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Choir Commits to See Trip Through to Its Finale

March 30, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

DAVIS, Calif. — It is hard to dwell on the war when you are surrounded by singing children, their pure, sweet voices skipping up and down the scale, striking each note strong and clear and true.

This is Rachel Kessler's world. She is not about to let a far-off conflict shake it up.

And so Kessler, 66, is pushing aside what few qualms she has and is taking her Davis children's choir on its long-planned trip to New York. They leave Wednesday, Kessler and her 26 junior crooners, embarking on an adventure that will include a visit to the World Trade Center site, a tour of the United Nations and a performance at Manhattan's historic Riverside Church.

All around the country Americans are canceling vacations, hunkering down, altering their lives to reflect their status as members of a nation at war. Not Kessler.

Yes, New York was ravaged by the violence of 9/11. Yes, it remains a terrorist's dream target. But to avoid the trip, to disappoint children who have trained so hard, to give in, would be wrong.

At times like these, Kessler believes, the thing to do is just carry on.

"I feel like we're being held hostage to the point that we're afraid to move," she declares in a voice that is soft yet emphatic. "We can't let our daily lives be governed by these terrible events, by fear.... I can't live that way. I just won't do it."

It is not that Kessler is an escapist. In the early-morning and late-night hours, she, like so many others, can be found on the sofa, connected, along with husband Don, to CNN and its endless outpouring of news from Iraq.

Nor is Kessler apolitical. The war is "unfortunate, sad," and something she opposed. But now that it's underway, she said, the troops deserve unqualified support. And President Bush "deserves support too, because he is doing the best he can."

So what explains Kessler's determination to stay on course despite the perilous times -- and the fretting of some choir parents who wonder about the risk?

Perhaps it's her upbringing as a Navy brat, a girl -- one of six children -- whose father fought in both world wars. In their family, battles happened, friends and relatives died, and Dad, a pilot and colonel, came home when he could. But life went rolling right along when he was gone.

"That's part of it," Kessler said, remembering her father's long absences and the worries about not just when, but whether, he'd return. "You just kept on going without him.... It was the only life we knew."

But the real force in play here, it seems, is Kessler's belief that no matter what sort of trauma a family or city or nation faces, it is continuity, above all, that keeps children feeling safe.

"When events like this happen, whether it's 9/11 or the war or whatever, the kids just get so fearful," said Kessler, a junior high teacher in Davis for 32 years before retiring. "Television is bringing all these frightening pictures," and the children "just don't know what to expect. So it's more important than ever for us to keep things normal and low-key, to keep them focused and comfortable and secure."

The singers of the Davis Children's Chorale, ages 8 to 14, do at the moment appear focused, comfortable and secure. Kessler sees their accomplished little group -- founded in 1995 -- as a sanctuary, a place where members can dwell from time to time in the pure bliss of music.

At practice in recent weeks, Kessler has coached her troupe through the handful of pieces they will perform in New York, an eclectic repertoire ranging from "Kookaburra," a lively Australian folk song, to "Blessing," an Irish poem set to music. There are, coincidentally, some patriotic selections as well, including "I Hear America Singing," by Andre Thomas.

A onetime soloist who sang professionally with two of the biggest names in choral music, Roger Wagner and Robert Shaw, Kessler also leads an adult choir.

But it is the children she prefers.

"Those nice, rich, round children's voices are just so wonderful," she said, raising both hands to her cheeks and giving a smile that can only be described as rapturous. "And you know, once they reach adulthood, it never comes back. That's why this is such a special group."

At Wednesday's rehearsal, the first of two remaining before the trip, Kessler -- her gold-rimmed glasses slid slightly down her nose -- dug in, leading a grueling session that spanned more than two hours.

Clad in a green skirt and white blouse with embroidered collar, she urged the choir onward, hands slicing right then left through the air, body in constant motion, bouncing up and down on her toes.

As the voices blended and broke, faded and surged, she alternated encouragement -- "Beautiful! Beautiful!" -- with an occasional scold -- "Sopranos, you're going off on a tangent again!"

All in all, she appeared pleased: "They are amazing, amazing."

As for the kids, their angelic voices were the only thing that set them apart from other California youth. The girls, some in skintight jeans and black eyeliner, lapsed into chatter whenever the opportunity arose. The boys stood with hands shoved in pockets, looking a bit resigned, as if maybe their mothers had made them come.

On this rehearsal day, the war was not mentioned, but there was a reference to it on display. One ninth-grade girl wore a black armband -- a symbol, she said, "of the fact that I don't believe we should be bombing Iraqi people who have done nothing to us."

Another girl expressed a different sentiment, one that needed no explanation, for it was splashed across the front of her T-shirt.

"I {heart}NY," it read.

In contrast to Kessler's chorale, Calabasas High School's band and choir canceled plans to perform in New York.

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