When dreams came true… in Carnegie Hall

Joanna Nachef conducting at Carnegie Hall. Photo courtesy of groupphotos.com

Late last month, as the Memorial Day weekend approached, dozens of singers quietly left their South Bay homes and flew to New York City to perform in Carnegie Hall. Many of them had never even been to New York, let alone imagined that one day they might appear onstage at one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world.

The singers, under the direction of Dr. Joanna Medawar Nachef, were to present Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Missa in Angustiis,” better known as the “Lord Nelson Mass,” which he composed in 1798.

The ensemble included members of the El Camino College Chorale, Concert Choir/Mixed Choirs, and Voce Angelicus, plus the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers (Torrance and Rancho Palos Verdes), as well as the California Academy of Mathematics & Science Choir directed by Beth Nam (Carson), the Harbor College Collegiate Choir directed by Byron Scott (Wilmington), the Ewha Chorale directed by Grace Kang (Gardena), and Guajome Voce directed by Jolene Riley (Vista). Together, they were poised to shake the walls and rattle the rooftops. The opportunity was made possible by New York-based MidAmerica Productions.

Joanna Medawar Nachef rehearses Haydn’s “Lord Nelson’s Mass” at Carnegie Hall with full chorus and orchestra. Photo

Arriving on the East Coast

The singers landed in Newark, New Jersey, and made their way to the Grand Hyatt New York Hotel, which is on 42nd Street at Grand Central Station and literally under the watchful gargoyles atop the fabled Chrysler Building. Ensuring that everyone was able to make the trip required extensive fundraising to assist singers (especially the college students) who could not afford the flight and the three or four nights in a midtown Manhattan hotel.

Ready for stardom? Chorus singers Lorenzo Wuysang, Kayla Atkinson, Chikezie Eze, Katherine White, and Alarik Damrow. Photo

One more day to go

The choirs rehearsed Friday morning. When they were finished five of the singers remained behind to talk about their anticipation and the experience thus far. Four of them had never before set foot in New York, whereas Chikezie Eze had accompanied Joanna Nachef and her singers to New York during the second of her five previous trips, bringing college students and others to grace the stage at Carnegie Hall.

Chikezie had auditioned for “American Idol” but wasn’t accepted. Joanna Nachef then told him, “If you’re not going to be appearing on ‘American Idol’ then you’re coming with me to Carnegie Hall.” That was in 2007.

“It was an exciting experience,” he says recalling his first trip to New York. Having sung with other groups and in other places during the intervening years, he adds that he has gained an appreciation for the importance of the venue that he didn’t have the first time. And now? “The music itself is truly beautiful, so I’m really excited. I’m ready to do this.”

Katherine White has been performing for about two years with the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers, the professional group that Dr. Nachef started after leaving Los Cancioneros Master Chorale, where she was the artistic director for 24 years. Katherine (and this proves to be a common refrain) has nothing but praise for her conductor: “It’s been amazing to get to know her, and to watch her attention to detail. She really puts her entire being into every note and every facet of the performance.

“The other thing that’s impressive, is to see the absolute love and concern she has for each one of her singers. There are dreams that you have in life that you don’t even know you have, and this (coming to sing in Carnegie Hall) is one for me. It was so out of the scope of possibilities that I didn’t even bother to dream it.”

This is Katherine’s first trip to New York and she points out that “we’ve worked to polish this amazing composer’s music as best we can” and then “to go sing in a fabulous hall that is the dream of musicians around the world: It’s something I’ll always be grateful for.”

Joanna Medawar Nachef conducting the “Lord Nelson’s Mass” at Carnegie Hall, May 26, 2018. Photo credit: groupphotos.com

“Right after I graduated from high school I told my parents ‘I’m moving to New York’ and they were like, ‘No you’re not,’” says Kayla Atkinson. “And so I went to El Camino and that’s where I got to meet Dr. Nachef. The first day that I was in choir and she walked into the room I was just in awe of how cool she was. Her energy, her clothes, her shoes, her hair; it was amazing.”

