Students from all over Northeast Ohio gathered at Bedford High School on Wednesday, February 16, for the annual Lake Erie League Choral Festival. Choirs from Euclid, Warrensville Heights, Shaw, Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, Mentor, and Bedford each performed as a school. Later in the festival, all the choirs combined to form a mass choir of 350 students, singing 3 extraordinary pieces with largely diverse styles and backgrounds. It was a normal festival in respect to the actual performance. But the preparation this year was tremendously different.
L.E.L. directors wanted to return it to its previous format. Decades ago, students had the privilege of attending a clinic taught by a prominent guest director prior to the performance. Not only did students rehearse the group pieces, but they also learned techniques and styles that could better them as singers. That’s just what happened this year.
Mr. Frank Bianchi– retired high school teacher and director of award winning high school choirs, professor at Baldwin-Wallace College, founder of the Baldwin-Wallace Men’s Chorus, in his sixth season as director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus, and his second year as Assistant Director of the Cleveland Orchestra Choruses– took the podium after a warm welcome from Bedford High principal, Mr. Samuel Vawters. With a little humor and some crazy but effective vocal warm-ups, he captured the students’ attention and began an afternoon full of music and camaraderie.
From the time students arrived at Bedford High School at one o’clock until dinner time at five, the choirs ran through the mass pieces. The auditorium was filled with a plethora of sounds, from animal calls and native chants to soulful gospel chords to soaring poetic farewells. Silence fell when Mr. Bianchi spoke, and remained until the next note left the singers’ lips. Measure by measure, phrase by phrase, the separate songs practiced by multiple choirs merged into one body of multiple tones, much as the people behind the voices had intermingled to create the mass choir. Students from different schools stood side by side to create the same melodic masterpieces.
After a break to eat and change into concert attire, the choirs returned to the auditorium to take the stage as individual schools. The techniques learned in rehearsal were put into practice as each choir demonstrated its talent. Spirituals rang out from the risers; Latin prose haunted the corners; Hebrew and Mongolian were heard in the same venue. Not a word was spoken as the choirs performed, and a round of enthusiastic applause rose in each one’s wake, demonstrating the respect that had been fostered throughout the afternoon.
Bedford closed the first half, and then a brief intermission allowed students to meld back into the mass choir. Mr. Bianchi took over, and invited the audience to a journey through the rain forest with “Tres Cantos Nativos”, arranged by Marcos Leite, a piece inspired by the native tribes living along a river in Brazil. Utilizing a variety of different vocal sounds, instruments, and physical actions, the piece created the atmospheric effects of being in the jungle. “After the concert, I had so many people come up to me and tell me that the CD accompaniment really made this song enjoyable,” said Bedford director Gary Kaplan, “so you can imagine their faces when I told them it was the students making the sounds.” The wildlife faded into a tribute to the passing of people and events throughout one’s life. “Omnia Sol”, or “Everywhere Light”, by Z. Randall Stroope, combined Latin and English in an ode to the experiences and interactions that make being human memorable. The airy melody was a sharp contrast to the third song, “Praise His Holy Name” by Keith Hampton, a rousing, spirited gospel song. As Mr. Bianchi told the kids, “It should make you think of good old Sunday-mornin’ preachin’!” It certainly had the audience clapping along.
As is tradition for many choirs, the performance ended with the timeless “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”. However, there was nothing traditional about it as 350 members sang the final song in what was a very successful production. The motto of Bedford High School is “Working to build a culture of excellence.” According to Mr. Vawters, “If we’re talking about building a culture of excellence, this festival and all these choirs definitely demonstrated doing just that.” And in every minute of the festival, from rehearsal to departure, excellence certainly was displayed.
It was a wonderful show of talent and hard work from all the choirs, and certainly worthy of praise. “Great choral music is alive and well in Cleveland. The L.E.L. Choral Festival was living proof of what can happen when talented young adults from different schools and communities, different faiths, different political affiliations, different cultures, different economic backgrounds and different abilities come together for a common cause. The results were breathtaking and a good lesson for all of us to learn about commitment, dedication, hard work, sharing, discipline and respect. I’m proud of each of the 350 students who participated,” said the very impressed and exuberant guest director.
This event was the epitome of unity and multiculturalism, a peaceful collaboration of such a diverse group. It truly seemed to prove the idea that music really is a universally understood language and way of life that anyone can become a part of.