Singers from UNH and state high schools share a powerful experience

Thursday, February 23, 2012
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Photo of High School Students in the Bratton Room for the Annual Choral Gala

Hundreds of young people are packed in the hallway outside Bratton Room in the Paul Creative Arts Center. They're waiting to get into the practice room for the first group rehearsal of Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem. One young man musters courage and introduces himself to another, adding "I'm from Coe-Brown." All are singers from secondary schools across New Hampshire and from the UNH Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. They're here to tackle an epic work on an epic scale for what many hope will be an epic experience.

The Choral Gala is an annual program run by Associate Professor of Music William Kempster, who invites New Hampshire high schools to join UNH in a performance of a major choral work, typically with orchestra, on the last Saturday in January. This year, five schools accepted that invitation: Coe-Brown Academy, Gilford High, Goffstown High, Manchester High West, and the Portsmouth Christian Academy. The participating groups are invited to perform their own ensemble pieces during the evening as well.

As most of the students finally take their seats inside the rehearsal hall, a small group remains outside to discuss thoughts about the program. That they love music, singing, and a good challenge is immediately evident.

Jacklyn Trexler from Goffstown High School is participating for her third year because, she says, "working with UNH singers and with the other schools…just the power of all those voices together, you can't get that in high school, no matter how big your chorus is." Her experience two years ago performing Carl Orff's Carmina Burana at the Gala was "amazing," she exclaims.

For Mia Lemire and Roland DuBois of Gilford High School, also repeat participants, the difficulty of the material is appealing. Both note that they haven't tackled such complex pieces in their high school chorus.

Large works require time, space, talent, and lots of people. The resources just aren't available in New Hampshire highs schools to mount these landmark works, which in past Galas have included Haydn's Die Schöpfung, Berlioz' Te Deum, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, and Mozart's Requiem.

"I'm hoping the experience will help me to become a better singer," says Mia, who sees the UNH singers as role models. Roland looks forward to "a more professional caliber of singing, something I couldn't get back home." Several students agree that singing with the older students is inspiring.

The students note that working with Professor Kempster is a formative learning experience and they're eager to apply that knowledge back home in their schools. "It's the little things that make a choir sound amazing" says Dallas Freeman of Portsmouth Christian Academy, "such as the feeling in a piece of music—expressing a part with a little more volume to give it a different kind of emotion, expressing sadness, anger, passion."

The benefits of the Gala for students flow both ways: seasoned UNH singers may inspire the high school students, but UNH students have much to learn from their high school counterparts. As Professor Kempster points out, many UNH music students plan to become music teachers, so the Gala provides an opportunity to mentor younger students and explore the role of teacher a bit before stepping into a classroom. Just a few years removed in age and experience from high school, UNH students can see how far they've come with their own music skills. And singing in a chorus of over 200 people is just as epic for the UNH students as it is for the high school students.

Ultimately, it is the moving and rare experience of performing a masterwork with a large chorus, and often a full orchestra, that has prompted Professor Kempster to continue this program, now in its twelfth year.

"I remember back in my early education how powerful an experience that doing a big piece with a big choir really was," says Professor Kempster. "Students just don't get that experience before they come to college, and, even when they come to college, they don't necessarily get that experience. So, from a musical standpoint, it is such a powerful experience for them, and the feedback year after year certainly has supported that contention."

For some students, the Gala might be one of very few opportunities to sing in a chorus at all. Ben Hanley, a home-schooled student from Durham, has sung in the past with the New Hampshire Youth Choir, but that group is inactive this year, making the Gala a singular opportunity for choral work. Ben is one of more than a dozen individuals who join the Gala each year.

The Gala is also a great way to introduce New Hampshire students to their state's flagship university and for them to get a taste of what college life might be like. Both Jacklyn and Mia have already applied to UNH for undergraduate admission. Regardless of where or if these students end up going to college, they all say they plan to continue singing. The Gala, for some, has informed that choice.

"The Gala kind of puts in perspective what singing in college can be like," says Jacklyn. "I now know I want to do this when I go to college next year."

As the group of students join the rehearsal in progress, a rich wave of Brahms flows out of the open door to the Bratton Room, over two hundred voices reverberating off the walls of the Paul Creative Arts Center. Epic.

Originally published by:

The College Letter

Mike Ross | Freelance Photographer