‘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.’ ”
But he would get less than three months with Hedgeman, who died of a heart attack that December.
“As kids, we don’t listen to our teachers unless we feel that personal bond like I felt with her,” he said. “I vowed to get my life together and give back what she gave me.”
Wondemagegnehu’s other teaching tools included relating the latest Drake, Rihanna or Beyoncé release to choral music.
“I’ll play a Mariah Carey song on YouTube and point out the vocal-cord dysfunction, how she’s too breathy because the adduction isn’t right.”
He smiles, recalling one student named Diego who was a reluctant choirboy.
“I heard that kid sing a low C and just threw him right in the choir against his will. I was a big scary black man, so not too many of them were going to defy me.” Diego now attends the University of Memphis on a vocal scholarship.
Ribs, pop and shopping
Wondemagegnehu lives in the Stevens neighborhood of Minneapolis near downtown, where he likes to defend his belief that Memphis-style slow-smoked barbecue is the best by hosting rib-offs. He also likes shopping for bargains. Black Friday at the Mall of America was a bright spot in one tough winter for someone who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“I got some Ralph Lauren for 18 bucks at Marshalls, then it was off to World Market for a Boston cocktail shaker,” he said.
A self-described TV junkie, he’s been known to binge-watch sci-fi series (“Battlestar Galactica”) and dramas (“Scandal” and “Breaking Bad”). He loves cooking up ideas that blend pop culture and classical, including a recent one he pitched in an e-mail on applying “The Avengers” superheroes to an action plan to promote crossover artists like Pentatonix to youth audiences. He mused on making a “pie in the sky” attempt to loop in Memphis-raised Justin Timberlake.
“Let’s change the world!” he signed off. Wondemagegnehu might not be doing that just yet, but he’s certainly shaking up a choral corner of it.