Choralis, an energetic volunteer choral program based out of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church since 2000, culminates its seventh annual Summer Festival Week for 36 high school students this Friday night.
That’s when the students will join with more than 70 adults and three professional soloists for a performance of Franz Haydn’s dramatic oratorio, “The Creation,” at the Schlesinger Hall on the Alexandria campus of the Northern Virginia Community College, beginning at 8 p.m.
Gretchen Kuhrmann founded Choralis in 2000 when a group she formerly directed folded, and over 40 participants begged her to start up something new. Since she was already the music director at the F.C. Presbyterian, she proposed starting a program at the church, and the pastor, the Rev. Thomas Schmid, was eager to welcome it.
The rest is history. The program has prospered, even with meager funding mostly in the $20 to $25 range from supporters, and the intergenerational energy of the group has given it a special vitality.
There is no shortage of choral groups in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Kuhrmann noted in an interview with the News-Press this week. In fact, there are more than 300 around, including four of the nine best-funded programs in the U.S. (Choralis is not among them).
But if you ask Nancy McSlarrow, the volunteer chairman of the Choralis board of directors, what makes the Choralis program special, it is Kuhrmann, herself. “No one does what happens here. Every time you come to rehearse, it is like you are getting a free singing lesson,” she said. “She is always working to improve the performance of individual singers. People would pay for such a good singing coach. She brings such passion and enthusiasm. You don’t come just to sing, but to understand.”
Kurhmann puts emphasis on the vitality that younger people bring, and the intergenerational nature of the chorus. “We have some more than 80 years old, and our youngest is 14,” she said.
It is the annual Summer Festival Week that invigorates the chorus with new young talent. Every year, about three dozen students from over 16 schools in the region attend the 24/7 immersion in the work that will be performed by the entire chorus at the conclusion of the week.
A typical day runs from about 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Individual voice training, classes on the music and the composer, and specialized interests in conducting and instrumental work make up every day, as well as group rehearsals on the primary work.
Kurhmann led a class on the life of Haydn Tuesday that explained a lot about how his personal life colored his compositions. In the case of “The Creation,” she said the work is being performed in German, even though both German and English versions were provided by Haydn.
She said it’s because the German version flows much better with the music. There will be a streaming translation on a screen above the stage, as well as some impressive visuals provided by Tom Jackson of Jackson Visual Media.
“The Creation” is a powerful work based on the account of creation in the Biblical Book of Genesis.
A particularly powerful moment in the performance comes when the choral group sings, “And God said, ‘Let there be light!'” With the word, “light,” or “licht” in German, the entire chorus and orchestra explode at the top of their voices, creating a stunning effect.
That’s why on the purple t-shirt prepared for this year’s Summer Festival Week, the one word that appears on the back is “Licht!”
Not only will the 36 students participating in this week’s immersion be in the chorus Friday, but also former students from past Summer Festival Weeks, coming back from college or their current work. “The fact that a number always come back is very heartening,” Kuhrmann said.
She said about half the students in this year’s program have plans to go onto music programs at conservatories or universities following their high school days.
Choralis performs four to eight concerts a year, and planning is already well underway for the coming year. A chamber choir concert will be held on Sept. 13, and the work that will culminate Summer Festival Week this time next year will be Bach’s Mass in D Minor.
Choral music, while popular in Europe, is very underappreciated in the U.S., Kuhrmann noted. “I don’t think it’s unpopular, just underexposed,” she said. “There is something about the human voice that requires engagement by the listener that instrumental music does not. Choral music does not work as background music. It compels attention.”
She said that when there are funding cuts in academic music programs, choral programs always seem to get cut first. “That’s why we think our role is so important, to fill a gap for students coming from schools with diminished or non-existent choral programs,” she said.