After giving the April world premiere of To Repair, a multi-movement work commissioned from Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club (UMMGC) has been invited to present the work and discuss the larger ongoing journey that the piece represents at the 2023 American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) National Conference in Cincinnati.
The University of Michigan Men's Glee Club at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it performed Tesfa Wondemagegnehu's To Repair.
As a result, the glee club is now expanding its plan for a full-length documentary, already in progress, which will chronicle the group’s experience with the project and illuminate the broader context of To Repair. The documentary’s timeline will extend at least through the ACDA National presentation in February, with an increased focus on the project’s lasting impact on the individuals who will be engaging with it for over a year by spring 2023.
To Repair is a musical reflection from Wondemagegnehu on what is required to bring repair to Black communities in America. To seek his answer to this question, Wondemagegnehu embarked on a 60-day pilgrimage to over 40 U.S. cities in the summer of 2021, visiting Black historical sites and neighborhoods, and talking to community leaders, activists, and everyday residents. Their stories became the musical material of To Repair.
UMMGC began laying groundwork early to prepare for such a major undertaking and work around scheduling hurdles. As the plans for the commission were still taking shape, UMMGC conductor Mark Stover started to hint to student leadership that something big was coming. Then in the fall of 2021, while Stover was away for a planned absence, he was able to share some thematic details about the project, though the musical material was still being developed by Wondemagegnehu. The students identified initial steps they could take to deepen their engagement even before they had a full understanding of what the final musical work would look like.
“We knew no matter what this work was going to look like, we were still able to establish a framework,” says Jeremy VandenHout, UMMGC’s DEI chair for the 2021-22 academic year. This approach meant not making too many specific moves that were based on assumptions about a composition that was still being written, VandenHout explains. “We knew that we would have to educate clubbers. So what’s the best way to communicate and inspire? Not specific resources – but do we want to give them videos? Do we want to bring in speakers?”
This planning led the club to establish a practice the group called “music reflections.” Once they started learning the piece, members had the opportunity to share with the full group how the music related to their own personal journey. The club also wanted to collaborate with a community organization as part of the project, leading to a partnership with Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, which provides opportunities for youth development, education, and land and economic development in Southwest Detroit.
A central part of the experience was Wondemagegnehu’s four-day residency in February 2022 to rehearse the work and vividly bring to life the impact of his 60-day journey for the glee club. “Tesfa is his own brand,” says VandenHout. “He has such a gift for bringing us into that story and making us feel like we were there as a part of his journey.”
Reilly Buckley, UMMGC’s 2021-22 assistant publicity manager, recalls that the media efforts for To Repair began as a series of smaller projects to promote the performance and generate some social media content – beginning with capturing the residency – and kept expanding as his team collected so much inspiring footage. “We will not be doing the whole project justice if we just reduce these to social media promos,” recalls Buckley. After the premiere, the plan was to finish a full cut in the summer of 2022, consisting of 50 minutes of storytelling followed by a full concert performance of the piece—but with the ACDA invitation, the project will evolve once more.
Through the entire process of composing and rehearsing the work, Wondemagegnehu has consistently emphasized that the message is empty if it does not culminate in action beyond the concert hall. “This music is just a vessel,” he says. “Community is only possible if we sit down with each other and truly listen, and do it over and over and over again.”
An earlier blog post provides more details on the inspiration behind Wondemagegnehu's cross-country journey and the April world premiere of the composition.
More of Wondemagegnehu’s journey can also be found on the To Repair Facebook page.
Mike Rowan is associate director of communications at Chorus America. Now based in Detroit, Rowan is also an alumnus of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club where he sang from 2004–08.