From the Big Sky to the Big Apple

Valley Voices Choir holds last fundraising event before November trip to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City

By Clare Menzel
Members of the Valley Voices choir, pictured on Oct. 13, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

On a recent rainy morning, 18 singers wearing vibrant violet arranged themselves in rows on the stage at the Central Christian Church in Kalispell and belted the words to “Montana,” the Big Sky state’s official song.

“Montana, Montana, glory of the West. Of all the states from coast to coast, you’re easily the best,” they sang proudly. “Montana, Montana, where skies are always blue. M-O-N-T-A-N-A, Montana, I love you.”

The singers are part of the 37-person crew from the local Valley Voices Community Choir traveling to Carnegie Hall in New York City to participate in the Nov. 27 “Messiah … Refreshed,” a Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) production of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” They’ll perform alongside more than 400 other singers representing 20 ensembles hailing from various states and countries,  including Hope Chancel Choir from Billings. And while the Valley Voices group loves to belt it out — nearly every member told a visitor how much they simply love to sing — they’re just as enthusiastic about the opportunity to share Montana’s spirit with the audience and other performers in the United States’ cultural capital.

“We are ambassadors for Montana — we represent the culture, the arts. When people think of Montana, they think of cabins and outside toilets and covered wagons. We haven’t had covered wagons for at least a couple years!” director Allyson Kuechmann joked, while sitting in the pews at Central Christian with the other singers. “We want to show people we have just as much artistic culture here.”

“It’s so surreal — it’s unbelievable,” president Sylvie Wood agreed. “We’re ecstatic. Is that the right word, guys?”

The other members gathered in the pews nodded enthusiastically.

“I think it’s a fabulous honor that a choir from the Flathead Valley has been invited,” Noreen Wood said. “It’s a dream that most wouldn’t even dream.”

In the era of Internet celebrity, the Valley Voices Community Choir was discovered like pop singers Katy Perry and Justin Bieber: someone saw their videos on YouTube. Two years ago, Kuechmann received a call from DCINY talent scout Neil McDonald inviting the group to perform at Carnegie Hall. Usually, McDonald told her, DCINY talent scouts screen audition tapes, but from the web video alone, he thought the 81-person choir would be perfect for the gig.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was walking a foot off the floor,” Kuechmann recalled. “We’ve never done anything else like this before.”

They didn’t feel like they’d be able to prepare in time for the 2015 concert, and deferred their invitation for a year. Ever since, the group of singers who have committed to the trip has been feverishly practicing, meeting once a month to rehearse and listening to CDs of “Messiah” on repeat.

“Do you remember what it was like when we first sang ‘Messiah?’” Judie Overbeek, who grew up visiting New York City’s arts scene from her childhood home of New Jersey, asked her peers. “It has come together so beautifully.”

The group has also been fundraising over the last two years. The trip’s price tag will push $100,000, and so far, they’ve raised about $30,000. To help make up the difference, the group is hosting one final event, Montana to Carnegie Hall, on Oct. 23 at St John Paul II Catholic Church in Bigfork. The event is free to attend, and supporters are encouraged to donate by check (make it out to Valley Voices Two), Glacier Bank direct deposit, or a GoFundMe page, “Send Valley Voices to Carnegie Hall.”

At the concert, the Valley Voices will sing with the Flathead Valley Community Orchestra and FVCC adjunct professor Wai Mizutani, an acclaimed violinist who has performed at Carnegie Hall four times. He’s lived in the Flathead Valley for nearly 10 years, and has taught at FVCC since 2013. He played with the Valley Voices in May, when their accompanying violinist was ill, and has remained involved with the group since.

“This group is traditional Montana people, very patriotic for being Montanan,” Mizutani said. “It encourages me how much they want to share — and I want people from the big city to hear us. There is the music, but what’s more important is the spirit behind the music.”

“I know how important it is for people involved in music to have that experience (of Carnegie Hall),” he added. “It is the peak of an artist’s concert hall. It has hosted so many legendary musicians. Carnegie Hall itself has the best structure for performers. At first, I thought, ‘It’s a music hall, no big deal, right?’ But playing the first phrase, you realize you can hear yourself so much clearer … It’s magical.”

The group will travel to New York City the week before the concert to sightsee and rehearse. For some, like Overbeek, it will feel more like a homecoming, and for others, like Kuechmann, who have never been to the Big Apple, it will be a completely new experience.

The concert, 12 p.m., will be broadcast live at dciny.org. For those who can’t tune in, the “the newly returned, triumphant Valley Voices,” as Noreen Wood put it, will perform “Messiah” locally, on Dec. 10, for free, at Flathead High School for their annual Christmas Concert.

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