EMU first-year Judith Hoffman plays with the orchestra during the gala. (Photos by Rachel Holderman)

DN-R: Virtual Gala crosses genres in uplifting message of hope

Did you miss it? View the Gala.

This article by Kathleen Shaw appeared in the Nov. 22, 2020, Daily News-Record.

Dressed in a traditional black gown with hair neatly curled to her shoulders, senior soprano Kiara Kiah opened the annual Eastern Mennonite University orchestral gala with a delicate duet of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” with professor and baritone James Richardson. But Richardson was nowhere near Kiah for her performance — in fact, he was miles away in Virginia while Kiah stood on the stage of First Presbyterian Church of Athens in Georgia alone.

On Saturday, the EMU music department hosted a made-for-broadcast special premiere of the annual gala concert on Facebook Live with the theme “A Concert of Hope.” The evening performance featured musicians recorded inside and outside, near and far, spanning various genres and brought together with a message of fortified perseverance amid a pandemic.

Kiah, who moved to Georgia in September, is completing her studies online and said finishing her career at EMU by performing in the gala was a rewarding experience that pushed her comfort zone and flexed the boundaries of possibilities.

EMU faculty members David Berry and Kimberly Souther perform their own arrangement of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzola’s “Libertango.”

“It definitely felt weird because instead of having a person next to you, as you’d sing a classic duet, you had to listen to the person in your ear. But, they’re not actually next to you, so you have to be creative,” she said. “It was a bare slate and was up to me to create the scene.”

Kimberlea Daggy, of musical radio programs “All Things Considered” on WMRA and “Air Play” on WEMC, hosted the virtual gala.

Department chair and pianist David Berry said 2020 has been marked by countless loss and changes, so hope can feel easily diminished, but music is a universal balm for drained spirits.

“Music speaks so well to situations like these in times when it’s hard to find anything to latch onto. Music can lead the way and often be the thing that can speak to such a time,” he said.

As in years past, the gala featured the talents of EMU’s Jazz Band, Wind Ensemble, Chamber Singers and the EMU Orchestra along with faculty soloists and special guest artists.

Professor Benjamin Bergey conducts a socially distanced recording session earlier this fall for the gala’s broadcast event.

Embracing the experimental nature of 2020, this year’s special guests were notably not orchestral acts but offered a fuller scope of music’s capability to intersect genres. The first, AppalAsia, is a Pittsburgh-based, world-folk group that blends instruments of Western and Eastern origins and performed an original song “Four Hills.”

Harrisonburg-based contemporary roots music group The Steel Wheels also joined to play alongside university students and bring an unfamiliar arrangement to a popular melody.

Eric Brubaker is an EMU class of 2001 graduate, but he’s better known for playing the fiddle and co-founding The Steel Wheels. Brubaker practiced both classical and folk styles of music growing up and was a concertmaster during his EMU days. He said returning to EMU and arranging “Sing Me Like a Folk Song” along with the directors of Red Wing Academy, Megan Tiller and Kelly Wiedemann, to perform alongside the university’s orchestra felt like coming full circle.

“To bring my experiences in being a touring musician and also playing more informal styles, bluegrass-influenced styles,” Brubaker said. “To be able to mesh that with the classical music setting is something that interests me in a way where you can find some common ground between the different styles, and that’s exciting to me.”

Brubaker said “Sing Me Like A Folk Song” is a metaphorical tune comparing folk music to the connection between people, but the orchestral arrangement reimagined the meaning to encompass the bridges between classical and Americana, bluegrass styles.

“To be able to reach into those different worlds and create something that combines those two in a different way hopefully sort of gives a way we can continue to reach across all different kinds of divides,” he said.

Donations from the evening benefited the EMU music student scholarship fund.

“There’s something for everyone in this program but in a way I feel like it always comes back to those themes of hope,” Berry said. “It’s the best of technology coming together with that timeless sound of a choir, to still be able to do that in this season.”

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