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CRENSHAW : Youth Gospel Choir Wins Praise in Europe

March 13, 1994|MELISSA McCOY

PARIS — Europeans were singing the praises of Crenshaw High School's Elite Choir after its recent whirlwind tour of the Continent, where it packed concert halls and churches from the banks of the Rhine to the City of Light.

In its last performance of the two-week tour, beneath the flying buttresses of Paris' American Cathedral, the blue-robed choir lifted every voice in a city better known for haute couture than down-home harmonizing. From the altar of the cavernous cathedral in the city's fashionable 8th District, a bunch of kids from the Crenshaw area rocked the house, as they had done in Germany and the Netherlands on other stops in last month's tour.

With a mix of high-energy gospel, blues, jazz, African music and Broadway show tunes, the performance was part rock concert, part revival. The students sang some of their selections in French and German.

"We had great welcomes everyplace we went," said Iris Stevenson, music director and teacher at Crenshaw High. She said that in Mannheim, Germany, the group drew a crowd of more than 2,000.

The number of students in Stevenson's choir and band classes has swelled from 12 to more than 700 in the nine years that she has been at Crenshaw. For this tour there were about 45 students, some of whom were joined onstage during the concert by family members.

The students helped raise funds to pay their way, with a personal donation from Mayor Richard Riordan.

Stevenson, whose work with the youths inspired the story for Whoopi Goldberg's "Sister Act 2," sometimes uses her own money to help pay for trips.

In the past few years, the group has traveled to Nice and the Caribbean, winning the Jamaican Jazz Festival four years in a row, and has appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and HBO's "Chez Whoopi."

Rochanda Evans, an 18-year-old senior at Crenshaw, was enjoying her first visit to Europe. "It has been really exciting," she said.

In Paris, more than 800 people packed the cathedral for the free performance Feb. 27, with nearly a thousand more spilling onto the sidewalk outside hoping to get in. They got their wish after the choir agreed to a second, unscheduled performance.

The majority of the concert-goers were Parisians, with a smattering of American expatriates. Women in Chanel suits and pearl chokers sat next to university students wearing ripped jeans. But most did not sit for long. By the end of the second performance, they were clapping wildly, and some Parisians were uncharacteristically standing on the pews in the 19th-Century church.

Geoffroy Mauze, a French student, said he was electrified by the performance. "You close your eyes and you are captivated, hypnotized," he said. "I hope that more people in Europe will begin to appreciate this music."

Stevenson directed the choir from behind the piano, where the composer and professional pianist alternately tickled and pounded the ivories while coaxing the singers to keep up the furious pace.

Nakisha Blackmon, a 17-year-old senior, delivered a knockout blow backed by the choir with "Help Somebody," a song that had many in the crowd--and Nakisha--in tears.

Many of the students heaped praise for their success on two things--God and Iris Stevenson. 'She is like a gift to us," Nakisha said.

"She says a choir is like a family," said 17-year-old senior Chad McDonald, a baritone who plans to study opera after graduation. "And it is."

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