ELY- “This festival gets more special every year,” said guest conductor Matthew Olson. “And with Carrie Newcomer’s presence this year, her message inspired these singers to be the best …
ELY- “This festival gets more special every year,” said guest conductor Matthew Olson. “And with Carrie Newcomer’s presence this year, her message inspired these singers to be the best versions of themselves.”
The Boundary Waters Choral Festival celebrated 10 years on March 1 with a day of rehearsals, workshops, coaching sessions, an evening performance, and a very special guest artist, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer. She has recorded 16 albums, toured around the world, and has been featured on several PBS specials for her work as a musician as well as her efforts to bridge political divides and bring communities together.
Olson, the choir director at Carleton College in Northfield, said festival organizer Billie Rouse has a passion for using music to bring a sense of belonging and community to high school choir students in the area.
“They get to know each other through music,” said Olson, who noted that, traditionally, high school students get to know each other through sports, but that is on a competitive, not a cooperative, footing.
“I am honored to keep coming back here,” said Olson, who is looking forward to his seventh trip up north for the festival in 2020.
Olson also said the festival helps area choir teachers, who are busy creating a musical culture in their own building, by exposing students to a wider variety of choral music, and by giving them the opportunity to sing in a larger group. This year 125 students participated, the biggest ever, Olson said.
Carrie Newcomer was having a terrific time on her first trip to Ely.
“This is a stunning community,” she said.
“I had Crapola for breakfast,” she said with a laugh, “and that’s a good thing.”
Newcomer said she hadn’t done a lot of work with choirs before. But last week she conducted a workshop with Olson and followed that up with her visit to Ely thanks to the invitation from Billie and her husband Mike Rouse, who is the choir director in Ely.
“Everyone asked me why I was going to the Boundary Waters area in February,” she said. “But I got a really good feel for this community.”
Newcomer has been described as a “prairie mystic” by the Boston Globe. She was raised in rural Indiana, not far from where Mike and Billie Rouse lived before coming north. Billie said she amazed that she was able to get in touch with Newcomer, and doubly amazed that she agreed to make the trip up to Ely. Newcomer is one of Mike’s favorite vocal artists, so her willingness to take part in the festival made it a kind of “bucket list” event for him.
Newcomer worked with the students during the day. Students performed three of Newcomer’s songs, “Room at the Table,” “Lean in Towards the Light,” and “The Gathering of Spirits.”
“It was just wonderful,” Newcomer said. “The whole process was amazing. The kids worked so hard and were very open to working with me.”
Students also worked with vocal professors from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Rachel Inselman, Alice Pierce, and Elias Mokole, all made return trips to the festival’s teaching staff. Ely’s Irene Hartfield was the concert accompanist.
The evening concert featured individual performances by the Vermilion Country, Mt. Iron-Buhl, International Falls, Eveleth-Gilbert, and Ely high school choirs. North Woods choir students also participated in the day’s workshops and joined in with the group choir, which sang two choral pieces under the direction of Olson, in addition to the songs with Newcomer.
The evening before the festival, Newcomer worked with a small group of interested Ely students for a songwriting workshop. Newcomer then performed that song, along with the entire choir, as a finale for the concert.
The song featured things the students loved about the area– the Blueberry Festival, Dorothy’s Root Beer, loons and bears, and pasties. It even included a mention of the ethnic specialty potica, mostly because the fledgling songwriters needed something to rhyme with pizza, Newcomer said. Here is the chorus for their song:
“This is my home
This is where I belong
Birch trees and stone
Where the cold makes friendships strong