Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Aurora University Choral Festival Blogpost #7 A City Called Heaven

The Metea High School Treble Singers, directed by Nathan Bramstedt, will perform my arrangement of the African-American spiritual A City Called Heaven on October 21st at Aurora University (Aurora, IL). I'm excited that I will get to hear them perform this piece, since Metea has a history of musical excellence, including placing highly in the annual Grammy music awards for high schools across the country.

This is one of the most poignantly sad, yet beautiful spirituals I know, and a piece I had been wanting to arrange for quite some time, especially after listening to an old recording by the amazing Marion Anderson. See way down below for more on Marion Anderson and her role in the civil rights movement in America.

The imagery of the title is what has always attracted me, yet it stands in such stark contrast to much of the text, which speaks of spiritual isolation (…“my father’s still walkin’ in sin. My brothers and sisters won’t own me…”).

This music tells of  an unfortunate period of our American history, yet also tells the universal story of the human will to survive. I’m also beginning to think we should call these songs what they really are, and what St. Olaf College esteemed conductor Anton Armstrong calls them, that is, slave songs. By doing so, we are forced to face the history behind them, and not just sing them mindlessly.

I had decided to create an arrange of this piece, yet a germinal idea for an arrangement just hadn’t quite hit me, so I kept tabling the project repeatedly over three years or so. Finally during a stretch in December 2005 when I was working on some other spirituals for SATB (mixed choir) I sat down with this piece again and began to try a few things at the piano, and the piece finally started to take shape. Up until then, I just hadn't found a way to make my arrangement more than just ordinary, and that's a problem! The challenge in creating an artistic arrangement is to find a way to create something unique--something with a new twist that people may be surprised by. It could be taking a piece in 4/4 (common time) and turning the beat into 7/8 or some other mixed meter, or it might be changing the usual speed of a piece. For me, the unique aspect that finally popped up was creating a really powerful, loud setting of the section where the words are  "sometimes I'm tossed and driven..." and adding in a strangely dissonant chord into the piano part. This section is a giant, dramatic contrast to the quiet beginning and end of the piece. 

Further note: In general I think our new arrangements of spirituals should be a cappella, as that takes us closest to the origin of the music. Yet, I think there is some room for some accompanied spirituals as well.



I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow, 
I'm toss'd in dis wide world alone.

No hope have I for tomorrow,  
I've started to make Heaven my home.

Some-times I am toss'd an' driven, Lawd,
some-times I don't know where to go.
I've heard of a city call'd Heaven,
I've started to make it my home.

My mother has reach'd dat pure glory,
my father's still walkin' in sin.
My brothers an' sisters won't  own me,
be-cause I'm a-tryin' to get in. 

(repeat chorus)

Nathan Bramstedt, choral director at Metea Valley High School

 Mr. Nathan Bramstedt has been a member of the District 204 music faculty for 12 years.  At Metea Valley High School, he leads a choral program of 250 singers and teaches Bass Chorus, Concert Choir, Treble Singers, Chamber Singers and Music Theory.  After school he directs Off the Record vocal jazz ensemble and Girls Group and sponsors the student-led a cappella groups Apollo and the Muses.  Mr. Bramstedt also assists with the marching band.  Behind the scenes, he is the Theater Program Director, where he produces the main stage productions and directs the musicals.  Prior to opening Metea Valley in 2009, Mr. Bramstedt taught choral music at Crone Middle School.  His choirs have shared stages with area orchestras, collegiate choirs and community ensembles.  He has been recognized five times by the Indian Prairie Educational Foundation as a "Most Influential Educator."  He earned a Master of Music in Choral Conducting degree from the Pennsylvania State University.  Before his Fellowship assignment at Penn State, he taught high school choir and band in Warrensburg, IL.  He earned a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Illinois Wesleyan University.  He has performed with the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, the Chicago Master Singers and has directed choir tours across the country and Europe.

SOME HISTORY: In 1939 Marian Anderson was denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall by the conservative group the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her color. Instead, and at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, the powerful US secretary of the interior, permitted her to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. Notice the ENORMOUS crowd as you watch this excellent six minute video, about her role in the civil rights movement in the US:

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