The cellos swelled to life first. Violins followed, only to recede slightly to create space for the choir.
It was the first time the Viva City Choir and Orchestra — 700 students from 11 Minneapolis middle and high schools — had run through an original composition, “Controlled Burn.” No one expected it to sound rehearsed.
Yet when the students’ voice rose, it was in concert. Arrayed across bleachers in the Patrick Henry High School gym by part, the singers’ harmony climbed up the scale as it rippled to the chamber’s north end, where the sopranos stood.
We’re born with a fuse
timed to ignite
It burns through our youth
then sets us alight
for a while
And when we’re older
we’ll laugh and say that we were only kids
but no one gets closer to the burn of love and loss than this
The sound was rich and sweet and the lyrics evocative, and as the altos and tenors bounced stanzas back and forth, a music teacher watching near the bass section burst into tears. She struggled to regain her composure, but the kids focused on the conductor, Roosevelt High School music teacher Adrian Davis.
When the fires pass over
all you’ll recall
is the ash on your shoulders
some lines on your palm
The world’s made in motion
we’re carried along;
the current won’t hold for long
Perched on folding chairs at the gym’s center, the lyricist and composer — hearing their collaboration in full for the first time — kept time. Remarkably, Minneapolis hip-hop and spoken word artist Dessa and composer Jocelyn Hagen were hearing the very sound they had imagined as they wrote the piece.
Sometimes, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Minneapolis Public Schools’ Viva City Festival, an annual student fine arts celebration going on since early January. Intra-district orchestra and choir performances will be the festival’s final events, Monday and Tuesday, April 28-29, at the Minneapolis Convention Center, 7 p.m.
The performances are free and open to the public; donations welcome.
The festival’s organizers approached Dessa and Hagen, who had not met, about writing a performance piece. Neither had ever done anything remotely like what MPS proposed.
“We both got a phone call and before it was done we had both said yes,” said Dessa. “Both of us jumped on it.”
A member of the Doomtree rap collective, Dessa was excited by writing lyrics for teens. Not a high school choir or orchestra student, she was inspired by the idea that those years are when passions burn bright.
Hagen grew up in Valley City, N.D., a town too small to have any orchestral programming. “You had to go to Fargo to hear anything like that,” she said. “When I found myself wanting to write and wanting to compose I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a lifestyle I could choose?’”
Hagen hopes that being part of an original work will do something similar for the Minneapolis students. “I like thinking about inspiring them to create, to be open to possibilities. What can we do here that’s positive?”
In the decade since she graduated from St. Olaf, Hagen has received more than 40 commissions and had some 100 performances. Several of her commissions and awards have come from organizations representing music educators.
Hagen’s “amass,” performed next week at the Lincoln Center, has been described as “dramatic and deeply moving.”
“For me, this was wholly new,” said Minneapolis native Dessa. “Jocelyn and I spent a lot of time together banging on the piano. There’s a lot of imaginative work.”
In the Patrick Henry gym, conductor Davis stopped the choir after one run-through. “So far, so good,” he said, asking them to pick up mid-way through the song.
If you could stand your younger selves behind you
then turn and walk the line,
how many strangers might surprise you,
too changed by time to recognize
Next Davis asks the vocalists to experiment, underscoring the word fires in both of two choruses.
When the fires pass over
all you’ll recall
is the ash
on your shoulders
some lines on your palms
like rain melts the limestone
the years that you spent
in flame seem so strange now
After an hour, musicians and singers move on to their other pieces. While the choir and orchestra start in on “Dry Your Tears, Afrika,” from Amistad, the two debrief.
Both were gratified to hear that at least one listener was overcome by the piece. “I’m kind of a weeper, and there are moments in creating when I start to cry,” said Hagen. “It’s a release of emotion.
“I like relating to my audience. Music is a very emotional thing for me,” she said. “I think that’s the highest compliment you can get.”
Two of Viva City’s visual arts exhibits are also ongoing. Middle school artwork is display at MPS’ Davis Center gallery through April 24; high school art at the Minneapolis Central Library’s Cargill Gallery through April 11.