Every year, thousands of choral directors attend conferences sponsored by the American Choral Directors’ Association to observe some of the finest collegiate choirs in the nation. On March 6, they will hear the Mississippi College Singers, who return for the third time in the past ten years to perform at this year’s Southern Division conference in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Singers’ prior appearances in the Southern Division include Nashville in 2004 and Louisville in 2008. This division comprises an 11-state region from Virginia to Louisiana, and competition to perform at this conference requires years of work.
In order to qualify, a choir must have had the same conductor for at least three years. These conductors must submit three years’ worth of recordings to a panel of judges, none of whom know the name or home state of any choir as they listen to the recordings.
This year’s conference will only feature two other mixed ensembles, from the University of Georgia and Auburn University. Both of these schools boast many more students and more sizeable music programs.
For what the MC music department may lack in numbers, the choir’s achievements reveal a quality and work ethic that rivals that of top-tier music programs. This was made especially evident in 2005 when the Singers sang at the nationwide conference in Los Angeles. Only 20 collegiate ensembles throughout the country qualified for that honor.
The annual conference alternates each year between national and regional divisions. In addition, Singers has performed at the yearly statewide conference in 2002, 2007, 2010, and 2012.
Their conductor, music professor James Meaders, is a Mississippi native and MC alum.
He grew up in Newton County, and the most recent census counted a population of less than 500 in his hometown. Despite those humble beginnings, he joined the faculty in 1998, and his tireless leadership has guided the choir to their many successes.
Of this year’s invitation to ACDA, Meaders said, “It’s a process where you’re selected by your peers. So that’s a great affirmation of the work that’s going on in the choir.”
In the past, Meaders has conducted the Singers in Washington National Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, four international tours including Germany, Italy, Austria, England, and South Africa, a 2012 debut in New York’s Lincoln Center, and three recent performances in Carnegie Hall.
Among other accomplishments in his time on faculty, he has also served as music department head until last year.
“People may have individual talent, but it takes unique work to unify a choir of 50 voices, and there aren’t many people who can do it better than Dr. Meaders,” said Robby Baine, current piano major and former member of Singers.
Another major contributor to the Singers, accompanist Carol Joy Sparkman, will travel with the choir on this trip as well to support the choir from the piano.
Choirs invited to the conference must perform no more than 25 minutes of music. Of the preparation required for this event, Meaders said, “It’s a learning experience for the choir and for the conductor because you get to really take the music apart at its most incremental level.
“It’s like any other puzzle, really. You get to spend time on those 25 minutes in intense ways, which is a growing experience for the conductor and the choir. You have to really learn to rely on each other.”
The Singers will open the performance with Jubilate Deo, a Renaissance piece that encourages praises to God, paired with a contemporary piece by Ola Gjeilo called Prelude that features a similar theme.
Over the past few years, Singers has become familiar with Ola Gjeilo as they have not only sung several of his works but premiered his new piece, Reflections for string quartet and piano, last year at the annual Festival of Lights.
After that, the Singers must quickly switch moods to present the next song and centerpiece of the program, a six-minute a capella work entitled There Will Come Some Rains. The composer, Ivo Antognini, will be present for the performance. This piece, based on a poem of the same title by Sara Teasdale, illustrates the beauty and endurance of nature.
Next, the choir will sing a set of haikus from John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, which again highlight the everlasting and even spiritual qualities of nature. This performance will carry special relevance as Tavener passed away this past November.
Before the audience has a chance to applause, Sparkman will launch into the opening chords of the penultimate piece, Norman Dello Joio’s A Jubilant Song. At almost eight minutes long, it requires every last bit of effort that the choir can muster, and includes a solo by graduate conducting student Christian Scott.
As part of his doctoral work, Meaders authored a thesis on Dello Joio. A Jubilant Song also features a strikingly difficult piano accompaniment that highlights Sparkman’s ability. As a result, the piece emphasizes both of their strengths, and the Singers’ unrelenting energy will surely sweep up the audience in the joy as well.
Finally, the choir will close with Istemala, a South African folk song first heard by Meaders two years ago on his first trip to South Africa. The lyrics describe an upcoming journey and invite the audience to join.
It certainly has been a journey as the Singers have prepared all year for this conference, and the listeners will no doubt be with them by the end. When asked what the choir hoped to accomplish with their performance, sophomore Thulani Mnisi said, “I want the audience to hear the answer to their prayers.”
For those hoping to hear the program, Singers will perform this music again at their spring concert on April 6. This spring, Singers will submit another set of recordings and hopefully embark on a new journey to offer their songs at the national conference next year.
– Amy Lauren Jones, A&E Editor