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Singing the Praises of Talented Teens

March 23, 2010

Now a senior at San Francisco’s School of the Arts (SOTA), with an eye on college, singer Patricia St. Peter feels as if she grew up with Chanticleer. That 12-voice, Grammy-winning men’s chorus is better-known for reaching back to the repertoire of the Renaissance than for stretching out to the next generation of choristers.

 But St. Peter points out that Chanticleer has been visiting schools and hosting youth festivals for the past 10 years; she attended her first festival while still an eighth-grader at A.P. Giannini Middle School in the Sunset District.

“Each year has been amazing, because I idolize Chanticleer,” St. Peter says. “They know how to talk to each grade level. And as I grew older, the more I took out of the festivals, because I grew as a singer.”

In celebration of its 10th anniversary, this year’s annual Youth Choral Festival goes national. Instead of selecting a half dozen choruses from Bay Area public and private schools, Chanticleer’s Director of Education Ben Johns has chosen ensembles numbering over 400 high school students from Georgia to Hawaii for four days of pedagogy and practice, culminating in a concert at Davies Symphony Hall on Monday, March 29, where St. Peter will be featured in a brief solo. 

"I get to make my Davies Hall debut at 18, which is so cool," the young soprano gushes. "It's only eight measures, but I'm ecstatic!"

Before that performance, for which the public can purchase tickets, the kids will have experienced a lot. After arriving this Friday, the seven out-of-town choirs will join the five from the Bay Area at a short, private concert by Chanticleer at the San Francisco Conservatory Concert Hall. They’ll then run through all their music for the Davies program, which opens with Renaissance pieces by Gabrieli and Byrd and also includes the American premiere of Annonciation, by French composer Daniel Lesur, a favorite of Chanticleer’s. Lesur's piece incorporates solos by St. Peter and Matthew Curtis, a narration by Frederica von Stade of a text by Loys Masson, and accompnaiment by a youth orchestra, assembled by Johns from members of the Oakland Youth Orchestra, the San Jose Youth Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Clinics to Help Hone Singing Skills

Starting Saturday, the young choristers will sharpen their skills in a variety of clinics and classes offered by current and former Chanticleer members. Among the curricula is the International Phonetic Alphabet, applicable at the Davies Hall concert to selections in Latin (by Gabrieli and Franz Biebl), French (Daniel Lesur), Gaelic (Michael McGlynn), Swahili (in a traditional Kenyan piece arranged by Shawn Kirchner), and Chinese (a world premiere by Yi-Wen Chang, winner of Chanticleer’s student composer competition). Up-to-date educational technology will connect the choristers with composer McGlynn via Skype from Ireland, providing direct input on their pronunciation of the lyrics to his Sí do Mhaimeo Í.

Johns himself will lead a session in stage deportment. “We’re going to teach them how Chanticleer presents themselves visually and physically: how to breathe together and to start singing, even without a conductor. As a choir, you have to give up some individuality in order to make your group present a picture — not just in the way it sounds, but in the way it looks. And these are not necessarily things that high school students are conscious of or exposed to.”

Another class will cover the neumatic notation of Gregorian chant. And Todd Wedge, who sang with Chanticleer before he joined the SOTA faculty, will teach a class in vocal pedagogy, which Johns describes as “some anatomy and physiology, for you as a singer to know how to teach yourself.” St. Peter has worked with Wedge in his choir and chamber ensemble at SOTA (which, with Lowell's High School's choir, is representing San Francisco at the Festival), but she hopes that his class will further secure her instrument. "I think my voice is fairly mature for my age," she says, "but my support is a little wonky, and my biggest issue is bringing things forward into my mask," the resonant cavity around the bridge of the nose.

Aside from offerings for all Festival participants, Chanticleer Music Director Matt Oltman will work with a small ensemble, chosen by audition, to undergo “the true Chanticleer experience,” as Johns puts it. “They won’t know what they’re going to sing. They know it’s going to be in English, a Renaissance piece, and split into five different voice parts. They’ll find out the rest when they get here, and in two rehearsals they’ll put it together. It’s hair-raising and stressful, but beyond that it’s really exhilarating.”

Von Stade to Conduct Master Class

St. Peter looks forward to another sort of challenge that she gained through audition: a special master class with Frederica von Stade, shared directly with only two other students. She’d like to pick up on the diva’s “poise, because I feel like no one can make it solely based on their voice; they have to have an all-around cordial and inviting personality. And apparently [von Stade] is a really nice lady, who’s progressing the art form.” But St. Peter points out that “everyone in the Festival is expected to watch” the master class, “so I’m gonna be singing in front of a bunch of people my age who are, like, ‘you have to prove yourself, why didn’t I get that?’” The public is also invited to observe the session, at 1 p.m. on Monday, March 29, at Davies Hall.

Outside of the evening finale concert, each of the 12 participating choirs will sing from its own repertoire on Monday, beginning at 9:30 a.m. on the Davies stage. These performances are free to the public, but Johns notes that the choir directors are expecting feedback from Chanticleer in private sessions. “We usually want to take what they do well and develop it. If there’s a huge deficiency, we’ll let them know about it and give them a few ideas about how to solve the problem. The agenda of a high school choral director isn’t always to have a professional-sounding choir; their job is to teach them. And they deal with a whole bunch of things which we, as Chanticleer guys, don’t have to.” The directors will receive additional guidance from former San Francisco Symphony Chorus leader Vance George, and they’ll get to conduct what Johns has dubbed The Laboratory Choir, recruited from local school groups not selected for the Festival.

The value in compacting several hundred talented young singers in one place at one time is sensed by both the teens and their hosts. “To have us all come together in ‘my home’ is, like, so cool,” says St. Peter. “To have this contact with people who are doing what you want to be doing is amazing.”

“There is definitely a super-high energy in the mixing of young, virile singers, singing for each other, impressing each other,” adds Johns. “And it’s almost obliviousness to how good they sound.”

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.