A masked performance is taking these University of Northern Colorado students all the way to Carnegie Hall

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Courtesy University of Northern Colorado/Woody Myers
University of Northern Colorado Director of Choral Studies Jill Burleson Burgett conducts student singers during rehearsal.

There’s an old joke, and it goes something like: A person approaches someone on the street, or asks a maestro, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice,” the person, or maestro, replies.

For 90 choir students at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, they might respond: 

“Practice, practice, practice …. And Masks!”

Students from five choral ensembles at the University of Northern Colorado are on their way to Carnegie Hall in New York to perform. 

The students from the University of Northern Colorado, along with 60 choir alums — with Director of Choral Studies Jill Burleson Burgett conducting —  are making their debut at Carnegie Hall later this month, performing Carl Orff's famous “Carmina Burana.” 

The performance is the culmination of a residency for students and will feature accompaniment from the New England Symphonic Ensemble and ChildrenSong of New Jersey.

Burgett said the performance is a “total collaboration,” including a major contingent from the Colorado Symphony Chorus, the Longmont Chorale, and people from the Colorado Springs children's choir. “So it is a front-range collaboration with UNC at the center,” Burgett said.

It began when Burgett’s good friend and colleague, a former executive director of the American Choral Directors Association, asked if Burgett was interested in staging a performance at Carnegie Hall. Burgett didn't hesitate to submit a recording. 

There was just one problem: The only recording ready for Burgett to submit was from a December concert, where the singers were still masked. 

Courtesy University of Northern Colorado/Woody Myers
Student singers rehearse Carl Orff's famous “Carmina Burana" in preparation for a show they will perform at Carnegie Hall in New York.

“That was kind of our big coming out of COVID. At least we're all in the same room, and at least we have an audience,” Burgett said. “That was the beginning of it.”

Burgett said she believes this will be the first group from UNC to perform at Carnegie Hall. “It's very meaningful. And so, as I am standing on stage at Carnegie Hall, I will be hearing that wonderful sound coming from our current students who are quite amazing and who really need this coming out of COVID” Burgett said. “I felt like it would really propel the choirs forward.”

The students are understandably equally enthusiastic. 

Soprano Chloe Wheeler is in her junior year at UNC. She missed out on her senior-year High School choir trip because of the pandemic. 

“So the idea of traveling with a choir, and at that point when we found out it was still just, we were just beginning to have choir unmasked and have gatherings and such,” Wheeler said. “So for a while, it almost seemed otherworldly, like I couldn't even imagine it happening. But I'm so excited about it.”

Sophomore Alexa Perez is also a soprano. She was also taken aback by the announcement. 

“We were all like, ‘No way. There's no way that we would actually be able to do this because, you know, it's kind of everyone's dream to be able to perform at such an amazing place like Carnegie Hall in New York.’”  

Tenor Travis Kornegay is a grad assistant with the chamber choir. 

“One of the things that I just find extraordinary is that we get to have this opportunity that doesn't happen every day,” Kornegay said.  “If you think about it, it's quite odd to be able to get all these people together with an orchestra, large choir, and then to be able to perform this amazing music.”

University of Northern Colorado emeritus director of Choral Studies Galen Darrough sees the Carnegie performance as a major statement of strength for the programs at UNC.

“I think, not only with our students, but with the community, and also the high school directors throughout the state and throughout the region who are our bread and butter in terms of recruitment,” Darrough said “To hang our hat on these kind of events and especially, Jill's event in Carnegie Hall, one of the world's great stages. I think it speaks, and especially coming out of COVID, it speaks that UNC is back up to speed and excelling in the greatest way possible.”

Before the group embarks on their Carnegie Hall adventure, Colorado audiences can hear them perform the iconic piece here at home, first with the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra on April 29, at the Union Colony Civic Center, as well as with the Colorado Springs Children's Chorale and the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony and musicians of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic on May 7th.

Courtesy University of Northern Colorado/Woody Myers
University of Northern Colorado Director of Choral Studies Jill Burleson Burgett conducts student singers during rehearsal. The students will soon perform Carl Orff's famous “Carmina Burana" at Carnegie Hall in New York.

A major undertaking like getting to Carnegie Hall requires more than just what the old joke says, "practice, practice, practice’.  

Burgett estimates the trip will cost about $1,700 per student.

“I'm guessing about $150,000 just to take the students.” Burgett said.  “And the alumni, they're all [footing] the bill themselves, but we've had full support for the students from our foundation, and we're extremely grateful for that.’

Wheeler said she is excited to be able to share this experience with people. 

“Carmina Barona is unlike any other piece that you will ever hear, both because the text is so old and so, but so historically relevant,” Wheeler said.  “There are so many threads in it. I'm so excited about this and I am so ready for everyone to hear this piece and be blown away like we are.”

Perez said the choir has grown closer from this experience. 

“And I would say it's an experience that you wouldn't wanna miss. It's definitely something that you can't go without seeing and hearing. It's, it's beautiful.”

For Kornegay, the  opportunity is a privilege and a great joy.  

“I believe, even with the busyness and craziness, and the stress of life, I feel so privileged to be able to do this work. I feel like I'm a rich man.”