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Collaboration with AU Chorale and Worcester Children's Chorus springs 'River of Hope'

Telegram & Gazette

"no sun rays, but we still dealt with the drought

only cloudy days, while we drowned in our doubt

but look at the present, tied in a red bow

focus on the now, see where this river flows"

- From "River of Hope," Grace Brigham, composer, Hope DeLuca, poet, with contributions by Assumption University Chorus and Worcester Children’s Chorus

Following the course of "River of Hope" has already led to some notable "firsts" as the Assumption University Chorale, Worcester Children's Chorus and composer Grace Brigham have joined together to create a hopeful new choral work titled "River of Hope" during the pandemic.

It's the first time, for example, that Worcester Children's Chorus member Hope DeLuca, 18, of Hopkinton, has had a poem of hers set to music as a choral piece. The Worcester Children's Chorus has never worked with a composer before in creating a new composition from the beginning. Brigham, of Washington, D.C., has not written a choral piece for children and youth until now. For the Assumption University Chorale, the whole project is a unique experience, said Assumption University director of choral activities Bradford T. Dumont,

Meanwhile, "River of Hope" is still a creation and journey in progress, hopefully culminating with an in-person performance by the Assumption University Chorale and Worcester Children's Chorus in the fall.

But first things first, as the AU Chorale and WCC are working on a virtual choir recording of "River of Hope" that may be available to see and hear online as early as this month.

"I've never written something like that that's been turned into a chorus piece before. I'm excited to hear the whole piece together. It's really cool. I love being a part of it," said DeLuca, a senior at Hopkinton High School.

The whole process began when Dumont, who is also music director of the Salisbury Singers, saw some of Brigham's compositions online. "I loved the pieces that were there," he said.

Brigham graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, with a degree in music, where she also played violin and sang in various ensembles including the renowned St. Olaf Choir. As a composer, she specializes in choral and vocal music, and her piece "Discoveries" was named the winner of the Cantus 2019 Young & Emerging Composer Competition.

Dumont had thought, "I would love to have her write something some day. We stayed in touch."

Brigham has been to Worcester — with the St. Olaf Choir at Mechanics Hall. Ironically, Dumont took some Assumption University students to see the performance, but he did not know Brigham at the time.

Meanwhile, the Worcester Children's Chorus, which was founded in 2008 and is made up of students ages 8 to 18, had been meeting and rehearsing at Assumption for several years up until the pandemic.

Currently, Pamela Mindell, WCC artistic director, leads the chorus at weekly online sessions as the students practice and rehearse in their own homes, but the ties between the chorus and Assumption University remain. Both the AU Chorale and WCC have stellar reputations, and have traveled far and wide to perform.

"Before the whole pandemic situation Brad and I had said we wanted to collaborate in some form," Mindell said.

The triple convergence happened when the AU Chorale and WCC co-commissioned Brigham to write a piece that would become "River of Hope."

"Brad (Dumont) had this really cool idea," Brigham said of the collaboration. "My idea was to write a piece that was accessible to all ages and have a theme that would inspire college students and youth students."

Dumont said he envisioned that the project would have chorale and chorus members "focus on contemporary issues that speak to our cultures and environments that we're living in. What do we believe about America, and what does hope look like?"

Along with that, “This kind of multilevel collaborative project is not something that happens regularly and should allow students an insight into the creative process which they may never have experienced otherwise," he said.

Mindell said WCC got a grant from Choral Arts New England for the virtual production.

"We're working to create a virtual recording then hopefully get together in the fall and sing in-person," she said.

In February, members of WCC, the AU Chorale, and Brigham held two Zoom meetings.

"We really had brain-storming sessions," Mindell said.

"We talked with students about what we wanted to sing about," said Brigham.

"We talked about potentially putting forth our own ideas," DeLuca recalled. "I write a lot of music and I had a poem that kind of set the scene, and I submitted it and Grace (Brigham) loved it."

"River of Hope" has a chorus that implores, "the river of hope will lead you home/take a deep breath and let it all go/nothing is certain, but here’s my hand to hold/just know you’re not alone/follow the river of hope".

