Forgive the overly broad characterization of much of today’s high school choral singing, with its emphasis on show tunes and pop tunes, choreography and perhaps even snazzy costumes. For the two dozen singers from six eastern North Carolina high schools who participated in the annual East Carolina University High School Singers Symposium, the experience must have been quite an eye — and ear — opener.
Led by Dr. Daniel Bara, director of choral activities at ECU, and several other members of the ECU vocal music faculty, the high school students learned quite a bit in their 36-hour stay on the Greenville campus, including how to audition for a college music program, if they choose to do so. And, augmented by the excellent ECU Chamber Singers, they also put on a brief program for friends and family at the end of their stay; and one must sit back and marvel at how Bara and the other voice professionals can get so much music out of young people whose background is not filled with the same kind of serious pursuit of formal music education, training and practice that music majors go through.
In a program ranging from Franz Josef Haydn to John Corigliano, the singers showed excellent tone and diction, and with the college-age ensemble, they formed a lovely choral blend.
The program opened with “Awake the harp” from Haydn’s Creation, not an easy piece, with its lengthy opening fugue, and the sound was crisp and one of boldness and joy. Corigliano’s musical setting for the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill” is not likely to be found in the typical high school choral group repertoire, but the singers gave it an excellent reading, mastering the occasional dissonances and suspensions, negotiating some tricky and widely-spaced intervals that might be a problem for less well-trained singers. The piece is long (more than seven minutes) and includes passages for octet, as well as sections that expose each voice part, at least briefly. Alto Katy Avery had a lovely solo, and Eric Stellrecht provided fine piano accompaniment.
The musical highlight was “The Lady in the Water,” by contemporary composer Eric William Barnum, a beautiful piece sung a cappella, with gorgeous suspensions (some reminiscent of Morten Lauridsen) and a peaceful, flowing rhythm. The soprano and alto voices carry the main theme initially over a soft accompaniment in the bass and tenor lines at several points, and then all four parts join before separating again.
Also sung a cappella was Uzee Brown Jr.’s setting for “Rock-a My Soul,” a familiar spiritual, and the singers gave it an energetic reading. Bass Lem Stanley provided a nice solo, especially with his descending octave slide, and alto Nicole House and soprano Erin O’Leary also had good solos. The tenors and basses led the opening firmly, then altos and sopranos took over the melody, and then all came together for a rousing finish.
Such an event serves several purposes, including community outreach. But it also exposes talented high school students to a setting that could become their next stop in the pursuit of serious music instruction. If they are interested and willing to put in the time, energy and effort these singers could become part of one of the best music programs in the region. And ECU’s tradition of musical excellence would be sustained for several more years.