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Ensemble brings music to highlands

Ordinarily, everyday music is not capable of evoking strong emotion, but when truly beautiful music is made, it strikes a deep, resonant chord in the hearts of those listening. This is exactly what the Westminster Ensemble accomplished when they traveled up to Highlands, North Carolina from Oct. 20th to Oct. 21st to perform at the local church.

The Westminster Ensemble consists of 24 voices, 12 male and 12 female. In order to earn a place within the group, each and every member had to complete a comprehensive audition. If a student passes, he or she is automatically guaranteed a spot in either Men’s or Women’s A Cappella, respectively.

For their annual trip, the Ensemble almost always travels to Europe over spring break. The group has visited many well-known cities in the past, such as Prague, London, and Budapest, and the woman coordinating all of the Ensemble’s travel arrangements is Betty Fuller, the former president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Her daughter and her grandchildren attended Westminster, and to this day, she still remains active in the musical life of this school. Two years ago, Fuller first asked Fred Scott, the director of choral music, if there was any possibility of bringing the Ensemble to her Highlands home. This year, a viable date was finally found.

“The trip was essentially a thank you to Betty Fuller for being such a great travel agent for us, for being such a great supporter of music in Atlanta, for being such a great alumni mom,” said Scott.

The trip was also an opportunity for returning and new Ensemble members to spend some getting to know each other outside of school.

“There’s a great family feeling about traveling with the Ensemble; it is really and truly like family,” said Scott. “We get to know each other. We eat together, we play together, we ride buses together. It really creates a very special human bond.”

When the Ensemble reached Highlands on Saturday afternoon, the first item on their agenda was a mountain hike. Once everyone reached the top, they were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the entire town from Sunset Rock.

“They say that once a year, you can see the sun setting from one side and the moon rising from the other,” said junior Emily Weeks.

However, the Ensemble came to Highlands with a purpose, and that purpose was to perform. After the hike and dinner, the group rehearsed for two hours before turning in for the night.

“We’re really there on a musical mission,” said Scott. “It’s like playing a game, a football game. We’re going to score.”

On Sunday morning, everyone rose bright and early to cram in yet another rehearsal.

“We were all really tired because we all stayed up the night before talking,” said Weeks. “It’s such a great group of people that it’s really hard to go to bed when go on the trips.”

The Ensemble sang a few hymns at the morning church service, and after lunch, the group staged a 30-minute afternoon concert that included both secular and religious music.

“The whole beauty of choral music to me is that you can only accomplish things when you’re singing with someone else,” said Scott. “As soon as you’re with others ‘in chorus’, the payback is immense. The emotional and spiritual rewards are great, too.” And indeed, the concert was filled with amazing, unforgettable moments.

“The atmosphere and the people at the church were really warm and inviting,” said Weeks, a soprano. “It was a really great feeling afterwards, because you could tell we made some people’s day and they made our day. We love being up there singing.”

Because the Ensemble is going to Italy this coming spring, their concert repertoire this school year includes pieces by famous Italian composers such as Rossini and Donizetti. However, one part of their program is a “love and marriage” setup that includes songs such as “This Marriage” by Eric Whitacre and an a cappella rendition of “In My Life” by The Beatles, as well as “Set Me as a Seal”, a song from a scripture by René Clausen.

“One of my favorite parts was when Sandy Sharis had an amazing solo [in Ave Maria],” said senior Matthew Greene, a tenor. “She has an amazing voice and people wanted to cry every time. It was a very big highlight.”

Another well-known piece that the Ensemble sang was “A Gaelic Blessing”, a benediction for the people.

“I looked out and everyone was smiling as if they’d heard it before,” said Greene. “It was like a childhood memory, and it was really nice.”

The last piece performed, “The Carnival”, was a favorite of many members.  It is a theatrical but fun, fast-paced Italian song that tells the tale of young children that run around a carnival, pretending to be blind and then stealing people’s pocketbooks when they aren’t looking.

“We all had this absurd urge to run down aisles of the church at the end and pick up pocketbooks as we went!” said Weeks.

At the end of the day, the Ensemble packed their bags and headed back home to Georgia. They had left behind the mountains and town of Highlands, but the success of the performance still lingering in their minds long after their final piece had concluded.

“The great thing about Ensemble is that we all love and appreciate music and we have these pieces that we sing over and over, but no matter how many times we sing it, we love the music,” said Weeks. “No matter what we’re doing, we always have a great time.”

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