GEORGE, South Africa — It’s 5 p.m., and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus has only just arrived here. They’re late, delayed by a quintessentially South African nightmare: a bus breakdown. At 7 p.m., they’ll have to perform — in a venue they’ve never seen, with people they’ve never met. The director takes charge. Forty-minute rehearsal, break for pizza, get dressed — go!
Two hours later — well, two hours and 15 minutes — they’re onstage, singing as if they were back in L.A., the stresses of the day virtually undetectable in their warm, liquid-smooth voices. The host choir is impressed. “It’s inspiring,” their director says.
Not to the kids themselves; they’re used to this. It’s just another day in a high-profile year for this L.A. institution, now in its 26th season. In February, the chorus’ concert choir — its top 75 singers — formed the centerpiece of an 800-person chorus for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s massive performance of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” A month later, it premiered a new work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And in May, 14 chorus members were featured in Puccini’s “La Bohème” on the Los Angeles Opera stage.
But that was all prep for the year’s biggest adventure yet: a recent road tour through South Africa.
Touring is tradition for the chorus, whose technical ability, diversity and eclectic repertoire are known well beyond its hometown borders. That has to do, in part, with its commitment to traveling the world. Every year, its concert choir visits a different place, alternating between U.S. and international destinations, for a couple of densely packed weeks of singing, sightseeing and cultural exchange. By far the bigger draw for students is the international tour, a chance to gain new perspectives on music and its place in global society.
Australia, England, Scotland, Brazil, Italy, China, Scandinavia: Over the past decades, the chorus had touched every major continent but Africa. For 2012, Anne Tomlinson, the chorus’ veteran artistic director and conductor, decided to change that. A friend of hers from a previous international tour recommended South Africa, a country known for its rich musical tradition and world-renowned children’s choirs. The planning began.
“Most of these students won’t get this experience anywhere else in their musical lives,” says Twyla Meyer, the chorus’ longtime pianist. “They come away changed.”
On July 3, 61 students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, along with their own version of groupies — a camera-toting set of choir moms — left home. Two flights, one bus ride and three days later, they were performing at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a sleepy Eastern Cape town transformed every year into the South African art world’s buzzing center of activity.
Opening night was a freezing-cold Saturday — it’s winter in South Africa. Curious spectators filed into an old cathedral, including — in a rare appearance — the famously busy festival director himself. Then came the kids, dressed in their signature red vests. By the second song, “L’dor vador,” a Hebrew prayer featuring a standout solo by Nicole Toto, 15, the crowd fell respectfully, deferentially silent. The chorus ended with a tribute to its temporary home, a rendition of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”). The crowd stood up and remained standing for an ovation.
The next day in Cue, a professionally staffed pop-up newspaper that covers and reviews festival acts, the notoriously tough music critic wrote: "[P]erfectly proportioned textural balance mingled with flawlessly merged overtones, evenly produced vocal tone, and gloriously positioned head voice sounds. ... This choir impressed.”
Not that anyone had time to appreciate the good review. The youngsters performed again the next day, and the following morning were up at 6 a.m. to catch a bus that would take them to George, a small city in between Grahamstown and Cape Town.
Despite their late arrival, not to mention a tinny electric piano and bad acoustics, the choir has another successful night. After the performance, the kids pair off with members of the South Cape Children’s Choir and spend the night with their families. These “home stays,” as they’re called, are essential to the touring experience. Even Tomlinson, her husband and some of the other adults do it.
The next morning on the bus is debrief time. The kids are full of stories. “The whole night we were just singing and sharing our music with each other,” one says. “They lived on a farm and they showed us a pig!” says another.
The adults are less ebullient. “It was a very interesting time.” “Lovely folks, but pretty different lifestyle.” “I’d kill for an espresso.”
But they put on a happy face. This is for the children.
“I just get such a big kick out of these kids,” says Helen Bing, the L.A. philanthropist who often travels with the chorus and helps some of the families pay for the $5,000-a-person trip. “They’re so disciplined and respectful.”
That night at dinner, where Bing and the others join several visiting choirs from all over the world at the Ritz Hotel in Cape Town, the students reflect on the experience so far.
“It’s really nice to meet kids from around the world who enjoy doing what I enjoy doing. It’s about global connections,” says Frances Patano, 17, who’s been with the chorus for eight years.
Adds her friend Atticus Blatt, 18, a seven-year veteran: “It’s really special for us to be able to connect with others so easily. We can make the same jokes, like about our choir directors. It’s the same.”
Yulan Lin, 16, will remember the culture. “What surprised me is that everyone is so receptive to the sharing and exchanging of music,” she says. “Even as we were singing some of our songs in the hostel, they started picking it up. That kind of reception I’ve never seen.”
That’s always been the goal of touring, Tomlinson says: exposing her students to new people, new places, in the hope of giving them “a life view that will be expansive and inclusive.”
“The people they’ve met around the world who share this love of singing will bring things closer together, not divide them,” she says.
Tomlinson has never believed in pitting choirs against each other. In 16 years as artistic director, she’s never once entered her kids in a competition. For her, that runs contrary to the spirit of music.
“If we have a reputation, it’s because we work hard, and it’s an outcome of our endeavor to be as authentic as we can be,” she says. “To me, excellence in education and development of children is my main goal. That is a validating process in itself.”
And it continues, now more than ever. It’s only July, but already this season is proving one of Tomlinson’s richest. She won’t stop now. “I’m kind of up for something new,” she says — new commissioned pieces, new concerts, new challenges.
But for now, she needs her rest; besides, she’s had enough of this dinner party. So, full on food and conversation and ready for bed, the students return to their bus. The driver has an announcement. After several days with them, he has to return to Port Elizabeth. It’s been a pleasure, he says.
“Guys?” replies Tomlinson, turning to her chorus. She begins conducting from the front of the bus as they offer the driver a parting thank-you gift: a poignant rendition of folk singer Malcolm Dalglish’s “Sail Away.”
“Rivers run down to the sea / And when you’ve got your liberty / Don’t you want to sail away?” they sing.