When Mignon Dobbins of Winston-Salem spoke recently of her childhood in Alabama, she recalled that her father “got a wild idea.”
It came to Bayne Dobbins more than 35 years ago when he was the music director of the A Cappella Choir at Jacksonville State University. Might the composer Norman Dello Joio lead that group in To Saint Cecilia, his popular cantata for large chorus and 10 brass instruments?
An invitation was extended, and Dello Joio, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1957, came to Jacksonville. The performance took place in 1971.
Mignon Dobbins, now 40, was just 4 at the time, but she remembers Dello Joio’s visit vividly.
“Norman drove down in his 1960s-something red Chevy with no hubcaps, from New York, and stayed in our house,” she said.
“My parents were really young; we got a lot of (new) furniture because he was coming,” she said. “I got a grown up-type bed because he was going to sleep in my room. I remember he ate my mom’s macaroni and cheese right out of the casserole dish; he loved it so much that he was reaching over and getting it at dinner. And he left me this really nice letter.”
After Dello Joio’s visit, the Jacksonville State choristers would sing many more of his works, but Saint Cecilia became the favorite of Dobbins and her father. It’s a festive, challenging work that glorifies Cecilia, the patron saint of music, using a text adapted from “A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” a poem by John Dryden.
“Dad programmed it on a fairly regular rotation, hoping that most of his students would have an opportunity to sing it,” Dobbins wrote last January to Dello Joio, now 94.
In time, Dobbins would move to the Triad to study music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She would also become a director of three choruses — and dream one day of conducting Saint Cecilia herself.
But none of these groups was large enough to, as Dobbins put it, “produce the sonority required for this work,” which, “because of the 10-piece brass that goes with it, really needs a big choir.” So she came up with a wild idea herself, namely to combine the groups in question with brass players from the Winston-Salem Symphony.
The result: To Saint Cecilia will be performed three times beginning Wednesday, with each concert taking place at the home venue of a different group. The ensembles include the Forsyth Country Day School Concert Choir, the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center Chorale and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Choir. About 100 singers, bolstered by several Forsyth parents and teachers, will participate.
Rehearsals for what has turned out to be quite an entrepreneurial effort began several months ago. The concerts will have cost several thousand dollars — money that’s been contributed by the various institutions involved. “It’s hard to pull all these things together,” Bayne Dobbins said from Georgia, where he now repairs and restores brass instruments. “I know what she’s going through; the preparation of this piece is nothing short of enormous.”
Mignon Dobbins outlined several challenges.
“It (Saint Cecilia) is hard to program, unless you have a really well-financed community chorus or a college choir,” she said. “You have to have good brass players at your disposal. It’s rhythmically and harmonically challenging. There’s a lot of mixed meter, a lot of syncopation, a lot of exposed parts … that come out of nowhere.”
There’s also the challenge of melding three different groups together. “Each group has its own musical personality,” Bayne Dobbins said.
“It’s a different sound,” said Katie Hyder, a senior chorister at Forsyth Country Day. “We’re learning how to get that sound.”
Geraldine Zurek seemed to welcome the difficulties ahead. She is a member of both the Unitarian Universalist Choir and the Medical Center Chorale. She said in an e-mail that she most admires Dello Joio’s “intricate harmonies.”
“(They) clash and resolve over and over again, which makes it interesting to a performer and, I think, to the audience,” she said. “Just when you think you’re headed in one direction, the tone shifts and you’re off on a new musical tangent.”
Dobbins praised the different choristers for pulling together.
“Several teachers at Forsyth have been coming on their planning periods every day to sing with us. Some Concert Choir parents have been coming,” she said. “Some of them have been coming to church choir to rehearse. Some of them have been coming to the Medical Center Chorale. The adults in both adult choirs have gone to each other’s rehearsals; some of them are getting in three rehearsals a week.”
Peter Funk, who teaches at Forsyth, said in an e-mail that “the additional payoff has been singing with my students.”
“I am a chemistry teacher, so singing is not something they expect me to do,” he said. “I have seen their surprise to see me singing, and then their pleasure in sharing this artistic, creative process with me, and that, in turn, has been my pleasure.”
■ Mignon Dobbins will lead three performances of Norman Dello Joio’s To Saint Cecilia beginning Wednesday. The performances, all free and open to the public, will be held at 7:30 Wednesday at Forsyth Country Day School, 5501 Shallowford Road in Lewisville; at 10:30 a.m. next Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 4055 Robinhood Road; and at 12:15 p.m. May 2 in the Medical Center’s Alumni Plaza (Babcock Auditorium, in the event of rain). For more information, call Dobbins at 336-945-3151, ext. 337.
■ Ken Keuffel can be reached at 336-727-7337 or at email@example.com