Music majors come from a variety of backgrounds and forge unique paths during their time at Muhlenberg. For vocalist Caroline McKenna ‘19, music has been an important part of her life for a long time.
“I started singing when I was three or four years old, and I loved singing musical theater,” McKenna said.
Starting her career as an attendee to a performing arts school in fourth grade, McKenna began her ascent in which she nurtured her love of music and theater. “Originally when I came [to Muhlenberg] I was going to major in music and theater, but then I decided to just go into music because I love singing.” McKenna holds a concentration in vocal performance.
Despite her decision to set theater aside, show tunes remained an important part of McKenna’s repertoire. At her senior recital on Feb. 23, McKenna showcased her musical versatility. Her program included music from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and twentieth century periods of classical music, along with a set of show tunes from musicals including The Music Man and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. McKenna sang effortlessly in German, French, Italian, and English.
The program included works by Schubert, Fauré, and Donaudy, all of whom Caroline described as “my favorite composers.” She was particularly enthusiastic about “Gretchen am Spinnrade” by Schubert. Gretchen, a character from Göethe’s Faust, sings of her love for Faust and her fear that they will not be together.
“Gretchen is at the spinning wheel . . . and the piano sounds like the spinning wheel,” McKenna said. While the piano rippled in the background, McKenna illustrated Gretchen’s longing and heartbreak in a beautiful rendition that left the audience in somber quiet.
McKenna was also looked forward to sharing “Mai,” by Gabriel Fauré, with her audience. The song’s lyrics call to mind the beauty of spring. “It’s about the springtime and how it compares [in beauty] to the guy she loves,” McKenna describes.
Captivating her audience with her impressive vocal range and thoughtful expression, McKenna gave a whole new meaning to the songs she sang.
While her rendition of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” conveyed Gretchen’s heartbreak, McKenna infused her voice with the sweetness of spring for “Mai.” She sang “Après un rêve” in a haunting manner which rang through the Chapel with all the mystery of a half-lost memory. Yet in “Vaghissima sembianza,” in which a man is enchanted by the portrait of a woman, McKenna’s voice took on the dreamy, light-hearted quality of new love. She reached high notes with enviable ease and charmed her audience with hand gestures which illustrated the content of the music.
McKenna’s love of musical theater was apparent in her final set of showtunes. During “My White Knight,” the audience chuckled at the line: “And I would like him to be more interested in me . . . than he is in himself. / And more interested in us than in me.” “Only Love” was the quietest song on the program, and its quietness made it an intimate and enchanting experience for the audience. After each song McKenna sang, the audience burst into enthusiastic applause.
McKenna said she has enjoyed several experiences she has had in the music department, and she has been continuously inspired by the faculty. Her voice instructor, Patricia Budlong, has been very important in McKenna’s studies.
“She’s the greatest vocal teacher I know,” McKenna said. “I’ve really learned a lot from her. I’ve worked with her for four years, and we worked on so many great songs together.” Budlong helped McKenna fall in love with classical music, encouraging her to open her mind to other kinds of music. “She’ll work on anything with you,” McKenna said fondly, “and that’s really great.”
McKenna has enjoyed other opportunities on campus, as well. “I was in the opera workshop with Brian Chu a couple years ago, and we performed the opera Carmen. . . . That was a great experience.”
Currently working in an internship under Dr. Christopher Jackson, McKenna conducts the Women’s Ensemble—she explains, “It gives me a good chance to teach and conduct the choir, and just getting out of my comfort zone—I think that’s really inspiring.”
Looking towards the future, McKenna says she plans to attend graduate school. “I’m thinking of becoming a teacher in vocal pedagogy,” McKenna explains. She is specifically interested in studying elementary vocal education.
At the end of her senior recital, McKenna gave a huge bow. Her audience rose to their feet, giving her a well-deserved standing ovation for the excellent concert as well as the immense achievement which it represents. As McKenna graduates and continues down her musical path, Muhlenberg and its community will be right behind her, cheering her on.