At former first lady Rosalynn Carter’s memorial service, where the music was such an important element, members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Chamber Chorus were acutely aware of the honor bestowed upon them.And, their singing was particularly emotional because of the love and respect they have for the woman in whose memory they were singing -- and for the mourners they sought to comfort through song.
“The Carters are like members of an extended family,” Wanda Yang Temko, a soprano who has sung with the chorus for more than 30 years, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s how it felt for many of us who were on the stage on Tuesday.”
Mrs. Carter, as she was affectionately called by many, selected most of the songs and hymns performed during the service herself. And she selected the chamber chorus, part of the larger ASO chorus, one of the most respected in the nation, to sing them. Members of the ASO Chamber Chorus said Carter’s personal touch, combined with the gravity of the occasion, added pressure and emotion to their role in what turned out to be a beautiful celebration of a uniquely impactful life.
“The words I’d use to describe Tuesday: Extraordinary, unforgettable, awe-inspiring,” said Yang Temko.
“I was there on the edge of history,” said Marcia Chandler, an alto with the chorus since 1998.
Despite prior coordination between the Carter Center, ASO and Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, Carter’s death on Nov. 19 created some logistical challenges. Many ASO Chamber Chorus members had already left town for Thanksgiving on Monday, Nov. 20, when the group assembled for the first of two rehearsals ahead of the service.
Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com
Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com
Despite the challenges of holiday travel, a large contingent of the Chamber Chorus was able to rehearse the following Monday, one day before the service.
“Those of us who were invited did everything we could to be present, because we knew how special this occasion would be,” Yang Temko said. “It was electric from the first moment.”
The service was an all-day affair for the chorus members, who needed to be at Glenn Memorial on the Emory University campus hours ahead of time for rehearsal and security reasons. Chandler requested the day off from her job at Georgia Tech to perform at the service, and others had to take extreme measures.
“I had a colleague who was supposed to fly out Tuesday (Nov. 28) for a gig, and she changed that flight and her gig people understood. They were supportive one hundred percent,” Yang Temko said.
For a group that includes many of Atlanta’s most talented and accomplished singers, Carter’s song selections were familiar. Many of the songs were written by women, including “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” by Sarah Flower Adams; “Blessed Assurance,” by Fanny Crosby and Phoebe Knapp; and even “America the Beautiful,” whose first verse was written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893.
Other songs performed by the chorus included “Wondrous Love” and “Saints Bound for Heaven,” both arranged by Alice Parker and the late Robert Shaw, former director of the ASO Chorus, as well as “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from “Requiem” by Johannes Bach.
“The only difference from our recent renderings (of Requiem) was we sang it in English, and normally we do it in German,” Chandler said.
Both singers said they felt a personal connection to Rosalynn and former President Jimmy Carter, which had only been enhanced by their distinguished singing careers.
Chandler grew up in a small town in northern Florida where her father worked as an agricultural extension agent. She was a teenager when the Carters were in the White House and felt a kinship to the family of peanut farmers from Plains, Georgia.
Chandler recalled that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attended Coretta Scott King’s funeral in 2006, along with then-President George W. Bush and former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, when the ASO Chorus performed. Yang Temko mentioned their performance for the gala event celebrating Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize at Atlanta Symphony Hall in 2003.
Yang Temko, who received her undergraduate degree at Emory, said the Carters had long been an important influence in her life. In college, she attended one of Jimmy Carter’s regular town hall meetings with students despite her demanding performing arts schedule.
Credit: WSBTV Videos
In 2018, Yang Temko traveled with her family to perform at the Kennedy Center in New York City when she had a chance encounter with Carter. She and her husband, also an ASO Chorus member, had recently adopted sisters daughters from China, and the four were on a plane that seemed to be taking a long time to board.
Eventually, Jimmy Carter walked down the aisle with Secret Service detail, shaking hands with many passengers. Yang Temko’s 11- and 13-year-old daughters met Carter on their flight, an experience Yang Temko said the young citizens would never forget.
While the ASO Chorus has performed at many high-profile events, Yang Temko and Chandler were impressed with the dignitaries who attended Rosalynn Carter’s service.
Yang Temko said she looked across the front row to see who among the former presidents and first ladies were singing.
“(Hillary) Clinton won that. She was looking in the program for words, but she knew the hymns,” Yang Temko said, adding that first ladies Jill Biden and Michelle Obama also sang, but “Presidents (Bill) Clinton and (Joe) Biden were more reserved.”
“I have it in my mind that, as I was surveying the group, I looked at Michelle Obama and I smiled at her, and she smiled back at me,” Chandler said with a laugh. “It probably didn’t happen, but in my mind, it happened.”
Both singers said they were proud of their performance with the eyes of the world turned to Rosalynn Carter’s memorial.
“In the soprano section... our sisterhood is so tight that we all knew that, even if we were a little wobbly, there were enough of us to keep going,” Yang Temko said. “We really leaned on each other for energy and support, because we all knew how special the day was every step of the way.”
“I thought we did a great job, but it wasn’t really about us,” Chandler said. “It was about executing the wishes that Mrs. Carter so thoughtfully and carefully put together.”
Henri Hollis is a reporter for the breaking news team. Formerly a freelance writer and photographer working with the food and dining section, he began covering breaking news full-time in January 2021. He is a lifelong Atlantan and a graduate of Georgia Tech.