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The UAPB Vesper Choir: A Pine Bluff Tradition

The presentation of Handel's Messiah by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Vesper Choir marks the official opening of the Christmas season on the campus. Though COVID-19 has cancelled this year’s performance, it hasn’t cancelled the legacy of this storied ensemble. How much do you know about the UAPB Vesper Choir?

Christmas is just two days away, which seems like the perfect time to celebrate the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Vesper Choir. Nationally recognized among Historically Black Colleges and Universities for its diverse repertoire and excellent performances, the Vesper Choir has a long and rich history. This 75-80 member select ensemble, founded in the 1940s by Professor Ariel Lovelace and conducted for more than 40 years by Professor Shelton J. McGee, has a rich choral tradition that includes performances on radio and television, as well as concerts across the United States, in Europe, and online.

The Vesper Choir is a traditional college choir that presents an entertaining and varied program of classical choral literature, spirituals, choral jazz, commercial music, and gospel selections. The Choir continues the tradition of studying and performing choral masterpieces and contemporary choral compositions that are of the highest quality. The Vesper Choir has a mission that is educational, artistic and cultural. It is a service organization and performs for significant campus, community, and state events.

Staffed by experienced singers, the Vesper Choir isn’t just for music majors. Students in any major can participate. Selection criteria include an audition, interview, letter of recommendation from the student’s high school director, or other music professional, and consent of the Director.

One of the Vesper Choir’s most anticipated concerts of the year is the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah, considered the best oratorio in music history. To produce this monumental work, the Vesper Choir has relied on the support of various instrumental music organizations over the years, including the University Concert Band, and string ensembles from the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

The Vesper Choir has partnered with many musical partners during its history, including the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, where they performed the concert version of the opera “Porgy and Bess.” In 2006, the Vesper Choir mounted a four-city concert tour in Italy. The choir performed in Rome, rendering music for the Mass at the Vatican in St. Peter’s Basilica; at historic St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice; and in Florence and Milan. The Vesper Choir has also performed at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois in Urbana, IL.

Live performances aren’t the only forte of the Vesper Choir. They performed on an award-winning television program for the Arkansas Educational Television Network. They also sang with internationally famous young musician Ethan Bortnick, who has assisted in raising more than $30 million for non-profit organizations and humanitarian causes around the world. During their annual spring tours, the Vesper Choir has presented concerts in churches, schools, and significant performance venues in more than 20 states. The Vesper Choir’s spring 2015 tour took them to New York City, where they dazzled audiences at the Historic Seventh Day Adventist Church in Greenwich Village, in the Atrium at Trump Tower, and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the fourth largest Christian church in the world. Directed by recently retired Dr. Michael Bates, an almost 20-year veteran of the choir, the accolades received suggest that this tour could have been one of the best in modern memory.

Though the Vesper Choir won’t be performing Handel’s Messiah this year, you can get your holiday fix by watching this video of the complete 2019 performance. Enjoy!

Source: University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

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