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Van Nuys High School Students Premiere Their Own Oratorio

February 18, 2020

We’ve heard of outreach educational projects that involve students writing their own stage plays, songs, short orchestra pieces, even operas. But the Los Angeles Master Chorale is the only performing arts organization I know of that works with students to write their own oratorios.

Although “oratorio” originally denoted a genre of religious music, in keeping with contemporary tradition, we’re talking about unstaged choral works that may address any large topic or theme. The LA Master Chorale usually finds a contemporary political or cultural topic. And on Feb. 29, at Van Nuys High School, students of LA Master Chorale’s Voices Within Oratorio Project will premiere Requiem: This Earth, Our Home. (There is also a Feb. 28 performance for the school’s students only.)

“We asked students for their ideas for possible subject matter for the Oratorio Project,” says Lesili Beard, the Master Chorale’s director of education. “This year the school felt strongly about a requiem for Mother Earth and the subject of climate change was borne out of our conversations. We invited guest speaker Matt Almos from the Climate Reality Project (founded by Al Gore) to come talk with the students as well.” Among the tough subjects taken on by the students is climate denial, the most politically charged aspect of the climate crisis.

The 45-minute work is the culmination of a 20-week study program. The program engaged three teaching artists, Alice Kirwan Murray, lead teaching artist and singer; Doug Cooney, lyricist; and Saunder Choi, composer, to work with the students, alongside Van Nuys High School choir teacher Brianne Arevalo, who leads the vocal program of 9th through 12th grade students. Students wrote the libretto and melodies for each movement of the requiem. They auditioned for solo roles and received vocal coaching. Eight LA Master Chorale singers will perform the oratorio with the students and a chamber orchestra comprised of students from the school’s instrumental department.

Voices Within is an educational artists’ residency program developed for the Los Angeles Master Chorale by Marnie Mosiman in collaboration with Bernardo Solano, Penka Kouneva, David O, and Doug Cooney.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.

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