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New Zealand choir turns U.S. tour into occasion for healing

March 27, 2019

A small cultural exchange concert becomes a rally for unity and understanding

Vocal Collective had planned its U.S. tour for months. The 42-voice mixed chorus from Christchurch, New Zealand, had booked a performance with the Alexandria Harmonizers en route to New York City and Carnegie Hall. But what had been planned as a small concert welcoming offshore guests became an evening of healing and unity in the face of horror.

Just days before they were to depart, the tragedy unfolded: a mass shooting at a mosque in their hometown of Christchurch. With shock and confusion laying heavy on their hearts, and only a day to choose whether to leave their families and community, they decided to proceed with the trip. Immediately, their barbershop hosts in Alexandria sprang into action, transforming the event into a benefit concert, and delivering what ended up being a truly life-changing evening for all in attendance.

New Zealand Ambassador to the United States Rosemary Banks opened the evening with words of of encouragement and thanks to a sold-out crowd filling the grand auditorium in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. She set the tone for the whole event with her assessment that the evening would be “unity and love exemplified by music.”

Emcee Bill Colosimo, director of the 80-member Alexandria Singers, also welcomed Imam Zia and Ms. Fatimah Popal, co-founder of Makespace American Muslim Community, who spoke and offered comfort as well as appreciation for early responders and the outpouring of national support for their brothers and sisters who lost their lives in Christchurch mosques. She suggested that “music can soothe and will make our hearts lighter.”

Performances by the 80 men of the Alexandria Harmonizers barbershop chorus led off the show, followed by the chapter’s contemporary a cappella group TBD. The Harmonizers’ performance of Neil Diamond’s “America” paid tribute to immigration and inclusion of all people, and then involved the audience in singing “All You Need Is Love” with an interlude for everyone to hug and greet the person next to them.

The Alexandria Singers mixed chorus followed with pops music and a small group with Spanish guitar and dancers. During the show, emcee Bill announced that the two Alexandria choruses would be giving their share of the show’s profit to the New Zealand support fund, and that the venue hosts of the Masonic Memorial were also yielding their fee for the use of the hall to the fund raising effort.

The 40 singers from Christchurch took the stage next, with a crowd cheering and waving New Zealand flags. Artistic director Matthew Everingham spoke about the special treat to share the joy of their music with the other singers and the audience. A globe-spanning quartet of David Merriman and Ed Dempsey from Vocal Collective, Bill Colosimo from the Singers, and Andrew Havens from the Harmonizers sang the beloved “Now Is the Hour” in multiple languages. About 200 singers combined for the finale! The Harmonizers and Vocal Collective sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah, ”then the Alexandria Singers joined the stage for all three groups to sing Joe Liles’ original song and SATB arrangement of “Let There Be Music! Let There Be Love!”

Attendees at the show were encouraged to contribute to a victim support fund, and estimates are that the initial effort has raised close to $10,000.

The newsworthy event attracted local media from NBC and Fox, as well as a concert broadcast to Acaville Radio subscribers. Of course, an afterglow brought together a huge crowd of singers who sang and chatted until 3:00 am.

The next day, Vocal Collective moved on to New York with their hearts a bit soothed. Fatimah Popal later thanked the combined groups with an invitation to attend Friday prayer: “We had a very moving and uplifting evening yesterday witnessing your very talented groups do what they’re great at. The message of harmony and love was very evident. I wanted to take the time to thank you for inviting us to give remarks and enjoy the music. It was truly therapeutical for me -- I couldn’t stop crying.”

Accepting the invitation, about a dozen Harmonizers were able to attend, and director Joe Cerutti was asked to make a few remarks. “The first thing I heard when I walked in was singing. I didn’t know what words were being sung but I knew I could harmonize to it. The room was full of children, and I commented that if children see us working together more often, they will be more likely to work together inclusively when they grow up. Upon finishing my remarks, I was overwhelmed by the interest in visiting our rehearsal, literally dozens of people wanting to get involved.”