"It kind of focuses on just persevering through really difficult times," DeLuca said. "We had been talking about COVID but it seems like it could be applicable to a number of things, which I really like about it."

After everyone agreed that "River of Hope" would be the main text, students also worked on contributing added lines based on creating six-word poems, Dumont said.

"It's the idea of taking a story and condensing it into six words," he said.

The input from the students was important to Brigham. "The goal was to write something the kids and college students could honestly sing about. Something that was important to them and important to this time," she said.

About 60 members of the chorale and 25 WCC students have been involved with the project as it has progressed.

"The college students were so welcoming to the kids and Grace was fantastic. So the kids truly felt they were part of the collaborative process. To be able to deal with a real, actual composer was very exciting for them," Mindell said.

DeLuca was fine with the contributions to the text that her fellow students came up with.

"It feels cohesive," she said.

"The next step was that Grace actually needed time to write the piece," Dumont said. "I said 'How quickly can you write the piece?' "

The answer was pretty quickly.

Brigham said "The chorus came to me immediately. I sent it to Brad, he gave me some feedback, and I gave him the final draft."

She had a part that wasn't quite finished during a recent telephone interview, but students have been able to rehearse the work with the music she's sent.

"I haven't heard it entirely, but she put together a little version of it with piano and it sounded really beautiful," DeLuca said. "And I got the sheet music and I really love what she did with it."

"River of Hope" is about four minutes in length. One version was longer but Brigham said she cut it because she felt it was too long.

"Choral music is my specialty. I've never written choral music aimed at music performed by children. In terms of the collaboration process of this piece, I haven't done anything quite like that," Brigham said.

"Traditionally, the text would have been assigned. But this was really cool because we got together and talked about what the kids wanted to say about it …

"I'm happy with it. I think it turned out really well. I think the kids really liked it."

For the virtual performance Brigham will be playing the violin. "I'm glad I can play with it as well," she said.

"We're thrilled with it. I think it worked our really well," said Dumont.

Mindell concurred. "The students are really excited," she said.

Because of schedules, the AU Chorale and WCC have been rehearsing "River of Hope" separately, although some Assumption students have been taking the extra time to mentor WCC members.

The plan is that each "River of Hope" participant will audio record their respective part at home, and then submit it to Dumont or Mindell for mixing. "We'll create some video to go over that audio, and we'll incorporate Grace (on violin)," Dumont said.

The final video tape should be available for viewing online around mid-May, he said.

Assumption University students are also working toward exams at present, so dates may change.

"Nothing is normal right now. Students have to finish school," Dumont said.

Worcester Children's Chorus students have also been busy, getting ready for their "Spring Showcase," which can be seen online at 3 p.m. Sunday (suggested donation $10 per viewer;

The showcase will feature a varied selection of choral music that students have been working on online all year.

In the fall if it is safe to do so, the AU Chorale and WCC will have a choral piece all of their own to perform with "River of Hope."

Dumont said that unlike some commissioned works that are for specific and special occasions, he thinks "River of Hope" won't come across as immediately dated when it is sung in the future.

"I think this piece has life beyond one performance," he said.

In a similar spirit, Mindell would like to see the two groups combining for a project more than once. "My hope is we will sing together. I think it could be a wonderful relationship to nurture when we're back in-person," she said.

DeLuca is currently trying to choose between two colleges to attend in the fall. Her time at Hopkinton High and Worcester Children's Chorus is coming to an end.

"It's been amazing," she said of being a member of WCC. "Pam (Mindell) is really great and keeps us engaged, even on Zoom … She still manages to keep it fun and interesting. I've met a lot of my friends there, so it's been a really cool experience," she said.

"I'm a little sad because it's my senior year. I don't know if I'll be able to rehearse ('River of Hope') in-person."

DeLuca does plan on attending the in-person premiere performance. "Yes. As long as I can. Hopefully I'm not too far away."

Besides singing, she writes songs, upward of about 100 just this year "that will never see the light of day," she said ruefully.

Still, her poem "River of Hope" is in the spotlight.

"I'd love to go on to hopefully study music. I'd love to learn to compose and arrange music the way Grace does. But I'm a songwriter, so something with music," DeLuca said.

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