Photos by Robin Consier.
by Paige Uzzell
Concordia’s auditioned choral ensembles put on a concert Friday, Sept. 14 at St. John Lutheran Church. The concert was part of the Jones Fine Arts Series, sponsored by Jones National Bank and Trust Co.
Dr. Andrew Last, director of choral activities and associate professor of music at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, conducted the choirs. The concert came after four weeks of the choirs working on the music with their individual conductors, along with workshops led by Last on Thursday, Sept. 13 and Friday, Sept. 14.
Since Last was not able to be at Concordia in the weeks leading up to the concert, he had to put a certain amount of trust in Concordia’s choir directors.
“(I)t’s kind of nice to know that you can just show up and challenge people to make great music and not have to worry about playing pitches on the piano or teaching a new rhythm,” Last said.
In addition to conducting the nationally and internationally acclaimed Nordic Choir at Luther College, Last has ties to Concordia since he taught voice lessons at the school during the 2011-12 academic year when he was pursuing his Doctorate of Musical Arts in choral conducting at the University Nebraska–Lincoln.
“(C)oming back here today was not necessarily about revisiting the experience I had here (at Concordia), but as soon as I drove on campus I was like, ‘Oh yeah I remember this place,’” Last said. “It’s just so beautiful, and it just has such a warm and welcoming feel to it, and so that was fun to revisit that.”
Dr. Jeffrey Blersch, director of music at Concordia and conductor for the Cantamus women’s choir, was one of the music directors who helped prepare the choirs for the concert.
“It takes awhile for everyone (in a choir) to figure out how to gel and work together (be)cause that’s the goal of a choir, that we sing with one voice,” Blersch said.
In addition to Last’s time at Concordia, he also has 21 years of experience directing choral ensembles at both the high school and college levels. Blersch said the decision to ask Last to put on clinics with the choirs was influenced by both of these factors.
“(W)e knew of his work with our students already and knew how he related to students,” Blersch said. “We thought he would be an obvious choice for us, for all of those reasons. We were really excited that he accepted our offer.”
Concordia’s directors had their own challenges with the choral pieces. They had to take a step back and allow Last to take the lead, musically, of their choral ensembles.
“(W)e wanted Dr. Last to be able to add his own twists and his own interpretations to the piece, so we didn’t want to feed the choir our interpretations first and then have him have to undo that. We wanted to give him a blank slate, and then he could kind of mold the choir how he wanted to,” Blersch said.
The concert showcased three of Concordia’s choirs, Male Chorus, directed by Professor Paul Soulek; Cantamus, directed by Blersch; and the University A Cappella Choir, directed by Dr. Kurt von Kampen, professor of music, chairman of the music department, and director of choral activities.
Students from each of the choirs had the opportunity to spend time with Last during his workshops. Choral members learned more about the music they were singing for the concert and more about how to become better musicians.
“(O)ne thing that he always emphasized was being more musical, not just singing the notes on the page, but making musical choices for every word or phrase to make it come alive,” junior John Chapa, a member of the A Cappella Choir, said.
Last used examples from everyday life to help the choral members better understand what he wanted to them to do.
“I will definitely keep thinking about those (analogies) later in choir. He made us believe in ourselves again. Dr. Last brought out the best in us because we wanted to be the best for him,” freshman Mikayla Lowe, a member of Cantamus, said.
Many students in Concordia’s choral ensembles thought highly of Last, both because of his teaching and because of his personality.
“He loves what he does, and he strives for excellence,” Chapa said. “The way he taught us really reflected that, both in seeing his approval when we sang the way he asked, and in the times when we messed up or he had a new idea to try with the music.”
Both Last and Concordia’s choir members will remember this weekend as Last returns to his usual students, and Concordia’s choruses return to their respective directors.
“I am sure I’ll have great memories from tonight, but it’s about trying to be the best teacher for those students who are coming and wanting the experience of, ‘Make me better,’” Last said. “I love that opportunity to share any wisdom that I might have with those students.”