Theresa Fajardo had a moment of fright Friday afternoon as she waited to sing her solo in front of a nearly full house at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
But as the gospel-style Christian anthem "Let Everything That Hath Breath" simmered to the drum beat, Fajardo, 18, felt at peace. Mid-song, the Agoura High School senior fell out of line to stand apart from the other singers -- one of about 900 from 28 Southern California schools gathered for the 19th annual High School Choir Festival.
By the time she hit her final stratospheric note -- no microphone in sight -- what had been a formal affair seemed temporarily like a gospel revival. Teens waved their hands in the air, calling out "whoop whoop" and whistling in approval.
"They work very hard to learn this challenging music, many with limited resources," said Los Angeles Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon. "When I look out there and see them, I am very optimistic about the future of music in Los Angeles."
Friday's festival, which was free to the public, marked the end of a yearlong process of applications, auditions and practices for those hoping to make the cut. The songs of Antonio Vivaldi, Argentina's Astor Piazzolla, L.A.-based composer Georgia Stitt and France's Gabriel Fauré took months to master.
Most of the set centered on religious-themed works about faith, Scripture, devotion and gratitude -- with some pieces dating back centuries.
Students arrived for a final rehearsal early in the day, already dressed in black-tie tuxedos and gowns.
At 9 a.m. sharp, Gershon began warming up his young charges with humming and other vocal exercises. He had them stretch their arms at one point, urging "everyone do jazz hands" to ease tensions in the large hall.
The students sailed through the rehearsal of Vivaldi but tripped up on the incessantly demanding "pa-ram-pam, pa-ram-pi-pam" of Piazzolla's "Libertango," an instrumental piece later adapted for vocals.
"We are on a flight to Buenos Aires," Gershon coached the struggling teens. Each time students fumbled the song, he stopped the piano accompanist to advise the youths: "You need to breathe at this point," "Think longer vowels" and "Women, don't drag. Men, don't rush." The teens obliged, and come showtime, practice made near-perfect. By show's end, Gershon beamed like a proud parent -- the house was standing in ovation.