Choral members wandered into the rehearsal room Monday evening, checked the seating chart and climbed to the risers.
Excited conversation filled the room as the performers hydrated and munched on snacks while the clock ticked closer to 7 p.m.
Silence slowly fell among the room’s occupants as a piano chord sounded.
Rehearsal had begun.
With a shuffle of feet and chairs, the choir engaged in vocal exercises, a compilation of voices concentrating on scales and intervals followed by various vowel play, switching from an “ah” vowel then to an “oo.”
The last few members entered, warming up their voices as they shed their jackets and scrambled to their seats. The ensemble totaled about 40 voices.
Come Wednesday night, however, the choir rehearsal intensified.
Vocalists assembled outside the rehearsal room 10 minutes early, dresses and professional work attire replacing yoga pants and T-shirts from Monday’s run-through.
Inside the rehearsal room, the Children’s Chorus of Washington warmed up on their own for the rehearsal with Steven Reineke, the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra Pops. The risers were filled with nearly 60 vocalists.
However, Maestro Reineke was not the only guest of honor: Claude-Michel Schönberg, who composed Les Misérables, and Alain Boublil, one of the lyricists, also attended Wednesday’s rehearsal. Reineke will conduct the orchestra and choir during the performances at the Kennedy Center, so he visited to solidify cues with the choir and deliver a feel for his style of conducting.
An Honor and a Privilege
Reineke rehearsed with the combined men’s, women’s and children’s choirs while Schönberg and Boublil offered insight and critiques.
“Don’t sing like nice choirs,” Schönberg said to the performers during “Bui Doi,” a song from Miss Saigon about children living on the street. “We are not in church. You need to convince the people in front of you.”
Ianthe Marini, the assistant director of the women’s chorus, said the invitation the university has received for such a venue is an honor.
“This is a professional gig at the Kennedy Center, which is a huge organization and a very important place of art and music,” Marini said. “This really means a lot because we are representing the University of Maryland.”
Senior vocal performance major Christian Hoff said the performance will allow him to share the stage with seasoned and knowledgeable musicians.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to play in a professional environment,” Hoff said. “They are professional players and for us to come in as students means a lot. They’re opening up their doors and we’re coming into their house.”
Unlike most of the choir’s repertoire, the program of music in this performance is from the 20th century, so the composers’ presence is still active, Marini said.
“To be able to share with the singers the idea that music is something that’s still happening in their lifetimes and is being composed by living people is really exciting,” said Kenneth Elpus, assistant professor of music education and the conductor of the women’s choir. “It’s also nerve-wracking because these guys have lived with this music, in some cases, for more than 30 years.”
Hoff has been a member of the men’s choir since freshman year. Working alongside composers, Hoff said, is a different and exciting experience.
“You get the inside scoop [behind the music] and the sense of [the composer’s] intention and what they were thinking,” Hoff said. “We’ll get a deeper meaning of the music and a sense of where the music came from when they first composed these musicals.”
Reineke moved around the entire room, dancing while he conducted. He took pronounced breaths to signify when he wished for the choir to breathe and clearly accented cut-offs and major moments in the music with his arms.
The choir members moved as one to the beat of the music. While holding their scores for comfort yet still focusing on the conductor, the performers’ chests rose and fell as they sought to breath.
“Steven Reineke is really phenomenal and really well-regarded as the Pops conductor,” Elpus said. “I have not worked with him directly, but everyone is universally positive on that experience. He is a phenomenal interpreter of music.”
However, having the composers “looking over his shoulder” has not made the rehearsals any more stressful.
“We’re always this intense,” Elpus said.
The performers, on the other hand, disagree.
“This is a lot more intense preparation than for any other performances we’ve had to do,” senior communication major Alyssa Dewolfe said. “We have rehearsals almost every night this week.”
Usually, the singers only rehearse during class time, which is 50 minutes three days each week.
“There is so much more preparation for this performance because it’s such a bigger deal,” said Jessica Yingling, a sophomore psychology and communication double major. “It adds nerves, but definitely a lot more excitement.”
While Hoff has performed at the Kennedy Center and with the NSO Pops before, he said what makes this a unique performance is it’s their first time performing pop music as opposed to classical.
“I think the audiences will be a little different,” Hoff said. “I think the style of music will bring out a different demographic.”
For sophomore piano performance and French double major Deanna Pellerano, this is an ideal venue.
“I absolutely love Les Mis and I’m excited to sing it with the NSO,” Pellerano said. “This will be a real highlight of my time here at Maryland.”
Something that makes the men’s and women’s choirs so unique is that the ensemble is comprised of mostly non-music majors.
“I think every college on campus is represented,” Elpus said. “It’s a huge cross-section of the university community, all of whom are bound by their past experience with choral music and their desire to be really good at this and to make art.”
“The fact that they can join a choir at the university and then, all of a sudden, they’re set on the stage of the Kennedy Center is quite an unusual opportunity and experience for any university member, but especially for a non-music major at a university,” said Greg Graf, the conductor of the men’s choir.
“I think it’s really cool that the men’s chorus and women’s chorus have been able to do a professional gig with the National Symphony Orchestra because they’re just people who like to sing and wanted to take this class,” Hoff said. “All of these people who usually wouldn’t get this opportunity get to rise to the occasion and to the challenge.”
For Dewolfe, who has sung in choirs since the third grade, this means more than just the average performance.
“It means a lot to be able to tell my grandparents that they can brag about this to their friends,” Dewolfe said. “This is definitely a noteworthy thing in my singing career.”
The university’s men’s and women’s choirs will perform at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Friday and Saturday. Tickets range in price from $20 to $95 and can be purchased online. Tony Award winner Lea Salonga will lead the vocalists. The concert will run for approximately two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
The List of Concert Personnel is as follows:
Steven Reineke, conductor
Lea Salonga, vocals
Eric Kunze, vocals
Terrence Mann, vocals
Kathy Voytko, vocals
Marie Zamora, vocals
University of Maryland Concert Choir
Children’s Chorus of Washington
Maya Pottiger is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.