Under the leadership of director Eric Conway, the Morgan State University Choir has reached many milestones, from performing at Carnegie Hall to singing "Happy Birthday" to Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
But the highlight of Conway's career came last April, when Michelle Obama invited the choir to perform at the White House. In a night celebrating gospel, the choir shared the stage with Aretha Franklin, T. Bone Burnett and Emmylou Harris, among others.
"We performed quite well in April when we sang for President Obama," Conway said recently. "Maybe, as to quote a cliche, that was our finest hour because Michelle Obama and Barack Obama shook every choir member's hand personally and looked us in the eye. … For me, that was the greatest moment of my career."
Since becoming director in 2004, Conway has followed the tradition of previous director Nathan Carter of maintaining a standard of choral excellence that has become synonymous with the Morgan State University Choir. And just like Carter, Conway has made performing in different countries a priority, which has extended the choir's reach and stature, while introducing its members to new cultures.
On Saturday, however, they'll be local, as the choir performs African-American spirituals at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in conjunction with the exhibition "Ruth Starr Rose: Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and the World."
Graduations make the 120-member choir look different each year, but Conway's goal never changes.
"Choral excellence that communicates to everyone, regardless of background," Conway, 52, said of his mission. "Our music transcends all politics."
It's a goal nearly all choirs share, and yet in the Baltimore area, Conway's group always seems chosen to deliver. Why the Morgan State Choir, though? Why do they deserve the opportunity?
"I will tell you other choir directors ask themselves the same question!" Conway said with a hearty laugh. (Certainly, Reader's Digest naming them "America's Best College Choir" in 2004 bolstered their reputation.)
Another answer: They've worked hard at their craft for decades, dating back to the 1970 arrival of Carter, which many consider a turning point for the program. (A Morgan State representative could not determine the choir's founding, but said it didn't take the form "as we know it today" until Carter.)
Carter hired Conway as the choir's principal accompanist in 1984, while Conway was still a senior studying piano performance at the Peabody Institute. Conway considers himself the program's "living glue" since he's the only person to be involved in every choir since his hiring.
A West Baltimore native, Conway grew up around church musicians in his family. He took piano lessons that set him on a lifelong course of performing, conducting and teaching. When he joined Carter to help the choir, Conway immediately found his place in the program.
"The choir embraced me because they appreciated the fact they had somebody who could play gospel music and could read music incredibly well since I was a Peabody musician," Conway said. "It was a love affair."
Just as Carter took students to Prague and Russia, Conway has made international performances a focal point of the program. In recent years, the choir has performed in Italy, Brazil, Jamaica and Australia.
Daniel Rich, a 24-year-old senior from West Baltimore, has performed with the choir since 2012. His favorite choir memory came during a 2014 trip to the Middle East.
"On the last day, we were in Dubai. We went on an excursion through the sand dunes and the desert," Rich said. "They had camels there. That's an experience I'll probably never forget. One of them — there's a whole lot of them."
This year's travel itinerary is already packed. Next month, the choir heads to Los Angeles for a weeklong tour. Soon after Spring 2016 commencement in May, the choir will travel to perform in Cuba for the first time.
From the Vatican to the White House, the Morgan State Choir has little left unchecked on its bucket list. But when asked what's left to accomplish, the Lutherville resident didn't hesitate.
"What haven't we done? I want to sing for royalty!" Conway said. "Imagine singing for the queen of England." (Plans for a trip to Great Britain are already in the works for next year, he said.)
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"You grow a very deep family relationship with the other choir members," France, 22, said. "We definitely have moments where we fight like family members, but it always comes back full circle. We've really been rewarded with opportunity. I've been so many places, met so many people. Plus, you get to sing and show off."
Stories of enrichment and growth from students are not new to Conway, but they continue to drive him professionally. Most rewarding for the husband and father of three is "working directly with students and knowing, ultimately, that I'm influencing their lives in a positive way."
"We all should have a goal in life to positively help people," Conway said, "and this is a job that allows to me do that."