The Mississippi Valley State University Choir and The Valley Singers will present “Reflections, A Choral Concert” Tuesday night at the First Baptist Church on Washington Street in Greenwood.
For choir members it will be their last local performance of the year. And for their choir director, Dr. John Weiss, it will be the last local performance of his career as he is set to retire with the close of the school year.
“It’s going to be really good,” Weiss said, admitting he was biased but not wanting to come off as arrogant. It is the range of music that will make the night special, he said, including a couple of spirituals, a “gospel-infused piece,” and two talented alumni coming back to offer solos.
The concert will begin at 7 p.m., and admission is free.
Breunka Kimbrough, who graduated from Valley in 2016, will solo with the choir in “The Road Home” by Stephen Paulus and “Choral Reflections on Amazing Grace” by Roger Ames. Michael Lawson, another 2016 MVSU grad, will perform as a soloist with the choir in “Coming Together” by Jason Robert Browne.
Weiss has also arranged for David Carlisle, principal percussionist for the Memphis Symphony and a music instructor at the University of Mississippi, to come to Greenwood and join the Valley Singers in the performance of “South of the Border” by Sharon Broadley.
In a director’s note for the concert, Weiss said his pending retirement influenced his selection of music for the night as he “selfishly” chose his favorite pieces just to hear them sung again.
This performance, followed by a choir road trip to Jackson to perform for an alumni group there, will wrap up eight years for Weiss at Valley. Come summer, Weiss and his wife, Cheryl, a high achiever herself with a couple of master’s degrees and a doctorate in sport psychology from the University of Idaho, will likely head to the Pittsburgh area to be closer to their daughter, Amy.
The couple met when both were undergraduate students at Boston University. Weiss earned his bachelor of music degree. He took his first teaching job as choral director at a high school in Swanton, Vermont, before he stopped resisting the urge to follow a career as a performer and moved to Manomet, Massachusetts, where he held various jobs and sang with the Longwood Opera Company around Boston.
In New York, he picked up some roles but was then hired as a chorister with the San Francisco Opera Company. He sang opera for five years in San Francisco before he realized he missed the team spirit of working with a choir.
That led to the University of California Irvine, where Weiss earned a master of fine arts degree in choral conducting. After his parents sent him an ad from the Sunday Boston Globe, hoping to attract John, Cheryl and Amy back east, he was hired as choir director in a competitive high school program at Norwood High School.
Weiss wanted to pursue his doctorate and teach on the college level, and so he moved on to Tucson, Arizona, and the University of Arizona. He worked in the Ph.D program, taught classes, conducted and sang.
With his doctorate degree of musical arts in choral conducting in hand, Weiss started his college teaching career at the University of South Alabama in Mobile and then moved to Washington State University in Pullman, Bismarck State College in North Dakota, and finally Valley, in 2011.
“I am very proud of the students at Valley. They’re very talented,” Weiss said. “They grasp these concepts (of what goes into a successful performance) and we work diligently on them, for sure. The goal is to have a choir where one piece doesn’t sound like another piece, where they each sound unique, not just the notes but every aspect of it.”
Weiss counts nearly 100 performances with the University Choir and Valley Singers, averaging more than 10 a year. Each requires massive amounts of planning, preparation and rehearsal.
“What I am most proud of is taking the choral program and making it multi-dimensional musically so the students experience many different styles of music, therefore making their education a priority,” he said. “The other thing is the creation of the ‘O Holy Night’ concert that has served to bring the university and the community together in a unique way. The community has warmed to it and looks forward to it every year.”
In 2018, that performance took place at First Baptist Church in Greenwood. It involves spoken-word pieces performed by well-known figures in the community and performances by the University Choir and the Valley Singers. The night drew hundreds of people from across the city, different races and different churches, to come together in appreciation of the beauty of the music presented through the voices of the choir.
“Valley is blessed that the community has church facilities and church leaders who welcome the University Choir and look forward to hosting the choir,” he said.
The former high school choir and choral director said he was surprised to find that music was not a priority in the public or private high schools in Greenwood. He said the only music participation offered to students is marching band, used to support the football team and parades. He said this limits students’ education as well as their exposure to an aspect of culture found in all societies around the world.
Weiss said he feels fortunate to have come to Valley and taught the students there.
“I’m thrilled to have come here. What I found here, which I did not find anywhere else, is that here, within my department, my chair and the faculty, they wanted the choir to be good. They let me do things the way I wanted to do them.
“And I have worked with a fairly consistent, across-the-board level of vocal talent that is just not to be found in many other places,” he said. “This is a singing culture here. It’s partly all the singing in the churches, especially the singing in the black churches.”
Besides the friendships built with students and inside the university, there is an aspect to the performance itself that Weiss said he will miss the most after the last concert.
“One of the blessings of my life as a musician — and it will happen again on Tuesday — there will be moments of transcendence where I believe the audience will be transported by this musical and emotional utterance. It is a beautiful thing to hear. And I will miss that greatly.”
•Contact Gavin Maliska at 581-7235 or email@example.com.