“Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
– Thomas Carlyle
A buzz was in the air as we all lined up in the cold night air on Wednesday night. It was 45 minutes before show time, and yet more than one hundred people were already waiting. The line grew in leaps and bounds until I could no longer see its end. What attraction in Gilroy could bring so many out on a wintery week night?
Over the past two decades the entire High School Choral Program in Gilroy has been recognized for quality choral performances throughout the state of California.
They have been honored with commendations and superior ratings at each festival in which they have shared their music, placing in the top five in the state numerous times over the past 15 years. In 2009, the Chamber singers were the featured choir at the National Youth Choral Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
This week’s performances were no exception to their usual level of excellence. The concerts on Tuesday and Wednesday night were professionally recorded, and the live renditions of such Christmas tunes as “Gloria In Excelsis,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “Bonse Aba” (a Zambian song) were at the pinnacle of performance for any high school choirs I’ve ever heard.
Gilroy’s choral performances bring back great memories from the days when I toured with my own high school Chamber Singers equivalent. We competed with many other choirs, just as Gilroy’s students do. Our choir trained and recorded with the renowned composer and choral conductor Jester Hairston, perhaps most known for his composition “Amen,” the gospel-tinged theme song in the movie “Lilies of the Field.”
Our group took first place in an international music festival my sophomore year. Performing with hundreds of other students in the Waikiki Bowl in Honolulu, Hawaii, was an unforgettable experience. But even more important than the award was the life-changing experience of team effort, the lessons learned in fundraising for our trip, the months of bonding together as we worked toward a common goal, the hours and hours of practice to hone our performance to its peak, and the cooperation and compromise we learned in working with such a diverse group, which included an exchange student from Denmark.
Gilroy’s Chamber Singers have performed many times in Japan and Korea. They have also toured eastern Germany and the Czech Republic, including Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and Prague, and performed in Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. The emphasis director Phil Robb places on the appreciation of diversity is one of Gilroy’s greatest strengths.
This year’s Christmas program included compositions that were early American, German, Hawaiian, African and Russian. “Personent hodie” performed by the Christopher High School Chamber Singers, is a Christmas carol originally published in the 1582 Finnish song book Piae Cantiones, a volume of 74 Medieval songs with Latin texts collected by Jaakko Suomalainen, a Swedish Lutheran cleric. Not only is the appreciation of diversity reflected in the choice of musical selections, but it is also mirrored in the ethnic diversity of the students, which range from African American to Korean-American to Hispanic and Caucasian, as well as many other ethnic backgrounds.
“We want to model that we can work together,” Robb said to the standing-room only audience in the Gilroy High Cafeteria, the largest performance venue in Gilroy. He addressed the cutthroat competitive spirit usually fostered between high schools, and said that when students from both high schools come together to sing, all that is left behind.
“It is important for us to see how we can work together in a spirit of cooperation. We may meet on the football field, wrestle and run against each other, but we’re one city and one choir program.”
South Valley Symphony Concertmaster Beverly Blount added the virtuoso touch of her violin on “Celtic Silent Night,” sung by the combined concert choir of more than 170 students with perfect synchronicity to create such a poignant and peaceful feeling. The combined men’s chorus included 85 voices on “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head,” a sweet, touching tune with the feel of the true spirit of Christmas.
The unusual and beautiful “Stars They Shall Find,” was my favorite Christopher High Christmas tune. Set to lyrics by one of my favorite poets, Sara Teasdale, this haunting tune will stay with me for a long time to come. “I will make this world of my devising/Out of a dream in my lonely mind/I shall find the crystal of peace/above me/Stars I shall find.”
The diversity of talent among the students was demonstrated by their humor and acting skills in songs like “Variations on Jingle Bells,” in which the Gilroy High Chamber Singers bobbed up and down like bells and sang all sorts of variations on the theme, acting out each part. Vocal coach Karen McConachie sang operatically and held one note so long on “Jingle Bells” that the entire audience dissolved into laughter.
The grand finale was Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” in which all past choral alumni are invited up on stage to join in with the current choirs. We all stood together, just as the King did in Handel’s original performance.
There is quite nothing so rousing as being surrounded by over 350 voices belting out “Hallelujah!”
I am ready for Christmas now!