David Morrow tells people it’s easier to get in the Morehouse College Glee Club than to stay in.
Applicants don’t have to be music majors or even musically literate. All they need, the director said, “is a reliable voice, a good ear and a commitment to work hard, learn and musically grow” — and confidence enough to stand their ground in one of the few American college choruses with an international reputation.
The glee club left its Atlanta home to perform this year in Algeria, adding Africa to a tour roster that has included Honduras, Poland and Russia under Morrow’s leadership. Now it comes to Charlotte for a rare Oct. 10 pairing with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
That program of orchestral and choral works will range from Nigerian Christmas music in Yoruba — “Betelehemu,” a Morehouse staple for half a century — to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” with texts taken from the final utterances of slain black men. Morrow will conduct the glee club; CSO resident conductor Christopher James Lees will lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s overture to “Fidelio,” Nkeiru Okoye’s “Charlotte Mecklenburg” and other pieces.
The Morehouse College Glee Club often performs a cappella or with keyboard accompaniment. That’s how it became famous in the 1960s, singing at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Choral Festival created by Robert Shaw. (Morehouse performed with the Atlanta Symphony during Shaw’s tenure and still does.) Those appearances convinced the U.S. Department of State to send the glee club on a tour of West African nations in 1972.
The director’s story
Four years later, Morrow showed up as a student. He sang, graduated in 1980, collected a master’s degree in music at the University of Michigan and bolted back to teach at Morehead in 1981. Today, he’s the third director in the glee club’s 110-year history. (Founder Kemper Harreld ran it until Wendell Whalum took over in 1953, and Morrow succeeded him in 1987.)
He leads an all-male organization that turns over its entire population every four years and rotates most musical selections every two. They learn six to eight new pieces a year and team up with the all-female Spelman College Glee Club to sing mixed-voice material. (Both will join the Atlanta Symphony in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony this November.)
“We have students who come from some of the finest choral programs in the country and those whose best singing has been in the shower,” Morrow said. “The students who have more experience are expected to help the ones who don’t.”
Morrow has three recruiting tools: visits to high schools, a performance at Morehouse’s annual New Student Assembly and talent grants that assist with student expenses but don’t fully cover them. Prestige counts for a lot, too. That’s what inspired Morehouse grad Steven Clincy (class of ’99 and president of the local alumni chapter) to pull this Charlotte concert together.
Clincy never sang with the glee club but enjoyed it as a student. Though he said a small contingent once performed at Charlotte’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, he wanted to bring all 50-plus singers here for the first time: “I was looking for a way to re-engage alumni and cast a light on Morehouse in general. Morehouse changed my life, and this is me giving back to it.”
He contacted the CSO in hopes of making this appearance an annual event. The orchestra saw a chance to honor African-American composers and jumped at this inaugural opportunity. Clincy said his alumni chapter wants to give five $12,000 scholarships this year, and all money raised from this concert will go to Charlotte-area students.
Charlotte will get a pretty full taste of the Morehouse College Glee Club repertoire, except for African music it has commissioned over four years through Morehouse’s sub-Saharan project. Spirituals, modern choral works and classical pieces done straight or rearranged will share the bill, capped by Joel Thompson’s daring composition.
The glee club performed “Last Words” with the Tallahassee Symphony in March. There, Morrow said, audience members sat in silence for a moment before coming to their feet.
They might well have been stunned. Thompson has written tonal music, not hard for new ears to absorb. But the texts come from things said by the likes of Eric Garner — “I can’t breathe” — and Michael Brown: “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” Thompson incorporates the famous medieval song “L’homme arme” (“The Armed Man”). So “Last Words” will go well with Okoye’s depiction of Mecklenburg County history, which includes a pulsing musical reference to the 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
Morrow’s other alma mater, the University of Michigan, gave the 2015 premiere of “Last Words.” But Morrow knows it has special meaning for a black chorus.
“It was Joel’s way of dealing with all those deaths as a young African-American man,” he said. “Each movement has a different character in terms of the text. Sometimes the words are shouted — “You shot me!” — but it ends quietly and thoughtfully. There’s a poignant moment where you’re in the hospital, hearing (music that represents) the beeping of a heart monitor, and it eventually goes away. The man is dead.”
Morehouse College Glee Club
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
More arts coverage
You can find all of our 2019-20 arts seasons preview stories and calendars in one place: charlotteobserver.com/topics/charlotte-arts-guide
Want to get more arts stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the free “Inside Charlotte Arts” newsletter at charlotteobserver.com/newsletters
You can also join our Facebook group, “Inside Charlotte Arts,” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/