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Vestavia Hills Baptist music minister Johnson to conduct at Carnegie Hallcomment (0)

May 22, 2014

By Martine Bates Sharp

Vestavia Hills Baptist music minister Johnson to conduct at Carnegie Hall

Terre Johnson knows the answer to the old riddle “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He and the choir at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, along with other voices, have been engaged in “practice, practice, practice” for a late May performance since January.  

Johnson, music minister at Vestavia Hills Baptist in Birmingham Baptist Association, will conduct a premiere performance May 26 of his own work, “Missa Femina,” at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Included among the female voices will be several choir members from Vestavia Hills Baptist, along with members of Judson College’s chorus and a group from the New Jersey Choral Society. 

The composer has written short pieces before, but this is his first extended work. The idea came when Johnson, who also serves as adjunct professor in the music department at Judson, was invited to conduct a concert at Carnegie Hall by a former employer. 

“Since I was working with women’s voices at Judson, I suggested a concert for women’s choir, but then I couldn’t find a suitable piece. I decided I would write something,” he said. 

Composing the piece took Johnson about two months. 

“I thought about what I could do to make it notable and appropriate for feminine voices,” he said. The final piece was based on the traditional mass, with added solo sections that gave it a feminine flavor. Solo sections included portions from Deuteronomy and Isaiah in which God describes His care as that of a mother, and from Proverbs 3, in which Wisdom is presented in feminine terms. While the traditional portion is in Latin, the solo parts are in English.

Dedicated by the composer to his mother, Dorothy Johnson from Dothan, “Missa Femina” was previewed at Vestavia Hills Baptist on May 4 with about 200 feminine voices and 40 orchestra members. Singers included the Sanctuary Choir of Vestavia Hills Baptist, the Vestavia Hills High School Choirs, the Judson Singers, the Magic City Choral Society and soloist Sadie Frazier.  

The preview was part of the annual Betty Sue Shepherd Memorial Concert to raise money for a scholarship to support local students studying music. The scholarship was established in memory of Shepherd, who died in 2007. She taught piano at Samford University in Birmingham for 50 years and played the organ at Vestavia Hills Baptist for 35 years. This year’s concert raised more than $9,000 and marked the largest attendance in the history of the church, Johnson said.

The large crowd seemed to enjoy the performance, according to choir member Barbara Vandergriff, who sings in the sanctuary choir. 

Captive audience

“It was phenomenal. There was so much clapping — the audience didn’t want to stop clapping,” Vandergriff said. 

Although the preparation was intense, including having to learn to sing the traditional mass in Latin, Vandergriff had only praise for Johnson. “He has endeared himself to the choir. He is creative and energetic,” she said. “He makes sure the music is polished.” 

Although Vandergriff will not be able to travel to New York with the choir from Vestavia, she has high hopes for the performance. “I am praying that it will touch the people who hear it.” 

This will be Johnson’s fourth time to conduct a concert at Carnegie Hall and the first time for the singers from Judson to perform there. Some of his choir members have gone with him on previous trips. 

Johnson, who also has served at First Baptist Church, Dothan, and taught at Troy University, has been at Vestavia Hills Baptist for nine and a half years.

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