Laureate describes Essence of Joy and its 'Gift in Song'

As his year as 2009-2010 Penn State laureate winds down, Anthony Leach, associate professor of music/music education in the College of Arts and Architecture, shares the story of his Penn State choir Essence of Joy (EOJ), how it came to be and what it and its singers have contributed to the choral community locally, regionally and around the world.

In 1991, I left a very successful appointment as director of choral activities at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Md., to begin courses for a doctoral degree in music education at Penn State. The transition from high school choral director to full-time graduate student was framed by my work with very talented singers and a supportive school community that made going to work every day very fulfilling. As I eased my way into the new routine of being on campus, my attention immediately focused on music education courses and what I needed to do as graduate assistant with the Penn State Concert and University Choirs. As the semester progressed, I was approached by Bruce Trinkley, conductor of the Men's Glee Club, regarding my interest in preparing music for the annual celebration commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He passed my name and contact information on to the president of the Penn State Forum on Black Affairs (FOBA) and I agreed to this invitation.

I shared with everyone that I did not have a choir for which I was responsible but would invite singers from Concert Choir, University Choir, Singing Lions, Glee Club and the United Soul Ensemble to join me. Twenty-four students responded positively to my invitation in November 1991 and became the first edition of Essence of Joy. At that time, our rehearsals were held in room 100 of the School of Music's building. What I thought would be our first and final performance occurred on Jan. 15, 1992, in the HUB for the annual banquet sponsored by FOBA. The choir was positively received by the audience and when we left the stage, I walked out of the HUB thinking that all went well but did not consider that subsequent invitations would emerge from this performance.

The first off-campus performance of EOJ occurred in February 1992 at a special service hosted at Faith United Church of Christ, State College, Pa. James Stewart had been selected as the vice president of educational equity for Penn State, and many of his friends on and off campus wanted to have a special service of recognition. The choir performed and again I did not think beyond this moment. In preparing for the annual Spring Break Tour of the Concert Choir, D. Douglas Miller, director of choral activities, invited me to have singers from EOJ who were members of the Concert Choir to perform several compositions during our presentations in Maryland and southcentral Pennsylvania. I was honored to do this. The final invitation occurred at the end of the spring term when the Penn State Catholic community invited the choir to perform at the 5:05 p.m. mass to end the spring term. It finally became clear to me that others were genuinely interested in what I was developing through Essence of Joy, so I needed to pay more attention to their requests for performance opportunities.

Singers from the inaugural edition of EOJ include Keith Alexander, Kristin Alexander, Tom Serene, Fred Omega Pye, Michael Strouse, Keith Spencer and others. Students joined the choir on my invitation and their expressed interest in performing traditional and contemporary gospel music. From fall 1992 through fall 1993, the choir continued to perform for campus organizations and at the annual M.L. King events at the HUB and Eisenhower Auditorium. On reflection, it was the invitation to be involved with the University observance events associated with the King holiday that provided momentum for EOJ to move its musical mission forward. The 1993-94 academic year was pivotal in the emergence of the role of the choir, as I accepted an invitation from the Center for the Performing Arts to prepare the choir for performances of "Crossings," a gospel music-driven production, at Eisenhower Auditorium with Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh, Pa. Selections such as "There Where No Mirrors In My Nana’s House" and "Wanting Memories" from this musical theatre piece remain as an important part of the musical offering shared by EOJ then and now. When I accepted a faculty appointment in the School of Music in 1994, Essence of Joy became a credited course, MUSIC 93.

Over the years, our campus schedule has been framed by the following events: an annual fall concert, held during Homecoming weekend; "Our Gift in Song," an annual December holiday concert; the Celebration of African American Spirituals, now part of the Celebration of African American Music Festival; and a spring concert.

The first recording session of the choir occurred in December 1997. The double compact disc project was released in April 1998 and is called the "Soul and Spirit" of Essence. The second compact disc project, "Essence Live," was released in 1999. Excerpts from this recording include "Melodies From Heaven" by Kirk Franklin and "It’s Right and Good" by Walter Hawkins. A third EOJ compact disc project, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," presents archival recordings from 1999 through 2002. Excerpts include "Silver and Gold" by Kirk Franklin and "I’ll Fly Away" by Hezekiah Walker.

