NEW YORK, N.Y.—Carnegie Hall’s stage has hosted some, if not most, of history’s most famous musical acts — and will now host one of Ithaca’s most famous groups for the first time.

The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers (DCJS) traveled to New York City at 2 a.m. on Thursday morning to prepare for their concert tomorrow, March 19, at 7 p.m. Rehearsals will then be held with the Fisk Jubilee Singers out of Nashville, Tennessee, who will perform with DCJS at the event, closing out a program also featuring the New England Symphonic Ensemble.

Dr. Baruch Whitehead, the conductor of the DCJS, said the offer to perform came to him from Dr. Paul Kwami, the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. That was before the pandemic, leading to two years of stress and prayer for Whitehead, especially as he simultaneously coordinated the trip over the last two months and hoped the performance wouldn’t be postponed by COVID-19.

“Delta came through, and we were thinking, ‘Okay, we got through that,’ then Omicron came through,” Whitehead said. “I’ve been on edge for two months, not knowing if they were going to cancel or reschedule the concert. But it’s happening. […] I am genuinely very, very excited about this opportunity, not only for myself but for people from the community. From Ithaca, my little community, to have a chance to perform at one of the top venues in the world.”

Now just over 24 hours away, Whitehead said he can finally relax — right up until the nerves truly escalate when it’s time to hit the stage. Whitehead himself will be leading one of the songs, “My God is a Rock,” a Negro spiritual arranged by Stacy Gibbs, according to Whitehead, which will feature DCJS member Maria Ellis Jordan as a soloist. Unfortunately, Whitehead said Carnegie Hall will not be providing live streaming options for those who are unable to make it.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, people don’t just go and sing at Carnegie Hall,” Whitehead said. He likened it to the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers’ performance at the Kennedy Center in 2017. (Video here)

The connection was initially made when the Fisk Jubilee Singers came to Ithaca for a Cornell concert series. Whitehead, a longtime admirer of Fisk’s storied history in the preservation and perpetuation of Black spiritual music, asked Kwami if the two groups could collaborate for a workshop. Kwami and Whitehead were impressed with each other’s groups and the cohesion between the two, and a few years later Kwami invited DCJS to join Fisk at Carnegie Hall for Saturday’s performance.

“He was impressed with us, and Fisk is just perfection,” Whitehead said, laughing. “The invitation came, and we were able to do some fundraising to get everybody there, and that’s how the opportunity came to life.”

Whitehead said DCJS will be bringing most of the voices for the performance, as Fisk’s selectivity leaves it at just 16 members. Concert organizers wanted more singers for the production, and DCJS can certainly provide that: Whitehead said they will be bringing 74 current and former members to sing on stage, some coming via plane and bus from other parts of the country for the performance. They will be joined by 23 students from Ithaca College, where Whitehead teaches.

The opportunity comes after an arduous period during the COVID-19 pandemic for DJCS.

“It’s been a struggle, we’d been virtual for the last two years, we just started back in-person rehearsals last semester,” Whitehead said. “Trying to keep things going, financially we’ve been hurting because we’ve been unable to do concerts and people aren’t able to donate as they would normally do. But we’ve been able to keep everybody together, and our main thing was how to keep everybody safe.”

DCJS members, emerging from that low period, have been excitedly working hard to prepare for the 30-minute show. Saturday’s show, at Carnegie Hall’s largest auditorium that can seat nearly 3,000 people, seems certain to go a long way to fulfilling the absence of live audiences during most of the pandemic.

“It can seem very sterile, to put it all together and put it out there with no interaction with the audience,” Whitehead said. “It’s great to have that, particularly with this type of music. […] The audience ministers to us as well as we minister to us through these songs. It’s a give-and-take relationship.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com