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Chamber Ensemble Sing at Carnegie Hall

The PCC chamber ensemble goes to Carnegie Hall.

On November 28, Chamber Ensemble, a student choir of Pensacola Christian College, joined Distinguished Concerts International New York to perform in Hope and Dreams in Carnegie Hall, where they sang Requiem, an eight-movement work written and conducted by Heather Sorenson (Music: Sacred Piano ’97).

On performance day, warm stage lights lit the large choir and orchestra on the grand, historic stage in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium. Although a little nervous, Chamber Ensemble stood ready among other talented groups. Each choir, over 250 individuals in total, held a special place in the conductor’s heart and had been personally invited to participate in the concert. As Heather lifted her baton, confidently and surely, any nervousness melted away from the ensemble. For the next shared moments, the audience appreciated the uplifting harmonies of the choir and orchestra.

The PCC chamber ensemble in New York
Preparing for the Performance

This once-in-a-lifetime experience for the students has been a year in the making after being first announced in a chapel service last fall. After auditions concluded, the selected 32 students began to rigorously prepare, each one using the shared time together to better understand each of the eight movements. “In the process of learning the work, singers were instructed to sing with attention to dynamics, tone, control of vibrato, diction, and communication of text,” explained Dr. Cleusia Gonçalves, Chamber Ensemble director. “Some portions of the Requiem are very tender, and an extremely soft dynamic is required; but other moments, full sound and richer tone with more vibratos is expected. It has been a wonderful opportunity to work on very distinct nuances of tone color and phrasing.”

Over the last several months, rehearsals progressed from learning the music to fine-tuning the subtler moments of each song. And PCC music faculty supported every step along the way. “I truly believe we have some of the most talented and well-equipped music faculty here at PCC,” Megan Smith (Sr., GA) expressed. “Dr. Gonçalves is incredible. She is a phenomenal conductor and director, and it has been a true honor to sing and work with her in Chamber. Also, Dr. [Gustavo] Peterlevitz is a wonderful accompanist and did a great job helping us prepare throughout the semester. We couldn’t have done it without them, and I’m so thankful for them both!”

“Heather’s Requiem, unlike other requiems that mourn for the dead, provides hope for the living.”

The PCC chamber ensemble prepares to perform at Carnegie Hall.

After arriving in New York, Chamber Ensemble had ten hours to rehearse for the final performance. Meeting the PCC alumna behind the music they’d been practicing was a highlight of the trip, especially as Heather explained the Requiem’s significance during a rehearsal in Pope Auditorium two days before the concert. The work had been commissioned to honor the memory of all who passed during the Covid-19 pandemic. “The whole piece commemorated the grieving process for a believer and how, even though the loss is still difficult, we can still have hope in that pain,” said Akira Rodriguez (Jr., MD). “Though I have not personally suffered a lot of loss in my life, I know people who have. This work helped me better understand where they’re coming from and how to better minister to them.”

For Paul Niu (Graduate Assistant), the music’s positive message became more and more apparent with each rehearsal. “Heather’s Requiem, unlike other requiems that mourn for the dead, provides hope for the living,” he said. “In the beginning, when I started learning this composition, I was treating it as another classical composition. However, rehearsing with Heather [at Pope Auditorium] and hearing her explain her thoughts behind the piece gave me another perspective. It is not just an artistic composition, but also biblical truths that everyone needs to hear.”

Each separate choir represented significant groups and individuals in Heather’s musical journey. “It was an odd yet joyful experience to have all my worlds collide on the day of our first rehearsal together in NYC. I loved sharing the concert stage with people from so many different stages of my life and my career, including PCC,” shared Heather. And although they were strangers to each other, the choirs proved how music can be a unifying tool to reach the masses. “I felt a sense of community amongst the groups. In our divided world, this was refreshing to experience.”

Living a Dream
The PCC chamber ensemble men prepare to perform at Carnegie Hall.

For the singers, the day of the concert felt like a dream.“They told us before we walked on stage for the dress rehearsal that coming off the stage after the performance would find us changed people, and that was certainly the case,” said Akira. “Walking on before the concert began was so surreal. I saw lots of people in the audience. I saw my family and friends and teachers. When I walked off stage after the closing number, I was a changed person, not because of some magical experience, but because of how the music itself touched me.”

In the music hall’s 132-year history, thousands of shows and concerts have awed audiences with unforgettable memories. “Carnegie Hall is an exciting place to sing,” Paul continued. “Looking at the beautiful architectural design of the auditorium just makes you think about all the famous people who sang there. And to be able to sing on the same stage that those great singers sang—it’s just a magical experience.”

While Chamber Ensemble students had been ready to minister to audience members’ hearts with their performance, they found a few familiar faces in the auditorium. “Many students’ families and friends came to the concert, and it made all this experience even more special,” Dr. Gonçalves noted. Some parents had traveled from as far as California to see their student perform. “I got the chance to meet many of my students’ parents and grandparents, and it was very nice. They all were very appreciative and so thankful.”

After the performance, the choirs joined Heather Sorenson for a private dinner. Together, Chamber Ensemble was able to relax while enjoying a celebratory meal together. “We had a reception afterwards, and it was at a fancy place,” Akira commented. “It made me thankful for the formal event experiences we have gotten at PCC. We arrived at the reception and were treated to hors d’oeuvres as we waited to be escorted to the buffet. As we ate, Heather Sorenson walked around, greeting her performers, and thanking them for their involvement.”

“It was an absolute blessing and an experience that will be forever remembered.”

The PCC chamber ensemble in New York

Performing in Carnegie Hall may have been the culminating moment for Chamber Ensemble, but the student group also experienced some of the sights in New York City during their visit, including beautiful fall foliage and festive Christmas decorations. “This was my first time in the city, and I absolutely loved it,” said Tim Marshall (So., ID). “The skyscrapers were so amazing. I loved walking down the streets and seeing a magnificent new building [on] every block. I really enjoyed all the amazing food, from steak to pizza to philly cheesesteak! Times Square and Central Park were also very exciting, but I think my favorite part had to be the Carnegie Hall performance.”

The following day, the Chamber Ensemble students returned to campus to finish out the fall semester, but not without an unforgettable song in their hearts. “My overall feeling is just gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity, for the people, for the music, for the experiences, for the time, for the memories . . .” Estevão Gonçalves (Graduate Assistant) reflected. “The trip was an experience of a lifetime! It was an absolute blessing and an experience that will be forever remembered.”

Want to hear these and other PCC student music groups perform Heather Sorenson’s Requiem? A special Choral Concert will be held March 16 at 7 P.M. in the Crowne Centre.