How a Conn. singer gets to Carnegie Hall
So how do you get to Carnegie Hall?
It might help if you start life as a trumpeter in Grand Rapids. That’s what Jack A. Pott, director of music and arts at Hartford’s historic Asylum Hill Congregational Church, did. He began his musical life as a band kid, listening to his mother’s classical records — especially the soaring trumpet in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” in Handel’s “Messiah.”
A single-minded teenager, he vaguely understood there were singers involved in the piece, but oh! that trumpet.
And then, when you get to high school, you listen to your favorite choir director, Dr. Helen Van Wyck, who suggests that you have a nice voice and you should try out as a soloist. You’re young and willing and you try out, and it so happens that others think you have a nice-sounding voice — at least, it’s good enough to convince you to set down the trumpet and focus on becoming a tenor.
You still love the trumpet, but being a vocalist opens doors, including a degree at University of Michigan. You stay in touch with Dr. Van Wyck, who eventually takes a job at Trinity Christian College, a small school near Chicago, and you chart your course through thousands of performances.
Within time, you make your way to Connecticut as you become a choir junkie. You add to the list of ensembles in which you sing — both Hartford’s and New Haven’s symphony orchestras, CONCORA and too many other groups to list here. You begin to teach voice to a host of students, and you get to work with some of the finest musicians on the Eastern Seaboard.
Your evenings are full, and you keep your instrument — your voice — flexible with performances and voice lessons. A few years ago, a friend calls to ask if you’d like to perform at Carnegie Hall with a respected New Jerseybased choir. How can you not be excited?
But then the pandemic turns out all the lights. Theaters and concert halls and other venues go dark. In the middle of the fear and the loss, professional artists watch their incomes dry up. You and everyone else assume this is short-term. This will be over soon, correct? By summer, surely we will all be back to normal.
Of course that doesn’t happen. The pandemic drags on.
As a performer, you try to adapt. The pandemic moves you, as it does everyone else, onto remote platforms for performances and lessons. This is emphatically not the same. There is a lag time on the screen, and it can never be the same as in person. You long for the days of live performances and face-to-face lessons. The pandemic eases up, and then it come roaring back. It is ridiculous to try to keep up. Just this past week, as a full house of theatergoers — masked and vaccinated — crowd into Broadway’s Shubert Theater on 44th, they applaud themselves as a man opens with “Welcome back to Broadway.” Meanwhile, scattered throughout midtown are theaters that have gone dark again, if only for a few performances.
Still, if this is the harbinger of things to come, this winter will be rough. No one wants to host a super-spreader event, and New York organizations that continue with their schedules are rigorous about invoking pandemic protocols.
But music has a way of rising above even the worst of times, and a few weeks ago, a friend calls and asks you again to solo in — yes! — Handel’s “Messiah,” which was originally meant to be performed at Easter but has become a mainstay for the Christmas season. The concert will be held on Thursday in the renowned Carnegie Hall with the Masterwork Chorus, based in New Jersey. You take to social media to let people know. Most musicians count a performance at the fabled Carnegie Hall as near the top of their bucket list. At least, you certainly do.
The timing for you could be better. This is the busiest season for a church musician — this and Easter. Think tax accountant in early April. Think teacher at the end of the semester. For a church musician, the four Sundays in Advent are an opportunity to create a sacred space for more people than usual who want to approach the holy by spending a moment in the holiday surrounded by sacred music. It’s a wonderful time of year — busy, hectic, crazy — but saying no to debuting in Carnegie Hall is not an option.
And you begin practicing. It is music you know, but Handel
This is the busiest season for a church musician — this and Easter. Think tax accountant in early April. Think teacher at the end of the semester. For a church musician, the four Sundays in Advent are an opportunity to create a sacred space for more people than usual who want to approach the holy by spending a moment in the holiday surrounded by sacred music.
wrote fast-moving phrases that aren’t for the faint of heart.
So Thursday, you will feel those pre-performance jitters, all while knowing that this concert won’t make or break your career. You will stand with the others and raise that clear-as-a-bell tenor. The audience will rise at the “Hallelujah” chorus, and all those voices and instruments will weave a thread higher and higher until it reaches all the way to heaven. Merry Christmas.
Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.