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Brave New Voices : Auditions: In tryouts at CSUN, conductors for the Angeles Chorale are recruiting new members from a chorus line that includes professors and plumbers, secretaries and security guards. Some are nervous but all are eager to join the 150-member group.


NORTHRIDGE — With his polished gold earring and pitch-black street uniform, Don Hall looked like some sullen rock 'n' roll refugee--not a studious singer auditioning for a part in a 150-member vocal symphony.

But this was no smoky bar, no hip Hollywood recording studio. Ramrod straight, the 24-year-old security guard strode into the Cal State Northridge classroom and took his place at the music stand before three critical-appearing conductors ready to judge his talent.

With piano accompaniment, he launched into the first bars of "America, the Beautiful," his voice a low croon that rose and fell with the range and precision of a vocal marksman, a harmonious hit man.

As he sang, the judges leaned forward, their gazes focused like mechanics listening for the faulty ping in a highly tuned engine. They were a musical firing squad of sorts, looking to shoot down any discordant note, ready and willing to quash the first dissonant sign of amateurism.

In a city known for its countless acting auditions, there is another sort of tryout taking place this week and next as conductors for the Angeles Chorale recruit new members from a collection of amateur singers brave enough to lay their pride--and their voices--on the line.

In an echo-filled outside hallway, the melody makers waited nervously for a chance to show their stuff. Some feigned reading novels. Others merely tapped their feet, listening vacantly, torturously, to the voices of those who auditioned before them.

It was a classical chorus line consisting of doctors and lawyers, professors and plumbers, secretaries and security guards--each with the dream of making his or her contribution to the multitude of voices that, when in sync, sound like angels greeting the good souls at the gates of heaven.

But first, they had to survive the palm-sweating hell of the audition.

For many, this would be their first tryout for a chorale, a symphony orchestra where the full range of human voices--from the high of the female first soprano to the low of the male bass--takes the place of conventional instruments.

Hall, for instance, is the son of musicians--his father sang in a quartet and his mother in a church choir. Going by the name Ebony, he has sung rhythm and blues and is circulating several demo tapes of contemporary music among Hollywood studios in search of his first break.

Then his fiancee's mother saw a newspaper ad for the chorale audition.

"I figured it would be a new test for my voice," he said. "I love to sing. This is just a new challenge."

Challenge, indeed.

In a tiny classroom adorned with a blackboard drawing of treble clefs, each singer was put through a vocal obstacle course, asked to show not only the range of their voice, but their pitch, diction and accuracy.

They were also required to sight-read one of several selections and maintain the proper rhythm while reciting several bars of a complicated score that ranged from whole to 16th notes.

With its success since musical director John Alexander took over the conducting reins seven years ago, the Valley-based chorale now attracts applicants from throughout Los Angeles--a fact that this year brought about a name change from Valley Master Chorale to Angeles Chorale.

Such success also raises the standards of its singers, allowing conductors to require auditioners to perform previously unseen music as part of their tryout.

In fact, the competition is so fierce that members are required to re-audition for the chorale each year.

For the newcomers, however, the sight-reading section was like being forced to parallel park in the state driving test, a little hairpin turn of talent that had many hemming and hawing, asking to start over again and again. Or, like Hall, thrusting their hands to their sides, telling the judges with a look of chagrin: "I just can't do this."

But such sweating is well worth it, current chorale members say.

Along with four local concerts each year--in which it performs an array of music from classical to seasonal--the chorale in recent years has also traveled to Russia, China, Estonia and England.

Jim Wierski, a 37-year-old biomedical researcher from Valenica who has sung with the chorale the past two years, says the pressure for Wednesday night's audition began building weeks ago.

"One of the hardest things in the audition is the sight-reading and it drives you crazy because you never know what you're gong to be asked to perform," he said. "You try not to think about it during meetings at work, but you can't help it.

"You start to sweat. Your hands shake. It's murder."

Not everyone makes it through the audition, not even old-timers in the chorale, which ranges in age from 18 to 68 and features only a handful of paid, professional singers in its 150-voice membership.

Some hire personal voice coaches in the off-season. Others take up instruments to learn the often-complicated musical progressions of classical music. Still, often it's not enough.

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