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Queens singers take center stage at Carnegie Hall

Heidi Best (r.), choral teacher at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, runs the student singers through a warmup during a rehearsal for the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert. Photo courtesy Richard Termine
TimesLedger Newspapers

The old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice,” could now sport a new punch line.

Although preparation and rehearsal remain key to headlining at Carnegie, it does not hurt your chances if you attend Astoria’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts or Forest Hills High School.

This weekend students from both Queens’ schools will perform selections from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music Project in the venerable hall’s Stern Auditorium. It’s a return visit for both borough groups.

“The first year Forest Hills did it, I think unanimously it was a great feeling,” Forest Hills Senior Benjamin Abjierov said.

The 17-year-old tenor, who has taken part in two previous Carnegie Hall concerts — including a program of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Osvaldo Golijov’s “La Pasión segĂșn San Marcos” — usually goes in for classical music, but said he was eager to expand his repertoire.

“The genre is different,” Abjierov said. “It’s a good feeling to get into the jazz world.”

Students begin rehearsing for the spring show not long after school starts in September. As the date nears, the number of sessions increases.

On a chilly Tuesday afternoon early last month, the basement practice room of the DiMenna Center on Manhattan’s West 37th Street was packed with student vocalists dressed all in black working their way through the song “David Danced.”

Damien Sneed, who’s listed under choral preparation in the concert’s program, bounces around the cavernous, wood-paneled, sound-proof practice hall leading the young singers.

The vocalists, arranged in four sections with the alto and soprano girls flanking either side of the bass and tenor boys, were having trouble jumping back into the lyrics after a instrumental interlude.

“Come on, you know people are paying to come hear you sing,” Sneed joked. “You need to open your mouth. Use your instrument. You’re not asking a question. It’s an exclamation.”

Ellington’s joyous composition brings elements of jazz, blues, choral and classical music with African-American spirituals and gospel.

Besides the students, professional singers, musicians and dancers will take part in the March 23 show.

The choirs include students from Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, the Upper Eastside’s Talent Unlimited High School and Harlem’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts as well as Forest Hills and Frank Sinatra. Performers from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra provide the music.

William Longerbeam, 18, a senior at Frank Sinatra is also participating in his third Carnegie Hall concert.

His first time out, he sang with the “Carmina Burana” choir and felt a little over-whelmed when things got started.

“It was intimidating,” Longerbeam said. “I had never sung a piece as difficult as that with as many people. But the music was amazing. It was a life-changing experience.”

Run under the auspices of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, the annual concerts were created to provide young musicians the opportunity to perform a major work, Joanna Massey, director of Weill’s school program, said.

“For the kids, it has really become a legacy for them,” Massey said. “Both Forest Hills and Frank Sinatra have been stalwarts of this program. They are both great schools. I would even say they are my rocks.”

If you go

Ellington’s Sacred Music

New York City High School Vocalists and Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra

When: Sunday, March 23, at 3 pm

Where: Carnegie Hall, 881 7th Ave., Manhattan

Cost: $15 - $35

Contact: (212) 247-7800

Website: www.carnegiehall.org

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