From hockey fights to footlights, from aurora to aria, the Flin Flon Community Choir and their cohorts are back again after successfully taking New York.
Choristers from Flin Flon and across Canada with Flin Flon ties recently stepped on the stage of New York City’s famous Carnegie Hall Nov. 13 for the world premiere of a choral piece by an internationally renowned composer. Filling part of a 230-member strong choir with members from around the globe, the group sang the Twilight Mass, a piece created by Norwegian conductor Ola Gjeilo, to rave reviews.
“It was another one for the books - it was very well received,” said Crystal Kolt, the long-time director of the choir, now leaving the position - singer Angela Ishaka will take over Kolt’s baton for upcoming choir shows.
“It was amazing. It was so good - I even teared up on one part of the piece we were playing. It looked sold out - we got a standing ovation,” said Rhonda Head, an internationally renowned mezzo-soprano singer from Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Head was one of the singers joining the choir for the event, as she has for the choir’s two previous outings there.
Flin Flonners have now played on the stage three times, having performed there in 2013 and in 2016. Another performance, this time of the famous cantata Carmina Burana, was supposed to take place in 2020 before COVID-19 hit.
The choir worked with a familiar face in maestro Jonathan Griffith - the cofounder, artistic director and principal conductor for Distinguished Concerts International New York, Griffith worked with the Flin Flon choir in each of their two other voyages to New York.
Getting ready for the show was a long and complicated undertaking - Griffith conducted the choir and held rehearsals and practice, practice, practice for months in advance through video calls, including with the Flin Flon contingent.
The piece was well received by both attendees and critics alike.
“When the final notes of the Agnus Dei faded away, the large audience gave Mr. Gjeilo and the performers a very well-deserved loud and extended standing ovation,” reads a missive from writer Jeffrey Williams for the New York Concert Review of the show.
“From the first notes of the Kyrie, I knew something special was happening. I wrote one word in my notes about this movement: Beautiful! Anything else would be superfluous.”
Kolt said that the performance was received well within the hall, including a long-standing ovation from those in attendance.
“There was this tremendous performance experience - there was a 10-minute standing ovation. We did the work proud and I think the composer was very happy with it, along with the maestro,” she said.
“It did go off without a hitch. The piece was all in Latin, which was interesting because there were choristers from all around the world. There was Polish and French and German being spoken around us, as well as English. I think the maestro did an excellent job of conveying what needed to be done vocally and with the music.”
The hall is renowned for its acoustics, for its history and the long list of legends who have stepped on its stage - located in the heart of Manhattan, that list runs the gamut from The Beatles to Gordon Lightfoot, from Nina Simone to Led Zeppelin, from Mark Twain to Judy Garland. “It is just incredible to perform at a world-class venue like Carnegie Hall. It ranks way, way up there - number one spot for me,” said Head.
“The acoustics in the building are amazing, it’s so beautiful and the energy of those past singers is in there. It’s probably one of the best venues in the world that I’ve performed at.”
“When you’re there, you are all-consumed with where you are, where you’re singing, the placement, the piece, the conductor, the soloists, but when you first walk on for the rehearsal, your jaw drops,” Kolt said.
“All of the classical recordings you hear are imitating the sound that is achieved naturally at Carnegie Hall. It’s the same amount of reverb, the exact clarity. When you’re singing at Carnegie Hall, not only can you hear so clearly what’s happening, what you’re doing, you can hear the feedback from the hall, the orchestra that’s in front of you, so clearly.”
This trip took on a new meaning with the introduction of a mentorship role, with Head, the choristers and partners bringing in several northern Indigenous youth singers with the choir as guests and understudies.
With the assistance of Winnipeg businessman and restauranteur Noel Bernier, Head sought out Indigenous youth with interests in music and choir to audition for a spot to take the trip of a lifetime.
“He [Bernier] reached out to me and he gave me the idea of bringing youth to come and watch the choir performing. Because I'm the only Indigenous person on the stage, he wanted to give them an experience to broaden their horizons,” said Head.
A fundraiser was held to cover costs last month and a call went out online for young singers to audition to come with the group. From there, Head chose each of the young singers, who then came with the group to New York City and took part in the preparation with the rest of the choir. The young singers did not perform in the full show, but took part in rehearsals and got to see everything that goes into a large-scale choral event in one of the world’s most well-known venues - things that would otherwise be impossible for people, particularly Indigenous people, growing up in the north.
“It really was an eye-opening experience for them, just to be in New York City. It’s an amazing city to be in, there’s so much art and iconic buildings and a lot of events going on,” Head said.
“They had VIP tickets there, they were seated close to the front. It was great to see the sparkle in their eyes after the show. I asked them each individually if they were inspired - they all said they were.”
Head said Griffith and others invited the northern group back to the hall next year and plans are already underway to raise funds to make it happen.
“I’m so happy for these youth. A lot of times, they get forgotten about - they have the talent, but they don’t have the resources to continue going on and move forward. I’m really happy that they can see that their music can take them travelling around the world,” Head said.
“When I started music, I didn’t have anyone to help pave the way. I’m really excited that there are opportunities for the youth that I didn’t have. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who liked classical music when I was growing up - I faced a lot of the like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I already see some stars there.”