By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Get on the plane. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Perform at Carnegie Hall. Get back on the plane. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Get ready to perform at Grand Canyon University commencement – eight times at eight ceremonies.
That’s the modus operandi these days for Dr. Juan De Dios Hernandez, Assistant Dean of GCU’s College of Fine Arts and Production, and the 50-plus GCU vocalists with the Canyon Choral Society, the University’s community choir.
“There’s no day off,” Hernandez said with a smile Wednesday morning, just two days after a game-changing concert at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, just a few hours after deboarding the plane from New York to Phoenix, and just an hour or so before rehearsals at GCU Arena for a University record number of commencement ceremonies Thursday to Saturday.
The choir spent a year raising funds for the historic concert at Carnegie Hall with the New England Symphonic Ensemble. It was the first time GCU’s vocalists performed at the famed venue. They spent months rehearsing their performance piece – Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” or “Eternal Light,” a daunting, almost 30-minute choral work.
“It finally hit them after a whole year of preparations that they’re there – that this is it,” said Hernandez, who was on the Carnegie Hall stage 10 years ago and was invited to conduct at Monday’s concert. “They walk through those doors and realize that there have been so many famous musicians for a long time who have been going through those doors to give performances. So it’s really impacting. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of those students.”
One of those students was Brad Duchene, a senior vocal performance major who not only will sing at the multiple commencement ceremonies over the next three days as a member of Critical Mass, he also will graduate during the first ceremony.
The Carnegie Hall concert meant something more to him personally, he said, than it might have if things had worked out differently. The promise of Carnegie Hall loomed before him back in high school.
“We were supposed to perform at Carnegie Hall and didn’t,” he said, and so to be able to live that dream in college was “personally fulfilling.”
Duchene called the trip “absolutely incredible.”
“It’s a historically famous hall – to have that kind of audience and to be in that kind of space, and the acoustics, you can hear the echo in the hall from what we just sang.”
Junior vocal performance major Melissa Landes said, “The whole thing was just incredible. I couldn’t believe we got the opportunity to do that. … For every performer, that’s kind of your dream to get to do that.”
Landes was particularly proud of how the choir sounded.
“When you first look at this piece of music (Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna”), it looks very simple,” she said. “But it’s exceptionally difficult. The main struggle is that most of it is done without any instruments, so you’re very exposed (as a vocalist). Those mistakes will be amplified in Carnegie Hall.
“Dr. Hernandez worked on keeping us together to make sure we really had it down.”
Emily Hendricks, a junior music education major, said she didn’t have the same reaction initially as some of her fellow choir members when first stepping into Carnegie Hall since she plans to be an educator first rather than a performer.
“But after we started singing, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. We’re really here! We’re really here!'”
The choir left Phoenix on April 20, then launched into rehearsals over the next three days before its 1 p.m. April 23 performance. The choir was one of about five to join the New England Symphonic Ensemble at the concert.
Hernandez estimates about a couple thousand people watched them.
“The audience seemed to enjoy our performance in particular. They were very appreciative,” he said.
Not that the choir didn’t have time to step outside the hall during their trip to New York. During their down time, many of the choir’s vocalists caught a Broadway show or two, visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, or saw the other sites.
“The hotel was half a block from the center of Times Square,” Duchene said.
“There’s so much to do in New York City,” Landes added. “I got to see ‘Chicago,’ which was such a dream for me.”
Of course, since returning from that once-in-a-lifetime trip, things haven’t slowed down for the choir.
“We just had our sound check,” Landes said Wednesday afternoon after Critical Mass prepared for commencement.
Duchene will be wearing his cap and gown at the 9 a.m. ceremony Thursday instead of his usual Critical Mass attire – doing double duty and likely thinking how the show must go on despite the sugar plums still dancing in his head after that Carnegie Hall appearance.
“It (Carnegie Hall) absolutely has been the high point,” he said of his time at GCU. For anyone who performs there, “you’re going to remember it for the rest of your life.”
Hernandez added that the trip couldn’t have been possible without the support, financially and morally, of GCU President Brian Mueller and the executive team:
“Without his support, this would not have been possible, and this is definitely a transformative experience for all the students involved. There’s no doubt in my mind the students represented the University well, and we are very proud of their work.”
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 601-639-7901.