This has turned out to be Kayla’s first trip to New York, a trip she is sharing with her sister and brother, both of whom are also singing in the choir. “It’s a really great memory and opportunity that we have,” she says. A memory, I point out, when we talk again after the concert. “The memory that we’re looking forward to,” she replies with a laugh.

Kayla repeats Katherine’s words about this being a dream seemingly so unattainable that she didn’t even bother to dream it. “If you would have told me that I would be singing at Carnegie Hall with all of my friends, singing this amazing piece, I wouldn’t have believed you.

“And just the work that Dr. Nachef put in for us to get here, too,” she adds, “the amount of money that she raised…. Every time I leave her class I leave with a new passion and new motivation to just continue what I’m doing. She’s really been a great role model for me, and I’m so honored that I get to sing under her at Carnegie Hall.”

Lorenzo Wuysang started as a psychology major but Joanna Nachef cured him of that: “She really inspired me to pursue my real passion. So now I’m in my second semester in my vocal performance degree.”

Initially, Lorenzo didn’t think he’d be going to New York (and, yes, this is his first trip), but he was one of the many students who received a financial boost, which made his journey possible. He praises Dr. Nachef for “the passion and the energy that she puts into all her work, inside and outside of school. In her community she’s such a remarkable woman, and it’s a great honor to be working under her while in school and also here in Carnegie Hall.”

After the concert: Joanna Nachef with her son Timothy, daughter Hannah, and husband Hani. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nachef

He’s jumping the gun. We’re still in the hotel ballroom.

Asked about rehearsals, Lorenzo says they’ve gone well. He thought Dr. Nachef would look tired and stressed, “but I have never seen her more in her element.” Lorenzo himself was exhausted: “I only had two hours of sleep.” That was before her pep talk, reiterating the importance of this opportunity and how everyone needed to rise to the occasion.

“That was like a wave of energy and inspiration for me to just give it my all,” he says. “And I’m so excited to be singing tomorrow.”

“I never thought I would do this in my life,” says Alarik Damrow, who at first refused to consider the trip “because I was a little scared about going on the airplane. First flight, coming over here, but I survived that.” And? “I took the opportunity and I’m liking it.”

Alarik is a jazz guitarist, so his vision of being onstage probably didn’t rise much higher than performing in a darkened nightclub, with people sitting at tables rather than filling rows of seats in an auditorium.

Joanna Nachef, he says, “is at her prime; she’s more energized than ever.”

“If you were to have asked me two years ago if I was going to come over to Carnegie Hall,” Alarik says in conclusion, “I would have told you that I would never have the opportunity to come here.”

But here we are, sitting across from one another on a Friday afternoon, one day before the big event.

From Torrance to New York City: Joanna Medawar Nachef points to the picture of herself on the poster outside the entrance to Carnegie Hall. Photo

Making the most of this opportunity

Dr. Nachef conducted “Lord Nelson’s Mass” at El Camino College a few weeks earlier with the singers who accompanied her to New York, plus another 50 or so chorus members who didn’t make the journey.

“This makes it easier,” Dr. Nachef says, after the five singers have gone off to explore the city. “There’s not a lot of stress to accomplish the quality of the tone that I want, the balance, the blend, and the stylistic accuracy, because I had done that. I’m even polishing more than ever, and I’m getting to a level of performance where they’re able to give me what I’ve always wanted.”

The day before, after the choir’s three-hour rehearsal, Dr. Nachef had her rehearsal with the orchestra and the soloists — the latter being soprano Natalie Conte, contralto Alison Bolshoi, tenor Errin Duane Brooks, and bass-baritone David Crawford.

She said she never loses her temper because that would be counterproductive. “I’ve always chosen to use my feminine traits,” she continues, “my preparation, my knowledge, my respect and humility to come across as somebody who’s here to work together in making a musical night we all enjoy. I wouldn’t want to play for somebody who is militant and intimidating and rude. I couldn’t sing for anyone like that. Because the first thing that happens, your throat blocks when you’re upset. So, when I would hear a couple of wrong notes, and I did from a section of the orchestra, I said, ‘Would you kindly take a look at that?’ because we didn’t have much time to go and fix things.”

