Featured Stories, National Lutheran News

National Cathedral, White House get choral treat from Waverly

Wartburg Choir travels to Washington, D.C.

Members of the Wartburg College Choir weren’t planning to spend a weekend in December in the nation’s capital. But after an unexpected invitation from someone at the White House, that suddenly changed. Immediately after semester final exams, 60 singers and their director, Lee Nelson, headed for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday, December 16, 2011, for a flight to Washington, D.C.

Former President Bill Clinton, from his portrait, seems to be looking in on the Wartburg Choir as it sings in the vestibule of the White House. Photo credit: Michael L. Sherer

Once the invitation to the White House was received and locked in (followed by an application process that took about a month), the choir’s schedule quickly expanded. College chaplain Ramona Bouzard was instrumental in negotiating a Saturday morning performance at Washington National Cathedral. Serendipitously, the cathedral was hosting a simulcast prayer service in the morning of the same day as the afternoon White House concert. The simulcast linked Christians in Washington with their spiritual counterparts in Bethlehem, West Bank, and featured, among others, the Rev. Fred Strickert, until recently a member of the Wartburg religion faculty. Strickert is now serving Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.

The Saturday morning service featured the choir singing several seasonal carols [from] the college’s “Christmas with Wartburg.”

Choir members gave themselves a warm-up for Saturday with a Friday evening walk to the U.S. Capitol building. They converted the front steps into choir risers and held forth in the early evening darkness with a half dozen Christmas carols. A crowd of passing tourists gathered and showed the singers their warm appreciation on a chilly December night.

The Saturday morning service featured the choir singing an extended prelude — several seasonal carols, some of which were included in the college’s “Christmas with Wartburg” concert presented in Waverly earlier this month.

Singing in the seat of power

The White House performance was more complicated. The invitation stipulated a group of 30 singers. The choir has 84 voices. Director Lee had a difficult decision to make. He trimmed the group’s numbers to 60 on the basis of seniority. That meant, essentially, that first-year students didn’t make the cut.

Hannah Haupt, Winona, Minnesota, was one of the lucky vocalists who made the cut to sing at the White House. Photo credit: Michael L. Sherer

The White House contact first learned of the Wartburg Choir by listening to a choral piece loaded into YouTube.

And, when the singers arrived at the White House, only half of them could sing at one time. That turned out to be a blessing for the vocalists, since the time allocated ran to around six hours.

Also singing with the group was faculty member and world-renowned opera singer Simon Estes, along with the eight-member “Feste Burg” men’s chorus. (The name is German for “Mighty Fortress.”)

The audiences at the White House were enthusiastic with their applause, seeming not to want the music to stop. Some listeners stood for as long as a half-hour (no chairs were provided), enjoying the carols.

For most of the singers, getting into the White House was a first. Senior Hannah Haupt of Winona, Minnesota, was one of those first-timers. “This is an awesome opportunity,” she told Metro Lutheran. “Dr. Nelson told us at rehearsal one day last fall that we’d been offered ‘an interesting opportunity.’ It wasn’t until the end of his announcement — he held us in suspense for a while — that it would be at the White House.”

Nelson is quick to point out that the choir’s opportunity to sing in the most famous living room in America came because members of a previous choir made it possible. The White House contact first learned of the Wartburg Choir by listening to a choral piece loaded into YouTube, the popular Internet video service. Most of the singers in that choir had already graduated by the time the invitation came.

The choir returned to Waverly late Sunday evening — ready for a slightly delayed Christmas vacation.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,