The Carnegie Hall Connection

By Martha Hunter Shepard ′66
Photography by Tony Cenicola


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When William Burnet Tuthill designed Carnegie Hall in the early 1890s, he fashioned a perfect place.

There, on a sunny, cool Sunday afternoon, June 13, 2004, Rhodes music professor Tim Sharp conducted the Singers, MasterSingers, members of eight other choirs from across the nation and the New England Symphonic Ensemble in a flawless performance of the celestial music of composer Morten Lauridsen.  

It was the perfect concert in the perfect place.

Carnegie Hall has held special meaning for Rhodes since 1935, the year music professor and composer Burnet C. Tuthill joined the faculty. He was the son of Carnegie Hall’s architect and founder of the Southwestern (now Rhodes) Singers. “Papa Tut,” as the students called him, was a clarinetist who also founded the group that was to become the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. The Tuthill Performance Hall in Hassell Hall bears his name.   Tuthill’s successor, Prof. Tony Lee Garner ’65, created the MasterSingers Chorale in the early 1990s, bringing together alumni and community singers.

Prof. Tim Sharp, conductor since 2000, upholds the unparalleled reputation of both groups with new distinction.

Sharp first met composer Morten Lauridsen, whose music has become some of the most popular classical choral music of the last 20 years, when the composer visited Rhodes as the Springfield Music Lecturer in fall 2002. That’s when the Rhodes choral groups first began working with his music.

Lauridsen, a member of the faculty and former chair of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, was composer-in-residence with the renowned Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994-2001.

A few months before Lauridsen came to Rhodes, MidAmerica Productions in New York invited Sharp to conduct at Carnegie Hall. He could choose his music, choirs and conductors.

Sharp immediately settled on the music of Lauridsen and conductors whom he knew or with whom he had worked. The result: Lauridsen himself in residence in New York along with 59 Rhodes Singers, 60 MasterSingers, 184 members of choirs from Hawaii to West Virginia and the New England Symphonic Ensemble filling the stage of Carnegie Hall and afterward, receiving a standing ovation.

The Concert

The singers performed in the Isaac Stern Auditorium with its famous curvilinear, neo-classical design. The program, billed “The Choral Cycles of Morten Lauridsen,” included five Mid-Winter Songs based on poems by Robert Graves, performed by the Rhodes Singers and accompanied by music Prof. David Ramsey ’61; Madrigali: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems performed by the Rhodes MasterSingers Chorale; Les Chansons des Roses based on the poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke and performed by the Rhodes Singers with piano accompaniment by Lauridsen himself and O Magnum Mysterium and Lux Aeterna performed by the 10 combined choirs accompanied by the New England Symphonic Ensemble.

The audience was rapturous in its response.

“People were moved by the music,” said Marci Hendrix of Rhodes’ Office of Information Services and a MasterSingers alto. “After the performance I heard words from the audience like ‘overwhelming,’ ‘stunning’ and ‘foretaste of heaven.’”

For Rhodes graphic designer Larry Ahokas, a tenor with the MasterSingers, it was gratifying to “watch the people in the first few rows shaking their heads like, ‘Wow!’”

The music affected the singers as much as the audience.

“I’ve sung O Magnum Mysterium forever now, but every time we hit the climax I cry. It’s just such a beautiful piece,” said alto Rhodes Singer Eden Badgett ’07.

“Anyone who hears that music loves it,” said MasterSinger soprano Carole Choate Blankenship ’85, who teaches voice at Rhodes. “It touches you like something you’ve heard before, something you can relate to in a romantic, classical way.”

MasterSinger bass David Cooper ’64 summed up his appreciation: “The Lux Aeterna and Magnum Mysterium are spiritual pieces. Lauridsen was very careful to tell us why he wrote them and of his own spiritual basis in composing them. I was impressed by that. I was moved, and I think we all were, that these were coming from his soul. It was his response to God living in him. You don’t get that from everybody who writes music.”

“I was so proud of them,” Sharp said, “and Morten was just beaming afterward. He had never heard a choir that size sing his music. He heard a texture there he’d never heard before.”

Lauridsen complimented Sharp and the choirs for their dynamics and phrase endings, which, he said, were as eloquent as those of any group who had performed his music.

“Lauridsen trusted us because he knew us. He felt at home with us,” said David Ramsey. “It means an awful lot to a conductor to have heard a group perform your music well before.”

It’s true what they say about Carnegie Hall: With unparalleled acoustics and line of vision, there’s not a bad seat in the house. You hear every voice, every word, every instrument separately, yet together.

