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Featured Composers Reflect Musical Blood Line to Centuries-Old Music

April 6, 2006

The featured composers at Wilmington College’s Festival of Women in Music & Art Friday and Saturday (March 31 and April 1) represent a contemporary link to the African-American spirituals of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The festival is designed to provide unique insight into the compositions of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Rosephanye Dunn Powell, whose original works and arrangements of spirituals will be performed at a concert featuring four choral groups Saturday, at 7:30 p.m., in Hugh G. Heiland Theatre.

Also, paintings and monotypes by Yellow Springs artist Katherine Kadish will be on exhibit at the Harcum Art Gallery.

Catherine Roma, associate professor of music, said Reagon and Powell are two of the most prominent and important African-American women composers.

“Rosephanye and Bernice are in that line of composers that have arranged these timeless works (spirituals), and their original compositions are completely compelling,” Roma said.

“Their musical offerings are so wonderful and diverse — some of Bernice’s original compositions come from her experience as part of the Civil Rights Movement and Rosephanye not only composes in classical and sacred veins, but we’ll hear calypso and Latin rhythms.”

A unique aspect of the festival is the opportunity audiences will have to attend rehearsals and lectures to enhance their knowledge of the music and get a feel for the behind-the-scenes production of the concert. Indeed, the composers will work directly with four choral groups and their directors to fine-tune the performance pieces.

“When you’re given the opportunity to watch the composer work with the ensemble, there’s a before and after that’s a fascinating process,” Roma said. “As a director, I love nothing more than to work with a composer and have my students experience that as well.”

Roma directs two of the groups that will perform at the concert, the Wilmington College Chorale and MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir. The others are the College-Community Chorus, directed by Elizabeth Haskins, and the Central State University Chorus under the direction of William Henry Caldwell.

The concert, “A Celebration of the Music of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Rosephanye Dunn Powell,” will feature performances by the four groups individually and collectively.

“Because the music comes from so many different roots, the audience will come away knowing so much about this rich, African-American music that courses through all our lives,” Roma added. “Also, spiritually I think people will be uplifted.”

Reagon, a Ph.D. in music history, is a professor emeritus of history at American University and curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She is a recognized authority on the instruction and transformative power of traditional African-American music.

A musical composer, performer, scholar and consultant, she recently retired from her 30-year affiliation with the acclaimed African-American women’s ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, which she founded in 1973.

Powell, whose doctorate is in voice performance, is an associate professor of music at Auburn University. She is a composer and arranger of choral music whose soprano voice has been heard throughout the eastern United States. She previously served on the faculties of Philander Smith College and Georgia Southern University.

For those interested in a comprehensive immersion into the work of these musical artists, a number of events are open to the public prior to the Saturday concert.

On Friday, Reagon will present a lecture, “The Song Culture of the Civil Rights Movement,” at 2 p.m. in Kelly Center followed at 4 p.m. by a presentation by Powell on “The African-American Spiritual: The Heart of the Slave Community” at the same location.

A rehearsal with the composers and the College-Community Chorus and College Chorale will be open to the public from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday in the Hugh G. Heiland Theatre.

On Saturday, scores, books and paintings will be available for purchase at 1 p.m. in the Oscar F. Boyd Cultural Arts Center lobby. Powell and Kadish will be on hand.

That afternoon, from 2 to 4 p.m., an open rehearsal will be held with the composers, MUSE and the Central State University Chorus. From 4 to 5 p.m., all four choral groups, as well as the Steel Sisters on steel drums will rehearse as a mass chorus.

The Festival of Women in Music & Art is presented free of charge by Wilmington College’s Departments of Music and Art. It is co-sponsored by Collett Propane, Wilmington Iron and Metal, Bush Auto Place and Vectren.