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Carols in the Capitol

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Susannah Gafkjen, right, second row, poses with other members of the Wartburg Choir in the White House on Dec. 17. The Clay Central-Everly alumna and her choir mates also sang during the Bethlehem Prayer Service at the National Cathedral.
(Photo submitted)
CC-E grad sings at White House

After touring Europe for a month this spring, members of the Wartburg College Choir planned to finish out 2011 quietly.

One call changed those plans.

"We were sitting in choir and (director) Dr. (Lee) Nelson comes in and he shuts all the doors and he's like, 'Now, you can't tell anyone this because it's not a sure thing, but I got a call this afternoon and it was from the White House," Susannah Gafkjen recalled. "And we were all just like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

Nelson wasn't joking, as the White House Visitors Office had found the choir's music on itunes and was considering them for a holiday tour performance. After more than a month of waiting, the choir learned 63 of Wartburg's 84-student ensemble would be traveling to Washington, D.C., from Dec. 16 to 18.

Only 60 were allowed to sing at the White House, in two separate groups with Simon Estes, but all 63 sang at the National Cathedral.

Gafkjen, a junior music therapy major and Clay Central-Everly alumna, made the trip and was among one of the groups singing at the president's home.

She noted that Wartburg traveled further east for the tour than any choir before them, adding to the prestige.

"Most of the choirs they invite are from East Coast schools and choirs, so the fact that they reached out to Iowa and a little, private college in Iowa, it was crazy," Gafkjen said.

Following the official invite, the choir had less than two weeks to make plans. Within that time, they learned a stop at the National Cathedral would be added to the itinerary.

"At first they said, 'They can come, but we don't have any space for them to sing,' ... then they called back a couple days later and said, 'We may have space for you,'" Gafkjen said. "They gave us about a 15-minute prelude section and a song within the service, as well."

With that performance slated for the Bethlehem Prayer Service Saturday morning, the group arrived in Washington, D.C.,Friday evening. In addition to a reception at a Lutheran church -- where they learned the significance of the next day's service -- they were able to sing carols at the Capitol, the Washington Monument and outside the White House.

Saturday morning featured songs from Christmas with Wartburg.

At the White House, Gafkjen's group added numerous other songs and still repeated everything at least once as they sang for nearly three hours.

Guests included senators, representatives, ambassadors and other government officials with their families.

At one point, everyone cleared out.

"Apparently, the president had gotten into the White House," Gafkjen said. "He wasn't there when we started singing. The secret service needed to move him through the White House for security reasons. ... The president was right there and we didn't get to see him, but it was still cool."

Secret service personnel had given the choir a tour beforehand.

"Yes, you need to know all about the history of the building to be in the secret service," Gafkjen said. "They told us about the artwork, room decor and how all the rooms got their names."

Gafkjen wrapped up her trip with a visit of the Holocaust Museum, upon the suggestion of her director, to help better understand a Holocaust oratory the choir will be singing at an American Choral Directors Association event in February..

As she arrived back in Iowa Dec. 18, all of the weekend's events boiled down to one thought.

"I'm really tired but this was really cool."

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