Thirty-two women from the Mansfield University Concert Choir performed as the Nuns Chorus in a concert of “The Sound of Music” presented in Carnegie Hall on April 24.
Rob Fisher, an internationally known artist in American music and musical theatre, conducted the production. He has directed and produced other similar performances at Lincoln Center and supervised Broadway revivals of Anything Goes, Hair, The Apple Tree, and Wonderful Town and received a Grammy Award for Chicago.
The Carnegie Hall production of The Sound of Music also featured numerous Broadway veterans, including Laura Osnes, Brooke Shields, Tony Goldwyn, Patrick Page, Veanne Cox, and Metropolitan Opera star mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.
All expenses were covered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Mansfield women and their director, Peggy Dettwiler, who were invited by Rob Fisher to be a part of the cast. The story behind the invitation is unique.
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The typical answer is “practice, practice, practice!” But the women of the Concert Choir at Mansfield University found out that first you have to practice, then go to Wales and win an international choral competition. Which they did! The Mansfield folks reached it by a circuitous road: the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales.
One of the judges in Llangollen was Rob Fisher—conductor, producer, and artistic director in New York City—who liked the women’s voices from Mansfield so much (they were awarded First Prize in the competition in Wales) that he thought they might serve as the “Chorus of the Nuns” in a concert-production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music he was planning as a fundraiser for Carnegie Hall for the spring of 2012.
Contact was established in the fall of 2011. Mansfield University authorities gave their approval to whisk students away from studies close to the end of the school year, and plans proceeded for an unforgettable encounter with the glamorous world of Carnegie Hall, one of the most historical of American concert halls. Tchaikovsky conducted there, and so did Dvořák and Mahler more than a hundred years ago. To reinforce the educational experience, the musical was staged this spring at Mansfield University in Straughn Hall.
On Sunday, April 22, the MU women arrived at Carnegie Hall and spent two days in rehearsal before the performance on April 24. They were treated like royalty, warmly greeted by the stars of the show and Carnegie staff, given presents and backstage passes; in other words, recognized as artists. Upon entering the hall, they were overwhelmed by the elegance and beauty of this most famous of American concert venues. Being on stage for all of the rehearsals and the performance gave the MU women a powerful glimpse of everything that goes into making great stage performances. The process of preparing for the production was as enjoyable as the thrill of the performance itself!
Several students commented in a journal reflecting on their experience:
Danielle Montgomery, who played Maria in the MU production, said: “At our first rehearsal I was blown away with the way we sounded singing in the hall; at our second rehearsal I was blown away with the professional actors and actresses who were in the cast. One thing that really struck me was their amazing personalities. They were not only talented, but funny and kind as well. The entire cast and crew received our choir very well and treated us like professionals.”
Daniela DiBenedetto, who is completing a music business degree and was Liesl in the MU production, wrote; “One of my favorite parts about the whole experience was getting to see professional musicians and directors at work. As a career I would love to work in live theatre, whether it be in management, administration, production, or performance. When I walk into a theater it just feels so welcoming, comfortable and exciting all at the same time; I never want to leave, and that’s how I felt as soon as I walked into Carnegie Hall. Watching these wonderful professionals and getting the chance to see how they worked in a rehearsal setting was just exhilarating for me.”
Another member of the MU nuns chorus, Sarah Eline wrote: “It is hard to put into words just exactly how moving, touching and amazing the whole experience was of being able to perform in and on the stage of Carnegie Hall. The most breathtaking part was not the stars, the famous stage or the fact that we performed the Sound of Music. No, it was the sudden silence, then roar of applause that we, the Women’s Choir of Mansfield University, received after many months of hard work and dedication.”
Bruce Pomahac, Director of Music for the Rodgers & Hammerstein Estate, attended the rehearsal on Monday, April 23. He spoke to Peggy Dettwiler at a break and said: “The women are brilliant! They are the best nuns chorus I have heard since the original broadway cast….Your women are going to be the stars of the show! They’re wonderful!”
In a personal letter, Clive Gillinson, Executive and Artistic Director for Carnegie Hall, wrote to Dettwiler: “Congratulations on your truly magnificent performance in our presentation of ‘The Sound of Music’ on April 24…. The music of the nuns was truly ethereal.”
And, finally, at the cast party following the performance, Rob Fisher, who invited the MU group and conducted the performance, said “I couldn’t be happier with our collaboration. I am really glad that I went to Wales!”
The Sound of Music performance was hailed by the press as well as the VIPs of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Estate and the Carnegie Foundation. And our Mansfield women were specifically mentioned by each one!
“The musical highlight of the evening was sung by the women of the Mansfield University Concert Choir. As the chorus of nuns, they were staged in several corners and levels within the Carnegie Hall seating areas for their opening ‘Preludium.’ The beautiful a capella sounds coming at the ear from various heights and distances was thrilling to hear.”
Read the full review at:
(Michael Dale in Broadwayworld.com)
“Special mention to the Women of the Mansfield University Concert Choir, who supplied breathtaking renditions of the liturgical music in the show.”
Read the full review at: “The Sound of Music” – Carnegie Hall – Theatre Aficionado at Large
(The Theatre Aficionado at Large)
“The uneven vocal performances were minor drawbacks in a concept that made the best possible case for the music, especially Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations and the show’s ‘Preludium,’ in which nuns (the women of the Mansfield University Concert Choir) bearing electric candles, sung from all four corners of the house.”
Read the full review at: ‘Sound of Music’ Carnegie Gala With Orchestra of St. Luke’s – NYTimes.com
(Stephen Holden in the New York Times)