For generations of Allegheny singers, 2015 means more than the Bicentennial.
It’s the 85th anniversary of the choir’s existence.
It’s the 50th anniversary of music program/choir director founder Morten “Luvy” Luvaas’ retirement.
And it’s a choir reunion year, meaning all past and present members of the Allegheny choirs are invited back for a special celebration during Reunion Weekend at the end of May. Historically, the triennial choir reunions have drawn the largest group of attendees among any reunion group.
For James Niblock ’97, assistant professor of music and director of choral activities, it’s certainly exciting.
“It’s very humbling to be in this position at such an exciting moment in Allegheny’s history,” he says. “We’re going to premier a wonderful commission; I already have chosen the music for the upcoming choir reunion. There’s so much to celebrate.”
A Kickoff to Remember
During the College’s initial Bicentennial planning, Niblock began thinking about how the music program could contribute to the celebration. That’s when he inquired about having a musical piece commissioned as part of the kickoff event.
“When the Bicentennial Committee approved the idea, one of the first people I thought of asking was alumnus Crawford Thoburn,” Niblock says. “His distinguished music career speaks for itself, and his family has a strong connection to Allegheny. It would be difficult to find someone who embodies that continuing connection to the institution as much as he does.”
During his time at the College, Crawford Thoburn ’54 studied theory, arranging, and conducting with Luvaas and sang with the mixed choral group called the Allegheny Singers. He is now emeritus professor of music at Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., where he served as Chair of the Arts Division and director of choral activities and taught voice, conducting, theory, composition, and music history.
Throughout the years, he has published more than 100 choral compositions, arrangements, and editions, including those that Allegheny choirs past and present have sung. He also is a recipient of Allegheny’s Gold Citation, in recognition and appreciation of the honor reflected upon the College by virtue of his professional achievements.
But Thoburn’s connection to the College goes beyond music; the Thoburn family legacy is a story all its own. More than 50 family members have attended Allegheny, starting with Thoburn’s great-grandfather, James Mills Thoburn, Class of 1857. Crawford Thoburn is among the fourth generation, and two of his daughters are part of the fifth. And, of course, generation after generation has sung in the choir.
So when Thoburn received the call from Niblock about commissioning the piece, he was touched.
“Although the Allegheny choirs have sung other choral works by me in the past, to be asked to write a piece celebrating the College’s Bicentennial is truly a special privilege and honor,” he says.
After the call, he immediately knew where he would draw his inspiration.
“Years ago I did a successful setting of a text titled ‘Wisdom Exalteth her Children’ for women’s voices, and more recently I had intended to compose a new version for mixed voices. When Professor Niblock called about the Bicentennial, I knew this was the text I wanted to use,” he says. “It’s always held a special place in my heart.”
“Wisdom Exalteth her Children”
Wisdom exalteth her children.
And gives help to those who seek her.
Whoever loves her loves life.
And those who seek her early will be filled with joy.
Whoever holds her fast will obtain glory.
And God will bless the place she enters.
-Wisdom of Sirach 4:11-13
After just a few months, Thoburn presented the composition to Niblock, who thought it would be appropriate for the College Choir to debut during a dinner celebrating the new Bicentennial Plaza in October.
“The piece is a great sentiment for celebrating the longevity of an institution like Allegheny that is all about the pursuit of wisdom and embracing that in a joyful way,” Niblock says.
According to Thoburn, “The text, written about 180 BCE by the Hebrew sage Joshua ben Sira, is highly appropriate for celebrating the longevity of an institution like Allegheny, where faculty and students have shared the academic quest for so many years. It joyfully and eloquently expresses the continuing role of this experience at Allegheny, extolling the cultivation and acquisition of wisdom (as opposed to knowledge), which I believe is the true purpose of a liberal arts education.”
When asked what certain lines of the piece mean to him, Niblock references the second line, “and gives help to those who seek her,” and says, “When you see students who have the light in their eyes to take on some new threshold in their discipline, to take on challenges, and they’re anxious for you to lay those challenges down before them, that’s a great example of what that line means.”
When he first shared the text with the Choir, Niblock was pleased with the members’ response. The students are equally excited about performing the piece as part of the Bicentennial kickoff.
“The group was immediately upbeat and positive about the piece,” Niblock says. “Something about the musical language is easy for them to speak.”
“The first day we sang the piece in rehearsal, I knew it was going to be great,” says Rosey Sheridan ’15, a choir member majoring in chemistry and minoring in music performance. “The year 2015 is my graduation year, so for me, the Bicentennial is something that has been talked about for four years. I feel very honored to be part of the event in this way.”
Having the opportunity to sing in front of Thoburn is special for the students as well.
“We are nervous,” admits Lauren Dominique ’16, a choir member who is double-majoring in English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “We sang one of Professor Thoburn’s pieces last year, and it was probably one of my favorites. To sing this piece in front of him, to meet him in person, and just to be there for this occasion will be an incredible experience.”