What It Was Like To Sing and Conduct In Carnegie Hall

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I said in my last post that I wouldn’t list any specific NL choir for fear of forgetting someone, but you’ll have to indulge me a little bragging about my own amazing choir families (“like you would”, as the Newfoundlanders say). My bias may be showing but singing in the Quintessential Vocal Ensemble has given me some of the best musical experiences of my life. And on May 24, 2014, it gave me the greatest of them all (so far, anyway).

Back about a year ago, our gregarious and fearless leader, Susan Quinn, was invited to bring QVE down to New York City for a MidAmerica Productions concert. Susan had her Carnegie Hall debut in 2010 when she conducted Vivaldi’s Gloria for MidAmerica. In agreeing to participate in another mass choir/orchestral offering, Susan was granted a half hour spot on this concert for QVE alone. Needless to say that once we learned this, we were bouncing off the walls with excitement. Fundraisers and plans began immediately.

With over 200 voices, a children’s choir, soloists and the New England Symphonic Ensemble, the mass work we performed was “To Be Certain Of The Dawn”, a Holocaust memorial oratorio by Stephen Paulus with libretto by Michael Dennis Browne. The work was challenging but very musically rewarding.

The original plan of this concert was to sing the “Sunrise Mass” by Ola Gjello which the choir was excited about at first because we had recently performed it back in 2012. Here’s a few highlights from us singing it.

We started preparing in January, premiering our repertoire for the hometown crowd on April 27th before we left. Our Carnegie Hall set list was as follows:

“Te Lucis ante terminum” (Gyongyosi Levente)
“Water Night” (Eric Whitacre)
“Searston Beach” from “The Al Pittman Suite” (Kathleen Allan)
“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” (arr. Moses Hogan)

The last two pieces were both by Canadian composer Leonard Enns, the first being “As On Wings”, a newly commissioned work by QVE commemorating the Newfoundland connection to 9/11, and more specifically, the involvement of Holy Heart High School, where Susan has been the music teacher for many years.

I … saw these huge planes coming, one at a time, through the Narrows and I thought how after hundreds of years people are still seeking the shelter of our harbour.

Leslie Kennedy, English teacher, Holy Heart High School, used as text for “As On Wings” by Leonard Enns

The second Enns piece was “Te Deum Brevis” and Susan generously gave me the life changing opportunity to conduct this piece in Carnegie Hall. As excited as the choir was about going, it was all I could do to contain my own excitement as the date got closer. Since joining in 2012, I have conducted them in performance a couple of times and working with them has been incredibly influential in my development as a conductor. Here is a video from my YouTube channel of me conducting them through Whitacre’s “A Boy And A Girl”.

Leonard graciously came to the concert and even worked with us on the Friday evening before. It was awesome that he was there to share it with us, along with many of our family and friends.

Once we got into the hall the first time on Saturday for a dress rehearsal, we were all immediately astonished by the acoustics. They can only be described as ‘perfect’. The stage forms into a bowl shape and as you can see from the above photo, we were able to stand in our normal formation and you could hear everything. To give you an idea of what I mean by perfect, in between one phrase I remember, many members of the choir collectively swallowed and you could hear it clear as day. But as we sang, you could also hear every member of the choir clear as day as well. We blended together beautifully because unlike most of the venues back home, everyone could hear everyone else. Like I said, perfect.

After a great dress rehearsal, we were on pins and needles until the curtain time finally came. Being led onto the most famous stage in North America to a nearly full house was a truly surreal experience. The performance was incredible. We sang as well as we possibly could and the audience awarded us with a standing ovation along with the loud cheers of those who had come so far to see us sing.

When I stepped out of the choir to conduct the Enns, I was not nervous at all. I was filled with nothing but trust that I had done everything I could to prepare them and that they would absolutely kill it like the professionals they are. I was not to be disappointed.

I knew that as soon as I came home, I was going to be inundated with the question from all of my choir families:

“So, what was it like to conduct in Carnegie Hall?!”

I knew the question was coming but it wasn’t until days after the concert that I was finally able to form a cogent response.

It was as close to God as I’ve ever been.

In order to explain what I mean by this, you need to know just a little about the ‘religious’ me. Without getting too boring and technical, my main metaphysical viewpoint in life is that we are all sharing energy with each other everywhere we go. Good energy and bad energy. I heard John Leguizamo on TV the other day refer to it as a “soul exchange”.

I’m going to give you a little piece of my soul tonight, and if you give me a little piece of yours and we do this right, we’re going to have a soul exchange right here on this stage.

John Leguizamo

When I’m with my choir in church, I get the honour of helping people participate in their own personal worship every week through the power of music. You can feel the energy being sent upward by everyone. You can then feel it rain gently and mildly back down on all of us. I find prayer can be a very real force in the world if looked upon as simply the generation of positive energy. Not to mention the powerful energy I get from my choir as I lead them to share their gifts with the congregation.

The energy amongst QVE was high the minute we landed in NYC and grew exponentially with each passing day. As I was conducting them, I felt the choir releasing that pent-up energy like white hot blazing arcs of lightning, hitting me all at once. It was overwhelming. It was the greatest high I’d ever experienced as a musician. I felt myself outside of my body and floating inside the music. Gestures flew out of me that I had not known were possible. At the end I threw my hands up in the air because I wanted to hear the last chord of the piece ring in those beautiful acoustics as long as I could. It was an intense few minutes to say the least.

Afterwards, as we were leaving the stage, I wept inconsolably for a good 10 minutes. I had shared more energy at once than ever before in my life. I can only describe it as a religious experience, something that cannot be put into words or quantified with measurement. It changed me irrevocably. In those few moments, I truly felt like a conduit for the choir to share their pride and talent with the audience and I can’t thank them enough for allowing me to share that with them.

This trip would not have been as successful without the awe-inspiring talent that is the Quintessential Vocal Ensemble, and our dear leader, Susan Quinn. Susan has inspired me in so many ways as a singer, conductor and teacher. I owe her everything for giving me this privilege and QVE is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

I love you, QVE. You’re the best.

We took this selfie just after walking off stage from our brilliant performance.  Ellen, eat your heart out.

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