Voices take flight

Tara Bradbury
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Quintessential Vocal Ensemble headed to Carnegie Hall for 9/11 tribute

During the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Gander wasn’t the only place in Newfoundland to step up to the plate to help stranded American travellers. Holy Heart High School in St. John’s took in no fewer than 700 diverted airline passengers, putting them up in the school gym for a week.

During that time, staff members stayed at the school overnight, international students helped translate for travellers who couldn’t speak English, and the Holy Heart Chamber Choir, along with the Quintessential Vocal Ensemble (QVE), performed for the crowd every single day, in the hopes of lifting spirits and providing some musical comfort.

Under the direction of conductor Susan Quinn, who is also the music teacher at Holy Heart, QVE will head to New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall in May, to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of 9/11, and to those at Holy Heart who opened their hearts to the stranded.

QVE was originally invited to Carnegie Hall to sing as part of a 200-voice choir, made up mostly of university and adult choirs from across the United States, which will perform Stephen Paulus’ “To be Certain of the Dawn.”

Quinn, who has conducted at Carnegie Hall once before, in 2010, knew that on special occasions, extraordinary choirs were allowed to have their own solo performance.

“I said I was flattered and all that, but I would really like for QVE to have their own solo spot in this concert. I had nothing to lose by asking, and I did know the inside scoop that there have been some rare exceptions where they did allow it,” Quinn explained. “We sent down an audition tape and their artistic team met and contacted me back and said, ‘We’d love for you to do your own 30-minute set as well as performing with the mass choir.”

The choir commissioned renowned composer Leonard Enns of Ontario to write a piece for the performance, reflecting Quinn’s and QVE’s bond with Holy Heart, and what the school did for the stranded travellers during the 9/11 attacks.

“As on Wings,” the resulting composition, is a combination of quotes from the Old Testament about coming from darkness into light, as well as quotes from Holy Heart teachers about what they did on 9/11.

“It intermingles all of these different texts together so beautifully,” Quinn said. “It’s an incredibly colourful, passionate piece. It’s a tribute to 9/11 and Newfoundland’s connection to 9/11, and, more importantly, Holy Heart’s connection to 9/11 and what Holy Heart has given me.”

Quinn will be retiring from Holy Heart after 25 years once school ends in June.

As soon as she told the choir members about the invitation to Carnegie Hall, the question of whether or not to go, no matter what it took, became a no-brainer.

“It’s a like a dream you didn’t even know you had until somebody opens the door,” longtime choir member Roger Samson said.

“If you’re a sports fan, it’s like playing at the Gardens or Yankee Stadium. To be part of a mass group performing at Carnegie Hall is amazing, but to actually have 40 people from Newfoundland going there and having their own performance, well, how do you say no to that, no matter how much money it takes or how many hoops you have to jump through to get the time off work?”

QVE had the opportunity to perform at Beaumont-Hamel in France in 2009, and Samson believes the Carnegie Hall trip will be on the same level when it comes to importance for the choir members.

“To go to New York City and pay tribute to all that happened is a privilege,” he said. “What St. John’s, Gander and Holy Heart did (during 9/11) touches you on a very core human level, and I think that’s what music does, too, whether it’s your dance music, opera or guitar riffs. It’s appropriate that we are remembering that day and the sorrow and joy that came out of it.”

During the past 20 years, QVE has become recognized around the world, especially for its a capella repertoire. The choir has collected 19 awards from national and international competitions, and has released three CDs, its most recent in 2006.

Quinn has some ideas about why the choir has become so popular, apart from being a well-equipped choral machine.

“They have a spirit about them that is infectious,” she said. “There’s just such a lovely dynamic among them, such lovely friendships in the group. It sounds corny to say, but if there ever was a choir that was a family, they really have that. People notice them when they go places and it’s not only because they sing so well, but they draw people to them. It’s a very positive environment and they always look like they’re having such a good time, even when they’re working really hard.”

Last Sunday, QVE gave a concert at the Basilica, previewing its Carnegie Hall set and performing some pieces with the Holy Heart Chamber Choir.

On Saturday, May 10, the choir will be presenting a kitchen party at Bally Haly golf course, with Newfoundland music and food, as a fundraiser for their trip to New York.

To see a video of QVE performing at a recent reception held in their honour at Government House, visit www.thetelegram.com.


Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Carnegie Hall, Holy Heart Chamber Choir, Government House

Geographic location: New York City, Newfoundland, United States Ontario June.As Yankee Stadium Beaumont-Hamel France New York.To

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