Section: Arts

Doc Locke reflects on creativity, career, Chamber Singers

Doc Locke reflects on creativity, career, Chamber Singers

The concert included music from a variety of genres, cultures and languages. | BRITTANY LIN

In Rosse Hall on Saturday evening, the Chamber Singers sang, “In beauty may I walk / through the returning seasons.” Meant as a metaphor for life in the original Navajo prayer, this could also serve as a metaphor for the concert as a whole. Conductor and Professor of Music Benjamin Locke and the talented Chamber Singers explored beautiful music from different time periods, cultures and languages in this year’s spring concert.  

Locke, affectionately known as “Doc Locke” on campus, humorously shines in the classroom and onstage. A familiar presence for 40 years (over half the age of the Department of Music), Locke is known for his rapport with students and the Sunday night dinners that he hosts at his house every week. At the end of the folksong “Dubula, Mfanandini,” he pointed out a few dancing audience members. “If we were in South Africa, everyone would be on their feet dancing!”

In an email to the Collegian, Locke shared his creative process behind choosing the songs, “My goal is first to educate undergraduate singers by exposing them to high quality choral literature from as far back as the Renaissance to the present day. Within those parameters, I then seek to do a mix of pieces that are favorites of mine as well as to engage with pieces unfamiliar to me that challenge me as a musician and teacher.” 

This performance included pieces in German, Hebrew, Latin and Xhosa, as well as folksongs, spirituals and prayers. When asked about his approach to performing songs from different cultures, he explained his “programming beyond his knowledge” approach, which includes an essential self-education of cultural context. His goal is to investigate both background and language. “I’ve had good first-hand experiences with the music of South Africa, and I invited Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo (a choral musician from the Zulu tribe) to Kenyon for an artist-in-residence event in 2005. I’ve read studies and consulted with noted African-American arrangers of spirituals, particularly on how, if at all, to handle issues of dialect,” he said. “Even though I know German and French very well, I still seek out my colleagues in [Modern Languages and Literature] to make sure I render the proper translations as well as to understand nuances of the texts and the background of the authors.” 

Locke also provided interesting backstories for another two songs: “Loch Lomond” and “In Paradisum. “‘Loch Lomond’ is correctly perceived as a Scottish love song, but the words are sung between two brothers, one who was to be executed by his British captors and the other to be set free — thus, the ‘low road’ is to be taken by the soul of one brother who is certain to ‘be in Scotland afore ye’ upon his death.”

He then explained that he holds “In Paradisum” close to his heart “because of the intensity of emotion it expresses.” He had emailed the composer, Kathleen Allan, earlier in the semester and learned that “the song was inspired by the circumstance of her being separated on Canada’s west coast from her beloved grandfather who was very ill on the east coast.” Chamber singer Martha Chestnut ’27 echoed Locke’s love for the song in an email to the Collegian, writing “I believe it makes music so much better when you know the composer’s story and can connect to the message they were trying to convey.” Chamber singer and librarian Drew Sutherland ’25 also cited “In Paradisum” as one of his favorites, “due to its flowing melodic lines and dense harmonies, with multiple languages sung at the same time that create an existential musical experience.” As a professor, Locke shared the love he has for this song with his students. 

Locke’s email included a special shoutout to his singers: “The Chamber Singers lost 21 members from last year, so the group had many leadership shoes to fill. To be sure, the year started shakily, but the returning veterans set good examples early on for the newbies and the group exceeded even their own expectations, especially on the Brahms motet we sang. They met every challenge I put in front of them, and they never resisted going the extra mile to fine-tune the music. And they sang in tune!” 

Sutherland shared his admiration for Locke in an email to the Collegian, “Working with Doc is so much fun. He makes every rehearsal a joy and begins most with a joke…he is so kind and tries to build close relationships with every single chamber singer.”

Sutherland also mentioned a moment at the concert in which Locke surprised the choir by holding up a paper depicting a fake pair of lips when they sang the line “then they fell a kissing” from “Fair Phyllis I saw sitting” and continued to conduct with those lips. Sutherland added, “Many of us were trying to keep our composure.”

Chestnut said, “Working with Doc is awesome! He expects a lot of us and pushes us to work very hard, but it’s so worth it. I’ve been in choirs for over 10 years, with a variety of different directors, and he’s definitely the best I have worked with. He really puts his all into the music and does not let anything slow him down. This year he has pushed through health struggles to be there for us in rehearsal. It really shows that he cares about not only the music and the way that we sound, but he cares about every single one of us.”

Locke said it best: “I trust that our performance of the music itself will touch the souls of our listeners.”

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