Carnegie Hall. One of the great artistic temples in the world. A place so rich in musical history and tradition that only the greatest artists get a chance to showcase their talents on that stage.
“Carnegie is one of the halls I love performing in,” soprano Harolyn Blackwell told OperaWire. “It is just standing on that stage and you think of the history. All the people from Judy Garland to the Beatles. You walk and you can just feel that presence. You look out there and start singing and it’s a house that makes you feel at home.”
“All that gorgeous music has gotten in the walls. Carnegie is the crème de la crème,” added famed mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, or “Flicka,” as her close friends have come to call her. “It’s visually so beautiful. It has incredible acoustics and this wonderful tradition.”
Both of these famed artists will return to the hall this week, but they will bring along something few would expect – the Credo Choir and Dallas Street Choir.
The two organizations, led by conductor Jonathan Palant, hail from Dallas Texas and aim to bring together the community with its passion for music. In the case of the Dallas Street Choir, the organization gives the homeless an opportunity to express themselves. The organization’s motto? Homeless, not voiceless.
Von Stade had been involved with the organization since she was invited to perform with it five years ago.
“I loved the experience and especially seeing these people come onstage in their tuxedos after a few pieces,” she related. “And the way that [Palant] handled this group was simply amazing.”
She eventually became so devoted to the organization and her mission to give back that she sought out a way to have them perform for the Pope on his visit to the US. She made all the calls she could, including to a friend in Rome and another in Philadelphia to see if they could get the group in front of the Holy Father himself.
“But it was too far along in the process and his trip was completely planned by that time,” she noted.
So she shifted gears toward getting them in front of a different audience. And this time she got help from another friend, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. With her help, Carnegie Hall became not just a possibility, but a reality.
Bringing Along a Friend
With the venue set, the ensemble set out to put a program together. Palant and Flicka had a common acquaintance that they turned to provide some musical collaboration, Jake Heggie.
The famed composer, known for such operas as “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby Dick,” had known Palant for some time and his association with the mezzo-soprano is among one of the famed collaborations of the modern classical scene.
Moreover, Heggie had experienced the power of the Dallas Street Choir beforehand and was enthusiastic to get involved.
It was during rehearsals for his opera “Great Scot,” that Heggie checked out a rehearsal for a benefit concert for the Street Choir. There he was with soprano Ailyn Pérez experiencing something completely shocking and unique.
“We were just sitting there sobbing because this is the power of music. It gives people a voice and face that otherwise are invisible to most of us,” he revealed.
So when the opportunity came for him to get involved, he didn’t think twice. And while he didn’t compose a piece for the concert, he did get a chance to arrange Hub Miller’s “Spinning Song,” which will get its first public performance in a long time.
“I found it incredibly moving and beautiful. One of those inevitable songs that feel like it’s always been that way,” Heggie noted. “I am really excited about the opportunity to introduce this composer that should be known.”
Obviously, the musical aspect is exciting for the famed composer, but the ability to work with colleagues he admires is what puts this experience over the top for Heggie.
“[Palant is] such an inspiring presence. Without being religious, he’s a really shepherd,” he noted. “He gathers people together and does the right thing. He’s so patient and really talented.”
And of course, reuniting with his eternal muse, Flicka, only adds to the pleasure of the experience.
“Not only is she a great musical inspiration and artist, but she is one of the great people on the planet. She is not only a real friend but a true mentor. Anytime I am in a tough spot, I always wonder, ‘How would Flicka handle this?’ because she is so generous and if she is in a confrontation, the first thing she’ll do is think with empathy and what the other perspective might be. Very often we don’t consider that. We just react. But she’s taught me a lot about being a better human being and hard-working artist. And of course, about reaching out and helping the community.”
“She really believes in the opportunities and hope that music can give to a young person’s life.”
The admiration goes both ways.
“To know Jake is to love Jake,” added Von Stade. “He’s a superstar. And he’s a superstar as a human being as well. Everything comes from his heart.”
One Final Piece
Another piece to this musical puzzle is Blackwell who came into the process later in the game on a recommendation.
Learning about the organization and what it stood for only strengthened the soprano’s resolve.
“This is something that I feel I would love to give back with my talents. It’s such an amazing concert,” Blackwell noted.
She also revealed that this concert would give her an opportunity that her incredible career had not yet provided.
“Flicka and I have known each other for years. We’ve adjudicated together. We’ve been to different social functions together. But we’ve never performed together,” she revealed. “So this is a treat.”
The concert at Carnegie Hall takes place on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, days after the ensemble arrived in the City. After experiencing Manhattan for a few days and seeing “Kinky Boots” and singing at Carnegie, they head to Washington for a concert and then back home.
While Flicka and company know that the experience will be unforgettable, she also knows there is still more work to be done to help those in needs.
“[This performance is] not a solution for homelessness. It’s an acknowledgement that they’re homeless but not voiceless. They enjoy this so much. They rock out. These people have had incredible lives and I hope that this will allow them to continue having them,” she noted.
“It’s a real honor to be part of it in the deepest sense,” concluded Heggie.