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Chorale Hits High Note in Santa Clarita

The volunteer music group, spawned during a casual conversation in 1998, demonstrates how the arts can flourish in L.A.'s growing suburbs.

November 29, 2005|Andrew H. Malcolm | Times Staff Writer

It began on a rainy afternoon in 1998 in a black Mercedes exiting Interstate 5 in Valencia. Jill Hackett and Deb Baur, returning from a distant choral music concert, were bemoaning having to travel so far to hear a refined group of professional voices uniting to sing like one fine instrument.

"Why don't we start a chorale right here?" Hackett said. So they did.

Zoning boards and elected officials are experienced at planning physical aspects of Southern California's fast-growing communities -- commercial strips, residential neighborhoods, sports parks and schools. What tends to be more spontaneous and dependent on individual passions is the sprouting of local cultural institutions.

In a valley once known for its vast onion fields, the evolution of the Santa Clarita Master Chorale from an idea in a casual conversation to a vibrant group rehearsing its seventh season offers lessons for the development of such institutions elsewhere. It also shows the value of the combined power of committed volunteers.

"It helped that we were naive," said Hackett, who, like Baur, was a neophyte in civic activities.

"We knew everyone needs music in their life. We knew the magical powers of singing together and hearing singing together. And we thought the universal language of music could be a unifying force in a newly diverse, rapidly growing community," Hackett said.

The work began the next day with a stream of phone calls to a wide circle of friends, who were enthusiastic and agreed to serve on an array of organizational committees. Nine months later, with official nonprofit status in hand and a mission statement that stressed quality music and educational outreach, the chorale held auditions: 144 came and 38 were chosen.

Since then, the chorale has expanded to 60 members, presented three major concerts a year to sellout crowds and held master classes for elementary and high school students.

In 2000, similarly passionate classical music fans founded the Santa Clarita Symphony to add to the cultural offerings of the expanding suburb, about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

"Communities must have an artistic expression, an outlet, to confirm their existence," said Allan Robert Petker, conductor and artistic director.

"This chorale sprung up like a flower bed. Lots of chorales have retired folks. This group has a charming youthfulness and energy, blending the myriad voices of suburbia into a professional choir."

Indeed, one recent rehearsal drew members ages 17 to 70 -- professionals, stay-at-home moms, students -- virtually all Santa Clarita residents.

"This rehearsal is the highlight of my week," said Regina Colombo, a soprano. In her second year with the group, she devotes regular chunks of an hour-long daily commute to practice in her car.

"I don't feel whole any day I'm not singing," said DeMaris Richardson, a professional singer and actress.

The sound of five dozen suburbanites rigorously rehearsing passages from Christmas songs on a rainy autumn evening is no longer unusual in Santa Clarita. They warmed up, standing, with a series of vocal calisthenics: "me, meh, may, mah, moe, moo." Petker reminded them, "It takes tremendous concentration to sing together as one voice."

Consulting his watch frequently to keep to a minute-by-minute rehearsal schedule devised months before Sunday's holiday concert, Petker presided with brief comments and brisk flourishes of his fingers, seeming to pull out, plead for or even caress each song's syllables and phrases. "We have a lot to accomplish in very little time," he said.

"Release that vowel," Petker commanded the chorale at one point. "Let it free to fill the room."

Later, he urged, "This is a dark sound. It must be 'bleh,' not 'blay.' " And later, "This is very mysterious here. No breaths. No breaths."

A collegial atmosphere reigned with casually dressed members sipping water and sharing running jokes.

"It's a good group," Colombo said. "We come. We sing. We socialize. And then we return to our other lives."

"Oh," Petker observed with a smile, "you've got rhythm tonight. It's not my rhythm. But you're together."

Until this year, the chorale rented performance space from the Valencia United Methodist Church but has moved many concerts to the larger Vital Express Center for the Performing Arts at College of the Canyons.

Besides its three concerts -- a holiday one in December, a classical one in March and a pops one in June -- members speak and sing in area schools to spread word about the chorale.

A handful of high school students can audition to become interns for a year. It's an eye-opening experience. "The dedication of these people is beyond comprehension," said Amanda Gallardo, a Valencia High senior who practices daily now.

Members pay $100 per year. Other support comes from ticket and CD sales, gifts and grants from the city of Santa Clarita and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, among others.

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