Baha’i choir singers help create magic at Carnegie Hall

December 13, 2018
Baha’i choir singers help create magic at Carnegie Hall

Adrienne Ewing-Roush takes notes at “Messiah” rehearsal. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer

A Baha’i Choral Festival Choir of 62 singers made up the largest and most diverse group at a Thanksgiving weekend performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

On Sunday, November 25, the singers, brought together by Van Gilmer, music director of the Baha’i House of Worship, joined a 467-voice chorus organized by Distinguished Concerts International New York. The audience that filled the 2,000-plus seat hall was rewarded with an afternoon that was not only musically fulfilling, but also spiritually uplifting.

For Joyce Jackson, an alto singer from Palatine, Illinois, the highlight of the event was when she first stepped on stage at Carnegie Hall. “So many people aspire to sing there — the reputation, the acoustics, the history,” she says. “And I’m just this one little person and I get to go on that stage and sing. Wow! It was just magical.”

Sue Benjamin, from Wilmette, Illinois, echoes those feelings of joy in the experience. “We worked really hard to learn the music,” Benjamin says. In addition to group rehearsals prior to coming to New York, she and other sopranos met every Thursday evening for months to work on their parts.

“We really knew those runs, which were devilish,” Benjamin says of the music. “And when we got to Sunday morning at Carnegie Hall I had the experience of saying to myself, ‘I worked for this, I’ve trained for this, I know this. I’m just going to be in the moment and enjoy the experience.’ I felt like I was in the zone. Those high B’s? No problem!”

The combined chorus of 467 voices rehearses “Worthy Is the Lamb,” one of two pieces that both groups performed together. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer

Their confidence with the music also came from hard work with conductor Jonathan Griffith during physically demanding five-hour-long rehearsals in New York in the days leading to the performance.

The conductor rallied “all those people who were strangers and had never sung together before,” says Steve Brisley, a bass from Evanston, Illinois. That was one of the details that impressed Brisley with the production’s organization.

“I really appreciated the level of professionalism and attention to detail of the maestro,” says Cynthia Barnes-Slater, an alto, also from Evanston. “He was very detail-oriented in terms of tone, quality and diction. He was very demanding, but also kind of funny,” Barnes-Slater says, noting the conductor used humor to break tension during the long rehearsals.  

And they got good results. In “New York Concert Review” Jeffrey Williams wrote, “Their balance was exceptional, the diction was precise, and the strong direction of Maestro Griffith helped inspire them to a level higher than they probably imagined was possible.”

Members of the Baha’i Choral Festival choir joined in singing the first half of the Messiah, then retired to seats in the first balcony tiers while other singers took the stage. But their role in the performance wasn’t over. They rose on cue to join the orchestra and the second group for the “Hallelujah Chorus“ and “Worthy Is the Lamb.”

The audience rises to join the combined choruses and orchestra for the thunderous “Hallelujah” chorus. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer

As reviewer Jeffrey Williams wrote, “One cannot speak about ‘Messiah’ without mention of the Hallelujah chorus. …I knew the coming ‘surprise’…and when it was to occur, and I was braced for it — and yet once again, it blew me away! The sound of nearly five-hundred voices filling the hall as the audience stood (many of those in the audience singing along) was simply magnificent. Yes, it’s over the top, but it is still a thrill! The audience roared its approval at the end of the chorus. The applause continued for several minutes until Maestro Griffith beckoned the audience to sit down.”

For Burton Smith, a bass singer from Lansing, Michigan, a second memorable moment came when the hoopla of the performance was over. Smith joined Director Van Gilmer and others from the Baha’i group for a banquet hosted by the concert organizers. At the dinner party they performed a song in honor of the conductor and the four soloists. “It was wonderful,” says Burton. “The maestro, as well as the soloists, were quite moved.”

“Van — God love him,” relates Joyce Jackson, “made sure we were ready to sing ‘I Love the Lord,’ — just in case we had the opportunity to perform it.”

Baha’i Choir Director Van Gilmer celebrates with “Messiah” conductor Dr. Jonathan Griffith at the after-performance banquet. Photo courtesy of Edward Giddings

“When he realized that Jonathan (Griffith) and the soloists were there at the dinner Van invited them to come to the area where we were seated and we sang for them. Wow! They were blown away!”  One of the soloists was moved to tears.

Smith describes Griffith’s delighted response, confirming that the singers had heeded his oft-repeated Messiah rehearsal prompt: “See! You can sing with passion!”

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