Student, Alumni Choir Takes to the Stage of Carnegie Hall
June 12, 2023
When Jill Burgett, D.A., walked on stage at Carnegie Hall this spring, she was inspired by thinking about the many masters who stood in her place for more than 100 years.
The professor of Music and director of Choral Activities at UNC reflects on her own professional hero, Conductor Gustav Mahler. who led his final conducting performance on that same stage. Rather than being overwhelmed by the venerable space, its rich history, a near-full capacity audience of 2,300 or the high expectations behind a debut performance at Carnegie Hall, Burgett grounded herself in the music and her students.
“[I thought about] putting the University of Northern Colorado where it belongs, on a national level,” Burgett said.
She led the UNC Choir comprising more than 100 students and 60 alumni, in a rousing performance of Carmina Burana by renowned German composer Carl Orff this spring at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
The trip capped off nearly a year of tireless work.
Since the summer of 2022, Burgett has been organizing the pieces, parts and people, to make the inaugural event not just a success but even tenable. To perform Carmina Burana at Carnegie Hall requires 150 singers – UNC has only 100 in the choral program – plus an orchestra, a children’s choir and three soloists. Not a small feat to pull off.
Carmina Burana is based on a unique collection of medieval poems that Orff found in 1934 that addresses the joys and pains of love, the beauty of springtime and life’s guilty pleasures. From its thunderous opening chords, the legendary work helps the audience understand this musical that is more mysterious than it appears. Undaunted, Burgett got to work reaching out to the vast UNC alumni network across Colorado. More than 50 singers responded to the call from Greeley, Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Pueblo – including vocalists from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Carnegie Hall’s Mid-American Production Company secured a children’s choir from New Jersey, three soloists and a full orchestra with players from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.
“Our alumni are widespread, so it became a wonderful opportunity to hold this collaborative event with UNC at the core,” she said. “Sometimes we [at UNC] tend to undersell ourselves, assuming everyone knows how great our choral tradition is…but we do have a history, decades of performing these major works. Sometimes we forget how great we are….”
Jill Burgett conducting at Carnegie Hall
Burgett joined the College of Visual and Performing Arts (PVA) faculty at UNC 14 years ago. Previously, she served as associate director of Choral Activities at Ball State University in Indiana. Today, she conducts the UNC Concert Choir and Chamber Choir in addition to teaching graduate choral methods and conducting courses.
She earned her D.A. in Choral Conducting, with a cognate area of study in Music Education and a master’s in Music from Ball State University. She earned a bachelor’s in Music Education with a vocal emphasis and graduated magna cum laude from Heidelberg University in Ohio.
To prepare for the performance, Burgett organized an extensive schedule of rehearsals at locations along the Front Range for the high school, college and alumni performers. She drew from her vast experiences working with performers of all ages to bring these groups together. For example, she conducted choirs in the Indiana Public School system for over a decade, and she currently serves on the National Collegiate Choral Organization board. She has also led performances in Varna (Bulgaria), Barcelona, Montserrat, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, London, Paris and Rome.
Burgett also had to secure funding to fly about 100 students from Greeley to New York and to cover hotel accommodations for several nights, ground transportation around the city, meals and more.
That’s where the PVA Student Travel Experience fund came into play. Thanks to the deep generosity of alumni and donors who contributed nearly $140,000, student fees, travel and lodging expenses were covered.
For Emma Larson, a junior Music Education major, this was her first visit to New York.
Travis Kornegay, a graduate student, choir member and Greeley teacher, went on the Carnegie Hall trip. As both a student and a teacher, Kornegay found the experience to be one-of-a-kind. He was even able to share the experience, bringing some of his University High School choir students along to perform.
“I did tell my students, ‘Hey, you’re going to make experiences you’ll have for the rest of your life, that you will remember for the rest of your life,” he said.
A 15-year veteran teacher, Kornegay tried to impress upon his students the historical significance of Carnegie Hall as one of the greatest homes for music in the world. In addition to hosting universal talent, the venue has also hosted some less than well-received performances. As a singer himself, Kornegay said the key is to take the risk.
“In music, you have to be brave. You have to take chances and they can be the chance of a lifetime.”
Catherine Freeland, ‘96, who studied acting at PVA, lived in New York for 10 years but hadn’t had a chance to visit Carnegie Hall.
“Going to hear the choirs from my alma mater in that famous space was electrifying. The performance was superb and I was truly the proudest I've ever been to be a UNC Bear,” Freeland said.
Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which most people have at least heard in movies and on TV, is an intense piece that grabs the attention and doesn’t lessen in ferocity for an hour.
When Burgett heard her students sing the first Chorus, O Fortuna, and their voices fill the concert hall, she was blown away. As was the audience – who broke out into an immediate standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance.
“The singers were on fire. The audience reaction was immediate and overwhelming” she said. “This is building their future and that’s my job…I am excited to be a small piece of that.”
— written by Christina Abel