By Pat Ammons, The Huntsville Times
Enlarge Robin Conn, The Huntsville Times Oakwood University Aeolians Director Jason Max Ferdinand leads the choir as they rehearse at Peters Hall Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 for their trip to perform in Russia. (The Huntsville Times/Robin Conn) Oakwood University Aeolians 1-12-2012 gallery (11 photos)
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama - As they file into the rehearsal room with their backpacks and school sweatshirts, these Oakwood University students look like regular college kids. Together, however, they become something extraordinary – the Oakwood Aeolians.
Even the simple warm-up scales the singers practiced on a recent night didn’t sound like ordinary scales. The group worked its way up and down the scale by singing “one, two, three, four ...,” getting louder at each larger number and then softer as they worked their way back down.
This particular rehearsal wasn’t ordinary, either. The singers were preparing for the trip they currently are on to Russia where they performed Saturday night at the Moscow International Performing Arts Centre. The Aeolians are the only group from the U.S. to take part in the centre’s three-day Moscow Christmas Festival of Sacred Music.
The surprise invitation to perform at the festival came last April after a member of the centre’s staff saw a clip of the Aeolians on YouTube .
"I came to the office one day, and the secretary said I had a message from Moscow,” said Jason Ferdinand, the choir’s director. At first, he was “kind of skeptical” of the invitation. “It seemed kind of random.”
Once Ferdinand was convinced the offer was legitimate, the details of the trip got under way. First to be determined was the number of students Ferdinand could bring on the all-expenses-paid trip.
“They said ‘24,’ and I said ‘no,’ ” Ferdinand said. Eventually, both sides agreed to 40 singers, and Ferdinand was left with the task of choosing from this year’s 50 Aeolians to get the balance of voices he would need.
For their 90-minute concert, Ferdinand planned for the Aeolians to perform 14 to 18 songs, everything from “Awake the Heart” from Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Creation” to gospel music.
It’s pretty heady stuff for a group of undergraduate college kids, but it’s typical for the Aeolians. The group has performed in hundreds of countries and regularly represents the university, a small Seventh Day Adventist college in northwest Huntsville with a student body of about 2,000.
In 2010, the choir performed before an audience of 70,000 attending the 59th General Conference of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Although he never asked, Ferdinand thinks the video of that performance may be what the festival organizers in Russia saw on YouTube.
The choir’s history dates to 1946, when it was founded by Eva B. Dykes, the first black woman in America to receive her Ph.D. Since that time, the Aeolians have served as ambassadors for the school, following in the tradition of strong choral programs in historically black colleges and universities, said Tim Allston, the public relations director at Oakwood.
The Aeolians began performing internationally after Alma Montgomery Blackmon took over the choir in 1973. In her 12 years as director, the Aeolians performed in more than 200 countries, including Romania and the United Kingdom.
In 1998, the choir performed at the White House and in 2010 it was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. This fall, the Aeolians were named the top choir from historically black colleges and universities during the iSing College Choir Scholarship Challenge held in Maryland. It was the second year Oakwood has entered the competition and the second year it has won it and collected a $5,000 prize.
Ferdinand himself is a former Aeolian, coming to Oakwood in 1997 after the choir visited his native Trinidad. He was a junior in college when he transferred to Oakwood to take part in the program.
“We were blown away,” Ferdinand said about hearing the choir for the first time. “Trinidad is a very musical country, and there was a lot of music at the campus. This was so fresh and a totally new standard. It was very inspiring.”
Over the years, the choir has spawned a number of professional musicians, from members of the Grammy-award winning Take 6 and Committed, which won NBC’s “The Sing Off “ in 2010, to Metropolitan Opera star Angela Brown.
Still, Ferdinand meets people who have never heard of the choir.
“We’re probably one of Huntsville’s best-kept secrets,” he said. “It blows my mind that we’ve been here for 50-plus years and people don’t know us.”
Many of today’s choir members know and respect the group’s history. Some are the children and grandchildren of former Aeolians, such as current member Marquita Richardson, a senior. Her parents were Aeolians from 1977 to 1982.
“I had to be a toddler when I can remember hearing the group being talked about,” said Richardson, 23. “All my parents’ closest friends, to this day, were involved in the Aeolians. “
Being part of the choir “is humbling in a sense,” Richardson said. “You know you yourself cannot produce the kind of music we’re doing. It’s collaborative work, the music we sing. “
While she is a biology major, Richardson hopes to find a way to incorporate music into whatever she does. She is considering pursuing a graduate degree in speech pathology.
Some students definitely come to Oakwood in hopes of being part of the elite choir, said Allston, the director of public relations.
Senior Richard Martin, 23, is one of those students. He decided to come to Oakwood to be part of the Aeolians when he was a high school junior at Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania, a primary feeder school for Oakwood.
“There’s this feeling of ‘oh my goodness, I’m part of a legacy that began before my parents were even born,’ ” said Martin, who plans to be a minister. “It’s humbling but motivating to know that not only am I part of it, but I’m (maintaining it) for all who come behind us.”
“You never know who is listening to you,” he said, “who will be inspired to come to Oakwood and be part of the Aeolians.”
The group will return from Russia Monday, and the students have been told that it take days to get over the jet lag from the 10-hour time difference.
Their teachers know this, Allston said, and they’ll work with the students to allow them to catch up on their studies.
“This,” Allston said, “is our football team.”