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Shakespearean-themed program 'The isle is full of noises' soars on the wings of children's voices

In a rehearsal space at Pasadena Presbyterian Church on a recent February evening, the Los Angeles Children's Chorus warmed up with physical stretches and vocal exercises, then began singing, voices soaring and ethereal in the high-ceilinged hall.

Guided by LACC Artistic Director Anne Tomlinson, the children and teens were preparing for their concert performance with the noted American Youth Symphony, presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Sounds About Town" series Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The Shakespearean-themed program, featuring songs by Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Douglas Beam and Sir David Willcocks, as well as a suite from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," will be capped by a high-profile centerpiece: "The isle is full of noises," a world premiere work by Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason, led by world-renowned conductor James Conlon.

Child's play, this isn't.

Based on "The Tempest" and co-commissioned by LACC and AYS, two of the nation's leading youth ensembles, "The isle is full of noises" marks Bjarnason's first major U.S. premiere and the first time that the edgy, critically-acclaimed composer — whose eclectic portfolio includes both the London Sinfonietta and post-rock band Sigur Rós — has written for a children's chorus.

The challenging work brings "The Tempest" to haunting musical life with 12-part vocal textures, harmonic chord clusters, vocal slides and humming.

Via email, Bjarnason said that he envisioned the choir "as enchanted spirits of some sort, telling us the story of events past. In a simplified way, the orchestra represents the island on which 'The Tempest' happens" and the chorus members "are these fairies that tell us the story of Miranda, Caliban and Prospero."

Tomlinson, who has led LACC with authority, humor and enviable energy since 1995, is "thrilled with the challenge that this new work presents," she said. "It takes your breath away how he's written emotion using the range of the children's voices so effectively."

And, she added, her young singers understood the demanding structure of Bjarnason's piece "in the first few minutes. They went, 'Oh, this is so cool.'"

LACC member and aspiring opera singer Nicole Toto, 15, confirmed her peers' enthusiasm. "I'm so excited about the Daniel Bjarnason piece. I love the dissonance and atonal structure of the music. It is amazing. You lose yourself in the chord structure and it brings everyone in the chorus together — you have to listen to everyone and to yourself to grasp the meaning."

The new work "is intriguing in the sense that it is a broad range of musical sound colors," said Alexander Treger, the noted violinist and conductor who succeeded AYS founder Mehli Mehta as music director in 1998. "It was surprisingly challenging for us, because we're usually playing a standard sort of repertoire, but it's a great experience for us, too."

Sunday's program, with nearly 275 chorus singers and up to 85 musicians from AYS, will begin with songs for treble voices sung by both the youngest and most experienced LACC singers, ages 8 to 17. Willcocks' "The Glories of Shakespeare," with texts from "The Merchant of Venice," "As You Like It," "Cymbeline" and "Two Gentlemen of Verona," will feature LACC's senior choir and AYS, while adult actors will perform soliloquies related to the songs. Treger will conduct the AYS orchestra's solo turn in the Prokofiev suite. Conlon — the prominent music director of Los Angeles Opera, the Ravinia Festival and the venerable Cincinnati May Festival — will conduct the Bjarnason world premiere with both groups.

"I'm very, very happy to have this opportunity," said Conlon. Bjarnason's composition "is a very beautiful and reflective work and I think it serves two purposes: He has created a beautiful piece of music and he has offered just the right level of challenge for a young orchestra and a young choir."

AYS, a pre-professional orchestra, consists of up-and-coming musicians ages 15 to 27. It has seen hundreds of its alumni go on to join major orchestras and launch solo careers, recent among them Nigel Armstrong, a former AYS concertmaster. Now a solo and chamber artist, Armstrong was the highest placed American in last year's prestigious Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Russia, taking fourth place.

Founded in 1986, LACC has performed with many high-profile organizations, from the Los Angeles Opera and L.A. Phil to the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Los Angeles Master Chorale.

"We work very diligently to create a sound that's light and well-produced and healthy for the children," Tomlinson said. "And it just seems to go directly to people's souls when they hear it. The adult colors might be richer and fuller, but the purity of children's voices can add a dimension that makes the sound shimmer. The maturity that they bring to the music, their willingness to communicate with audience members, their experience of the pieces is quite remarkable."

Conlon, who has worked with children's choruses in many oratorio pieces and operas, said, "what is always very present" is his own experience. "I sang in a children's chorus when I was a kid and I know how important it is. So any opportunity that I have to do something like this is a pleasure and a joy."

Part of the recent fight to forestall cuts to arts programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Conlon believes "that studying, performing music, singing in choir should be a basic part of everybody's experience — and I mean everybody. That's why choruses like L.A. Children's Chorus are more important than ever. It's an experience that people carry with them all their lives."

Los Angeles Children's Chorus and American Youth Symphony, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A., Sunday — 7:30 p.m. A pre-concert talk with composer Daniel Bjarnason hosted by Chad Smith, director of artistic planning for the L.A. Philharmonic, is open to ticket holders at 6:30 p.m. $20.75 to $45. (323) 850-2000, (800) 745-3000, www.laphil.com.

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