Anne Tomlinson is petite in form but towering in stature. Slender, with a long neck and regal posture, the artistic director of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus stands in summer-white pants and a scoop neck top on a podium before a group of 46 young people ranging in age from 12 to 18, conducting as they sing a song titled “Come, Let’s Be Merry.”
The group’s angelic voices soar above the towering pipe organ inside the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, all the way to the rafters. It is sonic perfection to the untrained ear. But that ear is not Tomlinson’s.
“That will sound quite remarkable if we actually sing it together,” she says in a gentle reproach after an initial pass at the song.
The children giggle, regarding their mentor warmly. Known affectionately among her diminutive wards as “Mrs. T,” Tomlinson is preparing for her final local concert with the chorus after 22 years at its helm, growing it from 100 participants in three ensembles to a world-renowned organization with 450 students in six ensembles.
“I must have children in my life,” says Tomlinson, who is only the second artistic director to lead LACC, and who will be replaced by choral conductor Fernando Malvar-Ruiz. “I find the greatest joy in being with them. If I’m feeling a little down, being with them raises one’s spirits and one’s hopes for the future.”
Thursday night’s free concert at the church is a prelude to Tomlinson’s final tour with the Concert Choir, which is set, two days later, to head for Norway and Iceland, where the schedule includes performances with acclaimed Icelandic conductor and composer Daníel Bjarnason and an appearance at Oslo Cathedral.
Such tours, which have included China, Cuba, Africa and Brazil, are a staple of LACC’s mission and among the hallmarks of Tomlinson’s achievement as its leader. They are a large part of what has established the chorus on the world stage, paving the way for local fame, and helping make possible the professionalism that enables LACC to feel at home with seasoned pros during appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and LA Opera.
“I met Mrs. T when I was 8 or 9, and from that time on, you know that she’s someone you want to impress,” says 16-year-old Mwï Epalle, who is going into her ninth year with the chorus. “She’s very precise and meticulous, and she really likes when things are done correctly, but that doesn’t mean that she lacks feeling or connection or communication. She has this presence that makes you want to focus.”
Watching Tomlinson with the children is a lesson in the power of high expectations. As they rehearse, nary a wayward cellphone is in sight and there is a bare minimum of wiggling and giggling and general child’s play, although it is quite clear that plenty of fun is being had.
The fun, however, is in the execution of the craft. And craft is elevated above all else. Tomlinson uses the bel canto technique, with its emphasis on breath control and smooth, connected phrasing, to guide the students. In addition, she instituted a musical literacy program, so students can learn to read music. She is careful about vocal health, bringing in three vocal coaches to ensure that students don’t overdo it.
“She has made such a difference in the musical life of the city,” says Grant Gershon, the artistic director of the LA Master Chorale and associate conductor of LA Opera, who has worked with Tomlinson and the chorus over the past 17 years. “The purity of the sound is second to none. At the same time, the musicianship she’s instilled in multiple generations of young people is extraordinary. These kids are seemingly capable of anything.”
Tomlinson was raised in a musical family in tiny Door County in northern Wisconsin, where the cold weather presented ample opportunities for singing and playing piano. She studied music at Oberlin College, becoming an accomplished keyboardist before earning a graduate degree in conducting at Northwestern University.
She started at LACC as an apprentice choir director before quickly moving up to replace founding artistic director Rebecca Thompson in 1996. Tomlinson chose this moment to step down because it just felt like the right time.
From the beginning of her career with LACC she fostered discipline in her students. And, indeed, there is a maturity born of dedication to an artistic practice that is apparent in LACC participants, many of whom begin as small children in the First Experiences in Singing Classes, and continue into their teens, rising through the ranks as they go. Tomlinson even established a Young Men’s Ensemble for boys with changing voices, which Gershon says is a real gift to those who would otherwise find themselves cast out of a treble-based group.
Eleven-year-old Quinn Fagan hasn’t reached that stage yet, but he has found his way to becoming the youngest kid in this year’s upper-level Concert Choir after a whirlwind rise that began in second grade.
Like many of the children, he finds joy in classical and choral music, a quality that is a great source of pride for Tomlinson whose program for her final concert includes Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and Antonio Vivaldi’s “Magnificat.”
“It’s really beautiful how you can make a song — you don’t just sing, you focus on every detail to make it sound perfect,” says Fagan, whose speaking voice has a soft musical lilt to it. “And it means something to you over a course of time, so you share a bond with people listening.”
Learning to bond with an audience is a skill cultivated in no small part by Tomlinson who thinks of the children as ambassadors for choral music and the city of Los Angeles when they tour.
One of her fondest memories of a trip with the Concert Choir was to South Africa in 2012, where the response to their music was particularly warm and welcoming. The group took a tour of the Johannesburg Township of Soweto and later gave a concert there.
“We learned from, and were surrounded by, people, whose musical expression was so soulful,” recalls Tomlinson. “Their joy of making music was overpowering. It continues to hold many heartfelt memories for the children and me.”
Tomlinson’s overarching goal for the chorus is teaching the children to love music, in its many forms. She de-emphasizes competition in favor of community effort and shared endeavor. It’s a winning strategy, according to 16-year-old Jamie Gallo, who is beginning her ninth year with LACC.
“It’s always nice to come here and have really close friends,” she says. “It’s like another family.”
And then there are the remarkable experiences you get to have with that second family, such as recording with legendary film composer John Williams when he conducted the choir at UCLA in a rendition of “Dry Your Tears, Africa,” from the Steven Spielberg film, “Amistad.”
Gallo says the group was tickled because when they looked off to the right corner they saw Spielberg himself, taping their performance on his iPhone. Now, says Gallo, she and her friends like to joke that they have been in a film scored by Williams and directed by Spielberg.
Stepping away from the helm of LACC isn’t easy for Tomlinson, but she refuses to dwell on it, instead, keeping her focus, as always, on the children.
“I have been able to block out that ‘last time’ voice,” she says. “I have to be there for the children and the music. Let’s do what we’ve always done. Let’s sing and present a concert to the best of our abilities, and after that, I might shed a tear or two.”
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Concert Choir
Where: Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Tickets: Free. Seating on a first-come, first-served basis.