An invitation to perform at the Northwest Conference of the National Music Educators Association is one of the most prestigious honors a high school choir in Oregon can receive. Based on audition tapes from performances spanning over multiple years, only the best of the best are asked to attend the weekend conference.
To put the event's exclusivity into perspective, consider that the West Linn-Wilsonville School District — known for its strong music programs — has never had a choir invited to perform. At least until the West Linn High School Symphonic Choir performs this Saturday, Feb. 18, that is.
"It's kind of a career defining moment," says WLHS Choir Director Barb Fontana. "Because to be accepted is a reflection of your collected work over the years and what you've done. It's saying you're doing caliber work of the level that (the NMEA) feel is worthy. So to be invited is huge for this school and these kids."
Comprised of nearly 70 students, the WLHS Symphonic Choir has spent the entire year preparing for the performance, working on a five-song program centered on themes of global citizenship and acceptance of the world's cultures. The choir will set out Friday, Feb. 16, on what Fontana calls a performing tour, where they'll sing at the University of Puget Sound. From there they'll travel to Bellevue, Wash., before taking the stage Saturday afternoon.
There, they'll perform a set-list that includes songs in multiple languages and relating to many different parts of the world. The list includes "Earth Song," "Dies Sanctificatus," "To The Mothers in Brazil: Salve Regina," "Ndikhokhele Bawo" and "Berusa Er." Despite the complexity of learning songs in Portuguese and Swedish, in addition to English, students say each song holds a special meaning.
"All the songs are really amazing in their own way and they're all connected under community, love and connection," says soprano member Brady McDevitt. "All the songs — even though most people can't understand them because they're in different languages — have meaning to our choir, since we all love each other in our choir."
Fontana says this year's choir is as close as any she's taught during her time at West Linn High, and that she's particularly happy that this year's collection of students will get the honor of performing at the Northwest Conference. She credits the group's chemistry in part to a weekend retreat the choir took during the summer, which McDevitt says played a major factor in bringing students together.
"Singing, in my opinion, is a unique experience because in order to tell the story you have to be in agreement of what the story is as a choir," Fontana says. "That means we need to be in agreement on the idea and then we also have to be in agreement on how we're going to convey that. Part of the retreat, in us breaking down walls and building unity within the choir, is hugely significant. We work on music but we also work on doing everything that is important to us, like accepting who we all are."
WLHS Symphonic Choir
Soprano — Megan Driggers, Trinity Friswold, Annelise Hoover, Haley Intile-Epstein, Kathryn Jones, Brady McDevitt, Emily Nielson, Alexandra Radutiu, Jane Robinson, Rose Schoenfeld, Adaela Shearer, Kendall Showalter, Anna Speer, Sydney Steinberg, Cami Tucker
Alto — Hannah Archuleta, Caitlyn Carkner, Maya Colman, Kaitlyn DeSpain, Citlali Diaz, Aracelli Doescher, Nell Egan, Mikalya Ellsworth, Tanya Finestein, Megan Fogarty, Emily Gordon, Kendall Gordon, Giselle Guerra, Claire Newrones, Ellery Ross, Hannah Schwartz, Maizie Somers, Sarah Tinio, Ellena Turner, Chloe Voeller, Katherine Walters
Tenor — Benjamin Brandeberry, Chris Carrasco, Ethan Eddington, Munyaradzi Fashu-Kanu, Evan Kohne, Jacob Luther, Matthew Mieras, Nicholas Olson. Adam Pierce, Samuel Raffetto, Kiger Rhoades, Matthew Snyder, Shashank Thandri, William Woodward
Bass — George Ankeney, Nathaniel Colman, Mason Esqueda, Herminio Gilligan, Cade Guerins, Justin Harrel, Mathew Johnson, Camden Kennedy, Stanley Kusaka, Connor Lang, Cameron Massey, Eamon Minges, Dylan Murray, Alexander Qiu, Kyle Robertson, James Rowan, Andrew Whitney, Matthew Wible
"I'm friends with way more people in the choir than in the past," McDevitt says. "It really does help, because when you have a connection with everybody it just feels so much stronger. The love we have for one another makes the sound so much better."
While West Linn's choirs have a history of success in district and state competitions, McDevitt says this year's Symphonic Choir is the best she's been a part of during her high school singing career. She stresses that chemistry is an underrated part of successful performances, and that knowing the rest of the choir has her back during solos makes high-pressure performances like Saturday's much easier. Fontana says this year's collection of personalities and talents is unique, and that it's shown on stage time and again.
"People care about each other as people outside of the classroom, and want each other to be successful outside of choir," she says. "That is so unique. You couldn't design it or construct it."
The five-song program is meant to take the audience on a journey around the world while experiencing a wide variety of emotions. In the end, it's Fontana's hope that people leave Saturday's performance feeling more connected to the person sitting next to them. More importantly, she hopes they feel better connected to those on the other side of the world.
"We're really global citizens. I think we're less nationalists than we are people of the world globally, and sometimes I think we think more alike than we do differently. So we're doing music that kind of points to the fact that we're not as different as people might think we are," Fontana says. "When all is said and done we rejoice; we move forward as a family defined by love. That's the overarching theme of the concert."