WAVERLY — With Lee Nelson’s national reputation as a choir conductor and the well-known success of annual “Christmas With Wartburg” concerts, it’s a pretty sure bet Distinguished Concerts International New York didn’t pull his name out of a hat.
But Nelson was still surprised — and thrilled — when he received an invitation to conduct a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“The Glory of Freedom” festival is at 1 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, coinciding with Presidents Day weekend.
“I’ve had the amazing good fortune of having been asked to conduct there before, but every time there’s the same humbling sensation that washes over me. It’s one of the great concert halls in the world, and the greatest orchestras and conductors have performed and conducted there,” said Nelson, director of the Wartburg Choir, the Ritterchor and the Patricia R. Zahn Endowed Chair in choral conducting at Wartburg College.
Nelson will conduct composer Randall Thompson’s “The Testament of Freedom” in honor of Presidents Day. Featured performers include the West Point Alumni Glee Club, an ensemble of retired West Point graduates.
Thompson wrote the composition in 1943 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of President Thomas Jefferson’s birth. At the time, the piece sent an uplifting message to American troops and sailors during World War II.
“All the texts are words taken out of different letters written by Jefferson,” Nelson explains. “This work has quite a storied history with men’s choirs, but the most memorable performance may have been when Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed it in 1945.”
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The piece was scheduled to be performed at Carnegie Hall on April 14, 1945. After the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt two days earlier, the decision was made that rather than cancel the concert, it would be performed in memory of Roosevelt.
“That history just adds more drama and importance to performing the composition this year on President’s Day weekend,” the conductor explained, describing the work “as very dramatic with hymn-like melodies.”
Nelson will conduct 250 singers for “The Testament to Freedom.” Performers will have rehearsed with their own choirs to prepare the music, and Nelson will have two rehearsals and a dress rehearsal with the full choir prior to the festival’s opening.
Nelson is particularly excited to bring 45 singers from Wartburg’s all-male Ritterchor to perform in Carnegie Hall. “You should have seen their faces light up and jaws drop to the floor when they heard the college would be represented,” he said. “It’s so exciting to have some of our men’s choir willing to bolster the DCINY choir.”
Other choir members are coming from Connecticut, Georgia, Virginia, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and Florida, as well as the MFL MarMac Men’s Quartet from Monona.
In addition, the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International will perform works by Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Arturo Marquez and others.