Robert T. Gibson completed his Master of Music in Choral Conducting at Missouri State University last spring. He now lives and works in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but is back in Springfield this week to conduct a concert by a nearly 30-voice chorus he founded two years ago, the Missouri State University Multicultural Ensemble, on Sunday October 8 at 7:30 pm in the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. It's free and open to the public, with seating right on the Hammons Hall stage. MSU President Clif Smart will offer opening remarks before the performance.
According to Gibson, "Someone asked me (in 2015) to create an ensemble for the Martin Luther King Jr. parade, which was held at the Gillioz Theatre. So I got a couple of friends--it was about maybe seven of us." The group included his wife, along with several MSU choral students. They performed the spiritual "Ride On, King Jesus" and Gibson's own arrangement of the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Gibson and his fellow singers thought the ad-hoc ensemble would be just a one-time gig. The name "Multicultural Ensemble" came about, Gibson says, basically because he "had to put a name on" the group.
"After the performance I got so many great reviews--they wanted us to keep going. They kept calling (MSU Director of Choral Studies) Dr. Cameron LaBarr and saying, 'who is this ensemble?'" But he had no idea, because he wasn't directly involved. But he relayed the positive feedback to Robert Gibson. The next year, 2016, Gibson conducted two groups, and response was even more enthusiastic. They were invited to perform for the Democratic Party's Jackson Days. "After that we did a concert of works that I arranged, called 'Good News.' And now we have taken this to another level." Rather than utilizing just MSU choral students, Gibson has reached out to community members as well for this weekend's concert. "There are a couple of ladies in the group" who are in church choirs and who "don't read music but are phenomenal singers." He was determined not to limit the group just to practicing musicians, but to include singers from all backgrounds and "fuse this talent together."
Asked if he's formulated any sort of overall mission statement describing the MSU Multicultural Ensemble, Robert Gibson has to admit, "You know, Dr. LaBarr asked me that the other day... and that's something I'm still working on. I can tell you the reason for this concert. I'm glad we're doing the concert this week--one, because I was here to do it. The other reason why, there is so much stuff going on in the world, most recently the Puerto Rico fiasco and the hurricane in Houston. And so, when I was picking all of the different music, I said, this is kind of our response to what's going on. And so, without making a 'statement,' I do want the Multicultural choir to be a voice, as a response for either what people can't say, or an encouraging voice to the world, just to let them know it's going to be okay."
Gibson has built this concert around the song "Rise Up" by Andra Day. "It's such a powerful song, saying that all we need is hope, and all we need is each other. Because that's what the world needs. Right now we don't need 'divide.' And that's what's happening, we're divided on so many different planes. And we just need each other to rise up, which is why I'm glad that we have (in the Multicultural Ensemble) different ethnicities and different backgrounds, and (trained) singers versus those who can't read (music). It's about coming together in unity, versus separation."
He promises about a 40-45 minute concert, featuring eight songs. Currently the MSU Multicultural Ensemble only performs about once a year. But Gibson, even though he's no longer a resident of Springfield, would like to see performances by the group become a much more regular occurrence. He came down here this week to conduct at the MSU Men's Chorus Festival. "So anytime that I'm here I would love to try to do something just to try to make it a little more consistent. Definitely, I think these concerts are well needed. I think it's also helping to bridge the gap between the University and the community." Gibson mentions the existence of the MSU Choral Union, a mixed choir of students and community members led by William T. Grega, but notes that its repertoire is mostly classical composers such as Haydn or Bach. The Multicultural Ensemble performs a wide range of music that rests more on the "pop" side of the ledger--not just, or even primarily, spirituals or gospel tunes. "It's funny--we're not even doing a spiritual for this concert. It's not spirituals and hymns--it's nothing like that, it's totally different."
After earning his Masters at MSU last spring, Robert T. Gibson says with a smile, "On top of working at Starbuck's--and I say that proudly because I make great lattes!--I am the Gospel Choir Director for the Milton Hershey School." Located in Hershey, PA, the Hershey School is a cost-free, private, co-residential school and home for children from lower income families. "They house K through 12 on campus--really beautiful campus--and I was just hired to be their Gospel Choir Director." He's particularly pleased that the most recent rehearsal at the Hershey School brought out about 90 kids who came "free will, just out of their own interest in wanting to do gospel music. It's been a great, great success, and I believe they're having a great time."
Robert Gibson is now a published composer and arranger, thanks to his ties to Dr. LaBarr here at MSU, and specifically LaBarr's wife Susan, who works as an editor for one of the nation's leading choral music publishing houses, Walton Music, founded by Norman Luboff.