Laureate shares history of Essence of Joy, related choral communities

by Tony Leach, 2009-2010 Penn State Laureate

How does one create something that is unique, engaging and purpose driven? I accepted the invitation in fall 1991 to provide music for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Banquet sponsored by Penn State's Forum on Black Affairs. At the time, I served as graduate assistant with the Penn State Concert Choir and University Choir. I invited singers from these choirs as well as from the Singing Lions, Glee Club and United Soul Ensemble to join me in preparing for the January 1992 event. The 24 singers who accepted my invitation became the first edition of Essence of Joy (EOJ).

On accepting a faculty appointment in the School of Music in 1994, EOJ became a class known as Music 93 and was open to students through audition who were interested in performing sacred and secular music from the African and African-American choral traditions. Over the years, this choir has provided numerous opportunities for Penn State students to explore a rich cultural heritage that has endeared this ensemble to audiences at Penn State, across Pennsylvania, throughout the Eastern, Southern and Central regions of the United States and internationally, through performing tours in the Czech Republic, Poland, South Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

In 1999, I focused my attention on the growing petition from persons who were not Penn State students but had interest in performing repertoire from the African-American choral tradition. Essence 2 Ltd. met at the University Baptist and Brethren Church, State College, Pa., for the first four years of its existence. The choir involves singers from middle school through the "seasoned singers" of our local communities who come together during the fall academic term to present an annual musical event. The choir has collaborated with Essence of Joy, Essence of Joy Alumni Singers, Harrisburg and State College Choral Societies for shared concerts. Singers from Essence 2 have traveled with Essence of Joy on international tours. Repertoire performed by Essence 2 has found its way into the musical offering of many local churches in State College and surrounding communities.

The final piece of the Essence of Joy organizational structure emerged in October 2005 when 55 EOJ alumni returned to campus to participate in the Homecoming Concert shared with the resident EOJ choir. I was humbled and moved beyond words as I realized that these singers were serious about making a commitment to a new musical venture that would provide an ongoing opportunity for them to rediscover some of the personal and musical bonds that brought them together during their journey as Penn State students. Essence of Joy Alumni Singers (EOJAS) maintains similar standards of choral excellence as they promote and preserve this rich legacy of choral singing. The choir has toured France, Belgium, Luxemborg and South Africa and experienced the special bond that comes from sharing their musical offering with singers in each of these countries. Within the United States, EOJAS is establishing an exciting presence through performances in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Florida. They support the resident choir through an annual scholarship and are recognized as an Alumni Interest Group in the College of Arts and Architecture.

 

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Last Updated November 18, 2010