Small but mighty — that’s how Bethel Choir accompanist Audra Sergel describes the 17-member Columbia church choir to which she belongs. And mighty they must be, as the group will perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City on Nov. 27. The ensemble joins 24 other choirs in a performance of composer and conductor Joseph Michael Martin’s Appalachian Winter: A Bluegrass Christmas. It’s the ensemble’s first music-centric trip, and though the members’ travel experience varies, some have never been to New York City.
“I didn’t ever think that I would find an opportunity to travel to this prestigious venue,” says Robin Anderson, director of the Bethel Baptist Church Choir. “We’re actually performing with the composer of the work, which, he’s a really prolific composer. I didn’t ever think that I would find that opportunity in a small little church in Columbia.”
Bethel prides itself on working hard to create opportunities such as this one. The choir raised nearly $2,000 through various fundraisers and rummage sales to offset the costs of the trip for the choir members, and the work has paid off. “I use the term ‘lofty,’” Robinson says. “You never expect to be able to say, ‘I took a choir to Carnegie Hall.’ That’s really cool.”
So how does a small, mid-Missouri church choir get discovered by a big-city venue like Carnegie Hall? Katie Silvestre, who’s in charge of program and development at DCINY, an independent choral concert producer in New York City that puts on shows at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, says it was as simple as searching the internet. While researching for the performance, Silvestre came across Bethel Choir, which prompted her to invite the small ensemble to audition. MU graduate and first soprano Julie McGinnity, who has been involved with the church and choir for four years, received the news via email while in Colorado. For McGinnity, the part she is most eager for has nothing to do with the Carnegie space itself; it’s working with the composer. “To hear his vision for the music and to really respond to that and in a huge group of people; that is what I’m excited about.”
Bethel Choir is multigenerational. The youngest member is 15, and the age range goes up to women and men in their 60s and older. McGinnity describes the group as collectively dynamic. “As individuals, we all have really different backgrounds, particularly musically. I went to music school; there’s a couple others who can read music and can play piano and different things, and then there are some who can’t,” McGinnity says. “We can do a lot to a piece of music; we can do a lot to a worship service in just our small number; and that’s something that is really amazing, and it’s going to be even more amazing to multiply that by 10, as in 10 choirs, when we go to Carnegie.”
The choir is diverse in other ways. Sergel, the accompanist, is a professional musician and recently performed at the Citizen Jane Film Festival. After being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, a condition that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid, Sergel decided she needed to shorten her commute to work in Jefferson City. Anderson, who is Sergel’s best friend, suggested working for Bethel Choir. Sergel had her qualms about joining a church choir, especially because of the fact that she is openly gay, and working for an American Baptist church didn’t seem like the right step. Anderson convinced her that Bethel was welcoming, and Sergel stayed. “Bethel’s pretty groovy,” Sergel says. “I’m proud to know Christians that act like Christians.”
The choir as a whole is gearing up to take in as much of New York City as possible in its five days and four nights there. McGinnity is one of the few who has been to New York City on several occasions, and she relishes the joy of the other members. “Everyone is going nuts,” McGinnity says. “It’s very different for me; but it’s kind of neat to see. It’s very much the attitude of, ‘we might not ever get to go to New York again, so we’re going to make the most of it.’”