How do you get to Carnegie Hall? While “practice” is the age-old response, members of Vassar’s choirs could instead say: “57th Street and Seventh Avenue,” explaining the location of their past performance.
On June 29, members of Vassar College Choir (VCC) and Vassar College Women’s Chorus (WoCo) took to the stage of Stern Auditorium for “Alleluia! the Inaugural Concert of the Center of Music and Liturgy – Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale.” The concert served as the formal launch for The Center for Music and Liturgy at Saint Thomas More, which supports new Catholic music, and marked the world premiers of “Halleluja, vår strid er endt” by Orjan Matre, and “Mass of the Divine Shepherd” (a portion of this piece will be performed at the Pope’s Mass in Philadelphia this October) by their composer-in-residence, Julian Revie.
“[Julian Revie] had been searching the internet, watching various performances of high quality Women’s Chorus ensembles, to invite to participate in the premiere of his piece at Carnegie,” explained Christine Howlett, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities. “He found a performance by the Vassar College Women’s Chorus at an American Choral Directors Association Eastern Division conference from 2014. He loved the sound and musicality of the VC Women’s Chorus, so he invited us to participate.”
After receiving the invitation via email, Howlett said, “I felt it was high praise for the Women’s Chorus to have a composer invite them not only to participate in the premiere of a piece, but at such a high stakes performance at Carnegie Hall with an internationally renowned conductor, Stephen Layton. I felt very proud.”
Howlett took the next step and sent out an email to members of VCC and WoCo, inviting them to participate, as well as recruited a few tenors and bases, as per Revie’s request, from her community choir, Cappella Festiva. While members of both the VCC and WoCo were invited to participate, due to the performance being in the summer, prior commitments having been made, and the chaoticness the end of the school year entails, a fraction made it.
Though a member of VCC, Chiara Mannarino ’18, similarly exuded Howlett’s excitement, explaining: “When Christine sent an email presenting the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, I was overjoyed. My dream of setting foot onto one of the most famous concert halls in the world would finally come true.”
Acting on their enthusiasm, Howlett and the singers got to work. Howlett was sent the scores and said: “Although I did some preliminary rehearsals at Vassar, the students really had to take the responsibility to learn the music on their own.” After attending a few informal rehearsals run by Howlett and practicing on their own, the performers worked intensively from the Saturday they arrived in Manhattan through the Monday of the performance.
Howlett noted: “The Carnegie rehearsals were condensed into three full days of singing; at Vassar, we focus on a program for about 8-10 weeks, with three, 90 minute rehearsals a week.” The rehearsals not only differed in length from those done at Vassar, but also through their flow.
VCC member Nick Ruggeri ’18 commented on this, writing in an emailed statement: “The main conductor, Stephen Llayton kept starting the piece, stopping it, and starting again many times without saying anything in between at the first rehearsal. This was very intriguing – it’s unusual to do this, and we’re not exactly sure why he did it, but we think it was for everyone to get a really strong sense of the group’s sound.”
Vassar singers comprised only a portion of the hundreds of performers that took to the hall Monday night. The remainder of the chorus of over four hundred included the National Children’s Chorus, as well as international choirs from places such as Norway, Finland, and England. Accompanying the singers, making their melodious sound that more impactful, were over one hundred and fifty hand bells and a full symphony orchestra.
With this scale, Mannarino commented: “Pulling everything off, especially with only three days of rehearsal, was no easy feat but it was well-worth the hard work.” And, the stakes were high. Howlett mentioned: “Premiere’s are challenging – Julian was changing things to the score on the day of the performance!”
Vassar performed in pieces both old: Monteverdi’s “Domine ad adjuvandum,” Maurus’ “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” Tallis’ “If ye love me,” Bruckner’s “Motet: Ave Maria,” and new: the world premieres. Ruggeri explained: “The Monteverdi, Maurus, Tallis, and Bruckner pieces that Vassar performed in are all famous, sacred choral works from pre-1900. “Halleluja” and “Mass of the Divine Shepherd” were both written very recently and are prime examples of the work that contemporary sacred choral arrangers are doing.”
When it came time to perform, Mannarino reflected: “I was nervous and excited in the moment due to the number of people in the audience combined with the grandeur of the hall itself. We were part of the premiere of two choral works, which was extremely exciting, however, I also felt anxious because I wanted to do the composers justice.”
Commenting on the size of the production, Howlett said: “Apparently we were over 600 performers. That meant that we had a conductor on stage, and three in the first balcony, and another conductor in the very top balcony directing 150 handbell players. In fact, at the last minute, I was asked to conduct a small group of Vassar women in the balcony to cover a specific choral section. That was quite exciting.”
With the scale, VCC ‘17 member Logan Pitts said: “When it all came together for the performance, every piece felt huge on the stage and yet wonderfully intimate.”
During the performance, Ruggeri was in awe of the acoustics, commenting: “The stereophonic effect in the sound was like nothing I had ever heard (stereophonic refers to the sound coming from many different angles and sides of a room and it creating this ‘cross-effect’).”
Perhaps making performing in Carnegie Hall more impactful was having been there before, but far away from the stage. This was the case for Pitts, who wrote in an emailed statement: “I attended an opera last summer for my first visit to Carnegie Hall. Naturally, I purchased the cheapest ticket I could find and it was the highest, furthest seat from the stage. So when we were performing and rehearsing on the stage, I kept glancing up to that tiny minuscule seat, incredulously chuckling that a person might actually sit there.”
Howlett commented on her performers’ experiences saying: “Regardless of their age (I’ve helped take kids as young as 10 and as old as 75 to Carnegie Hall over the years), there is this childlike look of total wonder when they step on stage for the very first time. It’s extremely special, and hard to describe.”
While this performance was a one-time deal, when asked if they’d hope for a future opportunity to arise, the choral members agreed with a euphonious “of course!”