Carnegie Gives High School Choir a 'Standing O' On Monday night, the Bentonville High School Chamber Choir did something extraordinary: They made their debut on the stage of Carnegie Hall. These students from Arkansas, along with others, were chosen to perform in Carnegie Hall's National High School Choral Festival.
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Carnegie Gives High School Choir a 'Standing O'

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Carnegie Gives High School Choir a 'Standing O'

Carnegie Gives High School Choir a 'Standing O'

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In many respects, the kids from the Bentonville High School Chamber Choir had a typical class trip to New York City last weekend. They caught a Broadway show. They went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They rode the subway to Chinatown.

But on Monday night they stepped onto the stage of 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.

Jeff Lunden was there.

(Soundbite of choir)

JEFF LUNDEN: Choral singing has been a part of Carnegie Hall's rich musical tradition since it opened in 1891, says Clive Gillinson, the hall's executive and artistic director.

Mr. CLIVE GILLINSON (Executive Director, Carnegie Hall): Andrew Carnegie's wife was a member of the Oratorio Society. And this was actually built because she hadn't got a concert hall. It's very nice to be able to ask your husband to build this for you. And so then your choir's got a home. But that was where we came from.

LUNDEN: 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.

Mr. CRAIG JESSOP (Conductor, Mormon Tabernacle Choir): And I said I think it's a terrific idea. I think it's a great idea. But I said, make it about the music. Don't make it a competition.

(Soundbite of choir)

LUNDEN: Forty-two choirs auditioned this year and 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 Craig Jessop for two days in January, and finally made it to New York last weekend.

Senior Michele Carter said the journey has been intense.

Ms. MICHELE CARTER (Bentonville High School Choir): We are now officially focused on only our New York music for about the past month. 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.

LUNDEN: Craig Jessop had two days to take the 200-plus 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.

Mr. JESSOP: They are seated all mixed up from day one. They're not treated as four separate choirs. They are treated as one choir. It's a real bonding experience.

(Soundbite of choir)

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

Mr. JESSOP: (Unintelligible) that's why we come to Carnegie Hall. (unintelligible)...

Ten percent art, ninety percent craft. But the art doesn't come if the craft isn't there. One, two, three, four...

(Soundbite of choir)

LUNDEN: By the end of the second day, the kids were exhausted, said Michele Carter.

Mr. CARTER: 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.

LUNDEN: Bentonville Junior Hunter Klie appreciated Craig Jessop's attention to detail.

Mr. HUNTER KLIE (Bentonville High School Choir): He went through every measure, every beat, you know, every little piece of minutia, and actually during break I saw Michele passed out in the corner of the floor. She had just gotten so tired that she had to lay down and take a nap.

(Soundbite of choir)

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

Mr. KLIE: Any mistakes that we made, we made a few, you know. Our first time with the orchestra it was just a different experience, a different sound. There was a lot of stuff I didn't hear before in previous recordings. They kind of come out when you hear it live, and I think it changed the energy too.

(Soundbite of choir)

LUNDEN: But the energy just kept intensifying. The next morning, each choir had a chance to step on the Carnegie Hall's stage and rehearse the three numbers they would sing individually in the first half of the program.

(Soundbite of choir)

LUNDEN: Bentonville's choir director Terry Hicks was choked up.

Mr. TERRY HICKS (Bentonville High School Choir Director): Just absolutely amazing to get up there on that stage and to see the looks on my students' 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.

LUNDEN: As the time for the performance approached, the Bentonville Chamber Choir stood in the circle, holding hands, offering a prayer in song.

(Soundbite of choir)

(Soundbite of applause)

LUNDEN: The individual performances in the first half went well. Now the 211 singers waited in the cramped backstage space to go on and sing as one choir. And Craig Jessop was still coaching them.

Mr. JESSOP: Thank you for a wonderful week. Hold nothing back tonight. Let it all focus on this music. Watch me like a hawk. Don't rush. And enjoy every second of it. Thank you.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

LUNDEN: After the performance, even the tough-to-please Jessop was pleased.

Mr. JESSOP: 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, a spirituality about it that I felt was very strong.

LUNDEN: 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.

Mr. KLIE: After we finished, we got a standing O. That was more than I could manage - a standing O in Carnegie Hall. It doesn't get any better than that.

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

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of choir)

SIMON: Bravo to everyone. WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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