Wind ensemble perform at Emanuel AME Church

Brittiny Moore

During a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a gunman opened fire on the congregation, killing nine members in an act of domestic terrorism.

Eight months later, the event’s pain and shock can still be felt throughout the nation.

To pay homage to the tragic event, the WKU Wind Ensemble will play a piece dedicated to the community at the College Band Directors National Association conference in Charleston on Feb 20.

“[This event] was during a time where a lot of racial conflict was happening,” Gary Schallert, associate professor of music and director of bands said. “People of all colors were just shocked.”

Schallert said after a series of coincidences, like receiving an invitation a few weeks after the shooting to perform at CBDNA in a venue one block from the church, he felt compelled to pay homage to the church community.

 “I thought, ‘We have to do something to pay homage.’ It seemed only logical,” Schallert said.

The wind ensemble will be performing “Of Our New Day Begun,” a piece created by African-American composer Omar Thomas, assistant professor in the Harmony department at Berklee College of Music.

Schallert said “Of Our New Day Begun” is a line from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn written by James Wheldon Johnson. A popular gospel rooted in the African-American church, the hymn is widely considered to be the national anthem for black America.

In his composition, Thomas directed a few lines from the hymn to be sung by the wind ensemble.

“It’s neat how Omar connected this piece,” Schallert said. “It takes every bit of energy and emotion.”

Thomas agreed, saying that while physically writing the piece was easy, the emotional impact of writing it was difficult. Thomas was even hesitant to take on the opportunity.

“I kind of panicked because it seemed like a daunting task,” Thomas said. “The difficulty was staying emotionally focused.”

Thomas said he hopes his piece’s emotional impact will translate to the wind ensemble members performing it, the audience and the members of the church.

“I really had to be careful walking an emotional fine line with the piece, making sure I paid proper tribute to the families and the grace they showed and balance that out with the anger I felt,” Thomas said. “The challenge was to stay reverent.”

Schallert noted being able to hear the anger, struggle and confusion in the piece.

“Towards the end of the piece, you can hear that there is the sound of hope,” Schallert said, “hope that as a society, we are going to continue to grow and love each other and realize that the color of your skin is not how you judge each other.”

Thomas will have the chance to work with the ensemble in Charleston before they premiere his piece.

Clarinetist for the ensemble and Louisville junior Christina Sohn said she is most excited to perform Thomas’ piece for the church members and hopes the band will be able to pull off the challenging piece along with the rest of the ensemble’s repertoire.

“Performing [the piece] in front of other college band directors and performing it well, I think, is what I’m looking forward to — having all of our hard work paying off,” Sohn said. 

The ensemble has been working on all five of its concert pieces for approximately three months with the “Of Our New Day Begun” premiere being a highlight for the ensemble’s season.

“We have to put ourselves into the mind of the church members … and feel what the composer felt. We are vicariously living through the piece,” Sohn said. 

Schallert said he feels blessed to be able to work with the concert bands at WKU and is thrilled that the ensemble has this opportunity. 

“Students are really into it and realize the significance,” Schallert said. 

The Charleston community is encouraged to attend the event, and Schallert has also made efforts to reach out to church members.

“I hope [the piece] is a worthy representation and tribute to the community, and I hope that they are moved,” Thomas said.