Could Carnegie Hall be just around the corner for the La Verne Church of the Brethren Sanctuary Choir?
This amazing ensemble of musical talent, directed by Nike St. Clair and accompanied by Shawn Kirchner, continues to inspire and uplift, and, best of all, you’ll be able to listen to their heavenly, angelic and vibrant tones this Sunday, June 9, in a free concert at the church before they hit the road for a weeklong series of performances spanning three states and more than 700 miles.
These road warriors will be well prepared and rehearsed.
Many in the choral cast carry rich musical pedigrees. Among its members are soloists, instrumentalists and musical educators like Deborah Waas, former California Music Teacher of the Year, and her protégée Heidi Brightbill.
“I’d say that 80% of our members can read music or have studied voice,” Kirchner said.
“It’s a singing congregation,” added St. Clair.
“What’s amazing to me is we have these remarkable people who are incredibly accomplished,” said Doug Bro, a retired English teacher whose bass voice would play well in Ford truck commercials or scary movie trailers.
No two are more talented than Kirchner and St. Clair who have molded this musical group into a singing powerhouse.
Kirchner has been active in the musical life of the Church of the Brethren for 25 years. He served as music coordinator for the National Youth Conference in 1998, 2002 and 2006. He was Annual Conference pianist in 1993, and coordinated Annual Conference music in 2003. When the Church of the Brethren was honored with the opportunity to present a Christmas Eve worship service for CBS television in 2004, Kirchner served as music director. He has taught music and worship at Bethany Seminary and led music workshops in various Church of the Brethren districts.
Only last Sunday at the Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, where Kirchner serves as Swan Family Composer in Residence, featured the world premiere of his “Plath Songs,” a moving and complex musical tribute to the famous, but conflicted poet, which drew raves from local critics attesting to “his importance as a major choral composer.”
Meanwhile, St. Clair gives the choir cohesion and structure, plus an international flair. A native of Hungary, she received her triple-major bachelor’s degree in Music Theory/Aural Skills, Music Education, and Choral Conducting from the Budapest Liszt Academy of Music in Hungary. She completed her doctoral coursework at the University of Southern California for a degree in choral conducting, and is now working on her final thesis. She is on the music faculty at Azusa Pacific University, California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and Santa Monica College.
During rehearsal, she is at once fun, sassy, spirited and serious. A noted singer in her own right, with score of film credits (Avatar, X-Men, Wreck it Ralph and many others) behind her, she hovers closely over her musical brethren, listening to take the glitch out of their pitch. She is also part diction and elocution coach, urging her altos, sopranos, tenors and basses to emote and enunciate better. When the alto section gets too chatty, she hoists a large sign that says “HUSH.” There’s never any doubt as to who is in charge.
“We’re not in business of mediocrity; we’re in the business of excellence,” she said moments before the start of the weekly rehearsal, betraying her years of formal conservatory-style training when she was growing up in then-socialist Hungary.
“She’s very good at getting people up to a bar,” Kirchner said.
“She’s very direct but she’s also very affirming,” Bro added.
For the series of upcoming concerts, the audience will hear sacred choral compositions and arrangements, including several original works by Kirchner.
“It’s a showcase and a smorgasbord of works,” St. Clair promised.
Instead of offering songs that follow the liturgical calendar, as many church choirs do, Kirchner’s concert will take a more “thematic approach.”
“What we try to do is find anthems that fit the theme,” Kirchner explained. When Kirchner can’t find the appropriate work to fit his theme, he goes into creative mode and produces his own. For example, inspired by the Biblical story of “The Woman at the Well,” he adapted an old spiritual and turned it into the rousing, “I’ve Just Come From the Fountain,” one of the many songs featured in this Sunday’s musical program.
It’s the job of St. Clair to turn Kirchner’s unique and intricate shapings and stylings into accessible music, a musical mission she has mastered despite the challenge of melding singers of varying abilities and experience into one melodic and harmonious instrument.
“When you have 55 very good voices — even decent voices — you can bring out an outstanding, heavenly song,” she said. “What’s the saying: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts?”
In 2010, the La Verne Church of the Brethren Sanctuary Choir really got the touring bug when it visited St. Clair’s native Hungary. Although this year’s schedule won’t take St.Clair back to her homeland, she and Kirchner look forward to entertaining their new East Coast audiences.
Generally, “eastern” members of the Church of the Brethren embrace a more conservative tradition than their more progressive peers out west.
Through song, the La Verne-based choir will try to demonstrate that it’s not just made up of “ditzy” Californians. “We have depth,” St. Clair said.
“Although we’re different,” Kirchner noted, “we’re still connected. We want to go back and share what we have in common. They love good music, we love good music.”
Ultimately, the Westerners in their east coast swing will aim to create a celebration and an “eruption of joy,” as St. Clair puts it.
As if on cue, Kirchner added, “We want them to take away inspiration.”
If you’re seeking inspiration, join the La Verne Church of the Brethren Sanctuary Choir this Sunday, June 9 at 7 p.m., for what should be a memorable send-off performance. 2425 E Street, La Verne
For a rehearsal glimpse:
COMPOSER: Shawn Kirchner
DIRECTOR: Nike St. Clair
Mary Ann Melleby
Holly Shaw Ristuccia
Audrey Lamprey, horn
Karen Cahill, flute