Tying music with culture

WORTHINGTON -- "You have to roll the 'r' a little bit more," suggests Diana Syrse to the 74 members of the Worthington High School (WHS) Concert Choir sitting attentively before her on Wednesday afternoon.

Diana Syrse
Composer in residence Diana Syrse, Mexico City, Mexico, works with the Worthington High School Concert Choir during a week-long workshop sponsored by VocalEssence Wednesday afternoon in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- "You have to roll the 'r' a little bit more," suggests Diana Syrse to the 74 members of the Worthington High School (WHS) Concert Choir sitting attentively before her on Wednesday afternoon.

Having first led the students in a flowing series of vocal warm-ups, Syrse is patiently guiding the choristers through the pronunciation of the lyrics to "Cielito Lindo," a classic Mexican song that is traditionally sung on Mexican Independence Day.

"Exactly, very good, very good," encourages the smiling Syrse, energetic and graceful in a red sweater, black skirt and black boots.

Syrse is one of two Mexican composers/musicians spending the week in Worthington, courtesy of the Twin Cities-based VocalEssence. VocalEssence is a highly respected vocal group comprised of a 32-voice professional ensemble and a 130-voice chorus.

Founded in 1969 by internationally renowned conductor, choral scholar and performer Philip Brunelle, VocalEssence champions choral music of all genres and has commissioned or premiered more than 130 works to date.


Worthington will soon be the lucky recipient of a few more of those new works, having gained the attention of VocalEssence due to District 518's enthusiastic music staff and the city's notable diversity.

"Worthington is the third most diverse community in Minnesota," announced Amanda Timmer, education manager with VocalEssence. "That's why we're here."

Timmer joins Syrse and Jesus Echevarria in Worthington this week, shuttling the two composers between the various schools in which they are working and acting as a liaison for VocalEssence.

Now in her second year as director of choral activities at WHS and her 15th year of teaching overall, Kerry Johnson credits her predecessor, Joseph Osowski, with having alerted VocalEssence staff to Worthington's unique demographic makeup.

"VocalEssence staff called last year and said they'd like to work with Worthington's students, and it's very exciting to realize you're going to be the ones to premier a piece of music," shared Johnson.

Both Syrse and Echevarria, who is splitting his time between third-grade music classes at Prairie Elementary and two fifth- grade sections at Worthington Middle School (WMS), will return to town at different points in the coming months.

Each is charged with composing musical works that will be performed --indeed, premiered -- by Worthington music students at an April 28 concert at the newly renovated Memorial Auditorium. Joining them in that concert will be the 32-member VocalEssence ensemble.

"This is such an awesome experience," enthused Johnson. "I would love to see this kind of thing happen on a yearly basis, if that were possible. To premiere a piece of music that is composed just for you, to sing in a concert alongside a professional group such as VocalEssence, is really incredible."


Echevarria and Syrse are both natives of Mexico City, Mexico, and have extensive musical experience in Mexico and the United States. Syrse is currently earning her master's degree in California; she has composed for choirs and is also working on a flute concerto at present.

Echevarria is further along in his career, possessing a degree in composition from the Higher School of Music of the National Institute of Fine Arts, among other educational credits.

"He brings a lot of cultural enrichment along with the music," explained Jeanette Jenson, a general music and fifth-grade band instructor at WMS. "He interacts easily with the kids and is really connecting with their culture, because a lot of them have family in Mexico or Mexico City.

"Jesus seems to play just about any instrument he picks up -- violin, guitar, piano -- and this helps the kids to dream bigger dreams for themselves."

That kind of response is just what VocalEssence is hoping for from this program.

"We want the students to learn from this experience, to gain self confidence and to see how proud these Mexican composers are of their culture as they share it and engage with the students," noted Timmer.

"This is the third year VocalEssence has done a program like this, but only our first time outside of the Twin Cities," Timmer added. "Right now, we have two composers doing similar work in Twin Cities schools and the two here."

VocalEssence chose Syrse and Echevarria from among a number of applicants to participate in this composer-in-residence effort. Johnson and Jenson will incorporate other studies of Mexican music and culture into their classrooms in the months ahead to complement the visitors' work.


"This week Diana (Syrse) is getting to know the kids, their strengths, likes, dislikes, and then in December we'll get music from her to work on for the spring concert," detailed Johnson. "She will prepare at least one piece for both the Trojan Choir and the Concert Choir, and possibly something for one of the select ensembles, too."

In an effort to educate the high school students about Mexican Independence Day, which this year marks 200 years of Mexican independence from Spanish rule and 100 years since the 1910 revolution that removed dictator Porfirio Diaz, Syrse outlined what the celebration means to Mexicans.

"It's about a mixture of cultures and a battle for equality," she said. Syrse also quizzed the teens about Latin instruments, music and Mexican history.

"Tell me one aspect of Latin rhythms we always have in the bass," asked Syrse.

"Syncopation," was the prompt reply, with the reward being a piece of Mexican candy.

Johnson, Jenson and the other District 518 music staff welcome the gift of musical and cultural enrichment VocalEssence has generously offered, and they look forward to the opportunities this program promises to deliver to local students before the school year is over.

"We were kind of wowed," acknowledged Jenson, "to think someone else was writing a grant to benefit our students."

Johnson agrees.


"Most of the students may not even realize what they've done, in premiering a piece of music and appearing with VocalEssence, until some years down the road," guessed Johnson, "but it will end up being an important memory of their high school experience."

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