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Concert to honor fallen EMU alum

The Eastern Mennonite University music department’s celebratory concert for the fall semester will include a tribute to a 2008 EMU graduate who died this summer.
The concert will be held 7 p.m. Saturday in EMU’s Lehman Auditorium and will feature EMU music students and faculty performing alongside one another.
“Death cannot separate,” a new piece for choir and instrumental ensemble, composed by EMU alumnus Nathan Bontrager of Akron, Pa., will be presented as a tribute to classmate Matthew Garber of Elizabethtown, Pa. Bontrager is completing a master’s degree in cello performance at the University of Maryland.

Garber, a 2008 nursing graduate, died on July 1 in a swimming accident while on a missions trip in Costa Rica. He was active in a variety of campus ministries and music as a student and received the “Cords of Distinction” honor at graduation this spring. Garber was scheduled to begin work as an emergency room nurse at Lancaster General Hospital in late August.

“I wanted [the composition] to reflect the ways in which I knew Matt and the manner in which I thought he might want to be remembered in music. However, I wanted to be true to my own creative impulses as well,” Bontrager said. “My interactions with Matt ranged from raucous, laughter-filled meals at lunch to leading times of reflective worship at campus ‘Celebration’ services. I wanted to demonstrate this spectrum in the music, something that ranged from austere and mournful to jubilant and playful.

Bontrager said the piece, following portions of the text, “moves from a mood of somber recognition of death to a light dance of friendship remembered to an idyllic yet confident hope in the eternity of Matt’s friendship with all of us which remains preserved in memory. I knew Matt to range freely between these emotions, a trait which I deeply admired in him.

“Musically, I drew on experiences I shared with Matt in Chamber Singers both as a co-participant and as an observer,” Bontrager said. “The unaccompanied choral section near the end is an homage to the a cappella music that Matt always held on to even as he engaged in more popular forms of both secular and sacred music. Any time I hear a confident tenor voice leap out from a choir to lean into a beautiful dissonance I will always think of Matt and his love for music and the song of the church.

“My hope is that this piece can be both a somber and grateful remembrance of a friend we dearly loved, a memorial to the extraordinary person that Matt was and will remain in our memory,” he added.

The program will include the oratorio, “Jubilate for the Peace of Utrecht 1713” by George Frideric Handel, featuring the combined EMU choirs, EMU orchestra and voice faculty member James Richardson, baritone; and “Misa Cubana,” a Cuban mass for choir and orchestra by Jose Maria Vitier. The director is Kenneth J. Nafziger, professor of music at EMU.

“The year 2009 will be celebrated in world-wide events to mark the 250th anniversary of Handel’s birth,” noted Dr. Nafziger. “This concert anticipates the arrival of a year of reveling in the great music that Handel has left to us and to all the world.”

José María Vitier (b. 1954) is a composer and pianist whose compositions for piano, orchestra and chamber and jazz ensembles blend traditional and popular forms of Cuban music. His work is included in the repertoires of all major Cuban performers and musical groups.

Nafziger conducted the North American premier of “Misa Cubana” in Washington, D.C., in 2000 with the composer in attendance.

Admission to the concert is free, but donations of any amount are welcomed to benefit the music department student scholarship fund.


Story by Jim Bishop

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