(Soundbite of music)


You know the old joke, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well, next Monday night, high school kids from around the country who have practiced, practiced, practiced very hard will sing on the stage of Carnegie Hall as part of the National High School Choral Festival. Jeff Lunden has been following the progress of one of the four very lucky high school choirs chosen to participate. He has the first of two reports.

(Soundbite of song "Symphony of Psalms")

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

JEFF LUNDEN: It's a cold gray Saturday morning in mid-January in Bentonville, Arkansas. Thirty students have gathered in the choir room to rehearse Igor Stravinsky "Symphony of Psalms," and they're throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the Russian composer's thorny scorn. Senior Michele Carter says when the students first encounter piece - they didn't know what to think.

Ms. MICHELE CARTER (Senior Student, Bentonville High School): Our initial reactions were mixed but there were all varying between shock and almost horror until we finally started to get into the music and realized that it was really an amazing masterpiece.

(Soundbite of song "Symphony of Psalms")

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: In two months, these same students will be performing "Symphony of Psalm" as well as Francis Poulenc "Gloria" on the stage of Carnegie Hall with choirs from Idaho and Arizona. Craig Jessop of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will conduct the performance and has been leading the National High School Choral Festival since it started four years ago.

Mr. CRAIG JESSOP (Conductor, Mormon Tabernacle Choir): The goals of the workshop are to take the highest quality choral orchestral work in the repertoire and give these kids an experience that they could never get in their own schools and the chance to perform with a professional orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Lukes, with their peers around the nation. I don't know if anything that's quite the equal to this workshop.

(Soundbite of music)


LUNDEN: The Bentonville High School Chamber Choir is one of four courses selected to participate in the Carnegie workshop out of 42 choirs that applied. Located in northwestern Arkansas, Bentonville is home to the headquarters of Wal-Mart and the area's rural roots have been replaced by suburban subdivisions. Three thousand students attend Bentonville High School, which boasts a state-of-the-art football stadium and a Broadway-sized performing arts center. By any standard, the choral program at Bentonville is extraordinary. There are three full-time teachers, 11 choirs and 600 students who sing in them. Department head Terry Hicks has twice been named teacher of the year. Over the past 13 years, he has built a program he says even the jocks think is cool.

Mr. TERRY HICKS (Choir Director, Bentonville High School): At Bentonville, we are very, very lucky. There's no stigma that's attached. It's actually celebrated if you're on the choral program.

LUNDEN: Soprano Michele Carter is president of the high school choir council.

Ms. CARTER: I love choir. If you're going to read my T-shirt yesterday, it said Choir Nerd on it. It's looking it to be what's going to be my career, it's where I spend my time and it's what I love doing.

(Soundbite of music)

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: Of all the courses at Bentonville High, the Chamber Choir is the pride of the program. They've performed conferences across the state and in Florida and California. Junior Hunter Klee(ph) says it's like being in a family. And from the start of the school year, they meet socially.

Mr. HUNTER KLEE (Junior Student, Bentonville High School): We had our first Chamber breakfast as a group and we'd order our food and some of us were just getting our plates and Mr. Hicks said I'm going to have an announcement to make, we have been selected to perform in New York, in Carnegie Hall, and I dropped my fork. It was just incredible. Everyone's jaws dropped. It was just stunning.

(Soundbite of music)

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: And so for several months, the kids in Bentonville Chamber Choir rehearsed the Carnegie Hall repertoire, anticipating the day that conductor Craig Jessop would come to town to work with them. The day before his arrival, Michele Carter confessed.

Ms. CARTER: I'm terrified, because I was actually our choir department's librarian last year so I went through all of the who knows how many piece of music in our choir library and I just remember seeing Mormon Tabernacle, Craig Jessop, on a lot of music.

Mr. JESSOP: Well, it's a great honor for me to be with you and you sound terrific...

LUNDEN: And with that, Jessop went to work for two days of intense rehearsal.

Mr. JESSOP: One, two, three, four. One...

(Soundbite of music)

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing) One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four...

LUNDEN: He had the chorus used a technique called count singing. Senior and basketball team captain Collin Peterson(ph) explains.

Mr. COLLIN PETERSON (Senior Student, Bentonville High School): It helps to keep like an internal beat so you can keep up with the rhythm of the music.

Mr. JESSOP: Two, three, four, five...

LUNDEN: Jessop gave historical backgrounds on the composers.

Mr. JESSOP: Poulenc knew how to write a melody and it came out of the style of Faure, of Debussey, of Reval...

LUNDEN: And he just kept working on musical refinement.

Mr. JESSOP: (Unintelligible) two, three and four...

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. JESSOP: It's been an excellent weekend with this young people. They are extremely well prepared. They are enthused. This is very sophisticated music, very sophisticated - and the kids are eating it up. They're really involved, musically and emotionally.

LUNDEN: Bentonville Choir director Terry Hicks found himself emotionally involved to.

Mr. HICKS: I try to teach the kids that the joy of music is the progression. And to see that happening by stepping back and watching, it was just absolutely wonderful to watch him mold them and watch him pull them through musical ideas and just to just watch the teaching and watch the learning.

LUNDEN: The kids were positively giddy standing in line after rehearsal to have Craig Jessop autograph their scores. And Michele Carter wasn't terrified anymore.

Ms. CARTER: I am so excited. I can't believe we have to wait another two months to perform with Craig again. I can't believe almost five, seven hours of rehearsal - however long we had. It got over so quickly. There's so much more we need to do. I just can't wait to get back on stage with him again.

LUNDED: She's getting her wish this weekend when the Bentonville Chamber Choir and their peers come to New York to prepare for their concert at Carnegie Hall on Monday night.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of music)

BENTONVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: And here is the Bentonville High School Choir in rehearsal. You can come to our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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