One of the most widely anticipated highlights of every General Conference Session is the world-class musical performances from artists across the globe. This year, the 61st Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be held in St. Louis, as well as online. This hybrid format has presented both opportunities and challenges for organizers, and music is no exception.
ANN recently sat down with GC Sabbath School and Personal Ministries assistant director and vice-chair of the Session music committee, Meredith Herzel, for a back-stage insight into how music is coordinated for such a significant and global event.
YEARS OF PREPARATION
Unbeknown to most Adventists, the process of organizing music for GC Session can begin more than two years before the event is held, when singers, musicians and groups submit their auditions to the GC Music Committee.
“Williams Costa [director of GC Communications] is the chair of that committee, and I’m the vice-chair alongside Gaspar Colón,” Herzel begins. “People send in their recordings and then the selection sub-committee listens, and we rank them. We started this process in early 2018 to prepare for 2020, but of course, we had to postpone it. There will be some musicians at this Session who have been looking forward to this for five years!”
Performers first submit their audition recordings to their local division, where a music coordinator will vet performances before they are submitted to the GC Music Committee. By the time it reaches the GC, Herzel says that most performances are of a very high standard.
“This Session, we have been so impressed,” she says. “There have been so many young people writing original music—especially from the South Pacific Division. We don’t have any particular requirements regarding style. We want lots of different genres, from different age groups and locations. We really look at the quality of performance and representation across the board from all Divisions.”
Selecting performers from the extensive audition list is only the first part of the process of organizing music for Session. Once performers are confirmed, there is the job of scheduling music across the multiple days of Session, including morning and evening worships, concerts and Sabbath services.
“As far as copyright is concerned, once the music selection subcommittee makes their selections and approves each song, it goes to the OGC (office of general council) at GC, and they vet it for copyright permission, to make sure we have the licenses we need. Then there are the technical people and contractors that make it all possible on the day. And this year they’ve had to stitch together all the performances as part of one cohesive, digital concert too. That’s added another layer of complexity.”
HYBRID SESSION—CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Due to Session being postponed for two years, and the new hybrid format—where more than 600 delegates and thousands of Adventists will join remotely from their home countries—organizing music has been more complex than ever before.
“We had selected all our musicians for 2020 and I was working on the main stage schedule,” explains Herzel. “I’d made each concert fit a thematic theme and arranged all the performances. I finished it the day before they postponed GC Session, and honestly, I cried. It was heart-breaking.”
Following on from canceled 2020 plans, Session was postponed twice before the dates for St. Louis 2022 were confirmed in January this year. This meant that the usual two-year planning period was now reduced to less than six months.
“We sent out a poll to everyone who had been selected for 2020, asking if they’d like to participate in 2022. Whoever responded was put back on the list. We were then told by Session management that we could only have virtual concerts throughout the week, and then live music on Friday and Sabbath. That added a whole new element.”
Herzel explains that while many responded to the poll, others were unable to. Waiting up to five years to perform, many groups had disbanded, graduated, grown up or were now otherwise unable to perform.
“The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many things worldwide. It separated people and destroyed orchestras, choirs, bands, congregational singing, and many other musical ensembles,” says Williams Costa.
While every person who responded “yes” to the poll will participate in music at Session this year, only about 30 will perform live. Normally, this number would be in the hundreds, but this year most musicians have been asked to send in pre-recorded music videos.
“It’s up to the individual musicians to create videos that are up to Session standard,” explains Herzel. “And musicians must pay their own way to Session, too. It’s a huge ask. Some musicians who do it full time have contacted me and said, ‘We really want to participate but because of COVID, our business dried up and we can’t afford it’. Others have been fundraising for five years to produce a video, or to attend in-person, or both. It’s a real commitment.”
From the beginning, part of the planning strategy was to require all musicians to submit a video, even if they are meant to perform in person.
“Even now we’re having to do last-minute shuffling for various reasons. Some performers can’t attend due to the war in Ukraine, others have visa problems, so it’s good they can still participate virtually,” Herzel says.
WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO THIS YEAR
Despite the many challenges faced by the GC Music Committee this year, Adventists from across the globe can look forward to world-class performances from notable artists including Wintley Phipps, Jennifer LaMountain, Steve Darmody, Charles Haugabrooks, Alessandra Sorace, Neville Peter, and Arautos dos Reis—the Brazilian King’s Heralds.
In addition, Costa—a composer and musician, who also wrote the “I Will Go” theme song for this quinquennium—has arranged beautiful song medleys and three video productions where choirs from across the world will sing different portions, which will then be accompanied by a live choir and orchestra on Sabbath.
“It will be a 16-voice choir 20-piece orchestra that will sing live, synchronized with choirs and orchestras from around the world,” explains Costa. “You will see integrated with the live music participation of groups from Asia, Africa, Europe, and Americas. The intention is during the music anthem to have the world church worshiping and praising God. I hope and pray it will be an inspiration to all Seventh-day Adventist around the world.”
“You can’t miss this!” adds Herzel. “It’s never been done before at Session!”
In another Session first, this year music has been arranged into thematic concerts. Rather than being categorized by day or time, these will be uniquely labeled with titles such as “Jesus’ Love Surrounds Me” or “The Second Coming is My Greatest Hope”, to encourage listeners to recognize the message through each of the songs.
“It’s been a joy and privilege to listen to all the music and put the concerts together,” says Herzel. “As a former music teacher, it’s my heart language. The whole process has been challenging, but hearing the most amazing music from across the globe will be absolutely worth it.”