Georgia College made its debut on the Carnegie Hall stage this month in a bold and gutsy way – premiering two songs never before heard with choir or orchestra. They’d only been imagined in the creative, silent depths of the composers’ minds.
“The music I chose to conduct was something new – commissions by two composers,” said Dr. Jennifer Flory, professor and co-chair of music. “Yes, it was risky in a way, because we were doing something that had never been performed before.”
Nearly 50 students, faculty and staff made up the auditioned Max Noah Singers choral ensemble that performed in New York City, along with several other choirs. The group was invited to sing for MidAmerican Production’s 35th anniversary concert series in the stunning, multi-balconied Stern Auditorium and Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall.
Performing at the historic venue is a “relatively unique experience,” Flory said. Traveling to perform in New York City is expensive. Plus, the time and effort it requires is a “very large undertaking,” she said, so “it’s not something every university does. And not every university that does it is able to do it often.”
The group performed two world-premiere works, conducted by Flory: “Heart-Fire” by Carrie Magin of New York and “On My Songs” by David Hamilton of New Zealand. Both composers chose a poem from options provided by Flory. Magin’s piece was set to a poem by Sara Teasdale, and Hamilton set his music to a poem by Wilfred Owen. Students enjoyed getting their scores autographed by both composers, who attended rehearsals and the concert.
Magin composed Heart-Fire “with a piano and in her head.” She said it was remarkable, hearing it “come alive” for the first time with singers putting their expression into it.
“The thing I think was really neat and transformative about it was being able to have the composers of our two pieces there with us for rehearsals,” Flory said. “They were able to give me and the students feedback on what they thought needed to be tweaked or how they thought we should do things differently or to give us a big ol’ smile, when they were really pleased with how we did.”
“Just having that interaction with live composers, I think, is something that will stay with the students for their entire life and career,” she said.
Senior Shelbea Fordham, a music major and business administration minor, has been with Max Noah Singers since her first semester at Georgia College. She sang in approximately four concerts a year, traveling across Georgia with the group and to Europe. Each experience was wonderful, she said, but none compares to being onstage at Carnegie Hall with the New England Symphonic Ensemble.
“This was my first time performing at Carnegie, and I can say: I was completely blown away,” Fordham said. “The hall was enormous and immaculate in all its splendor. When I stepped onstage for the first time, it was breathtaking – definitely something one cannot forget.”
Flory said it was "exhilarating" to walk onto the gigantic Carnegie stage, see the audience and take the podium. It felt “timeless” onstage, Fordham said, as singers kept track of their pages, watching the conductor’s cues – until they got “to a line in the text where the choir splits into a magnificent harmony that leaves you with chills.”
Max Noah Singers sang all compositions in their segment of the concert, along with two other conductors and five singing groups which included members of the Milledgeville Singers Guild and choirs from Michigan and Illinois. Flory’s favorite moments revolved around the world-premieres, which both feature a variety of dynamics and tempos, building to a loud climax before settling into a softer and slower ending.
Fordham loved the climaxes, as well. The group sang “with wild abandon, passionately,” using “a deep, pulsing ambiance that grew with radiant energy,” she said. “Heart-Fire” inspired with phrases like “I am sandaled with wind and with flame” and “I will sing to the trees and the stars in the sky” – the perfect way, Fordham said, for the choir to “kick off its eventful night.
“Choosing unfamiliar songs definitely makes a good statement,” she said. “By performing world-premiere pieces, we were able to share 21st-century compositions about acting upon the passions of one’s life to a vast audience. I was very proud to stand on that stage as a Georgia College student that night.”