In essence: ‘Winterfest’ choirs to transport audience on musical adventure

For the past 20 years, Essence of Joy, a Penn State School of Music choral group, has been performing sacred and secular music from the African and black traditions throughout the U.S. and abroad. This weekend, Essence of Joy and its spin-off group, Essence 2, will join forces to take audience members on a musical journey, with the goal of raising money to support Penn State Public Broadcasting.

Essence of Joy and Essence 2 will present “Winterfest ’11: Our Gift in Song” on Dec. 10 at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. The two choirs will perform a mix of traditional and contemporary music by African and black composers, both separately and as a combined group. Near the end of the show, Essence of Joy and Essence 2 will join together to perform excerpts from a Christmas cantata, “Great Joy, A Gospel Celebration,” a mix of traditional and contemporary gospel settings of familiar Christmas carols. Proceeds from the concert will go to purchase, produce and broadcast programming on WPSU-FM.

“We see Winterfest as an extension of our great music programming and a way to connect with the community,” said WPSU-FM station manager Greg Petersen.

The two choirs will be accompanied by an orchestra. The concert will be transmitted live on WPSU-FM, on its radio station and online.

Essence of Joy, which has about 75 members, is an auditioned choir of undergraduate and graduate students at Penn State. The choir has performed throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland as well as in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, among other cities. The group has also toured in Poland, the Czech Republic and South Africa, and has released five compact disc recordings. Essence 2, which has been around for 13 years, is a community-based choir of about 130 singers from middle school through adult years who gather during the fall semester to prepare for performances at the end of the season. Both choirs are directed by Anthony Leach, a professor of music and music education at Penn State.

“Since Essence 2 always presents its annual concert in December and Essence of Joy does a holiday concert in December, it was pretty easy to combine the performing forces,” he said.

Jo Lash, a WPSU volunteer and chairperson of “Winterfest ’11” who performs in Essence 2, said while the two choirs perform a variety of musical styles from African and black cultures, they focus on spiritual and gospel music that is rooted in Christianity. While performing around the world, she said, even in mostly nonreligious countries such as Japan, Essence of Joy has often moved audience members to tears.

“I think it’s the pure joy these kids have in singing this music,” she said. “It’s like taking your faith and passion out in one place and it just really comes out exhilarating.”

In light of the national media attention directed at Penn State in recent weeks, Lash said, a town/gown effort such as “Winterfest” should provide a sense of unity and comfort.

“It will just be a healing time, hopefully putting some hope back in our lives,” she said.

"Winterfest '11: Our Gift in Song" will be held at 7:15 p.m. Dec. 10 at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, 215 Innovation Blvd., State College. Visit http://wpsu.org.winterfest for more information.