In March 2020, a church choir in Washington state hit the national news for spreading COVID-19 to more than 50 people, resulting in two deaths. That headline put a halt to choir practices across the country and temporarily derailed the St. Simons Sacred Music Festival after its inaugural recital.
“It hit the national news really quick: ‘Whatever you do, don’t sing,’” said Nathaniel Roper, Glynn Academy’s director of choral and orchestral activities and one of the founders of the sacred music festival.
Because of the event, he was unable actually have anyone sing in his program at Glynn Academy for a year and a half, instead having to teach students everything but the actual practice. The festival, which is not affiliated with the school system, got put on ice for two years.
“This will be our third event. It started in 2018 and COVID knocked it out after that,” Roper said.
2022 marked the return of singing in his class — although he’s still rebuilding the program after many left the class in the interregnum — and the St. Simons Island Sacred Music Festival, at which the choir performed the world premiere of a new piece of sacred music — “To Sing Once More,” by Craig Courtney.
The Ropers — Nathaniel and his wife Amanda, who he credits for getting the festival off the ground — believe sacred music is a very powerful means of worshipping God, but it’s also particularly adept when it comes to engendering feelings of peace and community. That’s why they use donations from each event to commission a new piece of sacred music for the next festival. Each festival is also the world premiere of a brand-new piece of sacred music.
In 2018, that was “Awake, My Soul, Awake” by Elaine Hagenberg. This year’s piece is titled “Come, Walk With Me” by Z. Randall Stroope, Roper said.
“It’s gorgeous,” he says. “Dr. Stroope has been one of the world’s foremost composers for a long time. I’m familiar with a lot of his work, and it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time. I’m really excited about this piece, especially coming out of this COVID cloud choirs have been coming out of.”
Amanda Roper adds that it’s not by accident that she and Nathaniel are familiar with Stroope. They both studied at the same time under Stroope at the University of Nebraska. Amanda performed in his concerts, and Nathaniel worked much more closely with him in an assistant role, but both studied his body of work extensively.
“Nathaniel’s entire degree was with Dr. Stroope specifically,” Amanda said. “… To me, it is exceptional we’re able to work with Dr. Stroope in this capacity because of our lifelong love of his music and the experience we had studying from him and helping him premiere several pieces while we were studying under his baton.”
If there’s one thing she hopes people take away from the event, it’s the unifying power of music — specifically choral music. It allows those who may not have proficiency in musical instruments to realize that they can make beautiful music regardless.
“The fact an accountant or a lawyer or a homemaker can all come together and be equally successful in this endeavor, it’s all-encompassing of folks in the community,” Amanda said. “I like to leave people with a sentiment that beauty and beautiful music can happen anywhere.”
One doesn’t have to participate, Amanda added. There are a variety of ways to contribute for more information, visit kappellmeisterproductions.com. Premiere performances are also available on the website after each festival, she said.
Every year, the festival further strengthens the community of musicians and church choirs in the Golden Isles, she added, either forging new connections or reinforcing established ones. As long as the community will continue to support the festival, it will continue in perpetuity, Nathaniel said. He and Amanda are committed to making it so.
Everyone involved is a volunteer, meaning the only costs associated with the concert come from equipment and venue expenses.
“It’s a festival choir. It’s an all-state chorus type thing but there’s not auditions for it,” he said. “It ends up being mostly church choir people. Everybody wears the garb from their church, but it’s not limited to that. Anyone from the community can be involved.”
This year’s concert will take place on Feb. 3 and 4 at St. Simons United Methodist Church. There’s no admission fee, but the church does ask for donations to cover the cost of the event and to commission the next year’s piece. For registration and event information, go to kappellmeisterproductions.com