The Bienen School of Music presented its first live, in-person performances since March 2020 with the world premiere of Eclipse, a work designed to be performed in a socially distanced setting under a full moon. Members of Bienen School choral ensembles performed on the Lakefill area of Northwestern’s Evanston campus on April 25 and 26—dates chosen to coincide with the month’s full, pink supermoon.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the US, Bienen professor of conducting and ensembles Donald Nally and conductor-arranger-collaborator Kevin Vondrak ’17 MMus found themselves separated by nearly 800 miles. Nally is conductor of Grammy Award-winning new music choir The Crossing, while Vondrak serves as artistic associate and assistant conductor, and the two have maintained their creative partnership while navigating the challenges of the pandemic. They collaborated to compose and produce The Crossing’s October 2020 outdoor, socially distanced performances of The Forest.
Nally and Vondrak found inspiration in an experience familiar to many in the Northwestern and Chicagoland communities: standing under a full moon on the shore of Lake Michigan, absorbing the sights and the sound of the waves, lost in reflection. This experience drew them to the words of Illinois Poet Laureate and Northwestern alumna Angela Jackson ’77, from her poem Eclipse—an exploration of a personal reaction to cataclysmic societal events, filtered through the perspective of a lunar eclipse. The choral work Eclipse showcases the text of Jackson’s poem of the same title, from her 2015 collection of poems “It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time.”
“Maybe the things I’ve thought about, standing there in the full moon, differ from Angela’s or Kevin’s,” said Nally, “but they emerge from the same place in my mind—one of memory, loss, and a sense of belonging. One of wonder and humility, and at the same time disappointment and disgust. One of ‘this is how things are, not how I’d like them to be.’”
Eclipse offered its audience the opportunity for their own meaningful reflection, in the same setting. Over 60 performers, stationed at intervals along the Northwestern Lakefill, created a cloud of sound amplified by illuminated megaphones. Audience members experienced the piece in a linear fashion by walking the length of the Lakefill from south to north at a relaxed pace.
Timed entry to the performances provided crowd control, and audience members were required to wear a mask and maintain a distance of at least six feet from others not in their group. Pre-registration to the events sold out in eight hours, demonstrating how starved audiences have been for live musical performances.
“We hope that the piece will live on past the masks and the isolation and be heard again—in a field, on a hill, in a parking lot, a backyard, by a stream—at a time when the singers gather and are close together beforehand and again afterward, grateful for the privilege of group singing, the importance (as in our piece) of the individual to the whole and the whole to the individual, listening together, close, and unafraid. We hope it is a memory of a time past, having emerged not just from the pandemic, but from the many eclipses that are gathered here in Angela’s words and in our music,” said Nally.