Weston Noble lives up to his name. An elegant man in his late 80’s, he exudes a sense of warmth and humble grace. An American patriot, Noble saw action as a tank driver during WWII and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. As music director of the Luther College Nordic Choir he built its international reputation for choral excellence. As a humanitarian, Weston Noble generously gave his time and talent last weekend to guest conduct a sing-a-long of choral classics to raise money for a noble cause, The Arts in Prison.
Started by visionary musician Elvera Voth, the Arts in Prison program helps incarcerated men find a new “voice”. After retiring from an illustrious choral conducting and teaching career in Alaska, Voth moved to Kansas City. Eager to engage musically, again, she approached the Lansing Correctional Facility and founded the East Hills Singers. “The men were so happy to have something to do.” Voth says, “That’s one of the saddest things about our penal system.” The choir combines the voices of inmates with volunteer singers as a way to help them reconnect to society in a soul fulfilling way.
In 1998 Ms. Voth invited her dear friend and internationally acclaimed choral conductor Robert Shaw to lead a community sing-along event in Newton Kansas to raise money for an expanded project incorporating all of the arts. It was his last out of town performance before his death and the proceeds raised from this momentous occasion established the Arts in Prison Program.
The event, Saturday at Yardley hall, was modeled after the Newton sing-along and used the same program. The song books even included Robert Shaws performance notes. It began with a workshop with Weston Noble from 1-3:00 pm and ended with a concert at 4:00 pm. Members of the Kansas City Chorale, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, Shawnee Mission North High School and Lawrence High School along with other interested singers from around the metro participated in the workshop. Weston Noble expressed the importance of music’s uplifting and transformational power and emphasized the mind body connection required for good singing.
The performance event began with a rousing rendition of the famous hymn Old Hundred followed by the ever popular Ave Verum by Mozart. He, Watching over Israel from Mendelssohn’s Elijah was particularly moving. After a tricky start the Renaissance masterpiece, O Vos Omnes by Victoria warmed the audience.
The East Hills Singers took the stage in blue button down prison uniforms and dungarees. A combined chorus of volunteers and inmates, they sang with dynamically with discipline and passion. Their first piece, Holy, Holy, Holy, conducted by Elvera Voth, was so sensitively sung that it was hard not to cry. The highly esteemed Kirk Carson, the group’s current conductor, took the podium for a moving piece called The Awakening by Joseph M.Martin. The accompaniment was expressively played by Jolynn Cotton.
Bach’s Dona Nobis Pacem from the Mass in B minor was conducted by the highly esteemed Maestro Bruffy. His uncanny ability to charm the socks off of audiences with his humorous rambling is something to behold. The glorious How Lovely is thy Dwelling Place was followed by a rollicking rendition of A Mighty Fortress is our God. The choirs seemed very secure in the sure hands of Weston Noble. After the Halleluiah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the angels must have smiled.
Arts in Prison Executive Director may have summed up the afternoon perfectly. Standing on the proscenium between the chorus on stage and the singers in the audience she liked the experience to “what heaven must sound like.” For an avid choral singer, getting the opportunity to sing some of the finest literature in the repertoire with great conductors, in a fantastic venue with full orchestra is an experience to treasure. When the cost of the ticket goes to support a noble cause, the benefits are heavenly.