By Jennifer Crain
At least that’s what Matthew Blegen thought when he received an email inviting his Union-based choir to anchor a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the infamous performance venue.
Blegen, the founder of Anna’s Bay Center for Music and director of the group’s Chorale, said at first he thought the email might be a joke. But six months later Chorale singers were among choristers from all over the country, standing onstage in Avery Fisher Hall under the direction of conducting heavyweight Dr. Jonathan Griffith.
Melissa “Tango” Tengowski, the Chorale’s Cabinet Chair, was one of them.
“I am proud that someone found our little Mason County choir and thought we stood out in a professional way,” she says. “It took all of a heartbeat for me to decide to go.”
The same was true for many of the singers. Blegen said he would have considered 20 singers enough to make the trip. In the end, 68 Chorale members participated, far more representatives than any other visiting choir.
But there was a lot to do before the singers and several dozen supporting community members (including a Hoodsport-based documentary crew) could board a plane. The trip was prefaced by months of fundraising efforts to create a scholarship pool and supplement the cost for all participating singers.
Members hosted dozens of events such as bake sales and car washes as well as bigger fundraisers, such as a Grease sing-along at the Skyline Theater.
In the end, over $140,000 rolled in, enough for 20 full scholarships, a few partial scholarships and a big chunk off travel costs for each of the other singers.
After a pair of red-eye flights, the group’s schedule took on a lively pace. They opened the Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular” show at Radio City Music Hall with a selection of carols on their first afternoon in town, an opportunity that surfaced just two weeks before the trip.
Three days of workshops followed, intensive rehearsals with Dr. Griffith to prepare for the Messiah performance.
“The assumption was that we knew the music and the notes and Dr. Griffith would be coaching us in a new way of presenting the Messiah,” says Mary Rathke, a retired truck driver who has sung with the Chorale for several years. “I feel as though I learned more about really going through a piece of choral music word by word, with special attention to diction and dynamics and absolute focus on the conductor. It was very challenging for me because it was my first year singing that work and I am not a musician and don’t really read music. It was all very intense and wonderful.”
Messiah is often performed with a small number of instruments, similar to what would have been heard at its premiere performance in 1742. But this performance was the Lincoln Center premiere of a version for full orchestra, a moving and intense experience for the audience, who gave an eight-minute standing ovation, as well as the performers.
Tengowski says the highlight of her whole New York experience was “coming to tears on the last note of the ‘Amen’ in the Messiah. It was a crescendo of energy, feelings of honor and joy, that overcame me.”
Though on a larger scale than any of them could have predicted, singing together in New York functioned as part of Anna’s Bay’s mission: to build community through music. Consistent with Blegen’s community-minded vision, the Chorale is non-auditioned and open to any community member, regardless of musical experience. The result is a well-mixed intergenerational choir with singers ranging from 14 to 85 years old.
“I don’t think of us as an arts organization,” Blegen says. “I think of us as a community service organization. I really want to build the community self-esteem. Music is just the tool I have.”
The inclusive nature of Anna’s Bay, as well as its success, has turned the group into one of the area’s most treasured arts organizations, a fact recognized recently at the annual awards gala of the Shelton-Mason County Chamber of Commerce when it presented Matthew Blegen its Citizen of the Year award.
Blegen, who has a background in marketing and public relations but also a rich history as a vocal performer, started Anna’s Bay Center for Music as a way to give students in underserved schools a professional music experience. In the midst of this effort, the Chorale began as a lark. The first rehearsal attracted about 16 singers. Eight years later, the Chorale is their flagship ensemble with 60-70 active members at any one time and about 160 participants every year, including a growing number from Thurston County.
The group has been extended a standing invitation to return to New York. But for now, they’re rehearsing for a spring performance of Mozart’s Requiem, preparing to bring more music to the rural South Sound.
For more information, click here.