Featured Spotlights

High Ceilings and High Notes

We walk past it everyday and sometimes we even hear its bells, the Chapel is simply part of Duke’s identity. However, how many times have you ventured inside its walls to hear the voices of many that comprise the Chapel Choir? Here we feature Rodney Wynkoop, the voice that leads the rest. 

The Duke Chapel – that’s what you see looming in the distance when you’re standing in the jam-packed C1 or jogging in the gardens. It’s also the first thing that pops up when you search Duke on Google Images. Our Chapel is an architectural masterpiece and also a symbolic one. Sometimes, there are aspects of the Chapel that we take for granted – its voice for example.

The Chapel’s musical aspect is not necessarily hidden from most of the student community. I mean, every day we hear its bells tolling at 5pm, and if you’re lucky, you’ve walked around at sunset with the Harry Potter theme playing. Nevertheless, you must be a regular at either chapel services or chorale practice to truly experience Chapel music.

Dr. Rodney Wynkoop has been the Director of Chapel Music since 1989. His musical expertise along with his experience leading the University Chorale, the Chorale Society of Durham, as well as  their respective chamber choirs makes him a source of incredible anecdotes about the Chapel’s musical heritage and eventful history.

“The sound just floats and lives there for a long time. In many ways it is really beautiful. It creates an aura and a glow.”  

With the Chapel renovation that began two years ago, the music inside the chapel suffered a temporary hiatus. However, Wynkoop said this isn’t the first time the Chapel Choir has been affected by Chapel construction. Back in the 30’s, the choir actually performed in a roofless chapel. Now, however, the situation is not nearly as damaging. During the renovation of the Chapel special efforts were made to ensure that the acoustics remained unchanged.
“The sound is really vibrant in the space,” Wynkoop said. “The sound just floats and lives there for a long time. In many ways it is really beautiful. It creates an aura and a glow.”

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Now that the renovations are complete, the Chapel continues to attract singers, performers and composers that enjoy the reverberant power of its acoustics. One such composer is Sir James MacMillan, a Scottish composer whose manuscript Wynkoop described as “ferociously hard.” What the Chapel Choir was preparing was nothing less than the American premiere of his work. MacMillan is a famous composer that has conducted prestigious orchestras and written renowned operas. The choir held readings for his manuscript, made corrections and rehearsed, but it was a more than daunting task.

“The choir was just not going to fail, they were going to learn it.”

A week or so before the premiere, already feeling less than confident, the choir was scheduled to have an extra rehearsal. Unfortunately, Durham weather had other plans for them, displaying a full ice storm, to no one’s delight. Regardless of the daunting conditions of both the weather and the piece, every member showed up for rehearsal.
“The choir was just not going to fail, they were going to learn it.” Wynkoop considered the premiere a success, and the composer was thrilled.

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People congregated and Mozart’s Requiem played throughout West Campus filling the silence of those that needed to heal.

Another time the Chapel Choir’s dedication and the Chapel’s musical message came through was right after 9/11. On that day, people from the Duke and Durham community filled not only the Chapel, but also Page Auditorium and Abele Quad. Gathered together to mourn and heal with music provided by the combined talents of the North Carolina Symphony and a total of 350 singers. People congregated and Mozart’s Requiem played throughout West Campus filling the silence of those that needed to heal.

Wynkoop said he fell in love with music at Duke when he first heard the choir singing inside the Chapel.  He described the work of the Chapel Choir as being very much like a family effort.

Music at the Chapel “is about nurturing people, an awful lot of teamwork and connections,” just like Duke as a whole. Therefore, it is fitting that our Chapel has a voice as powerful as the message it wants to transmit.  

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Writer: Sofia Velasquez Soler

Editors: Diana Joseph and Sofia Velasquez Soler

Photo Credits: Harrison Schulz

Web: Carolyn Tang

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