Singing at Carnegie Hall

Elaine Blair

 On 15 January this year four Marlborough Singers, Ian and Elaine Blair, Rein Wagenvoort and Natalia Shabanava, travelled from New Zealand to New York to join a large international choir celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the mass ‘The Armed Man’, composed by Sir Karl Jenkins. Wim Oosterhoff from Nelson coordinated our group, Vox Kiwiana. We had eleven Kiwi singers from Nelson, Wellington, the Kapiti coast and the four of us from Blenheim, the only ones in our choir to take up his invitation. 


We arrived in New York on a foggy, rainy night and our shuttle delivered us at midnight to our high-rise hotel, The Watson in Manhattan. For the next two days, in winter temperatures of -1 to -13 degrees, we bundled ourselves up in jackets, woolly hats, scarves and gloves, warm pants (sometimes two pairs) and boots. Natalia, who had lived in New York, took us on a visit to Central Park, the Frick Museum with its fabulous art, Broadway and the Trump Tower, where there was an impersonator of Donald outside.


On 18 January our group met together for the first time at for breakfast at Morton Williams Dairy. Wim gave us our identity cards (batches), which had all the information to cover the next three days and give us access to every venue. DCINY (Distinguished Concert International New York) is a business that organises concerts in Carnegie Hall for artists from all over the world. The 279 singers taking part in our concert came from Germany, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Our first practice was held in the ballroom of the Park Central Hotel opposite Carnegie Hall. There were to be no formal breaks in four hours, but we were encouraged to take a time out as individuals, throughout the practice. Seated according to our height and voice part, I had Elizabeth from Germany on my left and Clarys a student from Northern Ireland on my right. Jonathan Griffith was our conductor and we sang through the whole mass accompanied by piano. Because we spoke many different languages, Jonathan worked really hard on our vowel sounds and the pronunciation of the French and Latin sections. 


While we were at our practice it began to snow. This was something I wanted to experience and it was magical to walk through the snow to our evening meal. We followed this by a visit to the Metropolitan Opera House, to see ‘Porgy & Bess’. Right from the opening chorus we were transported back to the struggles of a black neighbourhood in America in the early twentieth century. At 11pm we emerged from the theatre to find, to our surprise, that it had stopped snowing and the roads and sidewalks had already been cleared.


Next day we had another four-hour practice, but this time our soloist Claudia Chapa sang her solos in a rich mezzo soprano voice. Sir Karl Jenkins was present for a photo and score-signing session at the end of the practice.


20 January: Today is performance day! We are not due at Carnegie Hall until 2.15, which gives us time to visit Macy’s, the famous department store where, on presenting our NZ driver’s licence, we get a 10 per cent reduction on anything we buy. On behalf of our group we purchase a smart woollen scarf from the helpful staff, to be given, with a warm beanie, as a thank you to Wim.


As we queue at the Carnegie Hall stage door we stamp our feet to keep warm. Once inside we leave our coats on the ground floor before proceeding upstairs to our assigned green rooms on four different levels. When we get our call, we line up and move down the flights of stairs and onto the stage of the grand Carnegie Hall. The orchestra is already seated downstage from us and we are standing on nine rises with nowhere to sit down. We are advised to turn our bodies on an angle because we are so squashed we have difficulty opening our music folders. Jonathan Griffith arrives and Sir Karl Jenkins also comes on stage to greet the performers. This is our only rehearsal with the orchestra. Fortunately we four Marlborough singers have been practising with an orchestra version, which has prepared us well. 


As we rehearse there are many stops to question the technicians about the balance between the orchestra and choir. After a hot and tiring practise we finish at 5pm, leaving us little time to walk the 10 minutes back to our hotel, grab a bite to eat and return.


By 6.30 pm we are all glammed up in our concert clothes: a dinner suit and black bow tie for the men and a black long dress for the women, with definitely no sparkly or jangly jewellery. Over all this goes our warm coat, hat and gloves, and we are ready to walk to Carnegie Hall. Buoyed up by the anticipation of performing, we queue excitedly at the stage door, then climb to our assigned green room. On a monitor we can see another choir and orchestra performing a new Karl Jenkins composition ‘Miserere: Songs of Mercy and Redemption’. After we warm up our voices we are given a call and we assemble on the staircases in our correct order to move on stage. Finally we start to move down four levels into the wings, and then in a blast of light we are on the stage at Carnegie Hall! It is overwhelming to look out at a huge audience encompassing five levels of the theatre, and realise that it is up to this huge choir and orchestra to give the audience a night to remember.


Our conductor enters the stage, takes a bow, turns and raises his baton, and the mass begins. With the compelling throb of the drums, one senses the pounding feet of a battalion marching to war. The intense concentration of the audience spurs the choir and orchestra to new heights in their performance, as a video of war scenes matching our music plays on a huge screen behind us. Our singing leads the audience through war preparation, to the horror of war itself and beyond, to the inevitable peace. This brings man to recognise the futility of war, with the final a capella presentation by the choir of ‘God Shall Wipe Away All Tears’. There is a stunned silence from the audience then, as Jonathan slowly turns to face them, they rise to their feet with a standing ovation. Yes, we have sung our hearts out, but this reaction was absolutely amazing and one we will never forget.


