Looking out at the crowd gathered in an ancient cathedral in the center of Prague, Will Dickinson noticed the elderly woman in a bright blue raincoat, smiling and bouncing along as Dickinson and his fellow University Singers performed a Czech folk song.
Touched by her obvious enthusiasm, Dickinson, a fourth-year University of Virginia student majoring in music and religious studies, asked an interpreter to help him speak to the woman after the show and thank her for coming.
“It struck me in that moment how very transcendental music can be, that I could have this connection with this woman who I could not even really communicate with,” he said. “It really convinced me to continue to study and perform music.”
Dickinson is one of 95 students in University Singers, a choral ensemble directed by Michael Slon, an associate professor and the director of choral music at UVA. In addition to performances in Prague, London, Cambridge, Krakow and Vienna last summer, the ensemble has hosted numerous concerts at UVA this year and will give its final concert of the semester on Saturday at 8 p.m. in Old Cabell Hall, performing “St. John Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach.
“The piece is one of Bach’s two surviving Passion settings, the other being St. Matthew. Both of these are considered to be two of the greatest choral works in our repertoire,” said Slon, who is in his 15th year of directing the ensemble. “Bach is a composer without parallel, and it is always a special opportunity to re-create the extraordinary beauty and power of his music.”
Fourth-year student Taylor Morgan, president of University Singers, said that the piece has proved “very challenging,” because of the sheer volume of music to learn.
“Once you get over that learning curve, where you have learned the bulk of the music and start to make the music, it becomes really special, because you understand how 250 pages of music cohere,” Morgan said. “When you put it with an orchestra, it becomes kind of magical.”
The ensemble is known for rigorous performances of classic choral music, such as a 2014 performance of George Frideric Handel’s famous “Messiah,” a long oratorio first performed in 1742, and collaborations with the Charlottesville Symphony on Verdi’s “Requiem” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
“We are not afraid to engage with the largest choral works ever composed,” Dickinson said. “To stand on stage with 99 other people singing your hearts out in the same way that people did in the 18th and 19th century is amazing.”
Often, that experience includes singing in an unfamiliar language. On Saturday, the singers will perform Bach’s famous oratorio entirely in German (with a translation provided to the audience).
“St. John Passion is a very large work, with a lot of music and notes to learn,” said Clay Pulsipher, a UVA and University Singers alumnus who is now Slon’s assistant conductor. “The entire thing is also in German. Several singers have experience with German, but for those who do not, it is obviously an extra challenge.”
The ensemble has performed in several different languages this past year, including Latin, Czech and Polish. Several of those performances came during the University Singers’ international tour last summer, its first international tour in decades. The ensemble visited London, Cambridge, Prague, Krakow and Vienna.
“It was absolutely fantastic, truly eye-opening,” Dickinson said. “It was a transformative experience not only for me, but for the choir in general, and it really shaped University Singers’ identity in a different way.”
The ensemble completes concert tours every other year, typically traveling to schools, concert halls and churches around the U.S. They are also featured in many University events, whether singing the national anthem to open UVA sporting events, performing at convocation or during a vigil held in support of the victims of terrorist attacks, or collaborating with the Charlottesville Symphony for a holiday concert. In addition, a select group of University Singers makes up the UVA Chamber Singers ensemble, which performs chamber choir music several times each year.
The myriad performances, along with rehearsals every Monday and Wednesday, create a strong bond among the students, Slon said.
“I think it is very special that all of these performance experiences bring the group together as a family, where they feel that they have a smaller community within the larger context of UVA, a group that knows them well and appreciates their gifts,” he said.
Students hail from all six of UVA’s undergraduate schools, as well as several graduate and professional schools. They receive course credit for their participation and many take on leadership roles, pitching in to handle concert arrangements, create publicity campaigns or lead fundraising efforts. Some are majoring in music, while others have their sights set on different fields.
“It is wonderful to be surrounded by people who share a common interest in music but are so varied in their other talents,” Dickinson said.
Many former University Singers have gone on to careers in music and the arts, with opera singers and professional choristers numbered among the group’s alumni. One 2012 alumna, Kayla Winslow, is now the lead vocalist for a U.S. Army Band stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, where she performs for the community and for other troops.
“University Singers played a role in helping me to learn a good work ethic as a musician,” Winslow said. “It also taught me how to work with an ensemble in general and how gratifying it can be to be part of an ensemble.”
Other students, like Morgan, are headed down different career paths, but plan to continue singing outside of work.
“I am planning on pursuing music violently as a hobby,” said Morgan, who will start a job with Standard & Poor’s in New York City in June. “Music will always be in my life. I don’t think I could exist without it.”
University Singers will perform Bach’s “St. John Passion” at 8 p.m. on Saturday in Old Cabell Hall. Tickets are available at the Arts Box Office at 434-924-3376 or www.artsboxoffice.virginia.edu. They are free for students who reserve in advance, $15 for the general public, $13 for UVA faculty and staff and $5 for students at the door.