When Cal State Fullerton’s University Singers received a letter of invitation in July to perform in front of a national audience filled with thousands of music aficionados, bass singer James Lesu’i knew right away that it would be an intense, milestone performance for him and his peers.
This year, the University Singers earned the opportunity to travel to Dallas, Texas to perform for the American Choral Directors Association, a music-education organization with a goal to promote excellence in choral music.
University choral programs across the United States and abroad submit recordings every year in hopes of being selected to perform at the national conference, a huge moment of arrival for those who are chosen.
The selection process is rigorous. Robert Istad, Ph.D., a music professor and the group’s conductor, said that the organization requires choirs to submit at least three years of recordings to show consistent work. The recordings are listened to by a blind jury who chooses the six best choirs to perform at the national convention.
“The fact that we were chosen over all of the other major four-year universities in the whole west to sing at the national convention, I think is a real testament to our students and all of the colleagues,” said Istad. “It takes a whole village to lift up an artist and I think that Fullerton is really doing it correctly.”
Istad began preparing the complex repertoire during the last fall semester.
The 33 singers performed four highlights from past performances—“Berliner Messe” (Berlin Mass) by Arvo Pärt in Latin, “Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4” by Johann Sebastian Bach in German, “Ruth” by Paul Ayres and “Triptych” by Tarik O’Regan in English.
Students began rehearsing the songs last year and polished them to perfection for a national audience during January and February. Not only did they practice two days a week during regular rehearsal hours, but also during their spare time.
Eleven instrumentalists volunteered to accompany the University Singers, adding to the success of their performance.
“They worked just as hard as we did, and they’ve been with us every step of the way and I think if we weren’t with such a great group of people, it wouldn’t have come together,” said choral conducting M.A. student Stacey Kikkawa.
Lesu’i, 23, a music education and performance voice double major, said that through the rehearsals he wanted to first fall in love with the music in order to perform it at his best in front of the audience. He wanted them to feel and experience the same connection he does.
“We have choir twice a week, but each rehearsal we were practicing, studying the music trying to get it into our brains, into our minds, into our bodies, into our hearts so that we can just go back and when we perform, share what we experience,” he said.
The singers were in Dallas for four days, they performed on Wednesday and Thursday evening. They performed twice, at the Winspear Opera House, and at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.
Lesu’i said that to everyone’s surprise, the University Singers were not as nervous as they thought they would be the mornings of the performances. They knew they were going to do great. He credited this to knowing the music well, being able to count on each other and great leadership from the director.
“Not many people, regular choral people, get to stand on those two performance stages. So to look out there and get to see this huge opera house and this huge audience really is kind of spectacular,” said Kikkawa.
Istad and the students had an emotional experience singing deeply and connecting with the music. He said that the students found an artistic place inside of them that he knew existed, expressing themselves as professionals.
Both nights, the audience gave the singers several standing ovations.
“In the moment the students sang this beautiful work by J.S. Bach so magnificently that the audience couldn’t contain themselves, they almost gave us a standing ovation during the middle of the performance,” Istad said.