Reflecting new name and mission, Kalamazoo Choral Arts blends genres in Vigil Against Violence

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — Can Rachmaninoff be paired with rap music? Or with Stevie Wonder? How about the Russian composer's haunting vespers alongside “La Vie en Rose” sung in Arabic?

The answer is yes — as recently demonstrated in an extraordinary concert by Kalamazoo Choral Arts (KCA). On May 21 the chorus performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All Night Vigil,” also known as “Vespers.” The piece consists of settings and texts that originated from the Russian Orthodox all-night vigil ceremony. One of the composer’s most well-known works, Vespers is based mainly on historical chants sung in the Russian (or Eastern) Orthodox Church. There are 15 movements and the Choral Arts concert interspersed each section with performances by local entertainers in several genres. 

The concert's setting was the grand sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in downtown Kalamazoo. The early evening daylight made the magnificent stained-glass windows splendid and created an ambiance perfect for one of the most beautiful spiritual compositions.

The KCA titled its concert “Vigil Against Violence” because of similarities between the world in 1915 when the work was first performed, and the strife in our world today. In the early 20th Century, Russia was embroiled in World War I and dealing with growing revolutionary sentiment. Horrible violence that year included the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine, killing 1,198 people including 128 Americans. This was a major prompt for the U.S. to enter the war in 1917 eventually.

Chris Ludwa, Kalamazoo Choral Arts Music Director“The timeliness of it being something that was written during a period of heavy turmoil made sense in terms of looking at our current situation — a state of upheaval in Gaza between Israel and Palestine, the Ukraine-Russia thing, post-Covid, economic despair, incredible polarization in politics and not just in the U.S. but everywhere; it’s a massive seismic shift happening right now," says KCA Music Director Chris Ludwa.

"We said, ‘What would happen if we put together an evening of songs from different genres that drew in different people’s experiences with violence and then used the Rachmaninoff movements in between them as a means for reflection?'

“We’re trying to connect these scriptural things that seem to lead us to a place of being nonviolent people with these songs that are modern and speak to that same idea, and seeing what kind of connections in our mind we can make that allow us to explore different genres, different styles.”

The performance also featured tables in the lobby with representatives from several local organizations that do anti-violence work, including Gryphon Place, Michigan Transformation Collective, and Moms Demand Action.

The concert featured five soloists plus the Kalamazoo Central High School Hawthorne Singers. Genres represented were rhythm and blues, rap/hip-hop, gospel, love and protest songs, spoken word, and classical music by the Choral Arts ensemble. This one-of-a-kind concert was presented by a singing group known for 76 years as the Kalamazoo Bach Festival. Last year, a historic name change reflected the growing mission of the organization.

Fran DwightA balcony view at the Kalamazoo Choral Arts May performance, Vigil Against Violence.“We took a big bold risk with this concert, moving outside of the status quo where an ensemble like ours chooses a piece and performs only that piece. In doing so, we didn’t really know what to expect in terms of audience," says Ludwa. "First of all, would they even show up for such an endeavor? Second of all, would they show up on a Tuesday night? If they did show up, would they enjoy what they saw or be put off by it? 

“Thankfully, the response has been incredible. We had a packed house. The response to our guest artists was warm and enthusiastic, as they are all such incredible performers. I think we proved that sometimes we don’t give audiences enough credit for being as diverse in their musical tastes as they are. 

“As it turns out, programming a 120-year-old a cappella choral masterwork alongside soul, rap, folk, and spoken word doesn’t just work, it brings together the community in a way that programming doesn’t always when we focus on one genre. I’m proud of the effort of all of the performers and delighted to know that Kalamazoo can produce and support innovative, groundbreaking art just as well as New York City. But we already knew that, didn’t we? There is so much great art happening in this town, and we are happy to be in such good company.”

New name reflects enhanced mission and expanded chorus

The longtime Kalamazoo Bach Festival changed its name and its mission in 2023. Ludwa, an associate professor of music at Kalamazoo College who took the post in 2017, explains why the change is beneficial:

“We would say Kalamazoo Bach Festival and we’d get one of two reactions. Either somebody was of a generation that had gone to school, studied music, or was, dare I say, over the age of 50 or so, and they would revere the name Bach for what he was — this giant, this genius of composition, so prolific in his writing and just amazing.

Fran DwightVigil Against Violence took place on May 21 at First United Methodist Church.“Or the other reaction we would get is, ‘Who?’ They were under 50 or they weren’t really in pursuit of music. They would be like, ‘I don’t understand what’s the big thing.’

“Even though there was this reverence for Bach, it’s so complex that I don’t think it’s the most accessible music and so we said, ‘This may be actually hindering us.’ 

