High school students from all around the Capital Region will join together at the University of Albany on Saturday for Albany Pro Musica’s High School Choral Festival.
“I’ve never done anything like this — I didn’t realize until now that I was really into music so it’s really exciting to do this whole workshop and sing with people from other schools,” said Niskayuna 11th grader Viv VanHoesen, who will be attending the festival for the first time.
Approximately 175 high school students from more than 20 schools will participate in the day-long event, which will consist of workshops, rehearsals and a tour of the UAlbany campus before culminating in an evening concert. The students will be conducted by UAlbany visiting assistant professor Michael Lister and APM’s artistic director José Daniel Flores-Caraballo.
“It’s so thrilling. We are just so delighted to be welcoming students for such a rigorous day of learning and music-making,” said Emily Sturman, the deputy executive director of Albany Pro Musica.
This Saturday will mark the festival’s 23rd year, but it will be the first time it has been held in person since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m excited to be with a large group of singers again because we haven’t done that for years, so being in a large group setting is going to be, I think, very comforting,” said Liz Ogonowski, an 11th grader at Niskayuna.
The festival will also be operating under a new format. In past years, schools would send entire choral groups to participate. This year, however, students applied individually.
“We didn’t have quite as much representation from schools around the region because if a school wasn’t sending their choir, then a student would have no way of participating, so this year, we actually opened up the registration to individual students,” Sturman said. “We really wanted this to be as open as possible to introduce students to this festival experience, to allow them to come and sing with APM, and experience the UAlbany environment.”
The concert will feature three ensembles — the Pro Musica Chamber Ensemble, the Pro Musica High School Honor Choir and the Pro Musica High School Festival Chorus — with music by composers like Irving Berlin, Sarah Quartel and Rosephanye Powell. Several of the songs’ lyrics are set to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes.
The singers have had the music to practice on their own for only a couple of weeks. Saturday will be the first and only day that the entire ensemble will be able to practice together to prepare for the night’s concert.
“I think it’s definitely really fun to learn a lot of new music at once,” Niskayuna 11th grader, Sophie Spindler, said. “It’s really a nice challenge to learn music on your own and it will be really exciting to hear it all put together.”
According to Lister, the songs, which had been specially selected by him and Flores-Caraballo, reflect APM’s mission to increase festival inclusivity and representation.
“We wanted to make sure that a variety of voice and perspective was heard both from the composers and the poetry that was being performed and the themes of the music as well,” Lister said. “There is a strong theme of the self, the growth and joy of discovery, and belonging and community across wide arrays of both places, faces and people that we really wanted to focus on in this festival.”
But it’s not only the aspect of community that APM and Lister hope students take away from the festival.
“In the long term, we hope that this underscores their belief in themselves, that they are musicians, they can hold music with them — whether they become professional musicians or not they can hold this opportunity with them as they go through their lives and know that they have a creative outlet in music,” Sturman said.
The students themselves each have different hopes for the festival. Niskayuna senior Mathena Rush, junior Lauren McLear and sophomore Lily Graham are looking to improve their abilities and learn from their fellow singers and conductors. VanHoesen wants to form connections with other musicians from the area. And Spindler and Ogonowski hope to reconnect with people that are passionate about music, something they missed during the isolation of the pandemic.
“I definitely am excited to be able to be in a really large choir with students that are also really passionate about music because I think that makes me even more passionate about music,” Spindler said. “I think definitely that being around other people and seeing a wider scope of choral singers, not just my concert chorale at Niskayuna, will be really exciting.”
“I think during the pandemic we kind of all lost that and I, myself, am still looking for that excitement and unity that comes from all of these large choirs,” Ogonowski said.
The audience is also in for their own treat, says Lister.
“Hopefully this will be something that resonates beyond just the students in the festival but with those who are able to hear it and maybe inspire some communications and dialogues with friends and family members and loved ones who maybe have seen the concert as well,” Lister said.
Albany Pro Musica’s High School Choral Festival concert will take place on Saturday at the University at Albany Performing Arts Center at 5 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall box office.