The Morgan State Choir: Heritage in Song

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The Morgan State University choir is one of the nation's most prestigious university choral ensembles. Directed by Eric Conway, the choir sings classical, gospel and contemporary popular music. The group is known for its emphasis on preserving the heritage of the spiritual.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the Turpin-Lamb Theater in the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: As we mentioned, we're broadcasting today from the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University. As you walk through the front center - front entrance of this building, one of the first things you noticed high above you are the words Nathan M. Carter Atrium. The name may not be familiar to all of you, but Nathan Carter led the Morgan State University choir of over a hundred voices to national and international recognition. They've performed for the president, the pope and shared the stage with symphonies across the globe. They've been described as one of the musical ensembles of any kind in the United States.

After Nathan Carter's death in 2004, his longtime assistant, Eric Conway, became the director of the choir and chairperson of the fine arts department here at Morgan State. We'll talk with him in a few minutes. So if you have questions about choirs in general, or this choir in particular, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org and you can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And here is the Morgan State University Choir.

(Soundbite of song "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?")

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY CHOIR: (Singing) Didn't my Lord deliver? Didn't my Lord deliver? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel and why not every man? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel and why not every man? He delivered Daniel from the lion's den and Jonah from the belly of the whale, and the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace and why not for every man? Tell me why not every man? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel and why not every man?

The wind blow deep and the wind blows east and the wind blows west. It blows like the judgment day. Oh Lord and every poor soul that never (unintelligible) will be lands away that day. (Unintelligible) the almighty. Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel and why not for every man? I set my foot on the gospel (unintelligible) and then I sure began to see. He led me home on (unintelligible) and I'll never come back no more.

Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel And tell me why not for every man?

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: I'm not supposed to applaud because it's too close to the mic and it distorts. But hey, that was fantastic. Thank you.

It was an arrangement by Donald McCullough(ph) of "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" We're joined now by Eric Conway, director of the Morgan State University Choir, chairperson of the fine arts department here at Morgan State. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ERIC CONWAY (Director, Morgan State University Choir): You're certainly welcome.

CONAN: And thanks for bringing your friends.

Mr. CONWAY: Oh, certainly.

CONAN: I know that you perform all kinds of music. I wonder, do you feel a special responsibility or affinity to spirituals like that one?

Mr. CONWAY: Oh, certainly, we have a long-standing tradition at this choir's first(ph) keeping the concert version of the spiritual alive. We, in fact, this version you heard right now, we're actually going to perform it at the Kennedy Center with the Master Chorale of Washington and Donald McCullough's group. That's going to be in April. But we certainly believe that we have quite a responsibility to keep the spiritual alive in Morgan.

CONAN: But how to do you pick your material?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, it's interesting. I will almost say that the material picks us. In many ways, that is, we've been asked to sing so many different places. In a way our schedule, in a way, drives our repertoire. And we actually have an engagement in February, just - next month at Strathmore Hall where we're actually singing "Free to Sing: The Story of the First African-American Opera Company." So right now, we're fast preparing for that engagement in two weeks.

CONAN: All that travel and I bet it takes just a little bit of rehearsal to get that kind of precision and that kind of power and that kind of unity. I wonder, how much work is it extra work for the students?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, we meet three times a week in the larger choir. In fact, we have as many as 140 voices who are enrolled in the choir, for the university choir, but then we - it's usually - we usually travel with a busload. That is, logistically, it's either travel with one bus, about 50. And typically, in fact, we have about 50 here today.

CONAN: Fifty here today.

Mr. CONWAY: Yeah.

CONAN: And that's a pretty outstanding sound. What is it like when there's three times that number?

Mr. CONWAY: Oh, my. Well, we - our big concerts are our annual Christmas concert and our annual spring concert. And that's with the full choir and full orchestra. And we're looking forward to next Christmas. We're performing at Murphy Fine Arts Center with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the new maestro, Marin Alsop.

CONAN: And I would assume that most of these students are music majors.

Mr. CONWAY: Many of them are. But many just have a passion for music. And I got to say that our soloist - our next soloist is actually was a telecom major. His name is Thomas Allen. But often, their passion for singing surpass, sometimes, the music majors.

CONAN: Well, where do you find them if they're not music majors?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, we have open auditions. And we have posters around. But to be honest, at this point, the choir's reputation precedes itself, if you will. And people from all over the country say we want to sing with your choir. However, I tell them you can't major in choir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: The most important thing is you come here and you get your degree. You represent us best by graduating, going out and doing what you need to do.

