News Column

Bonita Chamber Singers impress choral audience [San Gabriel Valley Tribune (CA)]

November 30, 2013

YellowBrix

Applause and shouts of joy punctuated audience responses to Bonita High School Chamber Singers' recent performance at the Biola University Invitational High School Chamber Choir Festival.

The affair coordinated by Biola choral music director Shawna Stewart featured eight of the top high school choral ensembles in Southern California, including the La Verne choir directed by award- winning conductor Todd Helm; the Redlands High School Chamber Singers conducted by veteran educator and choral director Kenneth Tuttle; and the Mira Costa Vocal Ensemble from Manhattan Beach, conducted by Michael Hayden, recently honored as one of California's top five educators.

"That was a very exciting ensemble," said Dr. Sheridan Ball, former Cypress College music educator and director of choirs. "They really know how to present the material with a theatrical flair."

Ball, a music educator for 31 years before he retired, said he came to the Biola festival because it consistently presents the best young choral performers.

Ball said, "I wasn't disappointed at all today, but some groups - like Bonita - really stand out in their presentations. Impressive. My goodness, this group was awesome!"

The Bonita singers performed the world premiere of peer Jacob Broussard's "Spirit Come" choral composition. The work by the 17- year-old Bonita senior offered hope to suffering souls and those struggling through challenges and tragedies. The choir also performed "I'll Be On My Way," a new work by internationally acclaimed composer, pianist and tenor Shawn Kirchner of La Verne that had only been previously sang by the La Verne Church of the Brethren choir. Bonita senior Christian McQueen, 17, was the soloist on the Kirchner song of spiritual inspiration and acceptance of a heavenly homecoming.

Bonita's rousing delivery of Moses Hogan's classic gospel "The Battle of Jericho" showed folks what a difference singers can make when they truly believe the words they sing. People used several adjectives - riveting, spirited, convicted - to describe the presentation as baritones boomed, sopranos soared and tenors and altos held the middle harmoniously together.

Although there were no formal "winners" since the festival was competitive, but Bonita, Redlands and Mira Costa would have shared the top spot because the teens and their directors literally and lyrically sang with the most emotion and took folks to the edge of their seats by doing more than mouthing words and bending notes.

Kirchner, composer-in-residence, tenor and pianist for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, credited Helm and Bonita Unified School District's support of performance arts for Bonita's consistent quality.

"There are excellent people in all the right places for children in La Verne and San Dimas public schools," Kirchner said. "Todd gets these kids in sixth grade and they come from excellent feeder programs and music educators. The families love music, too, so it's a musical culture in the district that inspires kids to do their very best. Todd fans the flames. He's a great singer and musician himself, so he's modeling quality. Todd and his BUSD colleagues have built a great music program."

Mother Crystal Strowbridge and father Neil Fancher agreed with Kirchner's comments. Billy Strowbridge is 16, a junior and first tenor. Max Fancher, 17, is a baritone and senior. Both were initially nurtured by Deborah Was in BUSD'S elementary-school music program - Max at Roynon Elementary and Billy at Oak Mesa Elementary. They easily transitioned to Helm-led choirs at Ramona and Bonita, their parents said.

Billy's siblings - Rachel, 20, Elizabeth, 18, and 14-year-old freshman John - all sang with Helm. Crystal and her husband Michael are singers and Michael's mother, Joyce, was a Sweet Adelines queen of harmony. Max's sister Julia, 26, performed with the Bonita Chamber Singers as a teen. Their mother, Judy Fancher, sings in the La Verne Church of the Brethren Chancel Choir.

"Music has been a part of our lives since we were all babies," Strowbridge said. "It's been even richer for my kids because of Todd Helm."

Fancher said Helm's singers do more than sing. "They're learning discipline, building bridges to different cultures and centuries to broaden their appreciation of all music and people and finding out how rewarding it is to work together for positive results," he said.

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