By Ashley Festa
The music department at Incarnate Word has always hit a sweet note. The compassion and dedication of those who have served the department over the years has contributed to its continuous growth. This growth has filled the Fine Arts building to capacity, a mixed blessing to which help will come soon.
Getting to this point, though, was a steady process during the long history of music at Incarnate Word.
When Debbie Bussineau-King first joined the faculty 29 years ago as an adjunct music professor, there were only two full time faculty members. Even then, the department was housed in the Genevieve Tarlton Dougherty Fine Arts Center, which was built in 1963.
“And we had no trouble finding parking back then!” she joked. “On the other side of the river, just tennis courts were there.”
In 1986, Bussineau-King began working full time at what was still Incarnate Word College. She worked her way into full professorship through her community service, service to the university, scholarship and teaching. Part of her research has included singing in operas and traveling all over the United States performing recitals of different varieties of song.
Most recently, she has focused her research on Sephardic folk songs. Her study involves the music that survives from the Sephardic Jewish culture, songs that she describes as “exotic-sounding, Middle Eastern lullabies.”
In her office, she pulls out a book of these folk songs and flips through the pages, spontaneously breaking into a beautiful chorus.
She knows the history of these people well: At the end of the 15th century, during the reign of Queen Isabella, the Catholic Church required religious uniformity in Spain, so many Sephardic Jews (those Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula) either converted or left the country. Bussineau-King’s interest lies in “everything that life is about.”
One of the recitals of Sephardic folk songs she performed took place in Madrid, Spain. Though she was a little nervous about singing such songs in a country with a history of conflict with Sephardic Jews, the performance went off without a hitch. Even the language spoken there today often includes some mixture of Yiddish and Spanish.
Before her performance, someone wished her mazel bueno or “good luck” in a blend of Jewish and Spanish languages.
Bussineau-King also performs closer to home.
Years ago, when the Incarnate Word community was smaller, she sang “Ave Maria” at all the funerals.
“It was a smaller community then. I miss that. I knew everyone on campus. But you can’t live like that forever. You have to widen your scope, and Lou (Agnese) has done that,” she said.
Indeed he has, and the growing Department of Music reflects those efforts. Seven fulltime faculty members now teach nearly 100 music majors. The facilities, however, have remained the same. There are only six practice rooms to accommodate the students, and sometimes students must practice in hallways or in Our Lady’s Chapel because of the cramped quarters.
Two new music programs have been added since Agnese’s arrival. UIW now offers a Bachelor of Arts in Music with an emphasis in music industry studies, and UIW is the only school in South Texas to offer a Bachelor of Music in music therapy. UIW organized a jazz ensemble and, in the early 1990s, recruited a full orchestra, that some people know as “San Antonio’s other orchestra,” Bussineau-King said.
Two 1985 graduates of the music department returned to help UIW advance its musical endeavors. Lena Gokelman, director of music ministries, and her husband, Bill, chair of UIW’s music program, were college sweethearts. But it was their love of music and Incarnate Word that brought them back “home.”
One can hardly talk of the history of the music department without mention of Sr. Maria Goretti Zehr a beloved instructor who taught in the music department for nearly half a century. A 1955 graduate of Incarnate Word College’s music program, Goretti Zehr recruited Lena from Texas Tech and served as her mentor while she was a student.
“Sr. Goretti’s example to me was love and joy, love of God and life, and joy in everything she did,” Lena Gokelman said. “I do recall her saying to both Bill and me, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’ And that is true. Though I am often busy, I do love what I do and where I am.”
Both Lena and Bill earned top awards during their undergraduate studies. Lena received the Outstanding Music Major Award, and Bill earned the Amy Freeman Lee Award for the Arts and Humanities, the highest student award honoring academics and service. Now, they’re showing other students what it takes to be successful outside Incarnate Word’s walls.
“Competition in the music world is very tough. They must be at the top of their profession,” Lena Gokelman said.
Students who sing in the Cardinal Chorale already are proving their ability to stand out.
In 2000, the Cardinal Chorale performed in Carnegie Hall as the core of a 200-voice mass choir under MidAmerica Productions, a New York concert production company. No audition was necessary that time, but in December 2009, Bill Gokelman received a request from MidAmerica for a CD of the Chorale as an audition to sing in Carnegie Hall again. The company’s artistic director liked what he heard, and offered an invitation for a solo performance.
After a successful fundraising effort that raised more than $100,000 to pay for the trip, 60 members of the Cardinal Chorale will travel to New York City to perform at 2 p.m. on Nov. 28 at Carnegie Hall.
UIW has plans at home to help these students continue to be competitive, too. On the horizon is a new music building to provide more space for the growing department.
Between the Administration Building and the Fine Arts building will be a three-story, 65,000-square-foot facility to house a concert hall and lecture hall. The current Fine Arts building will be gutted and renovated for the Department of Art, effectively doubling the space for arts at Incarnate Word. Fundraising has already begun on the $15 million project.
This consistent, continuous development helps draw more and more students, which in turn keeps professors like the Gokelmans and Bussineau-King returning year after year.
“I’ve always loved it here,” Bussineau-King said. “It’s the kids that make this university what it is.”