Local Arts

This veterans tribute concert marries text and sound to honor all types of heroes

Director Donna Hill leads the Carolina Voices Festival Singers. The Festival Singers Nov. 16-17 concert, “Courage: Heroes and Legends,” features a program of music that honors heroes and heroines you know and some you’ve never heard of.
Director Donna Hill leads the Carolina Voices Festival Singers. The Festival Singers Nov. 16-17 concert, “Courage: Heroes and Legends,” features a program of music that honors heroes and heroines you know and some you’ve never heard of. Tony Rushing

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If courage means grace under pressure, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, what is heroism? Maybe the willingness to risk what you have – even your life – to serve others. Brave people push patiently against obstacles every day; heroes charge them headlong in extraordinary acts.

You’ll meet both types at the Festival Singers concert Nov. 16-17. Veterans Day often inspires tributes full of patriotic anthems, but the chamber group within Carolina Voices has rethought this idea for “Courage: Heroes and Legends.” The honorees, many of whom you’ve never heard of and never will, represent the best elements of the spirit that shines through us and can sometimes bursts into a supernova.

The centerpiece, Jake Runestad’s “Silence Haunts Me,” fits into Ludwig von Beethoven’s bicentenary year. The words come from the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter Beethoven wrote to his brothers but never mailed from a spa outside Vienna. The composer, convinced at 32 that encroaching deafness would leave him in a terrible void, contemplated suicide but committed himself to the job of composition he felt God had ordained.

In fact, three key pieces come from documents. Lee Hoiby’s “Last Letter Home” adapts the words of Jesse Givens, an outpouring of love he sent his wife while serving in Iraq in 2003. He told her to open it only if he died; he did two weeks later, as a riverbank collapsed and trapped him in a tank in the Euphrates. Rachel DeVore Fogarty’s “Flying” comes from the writings of Amelia Earhart, the aviator who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean just before turning 40.

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Donna Hill took over as director of Carolina Voices in 2004. The group’s Festival Singers hold a concert Nov. 16 in Charlotte and Nov. 17 in Concord that honors a variety of heroes and heroines. One key piece, Lee Hoiby’s “Last Letter Home,” adapts the words of Jesse Givens, an outpouring of love he sent his wife while serving in Iraq in 2003. He told her to open it only if he died; he did two weeks later. Elvis Hatfield

Those who struggled to move history forward – or, in the case of slavery, simply endured until better times came – will be honored with “Song for Equal Suffrage” and “Wade in the Water.” Feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her own lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the first piece, a timely choice: 2020 is the hundredth anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States. “Wade,” with its biblical references to healing and possible connection to the Underground Railroad, takes us back to the 19th century.

“We have heroes acknowledged and unacknowledged,” says Donna Hill, director of the Singers. “Imagine Beethoven struggling with the knowledge that he was losing his hearing. Listening to the words from his letter can provide a positive message for anyone facing serious issues.”

Broadening the repertoire

If you haven’t heard this chorus and know Carolina Voices only through the perennial Singing Christmas Tree, which this year will be part of the Charlotte Symphony’s “Magic of Christmas” concerts, you’ll be surprised by two things that have happened since Hill took over in 2004.

First, she has profited by an influx of youth. Four years ago, singers in their 20s suddenly appeared at auditions; she took nine from that crop, about a third of the current roster, balancing the veterans’ poise with the newcomers’ energy.

Second, Hill has broadened the repertoire. Carolina Voices consists of three groups, the others being the Mainstage Chorus (which does the tree and a themed musical review in the spring) and Impromptu, a close-harmony chorus that performs a cappella arrangements of popular music. That leaves the Festival Singers a wide range to explore, from classical music to gospel.

Hill wanders happily across that range. Though she’s a business analyst at Wells Fargo by day and associate minister of music for Central United Methodist Church in Concord, she’s perennially on patrol for new opportunities for the Festival Singers. (No wonder she lists yoga, meditation and caring for her roses as favorite activities.)

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Carolina Voices’ Festival Singers will present inspirational songs of courage at their Nov. 16 concert in Charlotte. They’ll hold the concert in Concord the following day. Elvis Hatfield

Marrying text and sound

She heard Runestad’s work at the last national conference of the American Choral Directors Association and snapped it up. Her chorus partnered with the chamber choir of Northwest School of the Arts last fall in a piece about bullying. The Festival Singers have commissioned several things, including a 20-minute work by David Crowe inspired by the Dead Sea Scrolls’ visit to Discovery Place.

She’s especially keen on work that marries text expertly to sounds. She praises the way Fogarty gives you the musical sensation of flight as you listen to Earhart’s narrative, using a violin, cello and oboe to keep the audience aloft. Hill admires how Runestad lets us hear “Beethoven’s anger and frustration, his plea of ‘Why me?’ and even the silence in his head, as the piece fades away. And you hear quotations from Beethoven’s music in the piano part.”

Other programmers might have aimed for a tone of reassuring uplift in a Veterans Day concert. Hill chose Hoiby’s dreamlike music for Jesse Givens’ visions of a joy he’ll never know and Craig Hella Johnson’s choral version of the melancholy “Gebriel’s Oboe” from “The Mission.”

Ennio Morricone got an Oscar nomination for scoring that 1986 movie about Spanish Jesuits, who try to protect a remote South American tribe from being enslaved by the Portuguese in the 1700s. Their failure doesn’t make them less heroic in Morricone’s eyes, or Johnson’s, or ours.

“Courage: Heroes and Legends”

When and Where: 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at St. John’s Baptist Church, 300 Hawthorne Lane, Charlotte. Also 4 p.m. Nov. 17 at Central United Methodist Church, 30 Union St. N, Concord.

Tickets: $20 ($18 seniors, $10 students).

Details: 704-374-1564 or carolinavoices.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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