by Mike Telin
The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus will join conductor James Feddeck and the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra in concert on Sunday evening, March 10 at 7:00 pm at Severance Hall. The Chorus will sing Johannes Brahms’s Nänie and Howard Hanson’s Song of Democracy in the final performance of The Cleveland Orchestra’s “Make Music!” Week.
Lisa Wong, Assistant Director of Choruses for The Cleveland Orchestra, added the directorship of the Youth Chorus to her portfolio at the beginning of the current season. She is also in her fourth year on the faculty of The College of Wooster, where she directs the Wooster Chorus, the Wooster Singers, and teaches courses in conducting and music education. She has a long history of working with students of all levels from pre-Kindergarten to college. We spoke to her by telephone.
Mike Telin: Thanks for taking the time to talk and how is your first season going?
Lisa Wong: Everything is going really well. It’s such a wonderful group of students and they have worked very hard all year long and we are excited to have a strong finish to the season.
MT: Like the Youth Orchestra, do the members of the Youth Chorus come from all over the area?
LW: They do come from all over Northeast Ohio and I would say that many of them are from the Cleveland area.
MT: I was happy to see Brahms’s Nänie on the program. It’s a beautiful piece and I have not heard it in a long time. I understand that it’s not an easy piece.
LW: I’m thrilled that we’re doing it, and it is not easy. It’s vocally challenging and the text has also presented quite a challenge. It’s a lot of German for them — after all they are high school students — but they have been doing a great job. We spent a lot of time being very particular about the text to make sure they are not only pronouncing everything correctly, but that they are also expressing the meaning of the text. They have also had the opportunity to work with James Feddeck, and he has also talked about the meaning so they are getting it from all angles.
MT: I don’t now where I have been, but I do not know Hanson’s Song of Democracy. I just finished listening to it and it too is beautiful.
LW: I had known of it, but this is my first time preparing it. Hanson originally wrote it for the National Music Education organization and I know there is a version for wind ensemble and chorus as well.
MT: They are two very musically different pieces that I think go will go well together. But have there been any challenges in preparing them besides the German?
LW: We consciously chose two pieces that would be contrasting and since this is my first year with the group we wanted to make an effort to make sure there was something for everyone. If by chance and for whatever reason someone was not excited about the Brahms they might be excited about the Hanson or vice versa. As it turns out, I think they are excited about both which is great.
But as far as putting them together, a big difference has been the language. Of course the Hanson is in English, but sometimes it’s harder to be expressive in English because it is the language that we speak. Especially young people will want to sing it as if they are speaking, and they don’t always put in appropriate musical inflection or syllabic stress — those types of things — to really express the poetry. I think that is something that is common to both pieces. And maybe even more difficult because the Hanson is in English. But both pieces are certainly vocally demanding.
MT: Yes, when something is in the language that we speak, we know the meaning of the words and therefore don’t always enunciate properly.
LW: [laughing] and that’s not just kids, that’s choirs in general.
MT: How has taking on this position changed things for you? I mean I hope it’s fun.
LW: Certainly my schedule is very busy now because I’m teaching full time, and I am also the assistant director for the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. But while my schedule is busy I don’t think I would have it any other way.
But something struck me this week now that we are entering into the combined rehearsals with the orchestra. I don’t know why I didn’t realize this earlier, but I am seeing the direct relationship between what I am learning via my experiences with the adult chorus, and directly applying what I have learned to the Youth Chorus. So it really is being a junior version of the adult chorus, which is the purpose of the group, which is why groups like this exist. But just being in the dress rehearsals this week has allowed me to see how wonderful it is to be in both positions.
MT: Were you part of the auditions for this year?
LW: Yes, and we actually had a few different rounds of auditions. We started in June of last year, and that was our first round. Returning students don’t need to re-audition, but because it was my first year I did ask to hear them all just so I could get a chance to meet them and get to know their voices. Then we held a mid-season round of auditions in January. We thought that by them some kids would be excited about being in the group for a semester and would be sharing their experience with friends. And I think we did end up taking about 13 new singers in January. So that has certainly been great.
MT: I’m sorry to be so ignorant, but do most of the members study privately?
LW: That’s actually a great question. Some of them are studying privately and some are not. I don’t know the exact number but maybe even half and half. I think that’s pretty typical of young singers. In order to take private lessons when your voice is developing, you really need to be paired with somebody who understands not only the high school age but also the high school voice.
Certainly there are kids who take voice lessons even at a younger age, but I think the younger you go, the more important it is to teach only the basics, the fundamentals of being a good musician, and to really let the voice develop naturally. Once they are maybe sixteen or older, then you can start to get more into things like vocal technique and production. But then again it has to be with someone who understands a developing voice.
MT: Lisa, thanks. This has been fun and I look forward to hearing the concert. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me.
LW: Just that it’s been a tremendous opportunity to work with the Youth Chorus this year, and also to work with James, who I think does a fantastic job with the Youth Orchestra. I’m hoping that together we can create a high level musical experience for the students and for the audience.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com March 5, 2013
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