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Harpeth Hall chamber choir uplifts voices at Carnegie Hall with Fisk Jubilee Singers

Harpeth Hall choral rehearsal with Fisk Jubilee Singers

In a rehearsal space in Fisk Jubilee Hall, Paul T. Kwami strikes piano keys with one hand and directs the chorus of singers seated in front of him with the other. As the strings vibrate under the piano lid, the room fills with voices resounding and resolute.

On this night, chamber choir members from Harpeth Hall and Montgomery Bell Academy join the Fisk Jubilee Singers for a rehearsal in preparation for the biggest performance of their singing careers thus far — an appearance at Carnegie Hall.

The collection of vocal keys blends harmoniously under the direction of Fisk’s music director, Dr. Kwami, and sheet music shuffles as the students stand for the next piece, “Good News!”

As she watches, Harpeth Hall's lead choral teacher smiles in anticipation of what is to come.

“Music-making not only enriches our lives but also brings comfort and joy to the community that we are in,” says Ms. Ting, who also sings professionally with Yale Camerata of the Institute of Sacred Music, Atlanta Chamber Choir, and BachFest Malaysia.

The opportunity to perform alongside the Jubilee Singers — both in the historic Jubilee Hall in Nashville and later onstage in the world-renowned venue Carnegie Hall in New York City — held a deep significance for the students and the Harpeth Hall program this school year.

That sentiment stretches back to the origin of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The original Jubilee Singers ensemble introduced the Negro spiritual to the world in 1871 as they traveled and raised money for Fisk University. Over the decades, they performed at The Kennedy Center, the White House, and in venues worldwide, earning an audience in front of U.S. presidents, royal families, diplomats, and dignitaries.

In its travels, the ensemble became known and respected for the performance and preservation of the Negro spiritual and celebrated as members of the Music City Walk of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the GRAMMY Hall of Fame, and the Academy of Country Music. 

Under the leadership and musical direction of Dr. Kwami, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to honor that legacy.

The ensemble has collaborated with top artists like CeCe Winans, Keb’ Mo’, Shania Twain, India.Arie, The Fairfield Four, and Rodney Atkins. In 2008, they were awarded a National Medal of Arts by former President George W. Bush. Last year, the singers won their first GRAMMY award for Best Roots Gospel Album for Celebrating Fisk! The 150th Anniversary Album. The Singers had been nominated for two GRAMMY Awards previously and have won a Dove Award.

Fisk’s collaboration with Harpeth Hall and Montgomery Bell Academy marked a new achievement as the members of the ensemble performed on the main stage at Carnegie Hall for the first time. With its elegant, domed ceiling, five curved levels of red velvet seats, and caliber acoustics the venue has dazzled audiences and performers for over a century. And nowhere is the view more dazzling than looking out beyond the spotlights from center stage.

"It's so much fun to get to explore New York with people who also love music," Harpeth Hall junior Ruby Wolter said. "... And to be exposed to such an amazing performance space as a high schooler is just incredible."

Into the spotlight 

In a large rehearsal room backstage on the night of the show, the Harpeth Hall Chamber Choir and MBA’s Headmaster Singers formed a circle of folding chairs and reflected on what was to come.

In the next hour, the students would step on stage for the most significant moment of their singing careers — a performance with the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers in the inestimable Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall.

As they prepared for the event, they gathered together dressed in their black concert attire and talked about what the moment meant to them and their journeys with music.

Leading up to the trip to New York, Harpeth Hall’s chamber choir won a superior rating at the Middle Tennessee Vocal Association’s High School Choral Festival, recognized for their tone, technique, interpretation, musical effect, and artistry. The March 19 performance in one of the country’s most storied venues showcased that hard work and dedication.

“Singing in Carnegie Hall is probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Harpeth Hall senior Cori Magsby said. “Every minute is breathtaking.”

When the moment came, the Harpeth Hall Chamber Choir soaked up the view from center stage alongside the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Montgomery Bell Academy’s Headmaster Singers, and others as the trio of Nashville choirs performed a setlist that included Kekeli Tso Kekeli Me, which means “Light is the source of light” and was composed by T.W. Kwami, the father of Dr. Kwami. The choirs also sang Negro spirituals such as Listen to the Lambs and My God is a Rock.

Through a lifetime of performance and music, Cori felt the importance of sharing those songs with the audience at Carnegie Hall. Music, no matter the genre, has the ability to soothe, inspire, energize, and connect, she said. That happens, whether it is the words of Kendrick Lamar, Etta James, Beyonce, or Garth Brooks. 

"Music influences and brings so many people together," she said. "There are so many different bands and different music styles that unite people - even if those people are not on the same political field or of a shared perspective. And that's what I really think is beautiful. Regardless of what has happened to us, music transforms itself into what we see today, and it helps us understand what we are going through - even when it's a random song that some kid made up in her basement. It's inspiring. I think that's what music is all about. It means something to someone."

SEE THE CHAMBER CHOIR PERFORM

The Harpeth Hall Chamber Choir and the Montgomery Bell Academy Headmaster Singers will perform a home concert this Sunday, March 27, at 3:30 p.m. at the Covenant Presbyterian Church that features the spirituals they sang at Carnegie Hall with an introduction of the music by Dr. Kwami. The HH/MBA seventh grade choirs will start off the concert with two combined pieces as well.