Randall Speer, music professor, directs the Randolph College Chorale and Chamber Orchestra in Houston Memorial Chapel during Christmas Vespers.
Morgan Wardlaw ’17 rushed through freezing rain into Houston Memorial Chapel with a violin case tucked under her arm.
As she prepared for the Randolph College Christmas Vespers concert, she heard the bad news: A professional violinist who rounded out Randolph’s string section was unable to travel through the winter storm. This meant that Wardlaw would have to pick up two demanding violin solos.
“I had a moment of panic,” Wardlaw recalled later. But as she began to perform the violin solos from Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor and from Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria, she relaxed.
The energy in the chapel was palpable as student orchestra members, professional musicians, and the Randolph College Chorale performed Christmas music and readings. Despite winter weather, the audience nearly filled the chapel. The music blended beautifully.
“It was like going from black and white to full color,” said Emily Rist ’14. “It was like stepping into a cathedral.”
‘I Came Out of Rehearsals Just Smiling’
Students and professional musicians in the Randolph College Chamber Orchestra perform their first solo concert in Smith Hall Theatre.
Christmas Vespers was the climax of an incredible semester for Randolph College’s music program.
Infused with new talent, every ensemble embraced more challenging music that stretched students’ abilities and pushed them to succeed together. Music professor and director Randall Speer was thrilled.
“It’s not just larger numbers, but the quality of the incoming musicians is better than it has been in previous years,” Speer said. “The enthusiasm and the work ethic are palpable and infectious. I come out of rehearsals just smiling.”
About two years ago, Randolph’s music faculty began working more actively to recruit student musicians, especially string players, who could launch the Randolph College Chamber Orchestra.
The orchestra had its first concert with Chorale in the spring of 2012. Since then, its numbers have continued to increase. The orchestra includes nine Randolph students, two local high school students, and a faculty member.
The singing groups have grown, too. Chorale, the College’s signature classical vocal group, now has 24 members, including 14 first-years and enough men to have strong bass and tenor sections. The vocal jazz group Touch of Harmony reached its maximum of eight singers last semester.
These numbers, along with the talent of the performers, allowed Speer to select a much more rigorous repertoire with more singing parts, more complex harmonies, and challenging scores.
For the Chamber Orchestra’s first solo concert, he included a symphony by Serge Prokofiev that tests the limits of what is possible on string instruments. “We knew that was a challenge from day one, so we built it very gradually and very slowly,” Speer said.
“It’s one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever played because there was a lot of new technique that I had never tried,” Wardlaw said. “There were parts that I never mastered until the performance, but I got them.” Speer was energized by the outcome. “The orchestra concert surpassed our wildest dreams in terms of the musical heights that we thought they would reach,” he said.
Setting the bar high
David Lopez ’16 said it has been exciting to watch Chorale transform. “The sound we have is much larger,” he said. “We were able to do songs that are more powerful with many different parts.”
The students have appreciated the challenge of these songs. “It requires a little more time, but when you nail it, it’s really rewarding,” said Chelsea Fox ’15, who sings in both Chorale and Touch of Harmony. “He’s giving the groups much harder music, and we’ve been responding to it,” said Claudia Troyer ’14, another member of both groups.
“Over time, that raises expectations, so eventually that will be the standard and you raise it more. That’s how you build a music department.”
Marianne Virnelson ’17 has taken voice lessons for most of her life, but she almost always sang solos in absence of groups with which to sing. When she arrived at Randolph and joined Chorale and Touch of Harmony, she had a crash course on a variety of singing techniques that are necessary with a group.
“Harmonies are hard,” she said. “Instead of just taking the melody and going with it, I have to be able to hear the other parts of music as well. Harmonizing is something that I’m slowly becoming stronger with. It’s making me a better vocalist.”
Virnelson and other students credit Speer’s high expectations and direction for helping them become better performers.
After she sang alto for years, Speer encouraged Fox to develop her mezzo-soprano range. Today, she regularly impresses audiences with her powerful, clear voice. “I am becoming a better performer than I ever thought I could be,” Fox said.
Speer is excited to see increasing interest in Randolph’s vocal and instrumental programs and hopes to take some of the newer ensembles on tour soon.
“I happened to stumble into this College at a very good time for the music program,” said Virnelson. “I hope to continue to grow as an artist and musician and continue to hear all the beautiful music that we can make.”