Special article by Glenn Crain

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well, you might ask The Sanctuary Choir at First Baptist Church in Pine Bluff. It seems they have successfully figured it out.
On Sunday, November 17, members of the choir, along with director Bryan Bolton, performed in the Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall joining choirs from across the nation. The choirs converged in New York to perform “Sing Christmas!” a new composition by Mary McDonald and Joel Raney. The duo’s body of work is renowned in Christian music circles. This new musical comprises four stand-alone suites and each movement includes original music combined with favorite carols, creating a rich but familiar blend of old and new.
The conductor for the evening was Mary McDonald herself with Joel Raney at the piano. A full orchestra was also on hand for the performance. The choir was selected for the performance through a stringent audition process. McDonald and Raney personally listened to audition recordings of choirs interested in performing and selected only the best to travel to New York.
Jonathan Griffith, artistic director of Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY), which organized the concert, explained, “These outstanding musicians will join with other choristers to form the Distinguished Concerts Singers International, a choir of distinction. The First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir received this invitation because of the quality and high level of musicianship demonstrated by the singers as well as the exceptional quality of their audition recording. It is quite an honor just to be invited to perform in New York. This is an event of extreme pride for everybody and deserving of the community’s recognition and support.”
The choir spent five days and four nights in New York with more than 10 hours spent in rehearsal with McDonald and Raney in two locations across the city before coming together on the evening of Nov. 17 for sound-check and performance. The rehearsals sometimes required lengthy walks for the choirs as they came from their hotels often many blocks away. The Pine Bluff group stayed near Times Square which was centrally located for rehearsals and performance.
The five days were truly a residency for the choirs, allowing them to perform and grow their musicianship through exposure to top talent from across the country. The pre-concert rehearsals included time spent on proper breathing and singing techniques which were taught by McDonald and Raney themselves. Before the trip, the singers had already spent months preparing the music for McDonald’s final polish.
The evening’s program also included a performance by an additional choir, soloists and original music from several other composers and was billed as “Sing! Christmas Dreams.” Tickets were sold through the Carnegie Box Office and the event was sold out.
“I’m so pleased that our choir was among those selected to participate in this program. It’s been such a learning experience for everyone and just to be able to sing with a choir of that size and skill was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Bolton said. “We are also very grateful that our church allowed us time away to perform in New York. It was a blessing that none of us will soon forget and our congregation will surely reap the benefit as we bring this experience back to our weekly worship services.”
During the five days in New York, the choir members also found the time between rehearsals to do some sightseeing. They attended a Broadway show and enjoyed sampling the local food. They attended a performance of the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular and many of the choir members also visited the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Empire State Building, and Macys Department Store. Christmas was just about to get properly underway in the city and the choir was thrilled to see all the preparations for the holiday.
This season in the big city is always exciting, with the shops fully stocked and the Broadway theaters packed full as holiday shoppers fill the streets. The weather during those days was exceptionally cold for November. Many New Yorkers commented that the temperatures were truly more like January than November, but this didn’t seem to dissuade the choir. They were out and about whenever possible taking in the sights, sounds and even smells (as street food is grilled, fried and sold) all around the city. One choir member even had to buy a new pair of shoes after having worn out the first pair!
But among the choir members, the favorite part of the trip was the spiritual encouragement they received by singing with Christians from around the country and by watching the emotion coming from McDonald and Raney as they heard their music performed by the mass choir and orchestra. McDonald dissolved into tears on several occasions and she often looked to Raney at the piano and exchanged nods and smiles during rehearsals. The choir’s singing seemed to exceed their expectations for the event.
Many of those from Pine Bluff couldn’t help feeling that same joy from the shared experience. “For where two or three gather in my name,” Matthew 18:20 says, “there am I with them.” This was certainly true those few days in New York.