Once in a lifetime

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, July 21, 2012

Members of the Riverland singers that took part in Handel’s “The Messiah” have their photograph taken with conductor Dr. Donald Neuen following the performance in New York, N.Y. in June. - Photo provided

Group of Riverland singers get the chance to perform on the world-famous Lincoln Center stage

A once in a lifetime occurrence is not a phrase easily attached to an event, but it’s what a group of Riverland students are attaching to four-day whirlwind trip that culminated in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in June at the Lincoln Center in New York.

The group of 14 performers (17 total traveled to New York) were part of a singing ensemble that gave them the opportunity to sing accompanied by a professional orchestra.

Amy Riley her son Phillip Riley and Ashley Hinz were just three of the performers who took part in the New York trip. - Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Sam Gustine and Samantha Johnson were among those that were afforded the chance to perform in the historical Lincoln Center.

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“It was a rare opportunity to sing in the Lincoln Center,” Gustine said.

Each year, Manhattan Concert Productions, the organization that produces the event, has made the offer to Riverland and colleges and high schools around the country, but since 2003 no group from Riverland has made the trip.

“The interest was there, but spending five days in New York is a major expenditure,” said RCC head of music Scott Blankenbaker. “We talked about doing it before, but it was always smaller groups. This group wanted to make the big trip.”

“They offered us the opportunity this year and we took it,” Gustine said.

It was an opportunity not to be missed and fixed itself in the performers memory right from the beginning.

“We walked in a side entrance and I thought it was a lot smaller than I thought it was,” Ashley Hinz said. “I was nervous when we were walking up the little staircases for rehearsal. I really didn’t want to screw up and we walked on stage and it was huge. It was a lot bigger than I thought it would be.”

The show was split into two different acts. The first half the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra performed followed by the National Festival Chorus. After intermission the New York Chamber Orchestra performed with selected colleges in the Masterworks Festival Chorus.

The director for this year’s presentation that the RCC students took part in was Dr. Donald Neuen, Director of Choral Activities at UCLA and it wasn’t easy.

It was four days of intense practice that had the ensemble rehearsing from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. each day. It felt a little surreal for Johnson.

“It was really weird,” Johnson said, describing the experience. “It didn’t even feel like we were in New York.”

Rehearsals were intense, often times seeming more like work than actually practice.

“After practices you were ready to be done,” Phillip Riley said. “The conductor was very thorough.”

And this was all after the work just to get there. The RCC performers held a variety of fundraisers including singing valentines, working for Pizza Ranch for a night, selling Papa Murphy’s gift cards, variety/bake sale and receiving donations from the public.

“Just going into it and being there is worth it,” Riley said of the work put into getting there. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Samantha Johnson gets the chance to meet Christin Milioti, star of the Broadway musicial, "Once." Photo provided

The rest of New York did peak in from time to time including the chance to see the Broadway musical, “Once,” that came away from this year’s Tony Awards with eight awards including “Best Musical” and “Best Actor.” It even allowed Johnson the chance meeting of the show’s lead actress, Cristin Milioti.

As the time for the presentation approached there were plenty of nerves.

“I was shaking,” Gustine said while Johnson added, “My heart stopped and I got this huge smile.”

But as the singing started it all fell into place and the reward, as many singers can attest may be the best, was the standing ovation the performance received at the end.

“I almost cried,” Johnson said.

“It was definitely the most amazing thing I’ve experienced,” Gustine said.

Watching from the crowd, Blankenbaker, who watched from the crowd, saw what his group’s hard work got them, especially from having seen them perform at Riverland in the past.

“I was very rewarding to see that and how hard they worked,” he said. “I think it paid off. I think they felt it was worth all the work they put into it.”

For the singer, it was more than performing. It was experience and learning.

“It gave me a lot of perspective and I learned a lot,” Gustine said. “Knowing I can [do this] is really a big boost to my drive.”

But as good of an experience as this was, for some like Johnson, some of the best parts came from other parts of the trip. For Johnson, it came to a focus during the Broadway play.

“I thought it was really amazing, but the Broadway show was life-changing for me,” she said. “I was in awe the entire time.”

What it all comes back to is the trip, from day one to the last day and it was an experience that no one will forget.

“The entire trip was a life-changing experience,” Riley said. “It was really fun. New York was nothing like I expected but everything I hoped it would be and more.”

Meet the performers

The following is the list of Riverland singers who took part in Handel’s “The Messiah,” at the Lincoln Center in New York: Sam Gustine Samantha Johnson Amy Riley Phillip Riley Caitlin Schulz Amelia Holcomb Jessica Williams Ashley Hinz Lacey Abrego Randy Hillberg Tyler Irvin Richard Green, Jr. Matt Maxa Ann Szymanski

The group poses for a photo before performing. Photo provided