In his 43-year career, Dr. Dan Jackson, chair of the Department of Music, has had many honors and opportunities. This May, standing on the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York preparing to conduct a choir made up of students and alumni spanning those four decades was especially meaningful for a number of reasons.
For one, the Covid-19 pandemic had been a difficult time for students, including singers. Conducting a choir over Zoom was not easy. However, Jackson always encouraged his students that things wouldn’t be this way forever. Now, they were before a live audience once more and at one of the most prestigious venues in the world. For another, Jackson had faced some health difficulties but was now on the other side. But most of all, it was the fact that he was there with so many students and alumni who represented so many more of the people with whom Jackson has shared his life and career.
The opportunity to conduct at Carnegie Hall, perhaps the most famous music venue in the world, was presented to Jackson in January 2022 by the executive director of the American Choral Directors Association in conjunction with the New England Symphony. They were planning a special concert series celebrating MidAmerica Productions’ 40th season, and they wanted Jackson to be one of the special guest conductors.
“Normally, they provide the choir, orchestra, and Met quality soloists. All you do is get up there and conduct,” Jackson explained.
However, Dr. Jo Clemmons, director of PLNU’s Center for Teaching and Learning as well as an opera singer, suggested that Jackson ask if he could bring his own choir made up of students and alumni from his career.
After a meeting in Long Beach, the answer was yes. Jackson also wanted to bring a student guitarist, Makena Williams (23), as a featured soloist on one of their songs. Williams had performed the song with the choir on a recording during the pandemic. This would be a chance for her to play live. At first, the coordinators were hesitant because they usually use their own professional instrumentalists. However, after hearing the recording of her playing, they said yes to her participation as well.
“I’m turning 66 this year,” Jackson said. “I’m probably in my last five years of teaching. I had to pitch it to them!”
Then the preparations began. Jackson invited many of his past singers from both PLNU and Mt. Whitney High School where he taught earlier in his career. Some thought his email was a joke at first because the opportunity just seemed too good to be true!
He also invited the students currently in PLNU Concert Choir. By the October 2022 deadline, approximately 80 people had committed. Some were in Hawaii, others in Alaska, and one as far away as Switzerland.
“Dr. Jackson was a formative professor in my time at PLNU,” explained Kjirsten Swanson (16). “He genuinely cares about his students and his profession. When he reached out to me to join him at Carnegie, I couldn’t even imagine saying no or taking time to think about it. He went out of his way to make a personal connection when I was at PLNU and always created a space of authentic welcome. I was privileged enough to bring my mom [Lenore Swanson (85)] along to sing with me. Sharing the special occasion with my first vocal coach and biggest advocate is something I never thought I would be able to do.”
The singers of all ages and locations worked to learn the music from recordings Jackson sent them.
The songs Jackson chose were reflective of God’s presence with us during the pandemic and during difficult times in general. The first piece was a South African traditional song Jackson arranged, “Wahamba Nathi,” or “He will walk with us.”
“Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the fire, he will be with you,” Jackson said.
The next two songs were both “Domine Ad Adjuvandum Me Festina,” the first version by Vivaldi from the Baroque time period and the second by Martini who composed between the Baroque and classical periods.
“The meaning of those songs is ‘Lord, hear our prayer and answer quickly,’” Jackson said. “We were all praying a lot during the pandemic.”
“When we were on Zoom, I told the students so many times: it won’t be like this forever. Just hold on.”
The next selection, “Lake Isle” by Ola Gjeilo, featured Makenna Williams on classical guitar along with PLNU pianist Melva Morrison (75) and the New England Symphony.
“It’s a song about a beautiful place in Ireland,” Jackson said. “We all need a place to go to in hard times, whether it’s on our knees or a physical place, like the beach where my wife and I took walks during the pandemic.”
The fifth piece was Eriks Esenvald’s “Lux Aeterna,” which means “Requiem for the Dead.” It was chosen to honor those lost to Covid-19.
The last song was “Hold On,” arranged by Jackson.
“When we were on Zoom, I told the students so many times: it won’t be like this forever. Just hold on,” he said.
David Amrein, the singer who made the trip from Switzerland, was in one of Jackson’s Mt. Whitney High choirs in the ’80s.
“Dan’s own story, the way he picked the songs and what it meant for him, at one of the rehearsals, he elaborated on it,” Amrein said. “The authors of these pieces put a lot of thought and emotion into [each song]. To make it your own and bring that across in the concert, I felt that was very important. We weren’t just rendering pieces. It also meant something to us personally.”
After months of preparation, the time came for everyone to meet in New York. The rehearsals were like a big reunion for many of the singers, but after a short time of reconnecting, they were ready to work. Although Jackson was fighting a virus and the singers hadn’t rehearsed together before, the challenges remained minimal and after the first five minutes of rehearsal, any worries about the limited practice time together were alleviated by the quality of the combined voices.
