Though the hall was less than half full, anyone who was at Carnegie last night enjoyed an unforgettable experience. I take back what I wrote yesterday: there is a difference between high school and adult choirs, and it's one that the Viennese and Anglicans have known for at least 600 years. Young voices have a more pure tone, a more silken texture than mature voices, and their sound filled the Isaac Stern Auditorium last night with an incandescent glow. Close your eyes, and you might have imagined you were sitting in a great Gothic cathedral.
After a taped audition in which dozens of high schools submitted entries nearly a year ago, four choirs were chosen to participate in last night's concert. All traveled a great distance to be here this week: two were from Arizona, one was from Arkansas, and another from Idaho. One can only imagine how many parents spent money they didn't have to give their kids the chance to realize the dream of a lifetime: the opportunity to sing on the stage of Carnegie Hall with a professional orchestra, under one of the leading choral directors of our time, Craig Jessop of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It is a privilege we New Yorkers take too far for granted.
The first half of the program featured each of the four choirs singing a capella or piano arrangements of various hymns and songs, conducted by their regular choral directors. The selections ranged from Jan Sweelink's 1626 setting of Psalm 96, to the Latin hymn Lux Aurumque, written in 2000 by 36 year old Eric Whitacre. I felt a bit uneasy when the Bentonville High School Chamber Choir - a public high school - chose to perform a rousing Gospel song called Worthy to Be Praised, but it got by far the biggest ovation of the night.
After the intermission, the combined choirs - over 200 singers in all - were joined by the Orchestra of St. Luke's for Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Poulenc's Gloria. Dr. Jessop paused to say a few words beforehand, reminding us that these works were challenging for an adult choir to pull off, much less high school students. (He also informed us that Stravinsky's preference was for the soprano and mezzo parts to be sung by girls because of their "innocent quality," but in practice, this is the exception far more than the rule.)
Throughout the performance of both pieces, I could see Jessop giving subtle thumbs-up to the choir, encouraging them along. In the Gloria, the choir was joined by the talented British soprano Nicole Cabell, who made her Covent Garden debut this season and is engaged to sing at the Met in upcoming seasons. Her voice had a dark radiance, effectively penetrating the huge sound projecting from behind her.
After the music ended, Jessop brought out all the individual choral directors to share in the huge standing ovation, a moment they seemed to cherish even more than the kids, who will likely have to wait to tell their grandchildren to realize just how magical last night was.