August 29, 2013

Ciao, Ragazzi

By Mark MacNamara

Henry singing in "Heart of a Soldier" with Thomas Hampson behind him, Ragazzi Boys Choir. | Photo by Cory Weaver.The Ragazzi Boys Chorus is renowned in the Bay Area, and in many parts of the world. In fact, they recently returned from a series of concerts in South Korea and had one particularly interesting experience. Which we’ll get to in a moment.

But we draw your attention just now to fall auditions, which begin in September for boys ages 5 to 7 and 7 to 10. This is not like A Chorus Line, where the producers watch from behind powerful lights dismissing talented people with the flick of the wrist. At Ragazzi, you go down with your son and participate in some group activities. They’re interested in his EQ more than his musical IQ. They’re simply looking for fellow travelers.

Henry Phipps is a fellow traveler. He’s 14, coming into the 9th grade, an excellent student, plays the piano and drums, and soccer, and got a small part in Heart of a Soldier in the San Francisco Opera premiere by Christopher Theofanidis two years ago. Right now, he’s idling. His voice is changing, drifting in the horse latitudes, as it were, in between soprano and tenor.

He’s been with Raggazi for eight years and remembers it as though it was just this afternoon, that moment when he heard the chorus for the first time, but from inside, immersed. He was six. “The first few notes left me astounded.” And then he felt as if he was part of the sound. It was all strange and powerful.

“We feel like we’re building boys not just singers.” - Joyce Keil, director, Ragazzi

Then, when he was 10, he went on a tour to Canada, and was it Montreal or Quebec, one of those cities, and they sang a concert for the ages. The high point was singing “Io le canto.” Every boy was right on and the audience loved it. “I’ve always thought that was the best concert we ever had.”

All those years ago, he was wondering what it would be like to be one of ‘those’ boys and how amazing that must be, and now he is one of those boys and it is amazing.

About the Tour

Joyce Keil is the Ragazzi chorus director. She started it in 1987 and has grown it into one of the top choruses in the state, for ages 7 to 18. It has more than 170 singers from 86 schools in 26 Bay Area communities. She has described the typical Ragazzi singer as a “dedicated, focused, eager singer with a desire to learn and work as a team.”

She has also cast the Ragazzi culture in these terms: “We try to keep a very positive attitude as we work with the boys, whether in rehearsal or teaching music theory. Incidentally, we get a lot of compliments about good behavior when we travel abroad. We feel like we’re building boys not just singers.”

We spoke to Keil the other day about the chorus’s recent trip to Korea, which she was keen to talk about. Was there one anecdote, we asked, that suggested how the trip went.

“Throughout the trip they slept on the floor in a dormitory. There were six other choruses. That’s the custom: to sleep on the floor and they did it without any complaint. On the last night, my boys took it upon themselves to gather all the kids together to hear their favorite songs and talk about what music meant to them, and apparently they were so moved by the power of being with these other kids that many of the boys cried. They were so aware of the idea that, while they may not be able to speak each other’s language, they could sing together. I was so proud of them.”

Register online for auditions at www.ragazzi.org, or else call 650-342-8785.

Fall concerts: Saturday, Dec. 7, 5 p.m., First Congregational Church, Palo Alto; Sunday, Dec. 8, 4 p.m., Old First Church, San Francisco; Sunday, Dec. 15, 4 p.m., Cunningham Memorial Chapel, Notre Dame de Namur University, Belmont.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.