By Karen McCowan
Published: Saturday, July 7, 2007
By any standard, 1,700 miles is a serious nostalgia trip. But that's how far Hannah Clark traveled to perform at Friday night's Bach Festival Youth Choral Academy concert.
The trip was no small expense for the 20-year-old Wheaton College vocal music major. But she wouldn't have missed a chance to sing here again, joining nearly 50 other alumni in a performance marking the choral academy's 10th year.
She first came in 2004, from Champaign, Ill., at the urging of her high school choir teacher. After flying to Eugene alone, she was blown away by the sense of community she found.
"Just being around so many kids my age that had the same passion for music that I did was amazing," she said. "And the incredible music we made!"
Earlier Friday, the 82 singers of this year's Youth Choral Academy were having the same experience during their final rehearsal. They were rapt, from the first downbeat of Musical Director Anton Armstrong's white baton.
Brows lifted, mouths rounded, they began a selection from Vivaldi's "Magnificat." The fullness of their sound and the precision of their diction belied their youthfulness. Still, Armstrong stopped them: They had yet to master the rolled "R" of the Latin lyrics, "recorda tus."
"R-r-r-r-r!" he reminded them, coaxing an exaggerated "R-r-r-r-r-r-r!" in return.
Later, their swaying bodies were no match for their rollicking conductor as he boogied on the podium to the steel drums driving a lively, Caribbean-style "Kyrie Eleison."
"This is the music of my childhood!" the New York native exclaimed. "My father was from Antigua; my mother is from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands."
The Youth Choral Academy has come a long way since Armstrong, a celebrated conductor at Minnesota's St. Olaf College, first took up the baton here at the request of Bach Festival co-founder Royce Saltzman.
That first year was "a little rough," Armstrong said, the "academy" no more than a group of mostly local kids rehearsing just one week. But each year, the young singers have set "a new benchmark of excellence," giving the academy a national reputation. Only three of this year's members are from Eugene. The singers represent 13 states, coming from as far as Maine. Among them is 17-year-old Nicolas Chuaqui of Salt Lake City, back for a third straight summer.
"When I got here, I was really amazed at how good everybody was," he said of his fellow high school singers. "And the (professional) musicians who work with us are amazing. They're so good they could be really stuck-up, but they're not. They've helped us build a community, not only here, but back at our schools."
That's part of what Bach Festival founders Saltzman and Helmuth Rilling envisioned when they conceived the Youth Choral Academy, said Richard Clark, a University of Oregon music professor emeritus who is retiring this year as the academy's managing director.
"When (tax limitation) Measure 5 passed, they were concerned about cuts to school music programs," he said. "They wanted to build a high-quality program for really talented kids, which is why we call it an academy, not a camp."
YCA has grown into a 10-day residential program for high school students, which costs $525, including living expenses. Choir members stay in a UO dorm. The experience changes lives, said many of the alumni.
"It really opened up my eyes to what you can do with music," said J.J. Thompson, 21. The Western Oregon University history and music student came to the academy from Gresham in 2003 and 2004. "The connections that people here in Eugene have in the music community extend throughout the world," he added, citing Bach Festival guest musicians from Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Steven Gutierrez, 18, of Medford, agreed. Now a UO sophomore and music major, he called the 2005 YCA "the first time I was actually in a place where everyone was there to make great music. Even during rehearsals, people didn't talk when the director was working with another section - they'd listen to see what they could learn."
The largest group of alumni consists of more than 20 Eugene-area high school graduates. Cole Blum, 24, sang with the first group in 1998, after Clark made a recruiting stop at Blum's South Eugene High School choir rehearsal. He so loved Armstrong's teaching style that he followed the conductor to St. Olaf, where his experiences included performing in Norway and doing his student teaching in the Himalayan foothills of India.
"YCA showed me how music can be experienced outside the bubble of your home, bringing you into contact with all these different ideas," Blum said.
Funded for years by donations from Bach Festival member Mary Ann Myers, the program became the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy last year, after its future was ensured by a $700,000 endowment from The Roger and Lilah Stangeland Foundation. Roger Stangeland, former chief executive officer of the Vons supermarket chain in Southern California, died in 2004. The Stangelands' son Brad is a Eugene businessman. Seattle resident Gary Long is also a financial backer of the academy.
The academy is "unusual, if not unique" among nationally recognized residential music programs for high school students - most of which focus on developing soloists, Armstrong said. By contrast, YCA "looks not just for beautiful voices, but for students interested in making music in the community."
He benefited from the sense of community himself, Armstrong said, after the unexpected death of his father during the 2002 academy.
When he called his mother after receiving the news, she urged him to stay the additional two days to conduct the concert.
Each of that year's participants wrote him a personal note of condolence, collected in a book that "I keep in my study and read often," he said. "And their music was a healing balm for me. This place proved to be family for me, which is one reason I still do this each year."
While YCA was not intended as a "farm club" for the adult Bach Festival Chorus, he's thrilled that several alumni have joined that group. And he's happy others are pursuing music performance careers. But he's equally gratified that YCA has enriched the lives of hundreds of alumni who will go on to be amateur musicians in the original meaning of that French word: lovers of art, people who keep music alive with their attendance, donations and political support.
"These are great kids," he said.