After Carnegie Hall high note, these Taconic students sing swan song for the rest of the school year

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PITTSFIELD — When Taconic High School choral students Cali Cybulski, Grace Grady and Ben Vengalil traveled to New York City earlier this year to play at Carnegie Hall, little did they know it would be their last public performance of the school year.

Like countless other venues, the world-class concert hall now remains silent amid the coronavirus pandemic. But for these three teenage singers, the experience of being on center stage still resonates with them.

"Being able to be with so many other people with the same love of music like I have was amazing," Vengalil said.

The three students were nominated to audition for the 2020 High School Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall by their Taconic chorus teacher, Jessica "Guz" Passetto. The choral director said she nominated the students "because of how passionate they are about singing and about getting better as students and as musicians." The three teens were among some 200 high school students performing in this year's international ensemble, under the direction of conductor Jeffery Redding.

Grady, a senior, and Vengalil, a junior, experienced the program for the first time, while Cybulski, a senior, made her encore as a finalist within the ensemble, which rehearsed and performed between Jan. 30 and Feb. 3. When not in rehearsal, students were able to explore The Big Apple with their musical peers and take in a Broadway show.

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"It's incredible students like us get the opportunity to go and do this," Cybulski said.

Students do have to raise the money to go on the trip, and they study the music independently to prepare for the program.

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This year's program included contemporary multipart selections such as "Joy" composed by Hans Bridger Heruth and "Modimo," an African song of praise rooted in a traditional Sesotho melody.

Being able to perform these works with, essentially, a stage full of strangers, Grady said, was "... so beautiful, so gratifying. I felt so connected to other and to the music."

Now, living in a time of discord, it's music that keeps them all connected with their classmates and friends, and keeps them going.

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The singers were two weeks away from performing in Taconic's spring musical, "The Wizard of Oz." Cybulski would have played Aunt Em, and Vengalil, The Tin Man, to Grady's Dorothy. Taconic chorus members also will miss out on a June tour planned through Scotland.

"It kind of sucks," Grady said of the missed opportunities. But, she said, she's "pretty content" with leaving Carnegie Hall as the feather in her senior year cap.

Grady's still singing every day. Cybulski said she's been listening to and discovering new choral music. Vengalil's been blasting "Smile" by Jay-Z and Gloria Carter, and teaching himself to play piano. They're continuing to connect with their classmates virtually, pursue their personal passions and plan for the future.

"You have to stay true to yourself and your heart. This [pandemic is] not going to last forever," Grady said.

"This doesn't have to be the last performance for us," Vengalil said. "We have to make the best of the kind of hand that's been dealt to us."


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