U of M ‘Magnificat’ concert prompts reflection on mothers in prison

| November 16, 2017 | 0 Comments

Detail from “Visitation” from the Altarpiece of the Virgin by Jacques Daret, c. 1435, at the Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Last year, Amanda Weber was accompanying a women’s choir singing a lullaby, when she looked up from the piano and noticed that many of the women were swaying as if they were rocking a child.

She was moved by that, and she discovered many of the women were mothers.

The women were members of Voices of Hope, a choir at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, a women-only prison. Weber founded and directs the choir. About 70 percent of incarcerated women have children under age 18, Weber said. And some of those mothers give birth — sometimes for the first time — while in prison.

Amanda Weber

Weber, 30, is connecting the uncertainty, fear and hope of those mothers to another mother who may have experienced similar emotions 2,000 years ago, when she was preparing to give birth to the Messiah. A doctoral student studying conducting in the University of Minnesota’s School of Music, Weber is directing the university’s University Singers and Chamber Singers in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” and other Marian songs 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Luther Seminary Chapel, 1490 Fulham St., St. Paul.

The public concert is free, but donations will be taken to support the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which helps pregnant inmates with pregnancy and parenting support, including birthing support, education groups and one-on-one counseling to help mothers cope with separation from their children.

Inspired by an experience of forming and directing a choir for homeless women while volunteering post-college with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Washington, D.C., Weber formed Voices of Hope two years ago.

Forming the choir for homeless women “was really an eye-opening year for me, of how my interests might serve the world in a bigger way, and how necessary it is for people to make music, and to connect with their bodies as an instrument and with one another,” Weber said.

Voices of Hope is also preparing a version of the Magnificat and pieces with similar themes for its own Dec. 12 concert, which is closed to the public. Voices of Hope boosts the women’s self-esteem, teaches them to work together and brings joy, Weber said. “Oftentimes, the women will say they forget they’re in prison during those couple of hours we’re together [each week],” she said.

She hopes that, once released from prison, the choir’s members join choirs in the community, not only to help them re-enter society, but also to help the community welcome them.

Amanda Weber directs Voices of Hope, a choir of women at Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, in an updated photo. Faces have been obscured to protect women’s identities. Courtesy Weber

A Lutheran, Weber chose Bach’s “Magnificat” for her final doctoral recital because it was liturgically appropriate for Advent, and because she wanted to connect the concert to Voices of Hope. The composition sets to music the canticle of Mary during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. It begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

“[The ‘Magnificat’] is a fantastic work for the students to do,” she said of the university’s flagship choirs, which together include about 40 vocalists.

“Here we are singing this text from the perspective of someone who just found out that they’re a mother, and maybe a mother before they wanted to be, or before they thought they would be, so this concept of unexpected pregnancy is very relevant for women in prison and people who are living more high-risk lives,” Weber added. “I thought, how interesting would it be to do a partnership and have a perspective around motherhood and incarceration. … Just a few years ago women in prison were shackled when they were in labor.”

As a prayer, the Magnificat’s themes also resonate beyond the Christian tradition, Weber said.

“There’s a lot to take from [the text] if you are a Christian, but if you are not, it also says a lot about fear and expectation and responding to that with joy and gratitude,” she said. She said one of the members of Voices of Hope first balked at the piece because she isn’t religious, but after exploring the text, she said she related to it because, like Mary, everyone has points in life that require profound reflection.

“It’s really fascinating to read Mary’s response in that way,” Weber said. “It’s also a pretty radical text in that it addresses social justice issues, in terms of bringing the rich down low and the lowly up, and I think that is a pretty potent text for now, our present time.”

Weber hopes her audience sees the contemporary relevance of a Baroque piece, and that the concert raises awareness about incarcerated women and their unique challenges. Working with the Magnificat with Voices of Hope and the university’s choirs has helped Weber look at a familiar text with a fresh perspective.

“It’s been fascinating to work on this project and to have the insight of a whole lot of other people who are reading it in slightly different ways,” she said. “It’s made this masterpiece that was written in the 1700s be relevant to today’s world, and that’s such a goal for me as a choral musician.”

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