North Hills choir members to be part of large-scale concert

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Members of two North Hills Senior High School choirs are joining the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and thousands of other singers to perform in “Singing City,” a large-scale concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center.

The concert, which will be led by the symphony's music director, Manfred Honeck, is the kickoff to the orchestra's inaugural Music of the Spirit Festival, to be held from Saturday through April 28, according to Mary Persin, special projects director for Honeck.

“We wanted to do something big to open the festival. It's going to be a magnificent ... an enormous sound and powerful,” she said.

There will be more than 60 singing groups from Pittsburgh and surrounding areas participating in the concert, including approximately 90 singers from the North Hills Symphonic Choir and Women's Choir, said Shaun Cloonan, the high school's choir director.

Persin said a letter was sent last spring to singing groups all over the Pittsburgh area inviting them to take to part in the show, which will include singers from high schools, colleges, professional groups, churches and other entities collaborating in one “historic” massive concert.

Persin said it was Honeck's idea to introduce the festival with the “Singing City” concert.

“Everybody that was able to make the commitment was able to part of it,” she said.

The approximately two-and-half-hour concert will include selections from Beethoven's “Symphony No. 5,” Verdi's “Requiem,” Copland's “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and the Chorale Finale of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection.” The event will include an audience singalong.

Gabe Stanton, a junior at North Hills Senior High School and member of the Symphonic Choir, said even the rehearsals are amazing, and his expectations of the actual event are hard to imagine.

“It will be like a huge wall of singing coming at you,” said the Stanton, 17, of Ross Township, who also is in the school band. “I almost wish I could be with the audience.”

The North Hills Senior High School Women's Choir consists of freshman and sophomore girls, while the Symphonic Choir consists of junior and senior girls, along with boys of all grade levels, said Cloonan, of Churchill.

Preparation involves five rehearsals preceding the main event led by Robert Page, a former director of Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and a Carnegie Mellon University professor and director of choral activities. He has a longstanding relationship with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Persin said.

Cloonan said both he and the students enjoy learning from the Page during the rehearsals.

“He's got incredibly high expectations and very direct in what he wants,” said Cloonan, who also will be singing for the concert.

Nate Spear, a North Hills junior from Ross Township, said in addition to playing in the school band, he has been with the Symphonic Choir since the ninth grade.

Because the choirs participating in “Singing City” received the music months prior to the rehearsals, they were able to get accustomed to the music, which, Spear said, is different and more difficult than what the school choirs usually perform.

“I think the experience will be helpful for the future,” said Spear, 16, because it is allowing students to get “deeper into the music.”

Spear said Page is “amazing.”

“He really expects people to know what they're doing. He really wants people to get it right the first time,” he said.

Page is being joined by a Chris Hestwood, another longtime collaborator with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, to assist in preparing the singers for the event, said Persin, of Pittsburgh.

She said singers range from ages 14 to 89. In order for all the various performers to come together as one, Page and Hestwood have to coordinate elements such as learning the music, teaching correct pronunciation of words and relaying how Honeck wants the singers to sound, she said.

And the choirs will also be intermixed, so singers won't be performing next to their own choir members.

“They truly are coming together,” Persin said. “This is an unprecedented undertaking.”

Senior Kelly Gordon, president of the North Hills choir club and a Symphonic Choir member, said she enjoys any opportunity to perform and looks forward to singing with such a diverse group. However, she's not sure what to expect.

“I don't think it's going to hit me until we're actually there to sing,” said Gordon, 18, of Ross Township.

Natalie Beneviat is a freelance writer with Trib Total Media.

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