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Valley Journals

Hillcrest High takes New York; Vocal Ensemble sings in Carnegie Hall

May 16, 2018 09:56AM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High’s choirs and dance company toured New York when they weren’t in workshops, rehearsals or performances. (Photo courtesy of RaNae Dalgleish/Hillcrest High)

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

Hillcrest senior Megan Okumura had enjoyed singing with Concert Choir and her middle school choirs, but she partly auditioned for Vocal Ensemble because of director RaNae Dalgleish.

“I enjoyed Concert Choir last year and working with our director RaNae,” said Okumura, who is an accomplished pianist. “She is very passionate about music and getting us to do our very best.” 

Performing at a high caliber level took on a whole new meaning this school year as the Vocal Ensemble had great expectations — to perform at Carnegie Hall — and under the direction of world-known composer Eric Whitacre.

“Last year’s Vocal Ensemble is really the reason this year’s Vocal Ensemble was able to perform with him. They actually did the audition tape that was sent and selected by Eric Whitacre to perform in Carnegie. We have them to thank for this experience as well as our hard work,” she said. 

However, this year’s Vocal Ensemble did have their work cut out for them. Okumura said they started learning their music at the beginning of this past school year for their April performance. By January, Dalgleish said even with 90 concerts the group was performing during the school year, they still had eight pieces to perfect. 

Once they learned the pieces, they traveled to different locations around the Salt Lake Valley, including the State Capitol for its acoustics under the rotunda, to record their singing and sent those for Whitacre’s approval. 

“Some of the songs were fun which made it easier to learn than others,” Okumura said about the rehearsals. “Early morning, late afternoons — it was hard work, but paid off because Eric Whitacre, the Grammy award-winner who directed us in New York, was amazing and fun to work with. Some of the music was extremely hard to learn like, ‘Rumor of the Secret King.’ This piece was unlike any music piece we had ever sung before.” 

At the same time, the group also was fundraising through selling mattresses, tumblers and cookie dough. Okumura, who was working part-time at the time, was caught between a rock and a hard place.

“Because the Vocal Ensemble group of singers is required to be a part of the school’s Concert Choir and be a part of the school musical, I had to quit my job because of the massive time commitment to Hillcrest High School music and theatre departments. This left me without a way to pay for the school trip. The trip was ‘a once in a lifetime experience’ with a price tag, so I started early in August looking for ways to raise money,” she said.

With Megan’s extended family, she held three yard sales early last school year, selling items for $1 to $3 to pay, which raised $800, about half the cost of the trip.

“I made a sign telling people why I was having the yard sales and some people just donated money,” Okumura added. “People were very generous when they knew why I was trying to raise money.” 

Of the 33 Vocal Ensemble members, 28 students were able to make the trip. So when Okumura took the stage to sing nine pieces with Vocal Ensemble and seven other choirs, including one from Dubai, she said it was worth it. 

“It was an absolute dream to perform in Carnegie Hall. This was the first time I had ever been to New York and meeting Eric Whitacre was an experience I would never have again. He has a pure talent for what he does and the way he is able to get so many kids to sound like a choir of angels is impeccable,” she said about the group of 260 singers who sang in the performance, “The Music of Eric Whitacre,” as part of the Distinguished Concerts International New York concert series.

Singing alongside the Vocal Ensemble, was their director, Dalgleish.

“We were invited to join our groups, and since it was a double whammy to sing under Whitacre and in Carnegie Hall, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said the four-year member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “When we sang one song, a lullaby, in the concert that he wrote for his wife and his son, it was an overwhelming moment. I got choked up as it was very personal. It was so moving and touching.”

The students also got to meet with Whitacre to ask questions about his career, the inspiration for his music and about his life.

“Eric was an amazing guy and could really relate to us. He has a true gift of working with teenagers. He had a lot of patience and was very positive and encouraging to all the singers,” Okumura said.

Before singing, Dalgleish made sure the students understood the importance of Carnegie Hall.

“I wanted them to understand why this is such a cool thing and why Andrew Carnegie created it,” she said. “I think knowing about Carnegie Hall and meeting the famous composer gives them deeper, greater appreciation for the music they sang here.”

Hillcrest Principal Greg Leavitt sat in the audience for the performance.

“They did a great job,” he said. “It was so beautiful. They sang a song about little birds and it sounded just like birds. It was amazing. Eric Whitacre was very complimentary of our students and for their excellent work on some of his very challenging, original pieces.”

After the concert, Leavitt said the students presented Dalgleish a conductor’s baton from Carnegie Hall.

“It was a surprise to show their appreciation for all her effort,” he said.

Dalgleish, who was on the tour just one week after returning from a tour in San Diego with the symphonic orchestra, said this performance may bring fond memories for the students.

“This is something they’ll never forget. When they look back, they may not remember all the details, but they will remember walking onto this famous stage and being in Whitacre’s presence,” she said.

Joining Vocal Ensemble on the tour, were members of the Concert Choir and Dance Company, who had opportunities to have workshops with Broadway artists.

“Concert Choir visited a real recording studio, learned about vocal techniques and about the business of being on Broadway,” Dalgleish said. “The dancers learned a routine that helped them sparkle and shine.”

All the students had the opportunity to see “Hello, Dolly!” and other Broadway plays, visit the 9-11 Memorial, Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Times Square, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera.

“I had never been to NYC and I hope to return one day. It was a completely new adventure. We rode the subway from the airport and that was a scary experience for someone from sheltered Utah,” Okumura said. 

While she plans to pursue elementary education and special education at Utah State this fall, Megan plans to use her music skills in her career as an educator — and fondly remember and appreciate this time with Vocal Ensemble. 

“Carnegie was just a wonderful experience that brought me closer to my Vocal Ensemble family,” she said.