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The St. Elmo United Methodist Church Worship Choir at their December 2017 performance of "Canticles in Candlelight." The Joseph Martin cantata earned them notice by a New York City production company, DCINY, that resulted in an invitation to sing Martin's "The Winter Rose" with 26 other ensembles at Carnegie Hall. (Photo from St. Elmo United Methodist Church)

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

First, you make sure your emailed invitation is not a hoax.

You were expecting a different answer?

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Keith Walker (Photo from Keith Walker)

That came next for the St. Elmo United Methodist Church Worship Choir. Practice, practice, practice — a good two hours every Sunday afternoon since May, says worship music director Keith Walker.

All of their prep will pay off Monday night as the church's 20 singers join with choristers from 26 other ensembles from across the United States and Canada for the New York premiere of Joseph Martin's "The Winter Rose." Martin, a renowned composer and conductor, will lead the performance and serve as the clinician for the singers' residency.

The performance is presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York, a leading New York City production company with a focus on providing unforgettable concert experiences in prestigious venues.

"The St. Elmo United Methodist Church Worship 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," says Dr. Jonathan Griffith, artistic director and principal conductor for DCINY.

"It is quite an honor just to be invited to perform in New York," Griffith notes. "These wonderful musicians not only represent a high quality of music and education, but they also become ambassadors for the entire community. This is an event of extreme pride for everybody and deserving of the community's recognition and support."

Walker says he was notified of DCINY's interest in January but ignored the initial email. When producers persisted, Walker checked them out online and was finally satisfied the offer was legit.

"I kept it a secret for probably a month," he says. "They contacted me in January of 2018, and I did not say anything to the choir or to the church until the middle of February, I think. I wanted to make sure it was real, that it wasn't a scam and really that it was something we could do. The last thing I wanted was for everybody to get their hopes up and it not happen."

The St. Elmo choir had previously performed Martin's "Canticles in Candlelight," a Christmas cantata, in December 2017 and posted the performance on YouTube.

Walker says he wishes he'd had a video of the church's reaction when he shared the news of the choir's Carnegie Hall invitation. Rather than telling the choir first, he announced it to the congregation as a whole. And the place erupted.

"I told everybody at the same time," he recalls. "People stood up and started clapping and whooping and hollering. They were in just as much joy and shock as I was when [DCINY] first contacted me. It was great. I wish I had filmed it, but I have it on replay in my my head."

Walker says the Worship Choir performs a blend of musical styles on any given Sunday.

"It's not hymns every Sunday, or praise and worship every Sunday, or a strict anthem every Sunday," he says. "It's going to be a mix of those things."

He describes "The Winter Rose" as "one of the more complicated pieces that our choir has done, but it wasn't anything I didn't think they could do."

Martin, director of sacred compositions for Shawnee Press and a Dove Award nominee, is a prolific composer with more than 1,200 choral compositions to his credit. He based "The Winter Rose" on the carol "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," presenting the life of Christ from prophecy to passion.

Concert notes

The St. Elmo United Methodist Church Worship Choir will be among 200 singers from 27 ensembles from the United States and Canada presenting “The Winter Rose” in concert at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26, in Carnegie Hall’s Main Hall (the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage) in New York City. For more info, visit www.dciny.org.

Hear it here
Can’t make it to the Big Apple? The St. Elmo United Methodist Church Worship Choir will present “The Winter Rose,” their program from Carnegie Hall, at 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16. The church is at 4626 St. Elmo Ave. Call 423-490-7039 for more information.

"It takes an old, 15th-century German carol and weaves the undertone of that hymn throughout the entire piece in ways you haven't heard Christmas music done before," Walker says.

A Dalton, Georgia, native, Walker, 46, has been leading the St. Elmo choir since 2014, starting with nine singers. He has more than 25 years of vocal experience and theatrical training, including a family gospel band in his younger years. He studied voice and music education at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.

Church is his primary musical outlet — his day job is graphic design manager for a Dayton, Tennessee, company that outfits recreational vehicles — RV Products and Suburban, divisions of Airxcel. So far, his biggest claims to fame have been singing the national anthem for the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves.

Most of the choir has less experience. The members range in age from early 30s to 70-something. Only a handful are classically trained or even somewhat trained, Walker says, "but they have a passion for singing."

Their ranks include seven sopranos, six altos, three basses and four tenors. There's one singer in each vocal section who can read music. For the Carnegie Hall performance, pianist Rebecca DeBord will sing soprano and Walker will be a fifth tenor, since the composer is directing.

"I'm so excited about that, to be under his baton," says Walker. "He wrote this piece. It is his baby. I know how I interpret the music, but I'm looking forward to see how he feels it. This is basically like a masterclass with the composer."

Who they are

Representing the St. Elmo United Methodist Church Worship Choir are:

› Angela Davis

› Janice Beard

› Maureen Lowe

› Sophie Lowe

› Sandy Stephens

› Jeanelle Risenburg

› Barry Condra

› Danny Tullier

› Matt Hicks

› Nan Murphy

› Becky Myatt

› Deanna Fitzgerald

› Debi Crabtree

› Delena Mashburn

› Paula Beldyk

› Rebecca DeBord

› Bill Williams

› Kathy Clark

› Keith Walker

› Lisa McFall

DeBord, whose musical career has taken her around the world performing with multiple artists, says she's usually comfortable behind the piano but is excited to be singing in this outing. "Once the first few notes are sung and played, this will be just like any other gig anywhere for me."

Altogether, about 50 people, including friends and family members of the St. Elmo choristers, have made the trek to NYC. Most went early so they could get in some sightseeing.

They've found accommodations within a seven-block radius of Carnegie Hall, Walker says. A couple of fundraisers, including a "Mambo Italiano" spaghetti dinner that raised $10,000, helped with expenses, which include orchestra fees and a post-concert gala. They fell a bit short of their $15,000 goal, but most relied on frugal budgeting to overcome the shortfall.

"Everyone — even the ones who've been to New York before — considers this the trip of a lifetime," Walker says.

The first rehearsal for the 27 combined choirs — some 200 voices strong — was scheduled for 8:15 Saturday morning, and they're scheduled to meet for another five-hour run-through of the program this afternoon. Most of the ensembles are affiliated with churches, mostly United Methodist and Lutheran. A couple more groups are school-related, including the Oral Roberts University Chamber Singers and the Sylvan Chorale from Auburn Adventist Academy.

Come Monday, the singers are scheduled for soundcheck at 3:15 p.m. The performance at 7 p.m. requires formal attire — tuxedos, even, for the men.

Walker expects he'll still be incredulous about the opportunity even while he's experiencing it.

"We're still speechless. We still can't believe that it's happening to us. Our little choir of 20 people from a little church in St. Elmo in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is going to be singing at Carnegie Hall."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

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