Carnegie Gives High School Choir a 'Standing O'

Choral Festival choir i i

Only four out of 42 high-school choirs were chosen to sing at Carnegie Hall's National High School Choral Festival. Photo: Jennifer Taylor hide caption

itoggle caption Photo: Jennifer Taylor
Choral Festival choir

Only four out of 42 high-school choirs were chosen to sing at Carnegie Hall's National High School Choral Festival.

Photo: Jennifer Taylor
Choral Festival orchestra i i

Craig Jessop had two days to take more than 200 singers from around the country and turn them into a cohesive ensemble. Photo: Jennifer Taylor hide caption

itoggle caption Photo: Jennifer Taylor
Choral Festival orchestra

Craig Jessop had two days to take more than 200 singers from around the country and turn them into a cohesive ensemble.

Photo: Jennifer Taylor
Jessop

Mormon Tabernacle Choir Conductor Craig Jessop leads the National High School Choral Festival at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor hide caption

itoggle caption Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Hear Performances

The Bentonville High School Chamber Choir singing at Carnegie Hall.

On Monday night, the members of the Bentonville High School Chamber Choir did something extraordinary: They made their debut at Carnegie Hall. These students from Arkansas, along with kids from Arizona and Idaho, were chosen to perform in Carnegie Hall's National High School Choral Festival.

Four years ago, Carnegie Hall asked Craig Jessop, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to create a choral festival that singles out the best high-school choirs in the country.

"And I said, 'I think it's a terrific idea, I think it's a great idea,'" Jessop recalls. "But I said, 'Make it about the music. Don't make it a competition.'"

Forty-two choirs auditioned this year; four were selected, including Bentonville High School's Chamber Choir – a group of 30 students from Northwestern Arkansas. They started learning the music last September, rehearsed with Jessop for two days in January, and finally made it to New York last weekend.

"We have now officially focused on only our New York music for about the past month," Bentonville senior Michele Carter commented. "So, just this past day has been a break for us to kind of unwind and enjoy New York before we get here today. Starting six-and-a-half hour rehearsals is going to be interesting."

Jessop had two days to take more than 200 singers from around the country and turn them into a cohesive ensemble. He arranged them in a large square, while he and the pianist were in the middle.

This year, the students performed two 20th-century choral masterworks: Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Poulenc's "Gloria." From the opening warm-ups, Jessop strove for musical excellence.

By the end of the second day, an exhausted Michele Carter exclaimed, "That is the hardest I've ever worked in my entire life! People who don't sing cannot possibly understand how much work it really is, if you do it right."

The next day, the students had their first rehearsal with the professional orchestra. Bentonville Junior Hunter Klie said it kicked up the intensity another notch.

"It was just a different experience, different sounds — a lot of stuff I didn't hear before in previous recordings — that kind of come out when you hear it live," Klie said. "I think it changed the energy, too."

The next morning, each choir had a chance to step on the Carnegie Hall stage and rehearse the three numbers they would sing individually in the first half of the program.

Choked-up, Bentonville's choir director Terry Hicks reflected, "Just absolutely amazing to get up there on that stage, and to see the looks on my student's faces as they looked out into that hall, and to give that downbeat and to have them react. It's a dream come true — it really, really is."

As the time for the performance approached, the Bentonville Chamber Choir stood in a circle; holding hands, they offered a prayer in song — "The Lord Bless You and Keep You." Then a voice on the intercom announced the next school to the stage.

After the performance, the tough-to-please Jessop beamed, "I think we peaked. Tonight it all came together. There was an extra level of concentration and commitment. And there was an extra — I don't know — spirituality about it that I felt was very strong."

After the concert, the kids from Bentonville said they'd learned lessons about teamwork and discipline. They said they'd picked up a lot of Facebook addresses from the kids in the other choirs. But for Hunter Klie, there's one thing he'll never forget.

"After we finished, we got a standing O," Kie says, referring to the ovation at the end of the performance. "That was more than I could manage: a standing O at Carnegie Hall. It doesn't get any better than that."

The Bentonville High School Chamber Choir is already back in Arkansas, starting rehearsals for their spring concert.

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