Monday, November 27, 2017

A Carnegie debut in a hall of memories

Radio dramas are described as "theater of the mind," but a work of music that comes pretty close to that description for me is Handel's "Messiah," which captivated me from a young age.

I was electrified by the drama baked into the oratorio's music as it told the story of humankind's redemption through the coming of the Christ. When the tenor opened with "Comfort ye, my people," the violins accented with a sweet, soothing melody. In the bass air, when "the nations so furiously raged," so did the music. When the holy one is betrayed - "He was despised," "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" -- the grief is palpable.

"Messiah - Refreshed" at Carnegie Hall
The great soaring choruses - "Hallelujah," "Worthy is the lamb" and the "Amen," "For unto us a child is born" - seemed to break open a vision of the heavens.

Growing up in New York, "Messiah" was a part of Christmas, usually at Carnegie Hall. My mother would take me and my brother and sometimes one of our friends. She got box seats - a special experience with red velvet chairs and a vestibule to hang coats.

Since I tend toward anxiety, I always worried about whether anyone would stand during the Hallelujah Chorus. Would I be the only one? If no one else stood, should I sit down quickly?

So the curtain rose on a multi-layered theater of the mind on Nov. 26, 2017 when I made my Carnegie Hall debut in the chorus (soprano section) of "Messiah," produced by Distinguished Concerts International of New York (DCINY).

This organization, celebrating its tenth year, produces concerts, including large scale choral works with auditioned and invited choirs from around the world, which also contribute financial support. This mighty "Messiah," using the Thomas Beecham/Eugene Goossens 1959 version for full symphony orchestra, featured more than 400 singers and around 60 instrumentalists. The concert title was "Messiah - Refreshed," referring to this version more suited to the Romantic age.

With conductor Jonathan Griffith. 
A few weeks before the concert, they needed additional singers and reached out to a Connecticut group with which I'd sung "Messiah." That group put the word out to its list and it took me a nanosecond to say "yes" to appearing on the august stage of the hall inaugurated by Tchaikovsky in 1891 and since host to so many immortals. (As a pianist, it's a thrill to tread the same floor as Horowitz and Rubenstein.)

Our first rehearsal, in a hotel ballroom, besides resembling a cattle call, indicated DCINY's reach and attraction. I was astonished to hear ensembles introduced that had traveled from several states as well as Canada, Mexico, Austria, France, Hong Kong - and Australia!

Our dynamic maestro, DCINY co-founder Jonathan Griffith, led rehearsals with a big personality and deep choral knowledge, shaping the drama of the work and bringing out the group's best sound. When we "got" an important point, he would let out a triumphant "YES!"

Singing soprano means you get to hit the thrilling high notes, such as the high A toward the end of the great "Amen" that slices into the music with ecstatic joy. As our section gelled, the sound waves from my neighbors' voices resonated in my head.

After two days and seven hours of rehearsals, concert day began with a dress rehearsal and I stepped onto the stage for the first time. Note: there is very little wing space on stage right, so since my group was in an assembly room four flights up, we were lined up and waited ... then we hustled down the stairs and whoosh! - right onto the bright lights of the stage.

The lovely white and gold auditorium, with its gently curving balcony lines, seems to embrace the performer, and its acoustics are legendary. How is it possible that a 2,800-seat hall can seem like an intimate music salon?

Carnegie Hall: the view from the stage.
Our choral group was scheduled to perform in parts 2 and 3. The chorus for part 1 took seats on both ends of the first balcony. They also sang "Hallelujah" and "Worthy is the lamb," with us, for a surround sound effect. For the first time, we heard the rich orchestral instrumentation. "The trumpet shall sound" -- another favorite air.

After lunch break, we reassemble. This is it; showtime. Breathe. Stretch. Focus. Hum. Warm up the voice. Relax the jaw. Relax the tongue. Prepare for those Handelian high Fs, Gs and As. Hurry up and wait. Line up. Down the stairs. Music down at the side, in the left hand. Bright stage lights! Walk onto the riser ... carefully. Turn. The house lights are still up and there is a person in every seat. My daughter springs up to wave. I smile.

The house lights fade to black. I look up at the box seats and see my mother, with two kids, laying down a legacy of music in a magical hall, in a great city. I hope my daughter will also feel it, generation to generation.

We open our books and we're away. We're onstage for more than an hour, but it goes fast. At the first few notes of "Hallelujah," people begin to get to their feet and by the time we swing into "for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth," everyone I can see is standing.

Look mom, I'm standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall. It's a miracle. How do we sound? Hallelujah.