Berryville High choir chosen for New York trip
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? For Berryville High School choir director Benjamin Winn and his Encore ensemble, all it takes is an invitation, a little innovation, a lot of fundraising and — as the old joke goes — plenty of practice.
The BHS choir will be one of several groups traveling to New York next summer to perform at the historic venue along with a group of singers from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, something Winn described as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for his students.
“Dr. Lorissa Mason, who serves as the director of choral activities for University of Arkansas in Little Rock, reached out to me and extended an invitation to us to perform alongside her choirs in New York City in June of 2022,” said Winn. “What that entails is my students will have to learn a piece by Francois Poulenc, a modern-day composer.”
Winn said his students — members of Encore, the school’s 35-member audition group — will have their work cut out for them preparing for the 30-minute-long performance of “Gloria,” a piece written in 1960 and first premiered a year later. It features six movements scored for solo soprano, large orchestra and chorus.
“We’ll hit the ground on rehearsals for that going into the fall semester,” Winn said. “We’ll be spending the entire year learning it.”
Winn, a Springdale native in his eighth year as a music teacher, said this trip, which includes plans to visit Broadway and a cruise through New York Harbor around Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, is the farthest distance he’s ever taken a group to perform.
“It’s a very exciting opportunity,” Winn said. “I have never personally set foot into Carnegie Hall and the fact that these students — especially coming from a very small town compared to others — gets this opportunity is, it’s huge. I’m glad that Dr. Mason acknowledged how well our students are doing and offered this invitation for them to really grow their opportunities as musicians.”
Plans for the trip are underway, Winn said, with the first hurdle already cleared.
The Berryville school board approved a request from Winn authorizing the trip in March and superintendent Owen Powell had nothing but praise for Winn and his program.
“That’s just fantastic, a real big honor for them,” said Powell after the meeting on March 15. “Ben Winn is doing a fantastic job for our choir program. This year has been tough on them because they haven’t really had much of a chance to perform because of COVID, but he’s doing a really good job with them and we’re really proud of our kids. That’s a real big honor to get to go to New York and perform.”
Winn said he’s already making plans for the extra work in the fall, including enlisting the aid of several area experts.
“Starting in August, we’ll be meeting once a month in the evenings to work with several clinicians from the area,” said Winn, who also serves as the artistic director for the Star Spangled Ensemble. “Sharon Keck Parker, the executive director of the Star Spangled Ensemble, is kind of being brought on board as an external assistant director to help prepare our students for this, and several other local musicians are lined up to help us out, including miss Marsha Havens, the organist for First Presbyterian and St. Elizabeth’s in Eureka.”
Winn said he plans to have his group meet with these clinicians once a month to work on the music, in addition to classroom time.
“We have a very good and highly qualified staff of volunteers that are more than willing to step in to prep the students for New York,” Winn said. “Dr. Mason has expressed interest in coming up and working with our kids. [She] will probably visit Carroll County at least once, if not more times. It’s kind of exciting that someone wants to go out of their way to come all the way up here to work with us, especially a college professor.”
The next big task, he said, will be raising money to cover expenses for the trip. Winn urged anyone who would like to help sponsor the trip to contact him through the school, or by email at BWinn@bobcat.k12.ar.us.
Winn said the enormity of the trip still hasn’t sunk in for most of his students, whom he described as “kind of bewildered.”
“One of the biggest things that they’re really excited about is that they’re going to be able to really go to a Broadway show,” Winn said, saying his sights are set on Wicked or Phantom of the Opera. “We’re still kind of in the research part of that. They’ll also have a reception cruise around Ellis Island and get to see the Statue of Liberty. I think that will be a really cool opportunity for the students that most tourists to New York City might not get to experience.”
In the meantime, there’s only three things standing between Winn’s students and Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice.