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Cantorei and Manitou Singers to perform civil rights cantata

St. Olaf Cantorei and the Manitou Singers will perform True Witness: A Civil Rights Cantata on Friday, March 18, at Augustana Lutheran Church in West St. Paul, and on Sunday, March 20, in Boe Memorial Chapel at St. Olaf College. Both concerts are free and open to the public; audience members must be vaccinated for COVID-19 and wear masks. 

Members of St. Olaf Cantorei sing during a chapel service earlier this academic year.

True Witness is a cantata divided into seven movements, all based on texts of African American women poets, civil rights activists, and leaders. The seven movements are organized as a timeline, highlighting events that contributed to the civil rights movement. Through the interpretation of their words, set to music, this project urges audiences, students, faculty, and the community to consider their historical significance in the struggle for civil rights in this country. 

This monumental work honors the many ‘hidden figures’ — women — throughout history who rose to advance civil rights in this country,” says St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Music Emery Stephens, the baritone soloist for the concert. “We often hear about a few historical figures, but True Witness invites us to learn about the tireless accomplishments of African American women. As this country appoints the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, this work is a testament to the legacy of ‘hidden figures’ who paved the way for many others after them toward equality and civil rights.Assistant Professor of Music Emery Stephens

Assistant Professor of Music Emery Stephens will be a featured soloist on 'True Witness.'
Assistant Professor of Music Emery Stephens will be a featured soloist on ‘True Witness.’

Composed by Jodi Goble, True Witness was originally conceived by Scripps College Associate Professor of Music Anne Harley and commissioned by Scripps in 2013 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers. 

The performances will be conducted by St. Olaf Associate Professor of Music and St. Olaf Cantorei Conductor James Bobb and St. Olaf Associate Professor of Music and Manitou Singers Conductor Therees Hibbard. Stephens, who has sung this work before, will be accompanied by Coraine Tate ’13, soprano; Visiting Assistant Professor of Music April Kim ’11, piano; and Andrew Jacob ’18, organ. 

True Witness is remarkable in that it amplifies the experiences of Black women, who in their own words bear witness, by their lives and deaths, to the original sins of our country,” says Bobb. “I was first drawn to the piece as a way for our singers and audiences to learn more about the long history of racial injustice that still oppresses. The texts of the cantata are the words of those who lived it. As such, I hope that, rather than looking into these experiences as an outside observer, we can be drawn to the voices, the witnesses, and hear their truth, feel their impact.”

Both concerts in March will begin with a short discussion of the work, led by Bobb and Stephens, followed by the performance. A freewill offering will be made following both concerts, with all proceeds going to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute. The concert on Sunday, March 20 will be streamed here

Therees Hibbard conducts the Manitou Singers at Family Weekend in 2021.

St. Olaf Cantorei and Manitou Singers are two of seven co-curricular choirs at St. Olaf, most widely known for their performances in the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival. Both choirs have been rehearsing the cantata over the last month, and engaging with the texts and history of the piece. St. Olaf Cantorei has become known for creative programming blending the St. Olaf choral tradition with instrumental color, uniquely honed and focused to lead worship and provide a distinctive musical and spiritual experience. The Manitou Singers are composed of alto and soprano voices from the first-year class, performing repertoire that ranges from sacred to secular to popular ballads with broad appeal both on and off campus.