CONAN: And they are ambassadors, not just for this university here in this country, but…

Mr. CONWAY: Oh, yes.

CONAN: …for this country when you go abroad.

Mr. CONWAY: Yes. Most recently, we just came back from Ghana. We were asked at the invitation of the U.S. ambassador there, Pamela Bridgewater, to help celebrate 50 years of independence of that country. We traveled to Accra, to many - Kumasi, many of the - and again, to show our solidarity, the first concert we began where we sang the Ghanaian national anthem. And the Ghanaians sang the U.S. national anthem. That was a great show of solidarities.

CONAN: I understand, in fact, it's one of the traditions of this choir. That wherever you go, you sing a song from that country.

Mr. CONWAY: Yes. And certainly, it's - it breaks down initial barriers, if you will. Just to show that we want to be - experience their culture.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about the man we started talking about in this segment, Nathan Carter, who is - I guess you're a mentor, too.

Mr. CONWAY: Yes. Yes. I was never a student here, but I worked side by side with Nathan Carter for some 20 years. And certainly, you know, it's funny how things work out. I never imagined being in this position. The fact that I used to say woe the fool to follow him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Tough act to follow.

Mr. CONWAY: Yes. But I was a fool. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That laughter you hear is coming from behind us, in the choir.

Mr. CONWAY: No. But things have worked out. It's made for a very smooth transition. Certainly, this choir's reputation is made possible because of the hard work of Nathan Carter. Many say a work - it's difficult to follow a man like that. But I'd much rather have a tradition started than start from scratch. And he'd certainly laid down the foundation.

CONAN: What about his traditions? Have you made it, you know, a principle to keep, and what's changed?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, one - the one dynamic of this choir was the energy. And what makes the Morgan State Choir so incredible, well, I believe it's the energy, it's the passion, the spirit in their sound. It's very infectious. We've had -of course, a choir is not just about the music; it's about the camaraderie, the fellowship. But again, when people come to our concerts, I hope that they are spiritually stronger than when they first came.

CONAN: This has got to be a difficult job. I mean, you're running different units. You're booking concerts around the world. You're arranging travels. You also got some administrative duties here at the school.

Mr. CONWAY: Oh, certainly. But again, you do what you have to do in this world. And again, another cliche, it's a labor of love. And if you love music, if you love - if you believe in this group and if you believe what you're doing, it's not work.

CONAN: And I wonder, previous members of the choir, do they keep in touch? Do they come back and listen and say, boy, it wasn't like that in my day.

Mr. CONWAY: No, no. They've been very, very supportive. In fact, this past October, we had an alumni concert. And they were just very, very supportive. They've been back to (unintelligible) our concerts. And they're just saying thank you for keeping Dr. Carter's legacy alive.

CONAN: And Dr. Carter, obviously, an important figure at this university, an important figure in American music…

Mr. CONWAY: Certainly.

CONAN: …as not just a director, as a composer, too.

Mr. CONWAY: Oh, certainly. Composer but more arranger. He, again, at - the tradition of William Dawson, just many choral directors in many different campuses, they had a tradition of arranging the music. You know, they had a group all ready to sing the work. And he, as did ask Dr. Nathan Carter - now, actually, he has a Nathan Carter Choral series in GIA Publications. So if you like any of the music that we're doing today, I do believe most of it is available on GIA Publications.

CONAN: We're talking with Eric Conway, director of the Morgan State University Choir, chairperson of the fine arts department at Morgan State University. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And why don't we get a chance to listen to one of Dr. Carter's arrangements? "If I Can Help Somebody."

(Soundbite of song "If I Can Help Somebody")

Mr. THOMAS ALLEN (Soloist, Morgan State University Choir): (Singing) If I can help somebody as I pass along. If I can cheer somebody with a word or song. If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong. Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty, as a Christian would. If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought. If I can spread love's message, as my Master taught. Then my living shall not be in vain.

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY CHOIR: (Singing) Then my living shall not be in vain. Then my living shall not be in vain. If I can help somebody as I pass along then my living shall not be in vain. Then my living shall not be in vain. Then my living shall not be in vain. If I can help somebody as I pass along then my living shall not be in vain.

Mr. ALLEN: (Singing) Then my living shall not be in vain.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: "If I Could Help Somebody," an arrangement by Dr. Nathan Carter. The voices you just heard, some of the members of the Morgan State University Choir, with soloist Thomas Allen. We're also joined by Dr. Eric Conway. He's the director of the Morgan State University Choir and chairperson of the fine arts department.

You can hear more selections from the choir and visit their Web site by going to npr.org/talkofthenation.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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