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Richmond Hill High School chorus invited to perform Easter Sunday at Carnegie Hall
Senior members of the chorus perform as Jamie Hillen conducts during the Richmond Hill High School choruses' fall performance Tuesday at RHHS. - photo by Julia Harison

Richmond Hill High School senior chorus member Donovan Nally called it a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10. Junior Sarah Furlong said it was “awesome.”
Both were referring to news the Bryan County Board of Education approved a request by the RHHS chorus to allow 33 of its members to perform on Easter Sunday at Carnegie Hall.

Yes, that Carnegie Hall. The world famous one. In New York. 

“Are you kidding? I’m just as excited as they are, and I’m not even performing,” said Jamie Hillen, who is director of choral activities at RHHS.

It’s Hillen’s eighth year at the high school and he’s been a music teacher for years, and he’s never been to Carnegie Hall before, invited or otherwise. But it’s the logical next step, he said, for a chorus that has improved over the years to the point it’s won gold and silver honors at competitions while also producing a number of All-State performers in recent years.

The RHHS singers were invited by New-York based MidAmerica Productions, a company that includes former Georgia Southern choral director Rod Caldwell. He is conductor in residence for MidAmerica, which produces a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall each season and features nationally and internationally renowned conductors and performers, according the group’s website.

The formal invitation from MidAmerica’s director of program development, Joseph Stebbins, began thusly: “Because of the quality and high level of musicianship demonstrated by your chorus and the exceptional recommendations of your colleagues, it is with pleasure that I extend an invitation to you and your singers ….”

After some discussion, Hillen and the chorus decided to see if they could make the trip.

“I knew Dr. Caldwell and had worked with him before, and I felt comfortable working with him,” Hillen said. “So I presented it to the students and parents, and they obviously were very excited.”

Still, the board needed approval from the school board, which up until about five years ago didn’t even allow out of state travel. That happened at last week’s meeting, when the board unanimously gave a thumbs up to the trip.

The adventure won’t be cheap, however. Hillen said it will cost $1,350 per student for the trip, which includes travel, food and lodging. They’ll fly up April 2, which is a Thursday, rehearse that weekend and then along with other choruses perform “Lux Aeterna” by Moren Lauridsen under the direction of conductor Sean Boulware at 2 p.m. Easter Sunday.

The trip to Carnegie Hall will be paid for by the chorus’s booster club, and the fundraising has already started. At the choruses’ fall performance Tuesday at RHHS’ west gym, boosters sold baked goods and raffle tickets to help raise funds, and booster Jen Furlong emailed a list of fundraisers set this month and said more will be held in the future.

Among fundraisers this month are an Oct. 9 fundraiser at Dairy Queen, where 10 percent of the proceeds from 6:30-8:30 p.m. will go toward the trip; and the chorus will man a cotton candy booth at the Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival. In addition, the group is looking for sponsors and because the club is a nonprofit donations are tax-deductible.

Hillen said the idea is to take all the kids selected to go on the trip and “there are fundraising opportunities if they work hard enough.”

The students who will make the trip were chosen by auditions, though it had to be balanced with the right number of bass, tenors, sopranos and altos,  and each “had to be able to practice and learn on the music on their own,” Hillen added. “I can give them the music and give them recordings and we will still have rehearsals, but it will be up to them to learn the parts on their own.”

That’s probably a piece of cake to the 33 who made the cut. Among them are 13 candidates for All-State chorus – including both Sarah Furlong and Nally, who to their probable surprise wound up being unofficial spokesmen for the chorus after Tuesday’s performance.

Though both want to continue performing – Nally said he might even give the show “America’s Got Talent a Try” – both also say they want to become music education teachers. And both made it sound like Carnegie Hall is basically the Holy Grail for choral performers.

“It’s an opportunity to sing in a professional music hall on an actual stage with a live orchestra in front of people and it’s in New York,” Furlong said. It’s great, it’s awesome.”

Nally said for someone in chorus, being selected to perform at Carnegie Hall is about as big as it gets.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said, and put it in perspective for folks who might know more about football than they do about Mozart’s Coronation Mass. “It’s like going to the Super Bowl, getting to sing at Carnegie Hall.”

Hillen put it this way.

“Sure it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Everybody’s heard of Carnegie Hall,” he said. “And every musician’s heard the joke, ‘How does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.’”


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