It’s also true what they say about the Rhodes Singers, MasterSingers and Tim Sharp: Their commitment to excellence and nearly perfect interpretation of Lauridsen’s hauntingly beautiful music led Carnegie Hall personnel to remark that Rhodes had set a new standard there. On the monetary side, the Rhodes contingent’s reputation preceded it, bringing in more than 2,000 advance ticket sales, many from New Yorkers, for the 2,800-seat hall.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The old joke says that′s how you get to Carnegie Hall. The thing is, it′s no joke.

The Singers and MasterSingers worked on Lauridsen’s music for almost two years, performing some of it in the Memphis area, then all of it at the city’s new acoustic-rich Cannon Center a month before going to New York. In the Big Apple, there were three intense half-days of rehearsal before the Sunday afternoon performance.

The first rehearsal, held Friday before the Sunday afternoon performance, was at the Church of Our Saviour, Park Avenue at 38th Street, a short walk from the Grand Hyatt where most of the singers stayed. The choirs rehearsed in groups. First up were the MasterSingers and their Madrigali, whose vibrant sounds could not be contained in the church’s arched basement room deep beneath the streets of Manhattan. Hearing the music on the stairwell practically lifted you to the roof. Then came the full chorus; next, the Singers. Rehearsals continued at the hotel the next day. Sunday morning was the full-ensemble dress rehearsal at Carnegie Hall.

Everyone was prepared, thanks to months-long rehearsals and Sharp’s careful marking of the score, which all 10 choirs had followed to the letter.

Yet it was Morten Lauridsen’s presence in New York that inspired them to sing his works as never before.

A gentle, totally engaged and engaging presence at rehearsals, Lauridsen, make no mistake, meant business. Sitting at first, then leaning on a column in the church hall, then standing in front of the assembly, he would critique, instruct, nod when pleased with a particular phrase. He would confer with accompanist David Ramsey. Both wore leis presented them by members of one of the choirs, the Hawaii Pacific University International Vocal Ensemble. Lauridsen was particularly involved with the Singers, whom he personally accompanied on the piano. He would sing along with them, offer a high sign or nod assent when pleased with a particular phrase. At the end he made their day when he said with a heartfelt smile, “Nicely done.”

The composer stayed at the singers’ hotel, ate with them, gladly autographed everything they offered him, even went on their Sunday night dinner “cruise” around Manhattan. Dinner was served, countless toasts were made—all without leaving the dock. The boat had developed engine trouble, the only snag to the perfect week.

Outside the Hall

 On Saturday, the day before their performance at Carnegie Hall, Sharp and members of the Singers and MasterSingers ventured to the subway station at Ground Zero, the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks. There, they sang “O Nata Lux” (Born of Light) from Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light):

    O nata lux de lumine, Jesu redemptor saeculi,
    dignare clemens supplicum laudes preces que sumere.
    Qui carne quondam dignatus es pro perditis.
    Nos membra confer effici, tui beati corporis.

    O born light of light, Jesus, redeemer of the world,
    mercifully deem worthy and accept the praises and prayers of your supplicants.
    Thou who once deigned to be clothed in flesh for the sake of the lost ones,
    grant us to be made members of your holy body.

New Yorkers and tourists alike stopped to listen, many holding up their cell phones for friends and loved ones to hear and see.

The group engaged in other extracurricular singing around New York. At a Sunday night get-together at one of Grand Central Terminal’s balcony restaurants, members of the Singers and alumni MasterSingers burst forth with the Rhodes Alma Mater, again stopping traffic with the lush harmony that rolled across the marble hall.

Backstage at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, they sang it again just before going on.

Coming Home

When Tim Sharp returned to Memphis he found this e-mail waiting for him:


    Dear Tim,

    My ears are still ringing with the sounds of your glorious performances at Carnegie Hall. This truly was a concert that will be remembered for a long, long time to come.

    Everyone who took part in the concert should feel a great deal of pride in performing these various pieces of mine so beautifully and with such understanding. The various conductors who prepared the choruses did an amazing job and I salute them for their dedication and musicality. And the people at MidAmerica were thoroughly professional; the organization throughout the stay in New York was fabulous.

    But it was your own consummate artistry that led to such a high level of music making, Tim. Your conducting of these very challenging works was simply brilliant—I could not have asked for more accurate, sensitive and gorgeously realized interpretations of my music.

    I thank you and all involved from the bottom of my heart. Please pass on my sentiments to the performers. I’m looking forward to seeing you all again in the future.

    With deep appreciation and esteem,
    Morten

Editor′s Note:
The Rhodes CD, Christmas at St. Mary’s, features Lux Aeterna by the MasterSingers Chorale and Les Chansons des Roses by the Rhodes Singers. It is available through the Rhodes Bookstore, 901-843-3535.