Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

A legendary life: After 45 years at Augustana, Janina Ehrlich honored by faculty, students and a world premiere performance

“Legendary” is a word with more than one meaning; notable, exemplary, mythological, rare. It is not often that all of these terms apply at once, but on Sunday, April 14 in Wallenberg Hall, they all had their place. Sunday’s performance, a cello and piano concert, was attended by a packed room of Augustana alumni, music students, friends and family. The reason for their attendance? A celebration of Janina Ehrlich’s dedication to Augustana after 45 years of instruction and the world premiere of a new piece of music. The event represented a collaborative effort that reached far beyond the music department and the college as a whole.

Ehrlich provides private cello lessons and teaches a January-term course at Augustana, but her love of music began even before she joined the college 45 years ago. Growing up with two musical parents, she picked up on the basics of her instrument when she was only eight years old.

“My father gave me this little cello and I said, ‘Oh, I know how to do this,’ because I’d already seen it so much,” Ehrlich said.

Once she had her own cello, her love for the instrument only grew as her dedication led her through college, graduate school, music festivals and even a year performing in Rio de Janeiro with the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra. Her professional achievements alone would cement Ehrlich as more than simply “notable,” but she didn’t stop there.

In the midst of her time at Augustana, which began in 1979, Ehrlich began volunteering at the newly created Second Baptist Church (SBC) Music Academy, a program that served underprivileged youth with access to instruments and education in music and art.

“It was a Saturday morning program for kids who normally wouldn’t have any kind of arts opportunities,” Ehrlich said. “That was really one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my entire life.”

SBC Music Academy came to be through the efforts of congregants of the Second Baptist Church in Rock Island as well as Ehrlich and Augustana students who volunteered their time. 

“We had a lot of instruments that we loaned to them, and as we needed people to teach specific instruments, I would recruit mostly from Augustana,” Ehrlich said. “A lot were music majors—some were my cello students, so I knew them well enough that I could trust them.”

Ehrlich’s history in music is full of even more community involvement, including 25 years with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, president for the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association and an ongoing role teaching cello at Moline High School.

Firstly, the program’s cellist was Grant Estes, a former student of Ehrlich’s and an Augustana graduate of 2020. Additionally, the program included a work for cello and piano, during which assistant professor Charles Schmidt took the stage alongside Estes. The program’s most special quality, besides its dedication to Ehrlich, was its inclusion of a piece that had never been performed before. Titled, “The Quarrel Between Winter and Summer,” it was commissioned by Daniel Culver, Ehrlich’s husband and former director of orchestral activities at Augustana. It was composed by Augustana music department co-chair Jacob Bancks and enjoyed its premiere in dedication to Ehrlich’s time at Augustana.

“My husband likes to surprise me, and this was probably the most amazing thing he’s ever done,” Ehrlich said. “It’s a fabulous piece. [Bancks] is such a brilliant composer.”

The piece receives its title from an appropriately legendary text of a similar name, a story of mythology from ancient Sumeria. As narrated by Bancks between movements, the story tells of a dispute between Summer and Winter and its eventual resolution by the god Enlil. The mythological inspiration of the composition mirrors the grand and enduring legacy Ehrlich has built over her time at Augustana. As she nears retirement at the end of the semester, that legacy will exist partially in the form of a library of sheet music, a resource as valuable as gold for Augustana’s student performers and their future audiences alike.

“[I have] a giant cello music library full of hundreds of pieces of music that have been donated by all sorts of people,” Ehrlich said. “Some of it is rare and out of print.”

She also hopes to leave the music department and incoming faculty with the same passion for performing and teaching which she has embodied during her time at the college.

“If you’re walking into a place where everybody’s asking, ‘Are you doing this? Can I help you do that?’ and they’re mentoring, you sort of take up that banner,” Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich’s passion and focus on student needs have been apparent to her students as well. Sophomore Olivia Park, who studies cello under Ehrlich’s instruction, said that she struck a balance between intensity and respect for her students.

“She has high expectations, but she’s always going to help you meet them,” Park said. “She understands that a lot of us are still playing for music scholarships or just for fun.”

Learning from Ehrlich has helped Park realize her potential and build her skills even when she felt the difficulty of a particularly challenging piece of music.

“The piece that I’m working on right now I genuinely thought was a little too challenging for me, but she’s really pushed me to not give up,” Park said.

Augustana alumna Sarah Pouls (‘13) studied cello under Ehrlich and said that Estes’ performance was a testament to her strength as an instructor and a chance to honor her contributions to the college.

“I came to the recital mostly for her,” Pouls said. “Guest performers are great, especially when they’ve been taught by Dr. Ehrlich.”

The collaborative nature of the performance and the gathering of community members in Wallenberg Hall on Sunday were a testament to the sense of camaraderie Ehrlich has fostered between Augustana students and faculty as well as Quad City community members. Ehrlich, who has taught courses on Jewish history and culture at Augustana, hopes after retirement to return to her research compiling and describing music written by historical Jewish composers. She also plans to take on even more local pre-college students, further expanding her impact.

“I can’t stop teaching cold-turkey. I just can’t,” Ehrlich said. “Watching people’s eyes light up when they learn something new or when they accomplish something they’ve been working really hard on; that’s really gratifying.”

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