Teacher Terry Fischer taps the music stand with his pencil. "Stand up and sing pretty," he directs two dozen teenagers, rising up on sneakered toes as he urges them to reach for the high notes.
The students are members of the prestigious Camerata at El Camino Real High School, an award-winning choral group that is at the top of the school's musical food chain. Students must audition to take choral music at the Woodland Hills high school and are accepted into Camerata--the Italian term for a chamber choir--only after they have sung first in the school's chorus and then in its larger choir.
Since this is high school, certain eternal verities apply. Hair is of the utmost importance, the reason several girls brush theirs assiduously during a break. And as school clocks so often do, the one on the classroom wall keeps time according to its own standard, not Greenwich's. However typical the class, there is also something palpably special about it, a brio that suggests more is going on here than the mastery of a demanding piece of choral music.
The students are practicing Leonard Bernstein's "Symphony No. 3"--his "Kaddish"--in preparation for a performance Nov. 13 at UCLA's Royce Hall. But the real thrill is to follow their Westside concert. In two weeks, 22 of the students will fly to Europe, where they will sing "Kaddish" (the name of the Jewish prayer for the dead) Nov. 25 and 26 in Nuremberg, Germany, as part of an international program called Sounds of Healing.
The El Camino group is the only American youth choir that was asked to participate in the project, described in its press materials as "a cross-cultural artistic collaboration and a mission of reconciliation."
The program is co-sponsored by a host of entities, including the Jewish Community Foundation, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The program commemorates a trio of anniversaries--Bernstein's death in 1990, the Kristallnacht (the night the Nazis escalated their war on the Jews) in 1938 and the founding of Nuremberg in the year 1150. For most Americans, Nuremberg is best known as the site of the war crimes trials that followed World War II.
The El Camino students are thrilled at the prospect of performing in Germany with the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra and choirs from Canada and Israel, as well as Los Angeles. They also know that the tour will be filmed under the direction of Delbert Mann, who won an Academy Award for "Marty," for airing on TV and educational use.
"I'm totally excited," student Holly Eiholzer says of the upcoming trip. "I can't wait."
"I feel it's an honor because we're the only students in the United States invited to go and participate," adds Jessica Buttafuoco. Ashley Virtue says she knew nothing about what happened at Nuremberg until she became part of the project, but has since learned a great deal.
Marissa Klein, one of several Jewish students in the group, is subdued in her response. "I'm really scared," she says.
Klein, who learned about the Holocaust as a child, says she hasn't yet decided whether she will visit the remains of the "model" Theresienstadt concentration camp, an option on the students' itinerary. But for all her fears, Klein is grateful that she has this opportunity to perform on ground that is both haunted and hallowed. "It's really amazing to be able to respond to all the feelings I've had over the years," she says.
Nick Strimple, who will conduct the concerts, had the idea for the project, along with friend Gunter Einhaus, who recently retired as executive director of the Nuremberg Symphony.
Strimple, a composer and music director of three of the Los Angeles-based choirs that will perform, says Fischer's involvement with the Camerata was a major reason for choosing the El Camino choir.
"I heard his choir at a choral festival two years ago and was really very impressed with them," says Strimple, who knew Fischer from his days with the Ventura Master Chorale.
Strimple was aware that Fischer had stepped in to save the choral music program at El Camino when the program was about to be eliminated in the early '90s. But it wasn't just Fischer's interest in music that impressed Strimple.
"He's one of the best wrestling coaches in the state," Strimple says of Fischer. In fact, Fischer not only coaches the El Camino wrestling team, but he's also assistant football coach and coach of the girls' track team.
"I knew my worries were over," Strimple says, once he recruited Fischer, whose accomplishments include persuading a number of star athletes to sing in school choral groups.
Just as Strimple anticipated, Fischer's singers were fully prepared when the Camerata began rehearsing with the other performers a few weeks ago. "They knew the piece cold," Strimple says.