L.A. Children's Choir members, from left, Rachel Bang, Christine… (David Tomlinson )
GEORGE, South Africa — It's 5 p.m., and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus has only just arrived here. They're late, delayed by a quintessentially South African nightmare: a bus breakdown. At 7 p.m., they'll have to perform — in a venue they've never seen, with people they've never met. The director takes charge. Forty-minute rehearsal, break for pizza, get dressed — go!
Two hours later — well, two hours and 15 minutes — they're onstage, singing as if they were back in L.A., the stresses of the day virtually undetectable in their warm, liquid-smooth voices. The host choir is impressed. "It's inspiring," their director says.
Not to the kids themselves; they're used to this. It's just another day in a high-profile year for this L.A. institution, now in its 26th season. In February, the chorus' concert choir — its top 75 singers — formed the centerpiece of an 800-person chorus for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's massive performance of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand." A month later, it premiered a new work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And in May, 14 chorus members were featured in Puccini's "La Bohème" on the Los Angeles Opera stage.
But that was all prep for the year's biggest adventure yet: a recent road tour through South Africa.
Touring is tradition for the chorus, whose technical ability, diversity and eclectic repertoire are known well beyond its hometown borders. That has to do, in part, with its commitment to traveling the world. Every year, its concert choir visits a different place, alternating between U.S. and international destinations, for a couple of densely packed weeks of singing, sightseeing and cultural exchange. By far the bigger draw for students is the international tour, a chance to gain new perspectives on music and its place in global society.
Australia, England, Scotland, Brazil, Italy, China, Scandinavia: Over the past decades, the chorus had touched every major continent but Africa. For 2012, Anne Tomlinson, the chorus' veteran artistic director and conductor, decided to change that. A friend of hers from a previous international tour recommended South Africa, a country known for its rich musical tradition and world-renowned children's choirs. The planning began.
"Most of these students won't get this experience anywhere else in their musical lives," says Twyla Meyer, the chorus' longtime pianist. "They come away changed."
On July 3, 61 students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, along with their own version of groupies — a camera-toting set of choir moms — left home. Two flights, one bus ride and three days later, they were performing at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a sleepy Eastern Cape town transformed every year into the South African art world's buzzing center of activity.
Opening night was a freezing-cold Saturday — it's winter in South Africa. Curious spectators filed into an old cathedral, including — in a rare appearance — the famously busy festival director himself. Then came the kids, dressed in their signature red vests. By the second song, "L'dor vador," a Hebrew prayer featuring a standout solo by Nicole Toto, 15, the crowd fell respectfully, deferentially silent. The chorus ended with a tribute to its temporary home, a rendition of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa"). The crowd stood up and remained standing for an ovation.
The next day in Cue, a professionally staffed pop-up newspaper that covers and reviews festival acts, the notoriously tough music critic wrote: "[P]erfectly proportioned textural balance mingled with flawlessly merged overtones, evenly produced vocal tone, and gloriously positioned head voice sounds. ... This choir impressed."
Not that anyone had time to appreciate the good review. The youngsters performed again the next day, and the following morning were up at 6 a.m. to catch a bus that would take them to George, a small city in between Grahamstown and Cape Town.
Despite their late arrival, not to mention a tinny electric piano and bad acoustics, the choir has another successful night. After the performance, the kids pair off with members of the South Cape Children's Choir and spend the night with their families. These "home stays," as they're called, are essential to the touring experience. Even Tomlinson, her husband and some of the other adults do it.
The next morning on the bus is debrief time. The kids are full of stories. "The whole night we were just singing and sharing our music with each other," one says. "They lived on a farm and they showed us a pig!" says another.
The adults are less ebullient. "It was a very interesting time." "Lovely folks, but pretty different lifestyle." "I'd kill for an espresso."
But they put on a happy face. This is for the children.