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Choral Group Draws Standing Ovation at Carnegie Hall

Wallace Long led the singing in church when he was eight years old but never envisioned that he would one day be conducting on the stage of Carnegie Hall in New York City. Now one of the country's most vibrant choral directors, Long was invited to take his Willamette choral groups to Carnegie Hall last May, where they performed Haydn's "Mass in the Time of War" to a standing ovation.

The Willamette Chamber Choir, the Alumni Choir, Master Chorus members and high school and church choirs from Oregon and Washington were joined by Willamette alumni from around the country who flew to New York City to participate. For Tori Sutro Graham '72, who flew from Scotland, performing at Carnegie was the "chance of a lifetime."

When Dr. Donald Morrison '54 received a flyer in the mail from Long, he thought, "That's for younger people." But his grandnephew, Willamette student Rusty Licht, had his heart set on performing with his great uncle. "He started getting after me," Morrison said, and before Morrison knew it, Long had sent a copy of the score -- complete with Latin lyrics -- a CD of the music that highlighted his part, and a note of encouragement.

Behind the Scenes
Broadway and Times Square beckoned when the 250-member group arrived, but they got down to business. The first rehearsal was scheduled for 5:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, but no one was late. "We have a saying in chamber choir," Long says. " If you're five minutes early you're only ten minutes late."

Daniel Bair '99, who flew from Vermont to perform, remembers that Long's choral classes weren't for slackers. "Our first day in chamber choir we were given a song and told to memorize it by the next rehearsal, and our class had 100 percent attendance at 4 p.m. the Friday before spring break."

Long expects complete dedication, and gets it -- with enthusiasm. After eleven and a half hours of rehearsal, including a two-hour dress rehearsal with full orchestra, the internationally assembled choral group was ready.

On Stage
When the curtain rose, choir members poured their voices together into a performance that was, for many of them, a high point of their life.

Licht says the experience was intense and demanded total concentration. "It was critical to watch Dr. Long," he says, "because, man, you don't want to mess up in Carnegie Hall." Morrison, his great uncle who led his 1954 class to Glee championships four years in a row as song director, says, "Dr. Long is extremely gifted. I think he made us sing better than some of us were capable of singing. It was a thrill for me to sing again with the same choir after 50 years."

After the performance, choir members took a late-night cruise around the harbor under a canopy of stars. "Everyone was on an adrenalin rush from the performance," says Licht. "Even though it was after midnight, all the lights were on in the city. Coming from Iowa, I had never seen anything like it before."

Generations of Students Connected by Song
For many current and former students, and for Long himself, the most emotional moment was not performing on Carnegie's stage before more than 2,000 people, or receiving a standing ovation. It was a moment that came at the close of the dress rehearsal before the concert. "I was turned around and all of the sudden I heard "Nunc Dimittis," Long says. The piece, a quiet song that resonates with reverence, closes every performance students give. The students had spontaneously joined hands -- their traditional way of performing the piece -- and begun to sing.

"The love and respect each of Dr. Long's students -- both past and present -- have for him was summed up in the performance of that song," says Wendy McPhetres'93, from Washington. "I felt a strong, familiar connection between all of us at that moment, no matter how many years separated our time at Willamette."

For the gentle and gracious choral conductor, it was a watershed moment. "As each class graduates it breaks my heart," says Long, who keeps in touch with students long after they have graduated. "It was so emotional to see all these generations of students I love singing together."

New York City audiences know a good thing when they hear it. The choral groups, under Long's direction, have been invited to return to Carnegie Hall.

The 25th anniversary of the Willamette Chamber Choir will be held during Reunion Weekend 2007.