Behind the music

Longtime, distinguished MU music professor composes dedicated work for concert
Thursday, April 26, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:54 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Composer Thomas McKenney watches the rehearsal of the Choral Union in the Jesse Hall Auditorium on Apil. 24. The MU Choral Union will perform McKeeney's composition, "The Last Beginning", Thursday night at Jesse Hall.

More than 200 voices will come together in harmony tonight in Jesse Auditorium for the premiere of a song composed by an MU professor. “The Last Beginning,” by music theory and composition professor Thomas McKenney, was written specially for this concert.


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McKenney, who was named Distinguished Composer of the Year in 1970 by the Music Teachers National Association, began working on the piece at this time last year.

“I was approached by director of choral activities Paul Crabb a year ago, and he asked if I’d write a piece for the Choral Union,” McKenney said. “I was honored that he asked me to write something for that ensemble because the works they usually perform are by major composers.”

“The Last Beginning,” part of a larger work written by distinguished MU alumnus Patrick Overton, was a work McKenney had wanted to put to music for some time. “Once I found the poem, I spent all summer in the basic writing of the piece,” he said. “By the time I finished the full score, it was January of 2007.”

McKenney, who has taught at MU for 40 years, said he is indebted to the Choral Union members for the hard work they put into rehearsing the piece.

“It’s not an easy piece to sing, but they’ve worked really hard on it,” Mc­Ken­ney said. “You can write all the music in the world but if you don’t have good people to perform it, then you don’t really have anything.”

He said the work’s challenges include complex rhythmic elements and chromaticism — that is, using notes or intervals foreign to the piece’s main key.

Overton’s work was written about Bill and Joyce Abele, a Boonville couple who were friends of the writer, McKenney said. He learned about the dedication after he began composing around the work and has dedicated the music to them as well. Joyce Abele died in March.

Overton, a former associate professor at Columbia College, now lives in Oregon and directs the Front Porch Institute, which he founded more than a decade ago to explore “the role of the arts and culture in the community-making process, especially focusing on the essential role the arts play in engaging citizens in the democracy of civil discourse,” according to Overton’s Web site.

A 1997 Missouri Arts Award recipient and also a winner of the Arts and Science Distinguished Alumni Award, Overton will speak about the poem before McKenney’s music is performed.

The concert will also feature “Psalm 148” by MU emeritus professor John Cheetham, which was performed for the first time recently in Los Angeles, and “Gloria” by John Rutter.

The University Choral Union is comprised of choral members from the student body, university faculty and staff, as well as Columbia-area community members. The Choral Union gives one major performance each semester.

The Choral Union will be joined by the Faculty Brass Quintet, Faculty Percussion and the University Singers.

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