The Voice: Summer 2001

The Voice

Music department hosts choral legend

Sally Jongsma

    Every choir director and voice teacher knows the work of John Berger, says Dordt voice instructor Deborah Vogel, who regularly has her students sing his compositions. So she was overjoyed to have a hand in bringing him to campus for a visit this semester.
    The visit happened quite unexpectedly. Vogel planned to use a well-known set of songs composed by Berger for private lessons, so she called the listed number to place an order. To her surprise she had a pleasant conversation with the composer himself. When the scores arrived several days later, they were accompanied by a letter from Berger thanking her for her order and interest in his work and offering to visit the college. The typewritten letter was signed with the “rather squiggly” signature of the ninety-one year-old composer, says Vogel.
    Despite having to brave one of the worst snow storms of the season on the drive from Sioux City to Sioux Center, Berger, the music faculty, and music students spent a wonderful few days together, says Vogel. In addition to speaking to the music theory and history
classes, Berger led a master class for all voice students and attended the private lessons of
students who were singing his compositions.
    “He worked with students on individual pieces and told them why he wrote the things he did,” says Vogel. Students found it fascinating.
    “You don't often get the chance to actually meet and work with the composer of pieces that you are working on, especially a composer with the experience and knowledge of Mr. Berger,” says Junior Tricia Van Ee from Pella, Iowa. “It was helpful and so interesting to sing for this man and hear his feedback on our performances of his music.”
    Senior Zach Vreeman from Anchorage, Alaska, echoed Van Ee. “It was exciting to meet the composer of music that I was working on, and then get comments on my performance of it from him directly.”
    Part of what fascinated students was listening to stories about Berger's experiences and his professional career, which has spanned almost seventy years. Born in Germany, he escaped to France in 1933 when guards appeared at an opera rehearsal for which he was the accompanist. Six years later he found a way to get to Brazil, escaping the SS troops by only two hours.
     He managed to get to the United States some time later and has lived and worked here ever since.
    At an evening concert, individuals, ensembles, and Dordt's choirs performed a variety of Berger's works, including the well-known “Alleluia” from his “Brazilian Psalm.” Vogel says he even heard two of his own compositions that night that he had never heard performed before.
    “It was a wonderful experience for all of us,” says Vogel. Students gained a new appreciation for a composer and his work, and Berger left with a warm appreciation for the music faculty and the college.

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