Southern dynamo spices up Twin Cities choral scene

A charismatic man from Tennessee is set on attracting Minnesota millennials – and anyone in earshot – to the joy of singing.

‘Whoah-oh-oh, break free, come on now,” sang Tesfa Wondemagegnehu in his crystal-clear tenor, melting away Nordic inhibitions with his broad, cherubic face and encouraging expression. “Come on now, take me to CHURCH.”

Wondemagegnehu, a young black singer and conductor from Memphis who has wowed the Twin Cities choral scene since arriving in town last summer, was encouraging a staid, mostly white audience to join him in achieving new vocal heights at a pop-up singalong event in Minneapolis.

Getting taken “to church” is one of many expressions Wondemagegnehu (pronounced won-dih-MAWG-knee-you) brought north with him when he accepted a job as assistant artistic director for VocalEssence. Not long after, he was hired to help program and promote Minnesota Public Radio’s 24-hour streaming of choral music.

Last week, he went full time at MPR, where a new choral initiative will bring him to area schools f or music outreach. He’ll also head up a new group of young singers, the APM Radio Choir.

“I do believe everyone can sing,” he said. “For some it just takes a little more work.”

Wondemagegnehu is no preacher, but he inspires new believers wherever he goes — even in Minnesota, which already has one of the nation’s strongest choral presences. He was a teenage troublemaker more partial to Three 6 Mafia than classical when he found salvation from an unlikely source — choral music. Since discovering that passion, the 31-year-old has earned two master’s degrees, performed solo and conducted around the world and been named teacher of the year in Orange County, Fla. But the compelling guy with the long last name (it’s Ethiopian) is just as likely to challenge you to a BBQ rib-off as talk music.

Fun and substance

“People are charmed and surprised by Tesfa, and we are such a homogeneous culture that needs this kind of surprise,” said Brian Newhouse, director of classical programming at MPR. “He’s got this come-one, come-all charisma that says, ‘Let’s have a blast singing together,’ but at the same time some serious chops as a professional singer and conductor, and he deploys his range of gifts in a package of Southern charm that opens doors immediately.”

Being hyperliterate in social media hasn’t hurt, either. He snaps selfies and slaps them up on Facebook and Twitter, like one he took with Newhouse and superstar composer Eric Whitacre in a van he jokingly called a “party bus” at a conference in Washington, D.C.

After attending the annual Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minn., earlier this month, where he sang the premiere of Dominick Argento’s “Seasons” with a chorale led by Dale Warland, he posted on Facebook: “Good GAWD, this Argento piece is the TRUTH! So blessed to have been a part of that special moment.”

Wondemagegnehu has retained a side gig he picked up leading the choir at Bethlehem Covenant Church in south Minneapolis. At a recent rehearsal, congregation president Dick Sundberg said fellow church members have told him the choir sounds more dynamic and engaged now.

“Most choir directors struggle to get their singers to watch them,” Sundberg said. “With Tesfa, you can’t help it, he’s so animated, always asking us to sing with our ‘big mama voice.’ ”

Excellence ‘no accident’

Before coming to Minnesota, Wondemagegnehu was the choral teacher at Freedom High School in Orlando for five years and in 2012 was named the county’s “teacher of the year.” The high school ranked 13th out of 19 in the county on socioeconomic status but third in many areas of achievement.

Harold Border, principal of Freedom High at the time and now an area superintendent, said that what made Wondemagegnehu stand out as a teacher wasn’t just his great relationship with students, but also the rigor with which “Mr. Won,” as he was affectionately called, demanded they do their best.

“Chorus is what gave these kids their sense of belonging, a gateway to self-esteem that led to them doing well academically,” Border said.

Mr. Won was simply passing along some lessons he learned from the most important teacher in his own life, the late Lulah Hedgeman, after being kicked out of school in ninth grade in 1997 for selling stolen pagers, considered drug paraphernalia. Knowing he could sing, his mother suggested he try out for a Memphis performing arts school, Overton High, where Hedgeman led the choir.

“Here’s this lady scowling at me, I thought, ‘Who does she think she is? I’m a badass.’ But she said, ‘There’s something about you,’ and took a real interest in me. She gave me my second chance. I would stay with her till 8 o’clock at night sometimes. She became like that mean old grandma with no filter. She’d always say, ‘Excellence is no accident.’ ”

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    A charismatic man from Tennessee is set on attracting Minnesota millennials to the joy of singing.

  • An animated Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, new manager of MPR’s Choral Works Initiative, leads choir rehearsal at Bethlehem Covenant Church.

  • Tesfa WOndemagegnehu

    Age: 31.

    Born and raised: Memphis.

    Education: Earned master’s degrees in vocal performance and choral conducting from Florida State University, where he studied under André Thomas.

    Career: Choral activities director at Freedom High School in Orlando from 2009 to 2013. Assistant artistic director for VocalEssence, June 2013 to July 2014.

    New job: Hired by Minnesota Public Radio in November 2013 as its first choral-stream representative. Moved to MPR full-time in July 2014 to become manager of its new Choral Works Initiative, for which he will do outreach in schools, lead the APM Choir, help program the choral-music stream and promote choral concerts.

    Honors: Named public-school Teacher of the Year for Orange County, Fla. (2013). Macy’s National Gift of Teaching Award (2013).

    What others say: Dale Warland, choral director: “He’s a great missionary and ambassador for the choral arts, but his knowledge of repertoire all over the world is also key.” Vaughn Ormseth, MPR producer and community impact manager: “He believes choral music transformed his life, saved him, so his passion for it is on a cellular level. He loves the formal tradition of the art form, but plugs his own kind of electricity directly into it. He has a millennial’s impatience with systems.”

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