The EMU Orchestra and University Choir under the direction of Professor Benjamin Bergey performs Nicolas Flagello's "Passion of Martin Luther King" during the Nov. 11 Gala Concert. (Photos by Derrick Chirinos)

2022 Gala Concert earns accolades

We hope that what you hear and see this evening will move your spirit, buoy your soul, challenge your mind and bring joy to your heart. 

Professor David Berry, introducing the 11/11/22 Gala Concert

EMU’s annual Gala Concert was an evening of multiple delights amidst musical artistry, bringing together Nicolas Flagello’s rarely-performed choral masterwork about the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Balla Kouyaté, a legend of world music.

Balla Kouyaté performs with singer Adjaratou “Tapani” Demba, the EMU Jazz Band and the Chamber Singers.

Equally thrilling to music lovers of the EMU community were the performances of university musicians in all ensembles, joined by 15 young musicians from the Shenandoah Valley Youth Symphony. 

And especially meaningful for both performers and audience that night was that Dianne Flagello, wife of the late composer, had personally blessed the performance. 

Producer and master of ceremonies Professor David Berry shared with the audience that choir director Professor Benjamin Bergey had invited her to the performance. 

The 2.5-hour concert left many with feelings similar to what Berry had wished.

“Our program’s commitments to community engagement, justice and peacebuilding, and diversity of styles and genres in music was so evident,” said Dean Dan Ott, himself a musician. “I could see in the faces of our student-musicians that they understood deeply, in their bodies and spirits, that the full power of music to bring us together was in force during this performance.”

Sharon Welch, who leads the justice-oriented Social Transformation Fellowship, watched the livestream from Chicago. “Deeply inspiring to see young people performing with such skill and integrity that powerful work … such a clear articulation of the pivotal vision and impact of Eastern Mennonite University, she observed.

In a note to Bergey after the concert, Flagello expressed appreciation for the multimedia presentation that accompanied the music, for the choir’s “angelic glorious sound,” and for bass Ricky Goodwin, who “sang with a sensitivity and heartfelt understanding of the role.” And in another synchronicity, she shared that Kouyaté’s performance was an “added pleasure, as my major instrument was the marimba.”

EMU’s University Choir performs during the gala.

EMU’s music community and student-musicians rose to the challenge of two difficult and technically challenging collaborations in what was a rare opportunity, according to Berry and Bergey.

Flagello’s work has only been performed a few dozen times since its premiere. Preparations began more than a year in advance, with Bergey proposing the masterwork as part of a winning Inclusive Excellence grant from EMU’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

“The Passion of MLK was such a powerful work to learn on many levels for our students,” Bergey explained. “Modern oratorio is not often tackled as it is often harmonically more dissonant, which can be a challenge at first. Between the important and pertinent thematic content using MLK’s speeches, as well as liturgical texts and a beautiful composition, our students rose to the challenge that not many university groups have done.”

Kouyaté’s visit was also the result of collaborative efforts with Any Given Child-Shenandoah Valley and several other organizations (for a full list of sponsors, see below). 

The initial idea to invite him to perform came from his former colleague Kimberly Souther, now director of EMU’s Preparatory Music Program.

Kouyaté not only performed at the gala but visited school groups to speak about and perform with his balafon.

During their rehearsal, EMU musicians learned folk tunes from Mali alongside Kouyaté “in an improvisatory way through a different learning modality, which was such a stretching and beneficial opportunity,” Bergey said.

Professor Kyle Remnant, director of bands, worked in “out-of-the-box and creative ways with the jazz ensemble on improvisation and learning music by ear in preparation for collaborating with Balla,” Berry added. “That really helped give them the confidence to learn the music by ear in the way that these Malian folk songs would have traditionally been taught, which was an important part of the learning process.”

EMU musicians participating in the concert spoke later of their profound appreciation for such a rich experience. 

Orchestra concertmaster Judith Hoffman is a junior music education major aiming to work with young high school musicians. The gala provided her with inspiration to recreate a similar exciting and supportive environment and context, “one that embodies creativity and connection,” she said. “Being in an ensemble and creating music isn’t simply following the dynamics or articulation on the page. It’s about giving meaning to the music and using the music to reach and connect with others.”

Junior music performance major Luke Haynes said his performance in the gala both stretched him and provoked strong emotions. He performed on the clarinet and organ with the Chamber Orchestra for the MLK piece. “I felt like I was contributing to raising awareness that racial oppression is still among us even 54 years after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968.” 

Haynes also performed on clarinet with the EMU Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, and Kouyaté. “Learning some of his music and then soloing with him was so humbling,” he said.

“What I loved about this gala was the collaboration across ensembles,” said sophomore music and peacebuilding major Reah Clymer, a soprano with the University Choir and Chamber Singers. “My favorite part of the night was ending the concert with Balla, the Chamber Singers and the EMU Jazz Band. We were all dancing and moving around, singing harmonies, clapping different rhythms, and enjoying the music together. It was a magical and energizing way to end the concert, and I am really grateful to Balla for sharing his music with us.”

Special thanks to sponsors Nancy Heisey and the J.Wilmer and Velma I. Heisey Grant Fund; EMU’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Any Given Child-Shenandoah Valley; Shenandoah Valley Preparatory Music Program; Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir; Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival; and Encore, the alumni organization of EMU’s music program.