Member AND Ministry Spotlight: Jess Barber on The Chancel Choir

This Friday night at 8:00 p.m., the Chancel Choir will present their annual spring concert. It will have a special focus on the evils of war and the search for peace, displayed mainly through Ralph Vaughan Williams' work, Dona Nobis Pacem. 

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A more recent member of both Glenn and the Chancel Choir, Jess Barber talks about her love of learning music and singing, how these practices connect to her faith, and what we can expect at Friday's performance. 


How did you first discover a love for music in the church? And for singing in worship?

I've been a church music maker and appreciator for as long as I can remember. I grew up singing in church - my dad played piano and sang in the choir. My younger sister and I got involved at a very early age, starting out in children and family choirs and chime choir, and later joining our parents in the adult choir. I think the fact that I experienced worship through music from such an early age explains why the two are nearly inseparable for me as an adult. I find that music speaks to parts of my spiritual self that other aspects of traditional worship don't always reach with the same depth or intensity. Singing sacred choral works makes me feel embedded in a current faith community as well as tied to generations past; it also affords me a deep personal connection with God and grounding in my faith.

What drew you to join the Chancel Choir at Glenn?

When I moved to Atlanta, I was "church-less" for several years. I came to worship at Glenn sporadically, and the experience always felt comfortable, inviting, and familiar. In addition to the warm welcome I received from fellow congregants, I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the choral music. It was clear right away that the Chancel Choir was comprised of a dedicated group of talented musicians. I've since learned a bit more about the strong tradition of, dedication to, and support for music (both choral and orchestral) in the Glenn community. Having grown up singing in church choirs, I was excited to see and hear that.

In getting to know my fellow choir members over the past several months, it's abundantly clear that those wonderful voices I'd heard years ago emanate from wonderful human beings. They have been an invaluable source of support for me, particularly in the weeks and months following the birth of my son. Being so far away from family, it's reassuring to know there are folks close by who truly care about and are there for you.

The pieces performed at this year’s Chancel Choir concert will draw on themes of peace, specifically Vaughan Williams’ cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem. How has rehearsing such pieces shaped or reshaped your understanding of peace?

I think the big message to me is that the Lord offers the only kind of peace that can bring meaningful comfort to a messy, suffering world. Life, even at its fullest and most beautiful, is not devoid of strife, loss, or pain. To be truly alive involves opening oneself up to intense feeling and experience - which means we'll inevitably be vulnerable to sadness, pain, and heartache. That's a sobering thought, but great comfort comes in knowing that God meets us here, in the midst of our weakness and suffering, and walks with us. That God is present in those most trying moments makes His gift of peace all the more real.

What has been the most rewarding piece you have learned for this performance? Why?

Dona Nobis Pacem is certainly challenging in terms of vocal expression and stamina - it's a work that demands attention and engagement every step of the way in order to do Vaughan Williams justice! I have sung the work before, but a) quite a while ago and b) on a different voice re-discovering it from a different vocal vantage point has been exciting. Vaughan Williams demands a lot of the singers as individuals and as a collective - there are many tricky spots and challenging sections that present the danger of things "coming unglued". It's precisely these sections, however, that provide the greatest reward for the singer (and hopefully the audience, too!) when everything comes together.

The Purcell motet Hear My Prayer is absolutely stunning. Clear, pure tones and intense dissonances paint a haunting, deeply personal picture of a people pleading for their Lord to hear and understand their plight. The choir will be situated around the perimeter of the sanctuary, so the audience can sit back, close their eyes, and let the music wash over them from all sides.

What do you hope the audience feels and learns through the pieces you will perform?

Stylistically, I hope they really feel the drama that Vaughan Williams imbues throughout the Dona Nobis Pacem. Much of the piece details (both in word and musical expression) the disruptive, all-penetrating force of war, which leaves no aspect of normal life intact. If done right, the listener should get a real sense of the pervasive tumult of war. Expect to be jolted by the wind-whipping call of the bugles and to shudder at the roar of terrible drums! Juxtaposed against this onslaught are passages of stunning beauty: The rising of a "sorrowful vast phantom" moon, the incessant washing of this soiled world by the "sisters, Death and Night"...and a final call for a world in which "nation shall not lift up a sword against nation" and peace, truth, and righteousness reign. The artistry with which Vaughan Williams melds word and music has the power to transport both the singer and the hearer. 

More broadly, I hope those in attendance come away with the sense that, although the realities of war and loss are never far from our human condition, the peace of God is ever near as well.

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