Wide-eyed high schoolers mingled with world-class talent recently at New York's Carnegie Hall. Since 1991, professional choruses have attended a week of master workshops, rehearsing a major choral work to be performed for the public at the famed music hall.
This year was a bit different. In order to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Carnegie Hall Professional Choral Workshop imported two top-notch high school choruses from North Carolina and Pennsylvania, to mix with the pros. Together, they all performed the monumental "Requiem" by 19th century Romantic composer Hector Berlioz.
Proud parents, loved ones and classic music lovers filled Carnegie Hall's gold-and-ivory auditorium to listen to the performance by the two high school choruses - along with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
The nearly 200 voices represented a slightly scaled-down version of the choir Berlioz envisioned for the "Requiem," which he composed for 210 voices, 190 instrumentalists, and four offstage brass and timpani orchestras.
"He lived in a heightened sense of reality at all times,” says choral conductor Norman Mackenzie, who shepherded the choruses through the massive work. “He was nothing if not a poster child for the Romantic Period. He wanted everything to be bigger, scarier, more dramatic. And so Berlioz's "Requiem" is a Mount Everest of challenges."
The nearly 30 hours of rehearsal leading up to the performance were a bit of risk for Mackenzie and conductor Robert Spano, whose Orchestra of St. Luke’s accompanied the singers. Mackenzie says both agreed that the Berlioz "Requiem" would be an epic challenge even for mature choristers.
"But it’s a bigger issue with kids because their voices aren’t fully formed yet. But we finally decided it was such an enormous challenge, and was so exciting, and could possibly be so magical if it worked, that we just had to do it."
Halfway through rehearsal week, it was the young people's inner experience as much as their singing that most inspired Mackenzie. "People’s lives are being changed. There is no doubt about it,” he says. “Great art can do that.”
He was especially gratified to share art’s epiphanies with young people, “who perhaps had never experienced that before. You see the excitement and the revelation on their faces."
Berlioz was inspired to write his mass for the dead after a visit to the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica. Sixteen-year-old Mikayla Lati is with the Concorde Vocal Ensemble of the York County Senior Honors Choir of Pennsylvania. She says singing the "Requiem" aroused feelings and ideas about life she has discovered during her Catholic upbringing.
"From the high points to the lows points, the louds and the softs, someday you were born and you are going to die and and everything in between, I just see God in there.”
The shared language of music excited Hunter Coultarp, who sings with the Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School in North Carolina. "Having young people be able to communicate through music is wonderful,” he says. “You don’t lose faith in a generation if we are all working for a common purpose through music."
It relieved professional chorister Christopher Nemec to see the young people bring dedication and skill to the chorus, an art form many have feared may be dying out. "They bring in a lot of energy. And that’s what I get from them. and they are very, very well rehearsed.”
A colleague, Marjorie Johnston adds, "It’s encouraging to think that if we can just keep them engaged, choral music will be in good shape for years to come."
For Randy Yoder, a choral teacher with the Pennsylvania chorus, being at Carnegie Hall and hearing his young charges perform was the thrill of a lifetime. He also believes that the workshop bodes well for his students and the future of choral music. "We preach about excellence all the time, and you can’t get much more excellent than this. I love it."
Judging by the thunderous applause the choristers and musicians received at the poignant conclusion of the "Requiem," the audience did too.