While most people are focused on their loved ones this Valentine season, The Heritage Ensemble will be focused on a different love—singing. The group’s upcoming performance marks their debut appearance at the famed Carnegie Hall.
Heritage Ensemble Founder and Artistic Director Sharon Samuels Reed said the group will be in New York February 10 to 14, with a performance at 8 p.m., February 13. “We’ll perform the New York premiere of ‘Psalm 150’ under the baton of composer/conductor John Rutter. This was written for the Aueen’s Golden Jubilee. Additionally, we’ll perform ‘Feel the Spirit,’ a cycle of Negro spirituals, which is 30 minutes long. We’re also waiting confirmation on a concert possibility in Harlem.”
The Ensemble received the invitation to perform through then-member Mary Ann Fahey Darling. “She was in touch with conductor Jonathan Griffith for her own purposes, and she recommended us. He called and extended the invitation. Fortunately, we have a board of directors that’s very supportive of our efforts. They said they would support the opportunity, and the choir accepted,” she said.
Reed said preparation for the performance has been quite challenging, especially for ‘Psalm 150.’ “The musical demands are very challenging for a community choir that meets once per week. The Ensemble has approached this as we do everything, and they’re working very hard and achieving a great deal of success. They’re very excited. The cycle of spirituals has also proved challenging. The style of Rutter’s spiritual is a bit different than what they’re accustomed to singing. It’s a great learning experience for all of us.”
The Heritage Ensemble, which first performed as a group in 1999, was formed like many groups are—by happy accident. “I was contacted by Peoria Players to direct Dreamgirls 10 or 11 years ago, and I sought out community singers I knew by reputation and asked them to contact others they knew. We were able to assemble an award-winning cast. This community hadn’t had the privilege of hearing many of these singers and was in for quite a treat. We developed a respect for each other and a support system. These performers later contacted me on several occasions and asked, ‘When will we do something else?’ Most of these people are community activists and leaders in their own right, which explains their eagerness to be so involved with enhancing this community’s cultural offering.”
The next opportunity came when Reed’s sorority produced the concert version of Porgy and Bess. “Again, I called upon the network and recruited even more. This time, an even more diverse group of performers was assembled. By now, we, as a group, were strongly committed to changing the face of fine arts productions in Peoria to become more inclusive,” she said.
Other occasions were presented to them over the years—Ebony Broadway at the Apollo, Ain’t Misbehavin, and Sophisticated Ladies—which kept the group connected. In 1999, Opera Illinois Artistic Director Dr. Fiora Contino contacted Reed, asking her to become chorus master for the opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. Reed accepted. “I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this so easily if we didn’t already have a group of performers who served as the core group for what is now The Heritage Ensemble,” she said.
Contino encouraged Reed to keep the group together and formalize a name that would be easily recognizable, and The Heritage Ensemble was born. Part of the organization’s mission statement reads: “The Heritage Ensemble exists to celebrate the culture and history of African Americans through music. People of all cultures will be exposed to the diversity, beauty, richness, and complexity of musical literature born out of the African American experience. Whether it’s through our singing or the message in our music, The Heritage Ensemble strives to tear down the walls and build bridges between all people.”
In keeping with the mission statement, the group performs Negro spirituals most often, Reed said. “This music, though born out of negative, humiliating, degrading human experiences, is absolutely beautiful. The body of literature is very rich. It’s our goal to familiarize more people with it, both as an art form, as well as its importance in the only true American art form—jazz. Our performances are intended to exude pride in our history and culture and to expose others to our wonderful legacy, as well as invite their participation and celebration thereof.”
Reed said current membership is at 35—including herself, the accompanist, and the director. “We aren’t looking for more at this time because we’re in concentrated rehearsals preparing for New York. The membership is kept small to keep it an ensemble. We’ll grow some, but it isn’t my desire to increase it by more than another five or so at some point. We’re such a close, committed group. This ambiance would be difficult to maintain with a huge choir.”
When there are membership openings, Reed said the group prays together that those who are considered for inclusion will come in the same spirit that keeps them focused. “The members are very serious about it. We have something very special that none of us, in all of our collective wisdom, can explain. We’re very guarded of that special connection. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re certain prayer has played a major role in the success of The Heritage Ensemble. Our membership has been pretty consistent. We’re very fortunate—no, we’re blessed.”
Reed, who also serves as director of Fine Arts for the Peoria Public Schools, said The Heritage Ensemble’s mission for the community includes growing together and becoming richer as a result of the Ensemble’s existence. “The mission is very clear to me. It’s not only the mission of the Ensemble, it’s my personal mission in life to make the world a better place than I found it growing up in a segregated society.”
Spreading the message of The Heritage Ensemble through their performance at Carnegie Hall is a good start. “To say we’re excited is an understatement. It’s a musician’s dream to perform in Carnegie Hall, and we’ll have that dream become a reality. I’m still in shock. I also fully realize my responsibility in providing all of the performers with a positive musical experience. It’s exciting and it makes me nervous all at the same time,” Reed said.
The group’s ambition won’t end with the New York performance, however. ”We’d like to continue on the path of being one of the exquisite choral gems in the community and beyond,” she said. “Further, it’s our ultimate goal to become a mentoring organization for youth in this community. We’ll reach out to youth and spread the message of the Ensemble in hopes of making a real difference in their lives, as well. We believe we’re on the right track to something phenomenal. Our membership, as well as our board of directors, is a diverse organization that believes we can indeed tear down walls and build bridges between all people.” AA!