Dr. Nachef mentions that it’s not so much the conducting or the music-making, but rather the logistics involved taking such a large group on tour that can be the most demanding. She confides that she didn’t get much sleep, but adds that she concealed this fact from the others. When she had the chance to, she instead worked on the score.

She told the choir she lives her life as if this is her performance, and that’s why they didn’t see her walking in, dragging her feet, and looking unkempt.

“But many of you are doing that,” she said to them. “You’re looking at me half-asleep. But you’ve got to pretend you’re fine; you’ve got to push yourself to that point of giving it your all at every chance you have because you don’t have tomorrow. We’ve got to do what we can to bring it to this (level of) excellence today.”

The singers put their noses to their grindstone and their eyes to the score. At the end of Friday’s rehearsal they gave Dr. Nachef a standing ovation.

It was a spontaneous and heartwarming gesture to the woman who had raised $60,000 to help about 45 of the singers who otherwise might not have been able to make the trip.

“They couldn’t have even gotten themselves on a flight, let alone (paid for) five days in New York,” she says. “But that’s what it’s about, it’s about changing lives and helping them see that my desire to invest in them, so that they will find their purpose and realize walking on that stage is the dream of every musician. And if they can get there, and give it their best, they can apply these skills to any part of their life and their future dreams.”

Dr. Nachef says that the dress rehearsals “often are horrible, because everybody is emotional. They’re crying, they’re in awe of the place.” She tells them, that’s okay, get your emotions out, and then the minute you realize your responsibility step up to the occasion… and the performance will be invigorating and memorable.

The after-concert midnight cruise. Photo

Friday, and moving into Saturday

After Friday’s rehearsal the chorus members took advantage of the exceptionally warm weather to explore as much of the city as they could.

On Saturday at 5 p.m. the singers gathered in the immense lobby of the Grand Hyatt and then boarded the two buses that conveyed them to the concert hall. After disembarking they assembled for pictures in front of the hallowed building, and then walked around back to the artists’ entrance where they prepared themselves, mentally and physically, for their dress rehearsal on the Carnegie Hall stage. It was now about 6 o’clock.

Because I’d signed my life away, I had the run of the empty auditorium in which I was permitted to take photos. I could only do this during the dress rehearsal, of course, but it gave me a perspective the singers did not have, which was to view them en masse from virtually every point in the hall. What did they feel and how did they react, stepping onto that hallowed stage for the very first time? Well, we shall soon find out.


The concert

The New England Symphonic Ensemble, usually under the direction of Preston Hawes, on this evening performed with three guest conductors, starting with Joanna Nachef, whose “Lord Nelson’s Mass” opened the concert. Her singers were superb and as a cohesive unit they could hardly have been more impressive. The dream was realized.

The only thing that made me smile and shake my head was the inexperience of some audience members who applauded between the first two or three of the work’s six movement, despite Dr. Nachef asking beforehand that they withhold their applause. I smiled because the audience at El Camino College had shown more musical sophistication. Really, who would have guessed that concertgoers would prove to be less savvy in New York City?

At the end of the Mass there was an intermission, and Dr. Nachef’s singers, visibly relieved and beaming with pride, had seats reserved for them at the rear of the hall, which they took before the concert continued, this time with choruses from Nebraska. Works by Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mozart and Beethoven were performed, and these too sounded fresh and vibrant.

Afterwards, the singers from Southern California reboarded their buses and the majority of them were whisked away to one of the piers downtown, where they embarked on a cruise around New York Harbor. The group was truly blessed because it was a warm night and the water was smooth. By the time everyone returned to the hotel it was about 2 a.m. That’s when I again spoke with the singers I’d previously interviewed. Before, they had hopes and dreams; now they had memories.

After performing, singers Katherine White and Lauren Beale enjoy the remainder of the concert. Photo

So, what did they think of it?

Each one had been deeply moved as they stepped onto the stage.

