When a leading concert producer in New York first contacted Robin Anderson to have the Bethel Baptist Church choir audition to perform at Carnegie Hall, she thought it was a scam.
The choir was suspicious too and worried about the amount of rehearsal time they would need before a performance.
But Anderson, the choir’s music director, did a bit of research, sent an audition video to New York and the choir was good to go.
So, while others are settling in after Thanksgiving, the 15 members of the choir will be on a plane to New York to sing Nov. 27 alongside members of church choirs across the nation.
More than 400 members from a combined 23 church choirs will perform American composer Joseph Martin’s “Appalachian Winter” as part of the Distinguished Concerts International New York City Concert Series. Also premiering at the same time will be Martin’s “Rhapsody in Bluegrass.”
Many of the choirs, including the Bethel Baptist Church choir, had sung the piece in the past, but all were asked to audition by sending a tape.
The concert is called “Appalachian Winter: A Bluegrass Christmas,” an integration of bluegrass, country and Southern gospel sounds. Along with the choirs, Grammy-winning bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent will add a set of their own material.
Anderson said she hopes the choir gets to “experience the reverence behind singing in such a historic place.”
Confident and prepared
Built in 1858, Bethel Baptist Church is one of the oldest churches in Columbia. Aligned with American Baptist Churches USA, members have been worshiping at the church off of Old Plank Road for 159 years.
All 15 members of the church choir, which sings most Sundays, are going to New York three days ahead of the 7 p.m. Monday production. Arriving Friday, they will rehearse Saturday morning and a good portion of the day Sunday, Anderson said.
She describes the choir’s music style as folksy. That fits ”Appalachian Winter,” a Christmas cantata with 13 songs celebrating early American carols. The cantata is a mix of popular hymns such as “Away In a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” traditional spirituals like “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” sacred harp tunes, Shaker hymns and Appalachian melodies.
Stylistically, the choir is short on men, with almost half of the choir made up of sopranos, the highest vocal range of voice types. To make do, Anderson says they typically focus on music made for sopranos, altos and bass singers.
The group consensus seems to be that members are confident in their preparation for Carnegie Hall. The singers were already familiar with the music, having performed it twice, most recently for a Christmas program last December.
“I say, just remember that Joseph Martin may want you to breathe somewhere differently, but they’ve performed it twice, so things aren’t maybe as stressful,” Anderson said.
Martin will conduct the combined choirs at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 27, which also gives the singers more confidence.
“You can always guess what a composer wants, and you always try to represent it as best as what’s written in front of you,” she said. “But we don’t have to guess. It’s like, he’s there.”
Judson Casto, a 21-year-old junior at Columbia College, will visit New York for the first time but says he’s “not particularly nervous.” He has been a member of orchestras and choirs since elementary school.
“I hope that we enjoy it, is one thing, and hopefully we sort of sing a way that other people also enjoy it,” Casto said about the audience in Carnegie Hall.
The esteemed history of Carnegie Hall has given it considerable distinction and prestige. The Manhattan concert venue, established in 1891, has witnessed over 120 years of stage performances. Archives from the music hall estimate that at least 51,000 events have been staged since it was built by Andrew Carnegie on Seventh Avenue.
Antonin Dvorak, Gustav Mahler, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, the Beatles, Benny Goodman, Arthur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz have all been asked to premiere works in the famous hall.
For Van Nixon, 61, a tenor at Bethel, the nerves might hit later.
“I don’t think I know enough to be nervous,” he said.
Van’s wife, Barb Nixon, 65, an alto, has been with the choir since 1984. She said she has sung with a number of large groups, but never beyond Columbia.
“How many people get to say they sang at Carnegie Hall?” she said. “It’s so unexpected for this to happen, very honored that we get to do this.”
Road to Bethel
Anderson will be on the other side of conducting at Carnegie Hall when she trades in her director’s role to sing with her choir. Until then, she will continue to ready her group of singers.
She was first introduced to the music director position at Bethel in 2013 while a scholarship singer with First Baptist Church in downtown Columbia.
Recently turning away from public school instruction, Anderson had a full-time studio, giving vocal and piano lessons while directing a small vocal jazz group of eighth- to 12th-graders with the Columbia Youth Choirs.
Bethel was looking for a new director, so members of First Baptist floated her name and Bethel eventually reached out to her.
At the time, she said, she was “fresh out of academia,” with a new master’s degree in music education from MU.
She still remembers the day in class when a professor claimed that half of the students would have a “church job.”
“I tuned out, I turned it off. I was like, I’m not gonna have a church job,” she said. “That won’t be me.”
When she was hired, Bethel Baptist Church would tweak her title from “minister of music” to “music director.” Anderson officially began in October 2013 and immediately started to put together that year’s Christmas performance.
The collection she would select to perform for the congregation as her Bethel debut would be “Appalachian Winter.”
Anderson describes the current choir as tight-knit, saying it’s made up of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, mother, daughters and friends.
She hopes the performance will be able to bring them together in an “afterglow moment.”
“In five years, 10 years, whether I’m at the church or not, we will have shared that together, and that can’t ever be undone.”
When they return from New York, the choir will have a little more than two weeks before presenting its annual Christmas program. It will be performed during the Dec. 17 service at 10:30 a.m. in the church sanctuary. Members will perform portions of “Appalachian Winter,” along with other pieces.