SALT LAKE CITY — The opening offering of the 2007 Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities is a tribute, not to a great artist or humanitarian, but to a people whose suffering and loss we should still hold fresh in our minds and hearts – the people of New Orleans, La. More than a year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through the gulf states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, taking homes, churches, landmarks, memories, and lives with them, the people of New Orleans, which bore the brunt of the storms, still awaken to sights of rubble, ruin, and promises unfulfilled.
Drew W. Browning, Festival co-director and a native of Baton Rouge, La., and Brian Hesleph, choir director of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, invite Festival supporters and others to enjoy "Still I Rise," an evening of gospel music that will open the Festival April 15 in the Cathedral of the Madeleine.
"We will draw a parallel between traditional gospel music and the hurricanes," said Browning.
Hesleph brings to the Festival the 50-member Calvary Inspirational Choir, one of five choirs he conducts at Calvary Baptist Church. They will be joined by soloists Jonté Short, Damon Willliams, and Rev. Lois Dejean from Ebenezer Baptist Church in New Orleans, and narrator Rev. France A. Davis of Calvary Baptist Church, for an evening of traditional gospel music that will commemorate the trials and celebrate the hope of the people of New Orleans.
"We will perform about 90 minutes of music, some of it with our choir alone, some performed by the New Orleans soloists, and some in collaboration," Hesleph said in an April 5 interview with the Intermountain Catholic.
Browning said he and Hesleph began planning the Festival opening event in autumn, 2006. "We want to do something special for the people of New Orleans because after the major television networks and anchors have left, there is still a lot of work to be done there. We want to remind people in Salt Lake City that many people of New Orleans are still living in thousands of white FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Act) trailers, and they still have rubble in the streets."
As a show of solidarity with the people of New Orleans, Festival attendees will be encouraged to make free will donations to the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, which is directly involved in rebuilding homes in the New Orleans area, Browning said. "One of the organization’s many noteworthy efforts is the Musicians’ Village project in the upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The aim of this project, originally envisioned by musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, is to build homes for New Orleans area musicians as well as others qualifying for assistance. By keeping the city’s cherished musicians living in New Orleans, the Musicians’ Village helps to ensure that New Orleans retains its musical soul."
Rev. Lois Dejean comes from three generations of gospel ministers. A native New Orleanian, she has worked as an advocate for children and families in the New Orleans area for more than 30 years. A prominent gospel music promoter in the city of New Orleans, Rev. Dejean has produced concerts nationally and internationally.
"When I first contacted Rev. Dejean, it was hard to get find her," Browning said. "There was still four feet of water in Ebenezer Baptist Church."
Since the hurricanes, Rev. Dejean has worked tirelessly to raise national in international awareness of the disaster wrought by the storms. In July, 2006, she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with other New Orleanians to testify in front of the United Nations Human Rights Commission on issues related to Hurricane Katrina.
The title of the evening’s event, "Still I Rise" is taken from the lyrics of a gospel hymn by Grammy Award Winner Yolanda Adams. The choir will begin the evening with that hymn, and will close on an up-beat note with "Oh, Happy Day," said Hesleph.
"The Spirit will move us the evening of the 15th," Hesleph said. "We invite everyone to join in the singing, in praising God, and in sharing with the people of New Orleans."
Hesleph said although he is used to collaborating with other musicians and choirs, this will be his first collaboration with Rev. Dejean and singers from New Orleans.
"I’m looking forward to it," he said. "We’re going to open up and bring the house down."
"Still I Rise" and all Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities events are free and open to the public except the Madeleine Award Dinner June 3, which will honor Utah Shakespearean Festival Founder Fred C. Adams.
The Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities continues with the following events at 8 p.m. in the Cathedral of the Madeleine:
April 22: "Sacred Dances," by Imagine Ballet Theatre, the Choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, and the Cathedral Chamber Orchestra.
April 29: "In The Beginning," Haydn’s "Creation," by the Oratorio Society of Utah and Nachtmusik Orchestra.
May 6: "Departures," A Tribute to poets Leslie Norris and Ken Brewer by Lance Larsen and Michael Sowder.
May 13: "Across the Sea," Traditional Celtic and Maritime music featuring Yankee Clipper.
May 20: "An American Voice," Featuring the Cathedral Choir and Chamber Orchestra, Gregory Glenn, Conductor.
June 3: The Madeleine Award Dinner in honor of Fred C. Adams, 6 p.m., Memorial House in Memory Grove.