is just the beginning: We were able to bring out so many positive qualities in each other in only one year's time.”

While Jackson is not able to say right now whether the Chamber Choir will be part of future Commencement celebrations, it’s clear that the students he directs are excited to continue raising the group’s campus profile alongside him.

“Dr. Jackson has been an amazing asset to the department,” Cantor says. “I’m very glad that I came to Muhlenberg in the same year he did.”