Worthington Daily Globe: Mexican composers created pieces for local singers
WORTHINGTON — Lake Okabena and its surrounding prairies inspired
Mexican composer Jesus Echevarria last fall as he visited Worthington
for the first time and prepared to create new music expressly for
District 518 student singers.
Now the finished works are ready to
be performed, along with those of fellow Mexican composer Diana Syrse,
and will premier at the Cantare! Community Concert at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Thursday at Memorial Auditorium.
“In September, when I started to
compose the lyrics, the lake and prairies here caught my attention of
course,” Explained Echevarria. “It’s not like Mexico.”
of Echevarria’s pieces, which will be sung by 90 fourth- and
fifth-graders from Prairie Elementary and Worthington Middle School
(WMS), is “La Piraguita de Okabena,” which tells the tale of a young boy
crafting a boat with his grandfather that they later joyously paddle on
A second number performed by that same group, which is
comprised of 50 fifth-grade music students of WMS teacher Jeanette
Jenson and 40 fourth- and fifth-grade Celebration Chorus singers, led by
Prairie Elementary music instructor Jeanne Mammen, is “Volando,” which
expresses Echevarria’s thoughts about the immigrant families that have
settled in Worthington.
“They came here starting from nothing,”
Echevarria said, “transplanting from Europe and from all of these other
cultures, and together they contribute to a richness of culture and
“Jesus shares a beautiful message in ‘Volando’ of what
he sees as he travels from Mexico to Minnesota,” Mammen said. “He
conveys the spirit of the immigrant traveling to a new land of prairies
and valleys, and of the exhilaration one feels when flying free.”
Worthington’s cultural diversity is clearly what sponsor VocalEssence
had in mind when arranging, with the aid of a Minnesota Legacy Amendment
Arts Learning grant, for District 518 schools to participate in the
year-long residency project known as Cantare!
originated by the Twin Cities-based VocalEssence, a nationally respected
vocal group whose own 32-voice professional ensemble will also be a key
part of Thursday’s performances, has brought Syrse and Echevarria to
town three times over the past nine months to meet, work with and
compose for local singers.
“Worthington is the first town outside
of the Twin Cities to be included in this program,” said Amanda Timmer,
the education manager with VocalEssence. “We have two other Mexican
composers working with schools in the Twin Cities this year in a similar
“We are excited to be here,” continued Timmer. “Everyone here has been so kind and generous, and it’s been fun.”
Echevarria echoed Timmer’s sentiments.
“The students are doing well, and the teachers here are very good,” he said.
Brunelle, the internationally renowned conductor, choral scholar and
performer who founded VocalEssence in 1969, has personally worked with
District 518 students ranging from third graders to high schoolers
during visits here this year. He will conduct some of Thursday’s
“Trojan Express, our select high school choral
group, will get to sing ‘Popourri’ with the VocalEssence ensemble, a
nationally recognized professional chorus, and I think this is something
the students my not grasp the full impact of until years later,” said
Kerry Johnson, Worthington High School (WHS) choir director.
have the chance to study so intensely the music of another culture, to
perform in concert with a group like VocalEssence, to have a composer
work with you over the course of a year and compose pieces just for you —
these are once-in-a-lifetime, unique opportunities,” she added.
Cantare! project has had a wide reach within the district’s music
programs. Composers Syrse and Echevarria spent a week in the schools
during September and March, and again this week, with Syrse working with
and composing for WHS singers and Echevarria mainly at the elementary
and middle schools.
“Jesus has been a delight,” Jenson said. “He has always put the kids first and wants his music to work for the singers.”
Prairie Elementary, Echevarria also composed two songs for the school’s
195 third-graders, approximately 150 of whom will perform Thursday
night. Prairie music teachers Mammen, Linda Van Westen and Katie
Stafford each interacted with Echevarria in their respective sections of
third-grade music classes, which meet three times weekly during each
full five-day week.
“They’ve all learned the music, which was
composed especially for them in two, three and four parts,” Mammen said.
“It’s been a real challenge and adventure for the kids, and it’s really
“How many kids get to sing a song composed for
them, meet the composer and work with him personally?” Mammen said.
“It’s been a huge leap for all of us, including the directors, and it’s
definitely been worth our time.”
The Worthington Chamber Singers,
the community’s premier adult ensemble, also got in on the Cantare! act.
About 16 of the Chamber Singers will premier Echevarria’s “Madrugada”
at both of Thursday’s concerts.
“This has pushed the Chamber
Singers a lot,” said director Eric Parrish. “The rhythms and metric
changes, very indicative of the Mexican music style, are not as familiar
to us, and singing in Spanish is extra challenging due to the piece’s
“It’s been something very outside the box for them, but
it’s invaluable exposure for our community to see the process of
classical music — which is alive, not dead — being composed.”
momentous as Thursday’s two concerts will be, they are not even the
highest point of the Cantare! experience for some of the participants.
May 24, the combined fourth- and fifth-grade singers will travel to St.
Paul to perform their songs at the Ordway Center for the Performing
Arts, better known for hosting the likes of the St. Paul Chamber
Orchestra, operas and other famous performing artists.
unbelievable opportunity,” Jenson said. “To have had access all year to
Dr. Brunelle, to be associated with a quality group like VocalEssence,
and then to get to perform at the Ordway — it’s hard to fathom.”
at the recently reopened Memorial Auditorium is in itself a terrific
experience and a first for many of the younger student singers, and the
chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned for an appreciative hometown
crowd will be exciting to them.
“I can’t wait to hear it all put together, with the instrumentation and acoustics at the auditorium,” Jenson said.
Added Mammen, “We hope people will be pleased and surprised to hear what these kids have achieved.”
Johnson, “It’s been an intense project, and a huge undertaking, really,
but what an impressive opportunity and so very worthwhile. We are so
lucky to have had this chance.”
The Cantare! Community Concerts
are free and open to the public, with tickets available at the Nobles
County Integration Collaborative or at the Memorial Auditorium box
office (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays) in advance of Thursday’s 6 p.m. and 8
p.m. concerts. However, seating is general admission and will be
available on a first-come, first-seated basis.