The first symposium focusing on the African-American Spiritual was hosted by Essence of Joy in February 1997. Visiting and guest artists included the following: Raymond Tymas Jones, University of Northern Iowa; Marymal Holmes, Bowie State University, Bowie, Md.; Edward Jackson, choral director, Duke Ellington High School of the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; J. Weldon Norris, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; and Carl Blake, School of Music, Penn State.

The choir received its first invitation for performance at the National Convention of the American Choral Directors Association in 1998 for its 1999 Chicago convention. I prepared two interest sessions: Traditions, Transitions and Trends in Black Gospel Music: Chicago Style; and New Choral Music by African American Composers for Choir, Orchestra and Soloists featuring works by Glenn E. Burleigh, Adolphus Hailstork and Julius Williams. Subsequent invitations for Essence of Joy to perform at regional and national conventions of ACDA and the Music Educators National Conference included the 2002 ACDA Eastern Division Convention, Pittsburgh, Pa.; 2003 ACDA National Convention, New York, N.Y.; 2004 MENC National Convention, Minneapolis, Minn.; 2005 ACDA National Convention, Los Angeles, Calif.; 2006 ACDA Eastern Division Convention, New York, N.Y.; and 2009 MENC Eastern Division Convention, Providence, R.I.

EOJ tours within the continental United States have taken place since 1997 with performances in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Washington, D.C. International tours to the following destinations have expanded the outreach of EOJ: in 2001 to Kracow, Poland and Prague, Czech Republic; in 2005 to South Africa; and in 2009 to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

In 2003, Essence of Joy initiated a commissioning project, which has resulted in new works, premiered by the choir at the Celebration of African American Spirituals and Celebration of African American Music Festival, composed by Roy Belfield Jr., Glenn E. Burleigh, Roland Carter, Marvin Curtis, Damon Dandridge, Keith Hampton, Moses Hogan, M. Roger Holland, Anthony Leach, Robert Morris and Rosephanye Powell. Student composers Maurice Blackmon, Mark Charran, Christina Harrison, Mark Lehnowsky and Mark O’Reilly have completed works that also were premiered by EOJ at the same festivals.

In 2004, a very talented singer/dancer began her undergraduate journey at Penn State in the undergraduate musical theatre program. Allyson Daniel expressed an interest in transforming the presentational aspects of Essence of Joy by adding choreography for selected compositions. She positively transformed this aspect of our presentation and served as choreographer until her graduation in 2008. Nathan Lucrezio, a 2009 alumnus, and student Gilbert Bailey II have since taken up the mantle of creating exciting movements for the choir, which enhances our presentation of sacred and secular music from the African and African-American choral traditions.

In December 2007, the three components of the Essence of Joy choral community -- Essence of Joy, Essence 2 and the Essence of Joy Alumni Singers -- joined forces for a performance of the oratorio "Born To Die" by Glenn Burleigh. This event was held in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center with soloists and conductors from all three choirs.

Two special video projects produced by WPSU have focused on the growth and outreach of the resident choir and Essence of Joy Alumni Singers: Essence of Joy was featured on the Big Ten Network in 2008, and "Music from Penn State" aired on WPSU in 2009.

Essence 2 Limited was organized in September 1999 at the University Baptist and Brethren Church, State College, PA. Membership in this choir involves singers from middle school through adults. This choir only functions during the fall academic term. The Essence of Joy Alumni Singers were formally organized in October 2005. Since that time, the choir has completed international tours to Belgium and France. Performances within the USA have taken place in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Florida and St. Thomas/U.S. Virgin Islands. This choir has also performed at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

As I reflect on my year as Penn State laureate, each of these choirs has figured prominently in my platform of "Building Choral Communities." Their outreach, musical vitality and purpose all combine to provide audiences with an energetic and diverse musical offering through African-American choral music.

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Last Updated June 22, 2011