Fran DwightMusic Director Chris Ludwa conducts the KCA chorus in Rachmaninoff's Vespers."So we began a two-year process of looking at our name, looking at options, working with a brand agency, trying to figure out what’s the right name that captures what we do, that had the right amount of gravitas but also was inclusive enough and open enough that people that were just singers of any genre could at least be intrigued enough to send an email and say, ‘Hey, what do you guys do?’

He continues, “True to form, it worked. In one year we had an influx of 10 new members simply from changing the name.” Seventy to 80 members is regarded as the optimum size.

“The group has gotten younger,” Ludwa says. “We’re seeing a lot more young professionals and people that are just out of school that stay in Kalamazoo. Also, people that are moving here for jobs at Stryker, Bronson, Pfizer, places like that are joining the group. We’re seeing greater racial diversity, greater diversity of gender and sexuality. The more broad we are, the more strong we are as a group. And the more representative we are of the larger community of Kalamazoo.”

The entertainers who performed with the KCA were:

Soulful showman Nathan Moore put his heart into singing Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Me/What’s Goin’ On?” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”

Fran DwightRap/hip-hop musician Santino Jones exuberantly and crisply performed his long compositions “In Flux” and “Sunday."Rap/hip-hop musician Santino Jones exuberantly and crisply performed his long compositions “In Flux” and “Sunday” while moving all over the stage.

Fran DwightKalamazoo College student Farah Ghazal sang “Al Kawn Janni Maak,” an Arabic version of French legend Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”Kalamazoo College student Farah Ghazal sang “Al Kawn Janni Maak,” an Arabic version of French legend Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” The Arabic translation is by the popular Palestinian-Chilean singer-songwriter Elyanna. Ghazal, with a very smooth voice that emotes easily, also sang Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman.”

Fran DwightSanaa Olivacce, 18, sang “Strange Fruit” with power, range, style, and presence far beyond her age.Sanaa Olivacce, 18, sang “Strange Fruit” with power, range, style, and presence far beyond her age. “Strange Fruit” is an anti-lynching song made popular by jazz/soul/blues icons Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.

Fran DwightMonica Washington Padula, who is of Afro-Anishinaabe heritage, sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” but with her own words that were a powerful moving tribute to activists of all kindMonica Washington Padula, who is of Afro-Anishinaabe heritage, recited a tearful, poetic tribute to her Indian grandmother. She also sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” but with her own words that were a powerful moving tribute to activists of all kinds. She called it “An Activist’s Hallelujah.”

Fran DwightKalamazoo Central High School's Hawthorne Singers gave a rousing performance.The Kalamazoo Central High School’s Hawthorne Singers, a small group of exceptionally talented youths, performed “A Bridge of Peace”;  a traditional Zulu song, “Lindonga za Jericho” (The Walls of Jericho); and “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” The Singers’ conductor is Julie Pelligrino-Hartman, who also is a KCA chorus member

The performers with two numbers did not do them consecutively but were interspersed with “Vespers” movements.

Fran DwightChris Ludwa, KCA Music Director, addresses the audience.Different programming isn’t the only big change for Kalamazoo Choral Arts. The organization also has a new executive director, Hannah Lehker, who started in February, taking over from  Cori Somers, who held the position for eight years. Lehker is a Kalamazoo College graduate who worked for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center for almost seven years before taking the KCA job. 

“I have been part of choral music and musical theater all of my life practically, including singing with this organization for several years when it was the Bach Festival Chorus,” Lehker says.

She is interested in the role of music in social movements — “ways we can continue to be part of the history of music making for social change.” As an example, she cites the songs of the civil rights movement such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom.”

CourtesyHannah Lehker, new Kalamazoo Choral Arts Executive DirectorLehker continues, “I’m very passionate about social justice and working in community. A lot of people might hear that and say, then why are you working for a choral organization? Like music in the civil rights movement, I think those things are so connected. 

"Obviously, the way that we all work can be informed by principles of justice and equity, and I want to bring my knowledge of that here with this organization. Luckily it’s already taking steps to work toward improving that so I feel like we’re coming together at a really good time.”

Her work includes production, budgeting, marketing, development, and helping prepare a strategic plan. 

“I’m very supportive of and invested in our commitments to equity and engaging with the diverse community that is Kalamazoo," says Lehker. "So I’m really enthusiastic and excited about that and really hopeful in looking for ways that we can do that authentically. I want the community to feel like they benefit from having this organization be a part of it.”

What's next?

Will Kalamazoo Choral Arts continue to offer performances as ambitious and unusual as Vigil Against Violence? 

Music Director Ludwa teases an answer, “Next season we’re talking about this exploration in a similar way of (Carl Orff’s) ‘Carmina Burana’ — with hip-hop.”

Fran DwightThe Kalamazoo Choral Arts' May concert, Vigil Against Violence, was a sold-out performance.
If you missed the concert and would like to view it on video, please check out this LINK.

For more information about Kalamazoo Choral Arts, see their website.
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