CHS Chamber Singers set sights on Carnegie Hall

Claremont High School’s high-achieving Chamber Singers will place another feather in their cap next year when they perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the New York City International Music Festival.

The singers have brought home numerous awards at national and international festivals over the past few years, but the April 18-23, 2020 trip will mark the first time they’ve been invited to the prestigious New York competition.

“Carnegie Hall is kind of the granddaddy,” said Joel Wilson, who has been at the helm of Claremont High School’s choral program for 17 years. “We’re really honored and we’re very excited. It’s going to be a first for us, so we’re really looking forward to it.”

The Chamber Singers were selected by audition. The competition, made up of eight to 10 high school choirs, usually pits one or two groups of US singers against an international field. Past choirs have hailed from Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Canada, Japan and several other locales.

It will cost about $100,000 with airfare, hotel, transportation and meals for 38 kids to travel to NYC and stay four to-a-room for five days at the 1927 Park Central Hotel, which is located across the street from Carnegie Hall on Seventh Avenue. The group will be chaperoned by nine adults, who will be paying their own way.

To date, the Chamber Singers’ fundraising has amassed about $18,000. That chunk, combined with commitments secured from parents and supporters, puts the total raised thus far at about $80,000.

“So, we’re looking good,” said Mr. Wilson. “We’re close enough that we feel good about going. We’re looking to the community to help raise the rest of the money to get us there. So we feel really confident about that.”

Potential donors can give in person at any of the CHS singers’ upcoming shows, including  “The Music of Motown,” at 7 p.m. tonight and 2:30 and 7 p.m. tomorrow at the CHS Theatre. If folks would like to donate online, they can go to chschoir.org/shop-donate-payments.

The Chamber Singers will be working hard in New York, with several days of workshops, both at the hotel and at Carnegie Hall. The group will also perform in a Central Park bandshell, rain or shine.

Then three choral judges from the US and abroad will pick the eventual winner over two days of free, open to the public performances at hallowed Carnegie Hall, April 22 and 23.

The group is judged on how well they sing together, preparation, presentation, and the quality and difficulty of the pieces performed. “Part of the process is picking the music, making sure you’ve got it, and then just lots and lots of preparation,” Mr. Wilson said.

The choir will be singing three songs: something classical from the Renaissance, something modern to show the group’s versatility, and finally an African American spiritual.

“You want to pick the right pieces with the right difficulty level to show off the choir but also to be sure that we don’t tank,” Mr. Wilson said. “Ideally it’s something barely out of reach so you have to work hard and stretch to pull it off, so it has that really competitive edge to it.”

It’s not easy—or cheap—to move dozens of high schoolers across the country or around the globe to compete in these festivals. It’s nice to be recognized, both for the kids and the coach, but in the end the benefits are measured over the long term.

“These opportunities are so good for the kids,” Mr. Wilson said. “We have kids that are still communicating with kids in New Zealand from the last festival,” last summer in Sydney, Australia. “They build these relationships and they get a global perspective.”

Competing outside of Claremont also puts some of singers on the map with colleges. Over the last year Mr. Wilson has helped to place singing CHS grads in three of the top choral programs in the country, USC, Cal State Long Beach and Lawrence University, in Wisconsin.

“This is really investing in the kids’ future,” Mr. Wilson said. “It makes colleges stand up and notice them.”

The choral program’s prominence has also helped secure scholarships and other “bonus opportunities” for CHS grads, Mr. Wilson said. “It’s a quality program, so they know they’re getting good quality out of them. And it’s all because of these relationships we’ve cultivated.”

Mr. Wilson, 41, is approaching his third decade as a CHS teacher, but he’s been around Claremont much longer. The 1996 Claremont grad was in choir while a student. “There’s a photo of me up on the wall,” Mr. Wilson said with a chuckle. “The experience was awesome.”

Claremont High is quite literally the only job he’s ever had. “I graduated on a Thursday, and I had my first job at CHS the following Tuesday as an assistant for the theater department’s summer production,” he said.

He also worked with the choir that summer before heading off to college.

“And it just so happened that the choir director left the year I graduated college, and so I got hired,” Mr. Wilson said. “I’ve just worked ever since then to build the program to the place we are now.”

Under his tutelage, Claremont High’s vocal ensembles—the Concert Choir, Chora Nova and Chamber Singers—have all made great marks at local, state, national and in the case of the Chamber Singers, international competitions.

“It was a strong program back [when he was a student at CHS], and I’ve continued that,” Mr. Wilson said. “We weren’t as international then. We just kind of kept to ourselves a bit. We were locally famous, but we didn’t branch out that much. It was a wonderful program. I modeled much of what I do after what I learned, obviously, and then just tried to build on it.”

So it could come to pass that Mr. Wilson pulls off a feat that is increasingly rare in America: to retire from the only job he’s ever had.

“There’s a good chance of that,” he said. “I got my doctorate. I’m adjunct faculty at Cal Poly Pomona, but I really love what I’ve got going at Claremont High School.

“I’ve looked around, but y’know, when you’ve got a good thing going…”

To donate to the Chamber Singers’ New York City trip, go to chschoir.org/shop-donate-payments.

Potential donors can also give in person at any of the CHS Choirs’ upcoming shows, including “The Music of Motown,” at 7 p.m. tonight and 2:30 and 7 p.m. tomorrow at the CHS Theatre. 

More information, including tickets and a listing of the group’s complete season is available by clicking on the “Choral Season” tab at chschoir.org. 

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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