Choir performs at National Concerts Festival in Seattle

March 29, 2024 — by Angela Tan
Courtesy of Beth Nitzan
The National Concert Chorus takes the stage in Benaroya Hall, Seattle.
Choir students worked with guest conductors and students from other schools to prepare for their combined performance, while also enjoying time off to sightsee around the city.

Unfamiliar, enchanting harmonies of “From Scorched Earth” by Katerina Gimon echoed throughout Benaroya Hall in Seattle, enveloping the audience with a beautiful blend of voices that captivated the meaning of a written poem into a moving musical performance. 

On March 25, 27 SHS choir students performed a seven-piece set as part of the National Concert Chorus (NCC), an approximately 175-person combined choir with four other schools — Desert Edge HS, Eastside Preparatory School, Bellevue High School and Eagles Landing Middle School. They were one of three combined choirs that performed in the National Concerts festival, alongside the San Jose State University Concert Choir & Choraliers and the National Masterwork Chorus & Orchestra, each performing separate music sets.

The NCC’s performance included a world premiere of “From Scorched Earth” by Gimon, a piece specially written for the NCC and based on Vancouver poet Saphren Ma’s “Wildfire.” The poem and music composition call attention to the catastrophic effects of climate change and the rebirth of hope that arises from both nature and human healing.

“It was a really cool opportunity to premiere a song because this is the first time I’ve ever done it since I started choir in middle school,” senior alto singer Hannah Shaw said. And now that it’s my senior year, I got to enjoy it. Originally when we sang it in our small [SHS] choir, it sounded pretty good — but in a bigger audience? Wow. It’s so pretty.”

The group also performed other works from varying cultures and periods, including Hela Rotan’s “Traditional Indonesian Folksong” arranged by Ken Steven, modern pop artist Aurora’s “Apple Tree” arranged by Gimon and “I Love You/What a Wonderful World” by Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill, a work inspired by early contemporary Christian song. 

The choir students flew to Seattle on March 22 for the 5-day trip. All SHS choir groups, including non-audition level Concert Choir and audition-level Chamber Choir, were invited to participate in the festival, and most students who did not have prior conflicts chose to attend. 

In the days leading up to the festival, the group rehearsed in 2-4 hour blocks in the hotel ballroom, working intensively with guest conductor Dr. Giselle Wyers from the University of Washington and “From Scorched Earth” composer Gimon. When they weren’t rehearsing, the group visited Seattle’s Space Needle, Museum of Pop Culture and Seattle Aquarium. 

“There’s plenty of time to sightsee, but we spent most of our time in those rehearsals working with our guest conductor,” choir director Beth Nitzan said. “It’s not just our group that’s performing — other choirs are coming together with us too. When you get with your ensemble, you develop your sound and everything, and when you add more people in, you have to figure it out again [together].”

The trip was a partnership with National Concerts, a company that organizes similar-style performances at Carnegie Hall. Nitzan was hesitant to have the choir attend a festival as its own ensemble, as the SHS choir struggles to maintain an adequately sized roster even with all its grade levels.

“We are a little bit small, especially compared to band and orchestra. Doing a whole tour on our own was tentative because of the numbers and not being sure how many people were going to sign up. I wanted to make sure we did something that was combined with other people for just a little support,” Nitzan said.

Unlike the band and orchestra Europe tour in 2022 and the Midwest trip in 2023, the process of applying to attend the festival did not require a competitive audition. Instead, Nitzan reached out to National Concerts expressing interest and was asked to send in videos of recent performances and their rehearsal process to ensure that they were suitable to perform at the festival.

Although Nitzan does not consider it a prestigious festival, she has been planning this trip since the end of the previous school year. She believes that traveling as an ensemble, no matter the prestige of the event, is valuable for music students. 

“They get to work with a guest conductor over a more extended period than just having somebody come into the classroom for a day or two,” Nitzan said. “It can also be a really powerful experience to meet other [students] who you know are doing the same thing as you but have a different background or experiences that they bring to the table.”

For Shaw, this trip was a special opportunity to form closer bonds with choir students she previously didn’t know as well. Especially in her final year of choir, she cherishes the memory of performing with familiar choir students and getting to know them on a deeper level throughout the trip.

“Normally [in school], students in Concert Choir and Chamber Choir only see each other through passing periods, tutorial rehearsals and concerts,” Shaw said. “It’s kind of hard to form connections. So this trip really brought a lot of people together, which I really love, especially with people who sing in the same section and who ended up standing next to me.”

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