“This, being my second time at Carnegie Hall,” says Chikezie Eze, “I didn’t know if things would be the same or if the decade-older version of myself would have a deeper appreciation for the venue and its history. I found the latter to be true. I could almost feel the history of the place as we walked through its halls and read the posters of the legends who shared this stage. It was inspiring and humbling, and the stage itself seemed somehow bigger than I remember. The acoustics are like none other. It shocked me to hear my own voice carry so effortlessly. I feel blessed by Dr. Nachef and God to have been a part of this event.”

“When we spoke before,” Katherine White says, “I mentioned that singing at Carnegie was a dream I didn’t really know I had. That idea keeps replaying in my head. Singing in the hall itself was glorious, the acoustics are so beautifully balanced, and of course we sang with such wonderful orchestral musicians. So musically, that was a high point. It was spectacular to sing in a hall that ‘sings back.’”

In words that echo Chikezie’s, Katherine says she appreciates having a personal connection to the history of the hall. She now has a solid sense of “how important Carnegie Hall is to our history and our future, as both musicians and music-lovers. I realize just how meaningful and maybe even revolutionary it is to be a musician — to intentionally connect to others in one moment to create something beautiful with lasting impact.”

She also managed to do some sightseeing: “I didn’t expect to fall in love with the city, but I absolutely loved the energy and the accessibility. I felt powerful in New York.”

“It was so crazy beautiful,” says Kayla Atkinson. “When we walked onstage and you see the red seats and the gold on the walls and the lights, and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe that I really get to walk on this stage.’ And after our first movement, just hearing our echo in the hall. It was crazy to think that our choir from El Camino is the one that’s making that sound.”

Kayla says she and her friend standing next to her were “in tears, just crying, just overwhelmed.  Just to see all of what we were talking about in class for almost a year and a half is actually happening, and happened. We all got here and the dream that Dr. Nachef planted in our hearts came true. Just so many emotions. So worth it.”

“As soon as I walked out on stage,” says Lorenzo Wuysang, “I had tears. I shared a moment with my friend and she had tears, and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe we’re here; I cannot believe it.’

“I’ve never performed on such a good stage. The acoustics and the sounds were just so beautiful.”

Dr. Nachef, Lorenzo says, always tells them that they share the same heartbeat when they sing, and they were feeling it that evening. “Honestly, it was such an honor, such a blessing, to work under her, to have worked so hard (for this moment). Dr. Nachef is helping (to) raise us as adults, as performers, with her work ethic, with her precision, and with her energy. It’s just so unbelievably amazing. God bless her, she’s the most remarkable woman I know.”

“The performance?” replies Alarik Damrow, “I have no words for it. I’m speechless; it was a great performance. Once again, I’m a jazz guitar player and I would never have imagined that I’d be singing in a choir right now, especially in a venue like that. Dr. Nachef’s conducting is great,” and he describes how joyful she looked on the podium.

Alarik also commented on how the music sounded from the audience, when he and the others were able to sit down and listen to the groups that sang after them: “To perform up there is a whole different experience than to watch it. I won’t be able to explain the feeling of being up there, looking at the people. I’m speechless.”

The last person I spoke with that night, before walking back to my lodgings, was of course the conductor and musical director herself, Joanna Nachef, the locomotive that pulled all the boxcars from one side of the United States to the other.

“I feel very blessed,” she says, visibly exhausted at last. “Every time I walk on that stage I look at myself as this young Lebanese lady who dreamed of becoming a conductor, (who has been given) the chance to do this at this level as the first female conductor from that part of the world. And not just to do it once, but again and again. And I always feel humbled and honored that God chose me to be that instrument to make music a universal language.

“And to have my singers experiencing this for the first time,” Dr. Nachef continues, “seeing the impact on them, the tears, the awe. And when they hear their voice coming back at them; the acoustics of this hall have never, ever been duplicated anywhere else. And to walk on that stage where Tchaikovsky, Toscanini, Bernstein (performed), and to be in the maestro suite where they were… it’s only God that allows that to happen.”


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