Carnegie Hall is lifetime experience for local singers

June 28, 2014 10:29:29 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Lois Boggess remembers Sunday afternoons in front of her parents' first television set, enthralled by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts from Carnegie Hall. Earlier this month, she was on that world-famous Isaac Stern Auditorium stage herself, singing with a 160-voice chorus. It was, in a word, "wonderful." 


"Going out on that stage for dress rehearsal and looking out over those seats and balconies ... that was it," she said Friday, still awed by the experience. Boggess was one of 13 members of the Columbus Choral Society who participated in the June 8 New York premiere of John Purifoy's "Chronicles of Blue and Gray." The Columbus singers were specifically invited by the composer, who had seen a YouTube video of the Columbus choral group performing an excerpt from his "Chronicles" in concert.  


Purifoy's work is a "musical setting" for Francis Miles Finch's poem, "The Blue and the Gray," published in 1867. Finch was inspired to write the poem after reading about Columbus ladies who placed flowers on both Confederate and Union graves at what is now Friendship Cemetery. 


The Columbus vocalists were finally able to meet the composer in person in New York.  


"At the beginning of the very first rehearsal, John Purifoy told the entire choir about the discovery of us and his gratefulness that we were there," said Alisa Toy, director of the Choral Society. "By the end of his speech, I was in tears, and so was he." The composer asked the Columbus singers to stand, to hearty applause from the mass choir. 


"He came over to me and we threw our arms around each other," said Toy, who had frequently talked on the phone and emailed with Purifoy. "That moment of glory and tears was our official introduction to each other -- a very special moment, for sure." 




Worth the work 


Months of preparation at home, and several days of intense rehearsal in New York were well worth it, said Choral Society member Roger Burlingame.  


"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Burlingame said. He then amended his statement, because after the performance, the group has been invited to take part in a Carnegie Hall concert again in two years. "We've all started to save our nickels now," he laughed.  


Being part of a large choir, with top professional musicians, in an acoustically-perfect venue was "a dreamland for singers," he added. "And, of course, the piece of music was so meaningful for us." 




Bringing it to Columbus 


The most exciting news, Toy said, is that some of the singers from the June 8 performance -- from Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and New York -- are looking forward to being part of the Columbus premiere of "Chronicles of Blue and Gray" in the spring of 2015. They will join the entire Columbus Choral Society and the Starkville Symphony Orchestra for the special event during the 75th anniversary of Spring Pilgrimage. 


"John Purifoy himself will also come for it; it promises to be an absolutely fantastic experience, as we hope to replicate exactly what we performed in Carnegie Hall," the director said. The timing with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War could not be more perfect with the message of the work, she noted. 


The trip and performance were an incredible adventure, in Toy's words.  


"I am so proud of this wonderful group! Hundreds of folks from six states now know where Columbus, Mississippi, is and what role it played in the Civil War. And a lot of New York professional musicians who have seen and done it all acknowledged us for the talent and insights we small-town Southerners have.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.