Bethel Baptist Church choir heads to Carnegie Hall

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

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.