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St. Olaf singers join University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club for performance of To Repair

St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu conducts Viking Chorus during the 2021 Family Weekend concert.
St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu conducts Viking Chorus during the 2021 Family Weekend concert.

The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, conducted by Mark Stover ’01, will visit St. Olaf College on Saturday, May 7, at 3:30 p.m. as part of their tour across the Midwest, and will be joined in concert by tenors and basses from the St. Olaf Choir and Viking Chorus. The concert will highlight the on-campus premiere of the multi-movement work To Repair, composed by St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, along with additional works performed by the Michigan Men’s Glee Club and St. Olaf Choir.

The concert, which is free and open to the public, will be streamed and archived online.

Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu with Mark Stover '01 during the 60-day journey for the To Repair Project in 2021.
Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu with Mark Stover ’01 during the 60-day journey for the To Repair Project in 2021.

To Repair focuses on confronting racial inequity and inspiring hope for a better America, incorporating elements of traditional African American spirituals and text from notable Black authors. The poignant piece was commissioned by Stover for the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club and received its world premiere on April 7, 2022, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York City. In advance of the performance, Wondemagegnehu held a four-day residency with the Michigan Men’s Glee Club where they not only rehearsed the piece, but engaged in meaningful conversations on the necessary steps we need to take toward repairing our communities. 

Wondemagegnehu’s choral composition is informed by his To Repair Project, a 60-day journey that he made across the eastern half of the United States in the summer of 2021 to collect narratives from Black community members, activists, artists, clergy, and politicians whose work focuses on repairing the Black community. These conversations and experiences formed the basis of his choral piece. His voyage was highlighted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Forbes

Wondemagegnehu told the Star Tribune that “The biggest part of this trip has been learning and listening. I’m going up to strangers and saying, ‘Hey, can I ask you a few questions?’ and I’m getting some good results. Being in community with people who look like me in cities across the country has already been incredibly rewarding. I feel lucky I get to do this.”

Earlier this semester, Wondemagegnehu participated in a St. Olaf conversation about his To Repair Project. He described the interactions he had along his journey, from an impromptu meeting with an elderly couple in Kenosha who had once been sharecroppers to a visit with Timothy Wright, a lawyer and former government official who served in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. He also played several audio clips from his conversations with Black community members last summer, including his conversation in Kenosha and a visit with the Rev. Dr. Iva Carruthers.

The below excerpt opens the program notes that accompany the performance of To Repair:

When we ask what it means to repair, we should be clear about the terms of the question. The work of repair is carried out in the aftermath of a breaking. Repair is not restoration: we do not seek to bring back something as it was in the past. Indeed, when we consider the project of community repair in the United States, we are often dealing with communities whose memory is not of wholeness and health but of violent dispossession, dehumanization, and enslavement. In asking about repair, then, we look at the present and toward the future: what do the people who live in this country with us need to be whole? Time runs in only one direction: we cannot unbreak a limb or uncut a wound. But bones can be set and wounds can be stitched and bandaged, and with time and care a person can heal both without and within, as long as life remains. That caveat is a heavy one. So many are not alive who ought to be: dead from police violence, from uninvestigated murders, from AIDS complications and lack of healthcare. Their deaths are part of what needs repairing: the gaps where their lives should be are wounds in their families and communities that demand our care and attention. The word “reparations” in the present day sounds radical, and perhaps it is — but we should ask ourselves why. What is radical about giving people and communities, ravaged and traumatized by centuries of alternating exploitation and neglect, the things that they need to heal? This sounds radical only because we in the United States do not ordinarily permit ourselves to ask the simple question that gets to the root of the problem. Tesfa asks it with this work: what do our communities need, and what do we as Americans need, to repair?

— Program notes by Daniel Walden, University of Michigan