There is an excited buzz as we gather our coats and head out to our celebration dinner. For the next two hours we have delicious food and wine, catch up with our new friends and take photos to remember the occasion. Then it is time for goodbye hugs, and swapping of email addresses before retreating to our hotel for the last time. Many of us are flying on to new locations, but we have many happy memories of the time we performed at the famous Carnegie Hall.


Photos by Natalia Shabanava.

Singing at Teapot Valley

Elaine Harmer

 Choir has started again for the year, and at least four of us – Kevin, Jacquelene, Tricia and I – are coming back as though on a cloud after attending the Teapot Summer School only a week earlier. Teapot Valley! If you’ve never heard of this obscure place with the curious name, it’s not surprising. Tucked into a secluded valley close to Brightwater, it is a camp that is normally used by school kids. Yet every summer for the last 20 years there has been a gathering here of up to 90 people of all ages who love choral singing and who spend nine days preparing a high-quality programme of choral music for a concert on the last day. You can read more about it at https://teapotsummerschool.co.nz.


The programme this year was called ‘The Cambridge Connection’. It was pretty exciting, as all of it was by contemporary composers with a connection to Cambridge University. The musical director was Ben Parry, a dynamic inspiration to us all, who studied at Cambridge and also directed the Kings choir. 


The first work was by Sir David Willcocks, the revered director of music at Kings College, Cambridge and the first director to come to Teapot Summer School. His work was ‘A Ceremony of Psalms’. His setting of five beloved psalms encompasses the full range of human emotions in a piece full of vitality. Will King, a young Aucklander, was the wonderful baritone soloist.


The next work was ‘Missa Brevis Akarana’ by New Zealand composer Chris Artley, who studied at Cambridge University. He is the music master at Auckland’s Kings College, and has won many prizes for his beautiful compositions. He enjoys working in both classical and jazz traditions, and his Missa was exciting to sing, sometimes with bluesy rhythms and harmonies, sometimes sweetly melodic, always exciting. The organ interlude with violin, played by Kathryn Parry, Ben’s wife, was truly angelic. Chris has been coming to Teapot for many years and is a friendly, humble person who just happens to be a genius. (An interview with him can be heard on RNZ Concert here:  https://www.rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/upbeat )


These two works formed the major part of the programme. Next was a piece by Ben Parry himself: ‘Land Ho!’, with inspiring quotations from famous explorers, which used the kind of dynamic energy that Ben himself has. Lastly, was ‘Feel the Spirit’, a medley of spirituals by the wonderful John Rutter (who also was a musical director at Cambridge.) This was also fun to sing, and featured the amazing voice of soloist Claire Barton.


After an intensive eight days, when we had a total of 25 rehearsals with Ben, not to mention our own hastily organised sectionals, we were ready to roll. 


Of course, among all that work, there are plenty of light-hearted moments. For a start, the staff at Teapot are always keen to impress us with their menus, and treat us like honoured guests. They make the most beautiful healthy and enticing meals with plenty of salads and fruit, For breakfast, among other choices, their porridge is legendary. They really excelled themselves this time with a dinner featuring a spinach and salmon roulade.


In the evenings, friendly, inclusive activities are encouraged, so that nobody feels left out. The Scrabble champions and the card players come out in force. One of the ‘Teapotters’ is a silent movie buff. Every year he brings along a movie and, as an excellent pianist, he accompanies it with melodramatic music!. This year it was the original story that Madam Butterfly was based on – every bit as tear-jerking as the opera itself. 


Then, the Cabaret! This is the evening that all the wits look forward to, where the director comes in for a ribbing if he or she has had any obvious quirks. There was a lot of humour around Ben trying to flog off his CDs, for example. There was an extraordinary-looking Christmas Tree Fairy who narrated her woes and was obviously a troubled soul; an offering from a group singing a very sad version of ‘Sad Movies’, and many more funny items. Serious items are also given, and our incomparable accompanist Jonathan Berkahn accompanies everyone who needs him, ad-libbing if need be, often using his accordion as well. This year the daughter of the head of staff of the camp played an accomplished trombone solo, which impressed us all.


The concert, aptly called ‘Singing for Joy’ was performed at the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts and went down very well. Altogether it is no wonder we four are all still on a high and ready to fly into the new year. The feeling lasts for months, so uplifting is it.


At Teapot we are given voice coaching and helped to nurture our voices; given tips on how to sing so we stay in tune, etc. Since Robert has come to the choir here we get that from him as well, and so now I feel uplifted all year round! I used to despair and often talked about giving up but since we have had this seamless support, I’ve forgotten about that. So, a very big thank you to Robert; I hope we all know how lucky we are.




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Director Ben Parry at the concert.

Photo courtesy of Stuff