End-of-semester concerts at San Juan College planned over coming weeks

Virtual performances required by COVID-19 restrictions

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Members of the African Drumming Ensemble at San Juan College are social distanced during a rehearsal on Aug. 24, 2020. The group will perform a virtual end-of-semester concert this weekend.
  • The concerts can be viewed digitally on the college's website and social media platforms.
  • They will be presented between April 30 and May 13.
  • This is the second semester in a row the virtual concerts have been presented.

FARMINGTON — San Juan College professor Teun Fetz can't help but laugh when he considers the idea that everyone associated with the music program might be growing accustomed to the challenges of performing under the unusual circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic's health mandates.

His music students are preparing for their second round of end-of-semester virtual concerts over the next couple of weeks.

"I think we're getting better," he said, chuckling. "It's hard to say how much better."

Virginia Nickels-Hircock, the college's choral music director, sighed when confronted with that idea.

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"We learned a lot the past few times," she said, though she noted that the virtual concerts, which are being produced in the absence of the program's ability to perform shows in front of a live audience, have a steep learning curve.

The music program will deliver four concerts in the next two-plus weeks, all of which will be streamed online on the college's website and social media platforms.

A performance by the African Drumming Ensemble will come first at 7 p.m. Friday, April 30. The San Juan College Choir will follow with its performance at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 4. The San Juan College Orchestra concert will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, May 7; and the San Juan College Symphonic Band and Educators Band concert is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday, May 13.

All performances besides the choir concert will be streamed live from the stage of the Henderson Performing Arts Center on the college campus with no audience present. They can be viewed digitally at sanjuancollege.edu/student-showcase, facebook.com/SanJuanCollege/ and facebook.com/ksje90.9.

This will mark the second time the department has employed a virtual format for the traditional end-of-semester concerts because of the pandemic. The college used that format for the first time at the end of the fall 2020 semester.

A different kind of experience

The 15-member African Drumming Ensemble led by Fetz will perform first, delivering a program of West African and Afro-Cuban tunes. Membership in the group has remained largely steady over the past few years, allowing it to develop a sense of continuity and create some momentum.

San Juan College music professor Teun Fetz leads his African drumming students during an Aug. 24, 2020, rehearsal.

"They keep coming back semester after semester, so I guess we're doing something right," Fetz said of his drummers, who include several older students. "We've got good longevity or retainment."

The appeal of the group lies in its rhythmic vitality, he said, something that other forms of music can't match. Fetz said members of the ensemble tend to worry less about the quality of their performance and focus more about just having fun playing together.

"You get the energy, it's fun, it's accessible and you get a different kind of music that you would get from a chorus or an orchestra," he said.

While Fetz said he understands that most Western listeners may not be familiar with African drumming, he encouraged local music fans to watch the performance and give it a try.

"There's not a lot of world music in our area, so it's a unique niche," he said. "But outside this community, where you don't find much outside the pop or country realm, world music is growing, and it needs to be acknowledged."

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Student Laura Ryan keeps the beat during an African drumming class at San Juan College on Aug. 24, 2020.

When the group performs before a live audience, Fetz said one of the highlights is always a call-and-response segment with members of the crowd. The ensemble won't be able to duplicate that in the virtual setting, but Fetz said he has put together a short video that will be included in this weekend's concert that outlines the heritage and development of African drumming, something he hopes makes viewers feel included.

"It will give them a sense of what we're trying to go for," he said.

Getting it on tape

The only group that will be delivering a recorded performance is the San Juan College Choir, led by Nickels-Hircock. Her group's concert will consist of a series of videotaped performances featuring individuals or small groups, each of which contributes to the overall theme of "be enCOURAGEd." The concert is intended to serve as a reaction to the range of emotions and challenges that have marked the last year, exploring such themes as hope and adversity, loss and birth, optimism and courage, and justice and peace.

"All of the songs that are included (reflect) hope for the future or present, or commemorate the past," Nickels-Hircock said.

Virginia Nickels-Hircock

The choir delivered a similar videotaped program last semester, but Nickels-Hircock said when the time came for her to plan this event, she was at a loss for ideas when it came to selecting the material. She decided to solicit the thoughts of her friends on social media and was delighted with the responses she received.

"Boy, I got a ton of suggestions. What I found was that many composers are writing songs for where we are," she said, noting the wealth of new material that has been created in direct response to the events of the past year. "All of these have come out very recently."

But choosing the material was not even half the battle. Nickels-Hircock said it takes an hour or 90 minutes to videotape each song, making the production of the concert a painstaking endeavor, especially given the fact that the singers were positioned at least 6 feet apart and wearing masks. More than two dozen singers took part, and they were augmented by a group of instrumentalists that included Tennille Taylor, Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, Katie Fetz, Teun Fetz, Ryan Woodard and Robyn Woodard.

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The program will begin and concluded with the upbeat selections "High Hopes" and "Lovely Day." In between, viewers will be exposed to a lineup of songs that evokes those aforementioned themes, including Sarah Quartel's "The Birds' Lullaby" (birth), the Irish folk tune "Be Thou My Vision" (loss), the Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" (justice and peace), and Jacob Narverud's "Ad Astra (To the Stars)," which will commemorate the December 2020 Jupiter-Saturn conjunction.

One of the highlights of the concert will be a performance of the traditional Hebrew tune "Shalom," which will feature the instrumentalist Taylor.

"She sent me a piece called 'Shalom' and said, 'I want to do this with you,'" Nickels-Hircock said. "Whenever Tennille says that, I'm there."

Nickels-Hircock expressed her gratitude to the members of her choir who have stuck with the program over the last year. But she noted that the challenges of performing or even rehearsing vocal music during the COVID-19 era have made the experience somewhat of a grind. She looks forward to a time when her group can return to singing in a traditional setting.

"We are tired," she said. "I hope we overcame it in our video, but it's been really hard. … We're all ready for summer."

Wrapping things up

A pair of other groups led by Fetz will conclude the series of concerts, beginning with a performance by the San Juan College Orchestra on May 7. He noted that, because of the limits on people playing together, the group includes no woodwinds or brass this semester, and only limited percussion.

The program for that group includes performances of Giovanni Bolzoni's "Gavotta," Edward Elgar's "Serenade for Strings," Christopher Gluck's "Sinfonie in G," Gustav Holst's "Brook Green Suite," Bob Phillips' "Danza Espanola," "Nocturne" by Felix Mendelssohn and "A Winter's Willow" by Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

A performance by the San Juan College Symphonic Band and Educators Band will conclude the series on May 13. That program includes a "West Side Story" medley by Leonard Bernstein, highlights from "Phantom of the Opera" by Andrew Lloyd Webber and "Where Stand the Dauntless" by Vince Gassi, all by the symphonic band.

The Educators Band will conclude the concert with a performance that includes "Arabian Dance" by Brian Balmages, "Havana Nights" by Randall Standridge and "Ride Through the Valley" by Chris Bernotas. A performance of Jeremy Bell's "Forgotten Heroes" will be dedicated to all health care workers and first responders who have toiled during the pandemic, and to those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19, Fetz said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.