By Tad Wisenor, '89
Though Rorøs, Trondheim, Stavanger and Egersund may sound like fanciful place names from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, these four very real Norwegian cities, along with the capital, Oslo, heard the strains of some of the Northwest's most beautiful choral music in late May and early June when the Whitworth Choir, on its second major international tour since 2009, performed in cathedrals across the country.
"We began to call it the 'Words Fail Us' tour because of the indescribable experiences we were having as a choir," says Sammy Skinner, '15. "For those two weeks, it absolutely filled me with joy to be creating wonderful music alongside some of the most important people in my life, all while taking in the stunning landscapes and beautiful culture around us."
|"Singing in the churches [in Norway] was surreal. They were easily some of the most beautiful and unique buildings I have ever been in, and we all really valued the rich history that each church held for the people there."
-- Sammy Skinner, '15
The 45-voice Whitworth Choir is regarded as one of the premier collegiate choral groups in the Pacific Northwest. Building on a reputation of excellence that spans more than nine decades, the choir continues to reign as one of Whitworth's most significant outreach programs, at home and abroad.
"The locals who came to our concerts were some of the most encouraging audiences I have ever seen, and it was very moving to go out into the crowd after each of our performances and meet some of them," Skinner says. "Those conversations always left me with the powerful feeling that music really does unite all people from all places."
Students in the choir represent majors across the curriculum and are involved in the Spokane community. In a survey of 2012-13 choir members, 30 percent of the students were leading music at local churches.
The group maintains an active performance, touring and recording schedule. In addition to the 2013 Norway trip, in the past six years the choir has toured Argentina, Uruguay, Colorado and California, and it continues to perform its annual Spokane and Seattle Christmas Festival concerts, which have become a December tradition for countless Whitworth families on both sides of the state.
Marc A. Hafso, now in his 11th year as director of the choir and professor and director of choral activities at Whitworth, believes strongly in the transformative power of choral music. "The choral art, for me, is one of the most interdisciplinary subjects on our campus," Hafso says. "It's about who we are as a people. It's about history and story and language. It's also about physiology and psychology."
Hafso and his colleagues have maintained the quality and reputation of the Whitworth music program against significant odds. "Most of the regional schools with which we compete for top vocalists have completed new teaching and performing spaces in the past 10-15 years," Hafso says, "and Whitworth has neither a dedicated rehearsal space for the choral program nor a performance hall worthy of our students."
The lack of a dedicated choral rehearsal space in the current music building forces Whitworth's four choral ensembles to rehearse in facilities across campus that are inadequate in size, accommodations, acoustics and availability. The choir rehearses most often in Stage II, a low-ceilinged "blackbox" space in the basement of Cowles Auditorium. This is Whitworth Theatre's primary teaching space and an active venue for student theatre productions and rehearsals. The choir's access to Stage II is, of course, limited. When the space is occupied, the choir rehearses in the chapel, which is in regular use as a teaching and worship space. Neither Stage II nor the chapel is designed for teaching or singing choral music. "I feel like Moses leading my tribe of singers from place to place. I hope to see the Promised Land in a new building," Hafso jokes.
The Whitworth 2021 strategic plan calls for a significant investment by the university in high-quality teaching and performing space for the music and theatre programs. Whitworth is currently working with architects to design an addition to the existing 1978 music building that would provide muchneeded choral-rehearsal space and a new concert hall on campus. Among the most exciting benefits of the facility's eventual completion will be the return of the annual Christmas Festival concerts to campus. The concerts have taken place in various downtown Spokane venues for more than 25 years. "A great challenge is getting the campus community to attend our concerts," Hafso says. "All of our local performances are eight to 10 miles away from campus because there aren't any suitable facilities closer than that. I have longed for the day when we can hold our Christmas Festival concerts at Whitworth, so that they can truly be campus-centered celebrations.
"The new building will allow us all to celebrate the voice, the power, of ensemble – and will allow some, perhaps for the first time, to experience the truly interdisciplinary nature of choral music."
Tad Wisenor is Whitworth's director of campaign planning. Photos by Kirk Hirota.
|Come back and sing! Alumni from Whitworth choral groups of all eras are invited back to campus Oct. 10-12, 2014, for an all-choral reunion. Mass choir rehearsal on Saturday and participation in an all-campus worship service on Sunday morning will be highlights among a full slate of activities already scheduled for this combined Homecoming/Family Weekend, during which Whitworth will celebrate its 125th anniversary.
|Averaging 92 majors (music and music education)
||More than 20 instrumental and vocal ensembles including the Whitworth Choir, symphony orchestra, wind symphony, jazz ensembles I and II, six jazz combos, concert band, women's choir, men's chorus, chamber singers, and seven chamber ensembles.
||In spring 2013, 407 students – nearly 20 percent of the student body – were enrolled in at least one music course. Approximately 80 percent of these students were enrolled in more than one course, including lessons and ensembles.
||Two ensembles tour each year. In January 2014 the jazz ensemble will tour Rome, and in March the Whitworth Wind Symphony will tour and perform throughout California.
|Whitworth offers B.A. degrees in music education: choral and instrumental tracks; and in music, with tracks in composition, piano performance, piano pedagogy, vocal performance, instrumental performance, jazz studies and music ministry.
||Graduates from Whitworth's music program excel in competitive music programs nationwide, most recently at schools including Arizona State University; Eastman School of Music; New England Conservatory; Indiana University; The Juilliard School; Manhattan School of Music; Oberlin College; and the University of Southern California.
||In addition to successful performance careers in opera, symphonies, orchestras, jazz, musical theatre and military bands, Whitworth music graduates work and serve in fields including voice therapy, speech pathology, K-12 and college teaching/band and choral directing, arts administration, music ministry, conducting and composing, production and recording, private instruction, technology, and the publishing industry.