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Heartland Sings weave unique experience

American community will be theme of choir’s performance March 19

Sara Nordling, left, displays her tapestry to Heatland Sings Associate Artistic Director Natalie Young and Maestro Robert Nance.

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published March 8, 2023

Heartland Sings is a mainstay in the Fort Wayne music scene. For 25 years, this professional choral group, led by Maestro Robert Nance, has entertained and educated, performing just about every kind of ensemble vocal music. In October, it was their Stephen Sondheim cabaret revue, then, of course, their beloved annual Christmas concerts in the rotunda of the Allen County Courthouse.

On March 19 at Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Fort Wayne for one performance, Nance and Associate Artistic Director Natalie Young will lead the 32-voice choir, with piano, woodwinds, and percussion, in a concert with a unique theme, something they’ve been developing for a year: An American Tapestry.

Stronger Together 

Heartland Sings have put together a program of touching and emotionally stirring songs from contemporary composers, some of them arrangements of traditional songs. All around, the theme will be what makes up the American community and how that has been reflected over the centuries in the songs Americans sing. It will span music sacred and secular.

“Our goal with this is focusing on the theme ‘Better Together,’ ” Young said. “We are better when we are in community than when we are not. We are singing uniquely American songs, and that spans a wide range of repertoire.”

Nance elaborates on the theme of “tapestry” as a metaphor for living in our community today.

“A tapestry is made up of individual threads,” he said. “Every individual thread has its own beauty. But when you combine them, the resulting product is greater than the parts that came together to make it. And that in of itself is a physical manifestation of the idea that we are better together, we are greater than the sum of our parts, and that speaks to community. So all of the music we chose is rooted in this idea of communal singing and being together.”

To that end, Heartland Sings have commissioned a piece from Fort Wayne textile artist Sara Nordling. During the concert she will gradually reveal a tapestry she created specifically for this event. 

‘Meditative place’ 

After I spoke to Nance and Young by phone, I went to Nordling’s website and found her own statement about her art: “The artist Anne Hamilton said, ‘The crossing of threads is analogous to many voices speaking, a choir.’ The primary expression for my work is woven textiles. How multitudes of disparate threads get organized into a unified cloth, that even when simple is complex, is what I’m interested in and what I celebrate in what I create. The voices of the threads speak of working together, of harmony, and peace. They sing of color, of beauty, and joy. They come from a meditative place that takes me away from everyday troubles to the contemplation of that which transcends time.”

Nance explained that he wanted to create an event with something visceral and physical, not just something to listen to. And the physical threads used in the tapestry will be there for the audience to see and touch.

What to expect

Heartland Sings will start the concert singing new arrangements sung in community sing-alongs throughout the young U.S.A. from the 18th and 19th century. That’s the tradition called “Sacred Harp.” They will perform arrangements by composers John Wykoff and Carol Barnett. Next will be “Amazing Grace,” British writer John Newton’s beloved poem from 1772, in a new arrangement by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds.

Then there will be arrangements of African American spirituals, handed down from slavery, and new pieces written in that style by composers Steve Barnett and Jeffrey Ames. 

“That Which Remains” is a poem by the American deaf-mute activist Helen Keller, set to music by Andrea Ramsey.

Next will be a kind of choral music rarely heard: Heartland will perform compositions based on Native American singing, “Come on the Trail of Song” by Kevin A. Memley and “Zuni Sunrise Song” by Brent Michael Davids. 

I should mention at this point that a number of these composers, across all the styles of music, are Midwesterners, although Davids, who is Native American and lives in Minnesota, has written a piece based on the music of the Zuni people of New Mexico. 

Nance and Young felt it important to reflect the experience of immigrants in our community. 

“They are contributors,” Nance said. 

That led them to some contemporary pieces sung in Spanish, “La Muralla” and “Portones Abiertos y Rostros Brillantes,” which incorporate text by California poet Gabriel Navar with music by Paul Basler.

The concert will conclude with a short, rousing choral arrangement of a big, hit song from the 1988 film Working Girl, Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” which won a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe. I won’t try to describe it or its setting; you’ll have to come hear it for yourself. Please do.

More shows on horizon

At the show, you will hear more about Heartland Sings’ next event, the second annual Vocal Arts Conference at Purdue University-Fort Wayne, June 22-24. 

Entitled “Foundations to Freedom: The Classical-Jazz Paradigm,” the event will provide singers from all over the region the opportunity to attend master classes and seminars. It will be hosted by singer Darmon Meader and his internationally renowned vocal quartet, New York Voices. 

Hundreds of high school choristers will be coming in. New York Voices will perform, and Nance will conduct the local premiere of a unique work called Mass in Blue by contemporary British composer Will Todd. It’s a traditional choral Roman Catholic mass in Latin, as far as the text goes, but it’s sung by a jazz octet backed by a full traditional jazz big band. Its melodic and harmony language would be familiar to anybody who loves the music of the great Duke Ellington.

All summer long, a small group from Heartland Sings will be setting up pop-up performances of popular songs in places all around a 100-mile radius of Fort Wayne. They are set to give around 40 concerts from Wabash to Warsaw to Auburn and all points in between. 

Head on over to to find out more.


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