How You Get to Carnegie Hall

Writer: 
October 1, 2006
Getting goosebumps: Wynkoop, with choir, in Carnegie

Getting goosebumps: Wynkoop, with choir, in Carnegie. Photos © 2006 Frank Fournier

Rodney Wynkoop had been to Carnegie Hall before. As a member of the Yale University Glee Club in the early 1970s, he had performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony there under the direction of the renowned classical conductor Leopold Stokowski, who is probably best known for his cameo role in Fantasia.

Stokowski, then almost ninety, was late coming on stage, and rumors were flying around that he had died backstage, Wynkoop says. "When he finally came out, it was like this," Wynkoop says, standing up to demonstrate a slow, stooped hobble. "But when he got up to conduct, there was all this life and fire. He didn't use a baton, he always used his hands. He had wonderfully expressive hands.

"As you can imagine," Wynkoop says, "that was a powerful experience, to perform with a legendary conductor, in a legendary hall, with a piece as moving as Beethoven's Ninth. But the truth is that my memory is so specific to Stokowski, the choir, the timpanist standing right in front of me, that I don't remember much about the hall or how the piece went."

Getting goosebumps: Wynkoop, with choir, in Carnegie

So it was with enthusiasm that Wynkoop, now the director of the Duke Chorale and Chapel Choir and conductor of the Choral Society of Durham, prepared this spring to take a 150-member choir consisting of members of all three groups to Carnegie Hall for a Memorial Day weekend concert. (Invited by MidAmerica Productions, the concert's organizer, to conduct, he had offered to supply his own singers, and put out word to the three groups. "We got 150 very quickly," he recalled, "the magic of the words 'Carnegie Hall' having something to do with it.")

Just before receiving the invitation, Wynkoop had conducted a piece for the Choral Society by Ralph Vaughan Williams called Dona nobis pacem, and he thought that, thematically, it would work well for the Memorial Day weekend concert. The cantata, which integrates Walt Whitman's Civil War poetry with biblical verse and text from a wartime speech in the British House of Commons, is heavy with imagery of war and peace.

And, because a majority of the choir had already performed the song with him, it was simply a matter of integrating the other singers. The rehearsal time would be hurried, but Wynkoop was confident they would be ready. After two preliminary rehearsals in February, the group would meet three times a week for the two weeks leading up to the concert.

The choir would also perform a second piece, Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, under conductor Giuseppe Lanzetta. That would prove more challenging. Since the choir would be expected to show up in New York ready to sing--without having met or learned the other conductor's style--Wynkoop decided that they should be prepared for anything. During rehearsals, he had them rehearse the piece at different tempos and volumes; trying it legato, smooth, and marcato, marked and punchy, throwing in every possible twist he could think of. He experimented with different conducting styles, including wildly flapping his arms.

The Wednesday evening before heading to New York, the singers trickled into Goodson Chapel for one final rehearsal. They took seats roughly based on where they would stand during the concert. (Wynkoop had experimented with different formations--mixing everyone; dividing out sopranos, altos, and basses--before settling on a formation that would allow for two sections of each voice, interspersed.) As they convened, an excited chatter rose.

After discussing trip details, Wynkoop called David Stuntz, an assistant conductor with the Choral Society, to the front to talk about the history of Choral Fantasy. "It was written between the forty-eight hours before the concert," Stuntz told them, "because [Beethoven] wanted it to end with a bang." At the last minute, Beethoven instructed the orchestra that he'd like to take out one of the refrains. But when the time came during the concert, Beethoven forgot his own last-minute instructions, and was angry that the orchestra left out the refrain. "This was the last piece of the concert, and it came to a crashing halt with Beethoven yelling at the orchestra," Stuntz said. The image elicited laughter from the Duke singers.

Explanation over, Wynkoop took the stage and led the singers through a series of warm-up exercises. Turn to the right and massage the shoulders of the person in front of you, he told them. Now the left. Then they did individual stretches.

Time for vocal exercises. "Sing an 'A,' " he said. They ran through scales, moving up in "la's" and down. Up in "ah's" and down. They laughed at how high he took them on the scales. Their voices rang out, audible waves spreading throughout the hall, echoing off the wooden beams of the ceiling. They seemed loose.

The choir rehearsed bits of Choral Fantasy, and Wynkoop made comments. "We still have to turn a corner in our diction," he said. A point of emphasis throughout the rehearsals, he reiterated the need to pay close attention when one word ends in a consonant and the next begins with a different consonant. Not just the T's and the D's, but the G's and S's, and everything else, too. "You have to sing it differently than you would say it."

Wynkoop flew to New York on Thursday morning, in advance of the choir. In small, local churches, he met and rehearsed with the vocal soloists for Dona nobis pacem and, later, the orchestra for the performance, the New England Symphonic Ensemble. He spent time explaining to the orchestra members the meaning and the subtleties of the piece, but, by the end of the rehearsal, he still wasn't certain whether they understood. In his mind, they overplayed the piece, playing too loud, and "without a lot of empathy."

On Friday evening, many members of the choir began arriving in New York. Ginny Workman '09 arrived by plane. Laura Barbosky, a Ph.D. student in cell biology, and her boyfriend, John Burchett M.S.E. '00, Ph.D. '05, both members of the Chorale, drove up in time for dinner, and found the Hilton Hotel on 53rd Street where most of the choir was staying.

Saturday morning the group met in the hotel lobby for a piano rehearsal. Many were beginning to feel antsy--being in the city made them realize the concert was close at hand. They spent another hour in the afternoon working on Dona nobis pacem with the soloists and the orchestra.

Wynkoop was still concerned about the orchestra's interpretation. "I couldn't really get them to shape things with sensitivity and feeling," he said. "The chorus and I talked a lot about it. My hope was that the orchestra would find the singing so compelling, it would be drawn in by the power of the music and come with the chorus and me."

After a short break, they worked on Choral Fantasy with conductor Giuseppe Lanzetta, whom Barbosky described as a "cute Italian man, very animated." The choir comes in late in the piece, and Workman said the meaning of the piece changed when she heard it for the first time in its entirety. "When you hear how the theme develops throughout the piano part and strings part, it's really neat to see how everything fits together," she said. The choir was well prepared, and though Lanzetta's timing was somewhat different from what they had expected, they were responsive. Wynkoop was pleased.

The concert was Sunday night. Choir members arrived at Carnegie Hall at 7:30, dressed and ready to go. From the outside, Barbosky said, the venue was amazingly beautiful. Inside, she was surprised by how small and intimate it seemed. "When we started seeing the audience members coming in," Workman said, "that's the point where it started clicking that this was actually happening."

Before the performance, Wynkoop gave them some final instructions on technique and, just before they filed on stage, spoke quietly about the importance of what they were about to sing. Between rehearsals, some of the choir members had gone to visit the site of the World Trade Center attacks, and Wynkoop talked about the need to spread the message of hope for peace. "You never know who's going to be changed by listening to a performance," he told them. "Sing your message with faith that it might make a difference. Sing with all the intensity of expression and all the drama there is in this music and reach everybody onstage and in the audience with it."

They took their places on stage and began to sing. Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem. Give us peace. Give us peace. Barbosky said she felt goose bumps rise on her arms. "Once your first downbeat began," Frank Leith, a member of the Choral Society, told Wynkoop afterward, "Carnegie itself evaporated, and it was all about making music together."