When the Spokane Area Children’s Chorus was born 25 years ago, it consisted of less than a dozen young singers.
Today, the singers are still young, but the organization itself? It’s all grown up.
At the quarter-century mark, the region’s major youth singing group has grown to more than 110 voices, age 7 to 18, in five different ensembles.
Today’s chorus is, in the words of artistic director Kristina Ploeger, “wonderfully high-level, artistically satisfying and professional in quality.” And she could have added, good enough to sing at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. That’s a far cry from the nascent 1986 choir, which was described by its executive director at the time as “not perfect.”
The holiday season is a perfect time to catch them – they will perform their annual Christmas concert on Friday, followed a week later by their participation in the Spokane Symphony’s Holiday Pops on Dec. 17 and 18.
Yet Spokane has certainly not been the only place to hear them over the years. They have sung at Esterhazy Castle in Vienna, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and open-air stages in Costa Rica. In fact, the group has done a major tour every two years since 1996:
1996: Austria and Hungary.
1998: England and Wales.
2002: Canterbury, London and Paris.
2004: Prague, Vienna and Salzburg.
2006: Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
2008: Scotland and England.
2010: Costa Rica.
When the SACC first started in 1986, nobody could have guessed it would go those kinds of places. It was launched as a boys choir under the direction of Christopher Trussell. When Trussell departed after less than a year, the choir was on the verge of breaking up. Yet a group of parents decided it was worth saving, and decided to expand it to include a girls choir as well.
The choir held auditions. By late 1987, it had grown to 10 singers in the boys choir and 27 in the girls choir. The age range was 7 to 13, which was soon expanded upward to 18.
By 1996, under musical director Tamara Schupman, the SACC had expanded to well over 100 members, with different choirs at several age levels. That was the same year the chorale embarked on its first overseas trip, taking 35 members of the Ensemble Choir, the most advanced group, to Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck.
At the time, one middle-schooler remarked that it was a no-brainer when she was forced to choose between singing and softball that year. She “took Europe.”
Two years later, 43 SACC members launched a British invasion – hitting England and Scotland. They joined in on “Amazing Grace” with a bagpiper in Loch Lomond and sang folk songs on the steps of Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born.
By around 2000, the choir had grown to more than 200 singers, largely because they had expanded to three different geographic locations. They had a North Side choir, a Valley choir and a downtown choir. This made it easier for more singers to participate, but it proved to be logistically difficult. It soon reverted back to one central rehearsal and performance space, which, today is Westminster Congregational Church downtown (although not affiliated with any church).
In 2002, an entourage of 23 sang in three of the world’s most famous cathedrals: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The kids raised part of the money through fundraisers. Parents usually paid the rest.
These trips took place every two years – but 2012 will be an exception. Ploeger said that due to the down economy the parents need another year to do fundraising. But if all goes well, they’ll be off to Italy in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Spokane Area Children’s Chorus provides satisfaction beyond travel.
“It’s like a second family to me,” said one of the head choristers, Charity Rasmussen, 17. “I’ve grown up with most of the kids in the group. By collectively breathing and singing together, it gives us a sense of purpose.”
It also, of course, give students a strong background in vocal music and music theory. Many grow up to make music a key part of their lives. Rasmussen said she plans to major in music therapy.
“But not everybody is supposed to end up as a choir teacher,” Ploeger said. “We don’t need that many choir teachers.”
The more important lesson that students learn?
“I’ve learned to be professional, how to respect authority and be accepting of others,” Rasmussen said.
And if the final product happens to be beautiful? So much the better.
“It’s hard to explain,” Rasmussen said. “It’s food for the soul.”