“I mostly learned the pieces at home with the audio files,” Amrein said. “At the first rehearsal, all doubts were gone. When everyone was singing, it was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be great!”
The venue also lived up to their greatest expectations.
Jackson’s personal dressing room was one Judy Garland had favored. In addition to being equipped with amenities and a private shower, it also came with a bodyguard.
Williams, the guitarist, said, “The backstage area is huge. There are so many changing, preparation, and warm-up rooms. The backstage area takes up five or six floors.”
After a few practices, it was time for the dress rehearsal, which was the first time the singers practiced with the orchestra. Then, at last, it was time for the performance. Jackson was in his private suite and the choir was in a holding room. He was told that he didn’t need to go check on the choir; the staff would have them onstage, looking great.
“But that’s not me,” Jackson said. “I like to talk to the choir ahead of time. I said, ‘I know you will take care of them, but I just want to see them.’ When I came in, they all started clapping. Then it got quiet. I told them about a text I had received from one of the Carnegie alumni singers from 1991 earlier that day that said, ‘We are so excited, and Dr. Jackson, all we want to do is make you proud.’ I said, ‘Guys, I’m already proud of you. However, you sound, whatever happens out there, to see that you have grown up to be amazing human beings and followers of Christ, it means everything to me.’ We held hands and prayed. When we were praying, we said, ‘Thank you for this talent, Lord, but we give it all back to you. We are nothing without you.’”
“A highlight for me was our time in the back room of Carnegie Hall before we went out on stage, where several students shared how thankful they were to be singing together again with reminders of what a wonderful experience Concert Choir had been in college,” said Carly Cosentino (10). “We prayed together, and I felt our hearts being truly united in the Lord. We knew that when we walked out onto that stage, we would be showing the love of God through song to our audience, and we prayed that people would be touched by His presence.”
“It was really cool to see a group of about 70-80 people hold hands and pray together. It was really powerful.”
Williams also highlighted the prayer time as being particularly meaningful.
“One part of the day of the performance that was really powerful was when the choir, Melva, and I got to pray together. It was one of those ‘popcorn’ type of prayers where a lot of people spoke. It was really cool to see a group of about 70-80 people hold hands and pray together. It was really powerful.”
At last, it was time to take the stage.
“You hear about Carnegie and how Tchaikovsky was the first conductor on that stage,” Jackson said. “The history of the auditorium is amazing. It’s iconic and known worldwide. But that was a tenth of my pleasure. The rest was sharing the stage with my students and former students.”
“For sure being on stage was really cool,” Williams said. “The audience was everywhere you look. It sounds scary, but somehow it wasn’t. It was really cool to see the audience. It wasn’t pitch black, so I spotted my family in the balcony while I was performing.”
“It was a joyous feeling to be able to sing together and experience the fantastic acoustics in this hall that is known throughout the world,” said Cosentino. “Dr. Jackson was beaming the whole time; in fact, we all were! We celebrated with a fabulous dinner cruise after the concert where we could stand out in the cool night air and take pictures of the breathtaking views of the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline. This truly was a fantastic experience, and I am so thankful I could join so many former classmates and choir members in singing praises to the Lord!”
“The highest honor that a choir conductor can have is to perform at the ACDA National Convention,” Jackson said. “I was afforded the opportunity to do so three times before — at the Kennedy Center, Copley Symphony Hall, and the Cockrell Theater in San Antonio. [Being at Carnegie] felt like that. What made this performance so special was the alumni being there. That was surreal.”
One of the things that made the experience so memorable for Amrein was thinking about the people there. Most are not professional musicians – he is a business owner who plays piano and participates in theater, but he hadn’t sung in a choir in decades. He knew the same was true for others. He also knew how hard some of the students had to work to raise the money they needed for the trip.
“It takes someone like Dan Jackson to bring so many people together,” he said. “He has an incredible talent of bringing together normal people and making them produce something amazing.”
For Amrein, the work, the comradery, and the adventure are all part of what made the trip worthwhile. They are what will make it a lifelong memory.
“All I can say to these younger kids now in university,” said Amrein, “is they have to do this kind of stuff. It’s the only thing that has staying power at the end of the day. It’s what has staying power, and it has staying power for the rest of your life. It was the same kind of feeling it was 35 years ago, being in a choir, doing it together. Not one person could sing those pieces alone. It takes 80 people to do it.”
“Dr. Jackson is a spectacular director and genuinely cares for the people around him,” added Swanson. “Being able to support him in his conducting at Carnegie will not even scratch the surface of what I feel I owe him as a mentor and brother in Christ. I am so thankful that he thought of me to join this choir, and I would drop everything all over again to tour with him if he asked.”
Although Jackson certainly isn’t finished with his career yet, he also appreciates the magnitude of the experience and special time it will always be to everyone there. In that way, even though it isn’t the end, it was still a culmination. For Jackson, however, staying humble is easy.
“All I want is to represent the university, the students, and the Lord in the best way possible,” Jackson said. “That’s your legacy. Who cares about anything else?”