Young Choral Singers Make a Joyful Noise

By Cecelia Porter
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The first concert of what is planned to be an annual event -- the Washington, D.C., Choral Festival -- took place at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday. At a time when music continues to be sidelined in American education, it was heartening to see three champion high school choruses and a local university group fill more than three hours with splendid singing that was almost on the level of many professional choirs.

Besides the youngsters' technical finesse, their joy -- mirrored in their faces -- filled their music with unmistakable exuberance. Each choir also had a different style and choral tone.

The Sherando Chorus of Sherando High from Stephens City, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, opened the concert led by its conductor, A. Steve Jennings. The group has won many awards, giving concerts across the country and internationally. On Monday the Sherando singers gave elegant accounts of five sacred anthems. A setting of Psalm 23 was sung by the girls with tender sensitivity. Joined by the boys, the singers sounded most comfortable in unison passages except for smooth samplings of contrapuntal textures.

The Valley Singers from Valley High in West Des Moines, Iowa, followed. (They are one of the school's six choral groups, including a jazz choir.) And their performances of both sacred and secular songs -- most sung from memory and unaccompanied -- demonstrated considerable expertise. Most striking was their beautiful, finely modulated tone color in soft passages and their legato phrasing in Sergei Rachmaninoff's anthem "Bogoro Ditse Devo" and in Daniel Gawthrop's finely paced "Sing Me to Heaven."

The Brookfield Central High School Chamber Choir from Brookfield, Wis., performed a program centered on American history, including songs from the Revolutionary and Civil War eras. Accompanied in some selections by a talented student oboist, the choir has mastered wonderfully open vowels and a surprisingly mature sonic depth in songs by some well-known choral composers and arrangers such as John Rutter, Gerald Finzi, Alice Parker and Gustav Holst.

A Select Choir, chosen from the Valley and Brookfield Central schools and West Potomac High from Alexandria, offered three lovely songs of remembrance, one dedicated to the victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy. As a finale, Daniel Abraham conducted the well-known American University Chamber Singers, who were exceptionally balanced and fluid in sacred setting by Tomas Luis de Victoria.

The festival came on the heels of intense weekend workshop sessions on vocal skills led by three well-known choral conductors: Geoffrey Boers, Weston Noble and Andre J. Thomas. On the whole, it was impressive. My only quibbles were the evening's excessive length and a repertoire excluding classical fare -- such as the difficult Bach cantata splendidly sung last week by the Children's Chorus of Washington, D.C.

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