Lynn’s ‘A Family Portrait’ earns standing ovation at Carnegie Hall

Choir tour would not be complete without a love story or two

Manchester University Professor Debra Lynn conducted her “A Family Portrait” oratorio at the legendary Carnegie Hall on Memorial Day. The performance received a standing ovation.

The May 30 concert included members of the Manchester University A Cappella Choir, alumni and friends, as well as choirs from Ridgevue High School in Nampa, Idaho, and Boonville High School in Boonville, Missouri.

Lynn’s multi-layered composition includes musical quotations and themes from folk songs, hymns and children’s songs. The choristers were accompanied by the New England Symphonic Ensemble and hammered dulcimer musician Becky Walter of Columbia City, Indiana.

Lynn wrote the oratorio based on a collection of family letters from the Civil War era – a fitting tribute to the solemn Memorial Day holiday. A descendant of the Houghtaling family, mezzo-soprano Judy Marlett, discovered the letters, brought them to Lynn and was a featured soloist at the Carnegie Hall performance.

“A Family Portrait” uses the words of late 19th-century letters written by three of Marlett’s relatives from New York State: Tyler Houghtaling was a Union soldier; Lanie Houghtaling died in her early 20s leaving two young children; and Percy Houghtaling was Lanie’s child and Marlett’s grandfather.

One section of the oratorio celebrates the love of Percy and his betrothed, which is a right and proper connection to a Manchester choir tour tradition. You know, it just wouldn’t be a tour without a little romance.

Love in the air


Paul-and-Kathy-Fry-MillerKathy and Paul Fry-Miller fell in love almost 50 years ago on a choir tour. So, how did they celebrate? Another choir tour.

Kathy and Paul were in A Cappella Choir together starting in the fall of 1972. They fell in love during a weeklong tour to Churches of the Brethren in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the spring of 1973.

“I did my junior year abroad that fall, Paul came to Europe on a Jan term trip with Ken Brown (the Lifestyles in England course). Our relationship survived that year of being mostly apart, and we were back in choir together our senior year. Got married a week after we both graduated from MC in ’75,” Kathy Fry-Miller said.

While in New York, they celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary. 

Jennifer-Wagner-Brandon-Albin-2022The 2022 tour celebrated a new beginning for Jennifer Wagner ’22 and Brandon Albin ’22. They met their freshman year through choir and first began to hang out with Amira Siddiqui ’22 and Ben Tipton ’22 on the choir retreat that September. The four often went on late night Casey's runs to hang out, eat and decompress.

“It was a good support group,” Wagner said. “After we came back the beginning of our junior year – after COVID – the four of us went on a Casey’s run and it just occurred to both of us at the same time that there could be potential there.”

“We began hanging out more by ourselves and started dating October of 2020. By Valentine’s Day 2021 we pretty much knew we wanted to be together permanently and get engaged, so he gave me a promise ring,” she said.

The New York tour, “ending our college career and beginning our new lives together” seemed like it would be a sweet time for a proposal, Wagner said, adding that “he isn’t particularly good at keeping secrets from me.”

“We ended up walking to Wagner’s Cove (the actual name) in Central Park with Ben and students Connor Hamilton and Mason Kniola, and Brandon proposed.”

The two are moving to Colorado while she completes her master’s degree in vocal performance at University of Northern Colorado.

The wedding? It will be in Petersime Chapel. Of course.

This proposal came between intense rehearsals over a few short days. Finally, everything came together onstage in one magnificent performance that had the audience on its feet. As soon as the concert ended, everyone rushed to buses – most still in concert dress – to catch a late-night cruise to the Statue of Liberty. 

Debra-Lynn-on-harbor-cruiseJoy Warner '68 Stiffler shared her favorite photo from the ship, a joyful snapshot of Lynn during the Hudson River cruise.

“It was such fun to be there with her, singing her music, and she was conducting. I don't think it gets any better than that! What an amazing lady,” Stiffler said. “Even rehearsals are so fun with her because she switches into teacher mode so easily. Love this lady so much!”

Lynn conducted at Carnegie Hall twice before, in 2001 and 2007. This is the first time she was invited to conduct her own work in the world-renowned New York performance space.

She serves as director of choral organizations and vocal studies at MU’s North Manchester campus. Choral ensembles under her direction include the A Cappella Choir, Chamber Singers and Cantabile. She is conductor and artistic director of the Manchester Symphony Orchestra, a collaboration that includes Manchester students, employees, residents of Wabash County and other northern Indiana musicians.

–Anne Gregory