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West Central Singers of Willmar, Minn., to perform at Carnegie Hall

Fifteen members of the West Central Singers group will perform as part of a Presidents Day concert Monday at Carnegie Hall in New York. (Tribune photos by Ron Adams)

Members of the West Central Singers -- based in Willmar -- are packing their bags today for a trip to New York City, where they'll be singing with a mass choir in a concert Monday at Carnegie Hall.

Are they excited about it?

"I think excitement is an understatement," laughed Jackie Cunningham, a soprano and longtime member of the regional chorus. "We're thrilled."

The singers have been waiting for this moment since last May, when they learned they were selected for the Presidents Day concert as part of the Distinguished Concerts International New York series.

"I think it's every musician's dream to perform in Carnegie Hall. It's going to be a really great experience," said John Jahr, director of the West Central Singers. "It's really something to be involved in a production of that size."

The concert series brings musicians together to learn, rehearse and perform at star venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, working under top-flight conductors to sharpen their skills.

Not all of the West Central Singers were able to make the trip. Fifteen of them signed up, including Jahr, who's trading his conductor's baton for a stint in the tenor section for this one concert. The group is arriving in New York on Friday, spending Saturday and Sunday morning in rehearsals, and joining a dress rehearsal Monday afternoon before Monday evening's performance.

More than 300 children and adult choristers are involved. The program will highlight the work of American choral composer Greg Gilpin, who also is conducting. There's a celebrity guest host too -- pop music star Clay Aiken.

Jahr said the West Central Singers had to audition last year for a spot on the Carnegie Hall stage. Clips from the group's 2011 spring concert were submitted for review by a panel of judges, who notified the singers the following month that they were chosen.

The 15 singers going to New York have spent the past several weeks rehearsing the repertoire they'll perform.

One of the pieces is a brand-new work by Gilpin, Jahr said. "We are actually singing from manuscript. It will be the world premiere for this piece."

Cunningham said she was surprised at first when the West Central Singers auditioned successfully, "and then thrilled.

"There's no other way to describe it. Carnegie Hall is a big deal."

She's especially excited about the chance to rehearse and perform with so many other vocalists from across the United States.

"It's going to be a great experience just getting to know other people and sharing your talents with other people," she said.

Jahr said it underscores the role music can play for people of all ages. "The fact that it's children and adults together is really important -- that music is a thing we can enjoy for our entire life," he said.

The West Central Singers was formed in 2001 and is in its 11th season. Jahr, who's also the music director at Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, has been the director since the fall of 2009.

The 35 members come from all across the region, he said. "Last year we had someone drive in from Morris to sing with us. Most of our members also are involved in their church choirs."

Cunningham, who said she's "one of what they jokingly call the charter members," has seen their local following grow over the past decade.

She hopes the addition of Carnegie Hall to the group's resumé will increase hometown audiences and encourage new singers to consider joining.

"Willmar has a lot of opportunities and we're glad to be one of those opportunities," she said.

Jahr said the next chance to hear the West Central Singers will be at the group's spring concert on May 6. "We'll be singing one of our Carnegie Hall pieces," he promised.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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