A sesquicentennial choral tour of Minnesota

Choral Arts Ensemble
The Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester is one of six community choirs participating in the "Minnesota Voices" project at the State Fair.
Photo courtesy of the Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester

The idea of creating a choral tour of Minnesota came from the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum. The organization's president John Nuechterlein says when the staff considered the best way to commemorate the Minnesota sesquicentennial they quickly turned to choral music.

"It's in the DNA of Minnesota," he says. "People here in Minnesota sing. They just sing naturally. It's part of who we are."

Janika Vandervelde
Composer Janika Vandervelde conducting.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

And so the American Composers Forum collaborated with the Minnesota Chorale to develop "Minnesota Voices." The project involved six community choruses from different regions of the state. The choirs each chose a composer to write a short work evoking their part of Minnesota. The Arrowhead Chorale in Duluth turned to St. Paul composer Janika Vandervelde.

"I just love the Arrowhead region," she says. "Whenever I have a chance to go on vacation I just head right up there."

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It was after a weekend vacation near the Duluth lift bridge that Vandervelde learned she had the commission. She'd been watching the ships going in and out of the harbor and used that as the inspiration for her choral piece.

"I thought about what I could do in three minutes that would capture the essence of all of these ships. And I decided to use a list or a parade of ships, which is something that is often done in these harbors. So I thought I would try to do that musically."

Edie Hill
Edie Hill collaborated closely with the kids of the Minneapolis Youth Chorus in the writing of her piece, "Circle of the River."
Photo by John Noltner

Each of the "Minnesota Voices" composers in the "Minnesota Voices" worked closely with the choirs during the writing process. After the Minneapolis Youth Chorus selected Edie Hill, she and the group's conductor decided their piece should be about the Mississippi River. Hill then met with some of the kids in the choir to shape the work.

"We sat on the floor," the Minneapolis composer says. "They brought in poems and ideas and just jotted down thoughts about water and the Mississippi River. Eventually we charted out a map of the piece."

Another Twin Cities composer, J. David Moore, worked on a piece for the Chorale Arts Ensemble in Rochester. He struggled to find a text that would really reflect the character of southeastern Minnesota. He considered frontier stories, including those of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Minnesota poetry.

J. David Moore
Composer J. David Moore struggled with the right text until he found Kent Meyers' essay, "Old Waters."
Photo courtesy of J. David Moore

Then he found "Old Waters" an essay by Minnesota- born author Kent Meyers. Meyers' writes about picking up rocks in farm fields as a boy and reflects on how glaciers formed the landscape. It was the final two paragraphs of that Moore set to music.

Moore uses the lines "I've been formed by glacier, formed by a land, molded by the freezing and thawing of water" to begin his piece.

"The last final rush of Meyers' prose seemed to already have a musical flow that I liked," Moore says. "The language just tasted good in the mouth, which is always good for singers."

All six community choirs in the Minnesota Voices project will sing their specially commissioned works Saturday afternoon at the Minnesota State Fair Bandshell. Then all the singers will join with the Minnesota Chorale to perform a new work by Carol Barnett celebrating the whole state.

American Composers Forum President John Nuechterlein hopes the new pieces will become a part of each choir's regular repertoire.