Eighth annual Fox Cities Choral Music Festival hits the right note.
For one night each fall, the massive 103-foot-wide stage at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center (P.A.C.) turns into a scene straight out of the television show Glee — a group of rising stars from area high schools serenade a mesmerized crowd with everything from traditional Celtic tunes to contemporary movie soundtrack numbers.
But unlike the cutthroat show choir competitions featured on the hit musical-comedy, the approximately 200 students performing at the eighth annual Fox Cities Choral Music Festival will channel their voices in song all in the name of choral music and community pride.
Celebration through Song
Chilton High School juniors Selia Salzsieder and Emma Petersen are anticipating the start of their school year a little more than usual this fall. Their concert choir was one of the four schools selected to participate in this year’s Fox Cities Choral Music Festival.
Hosted at the Fox Cities P.A.C., the Festival provides young vocalists in the Valley the chance of a lifetime: to perform on a professional stage where their idols from Wicked, Jersey Boys and Grease have stood, under the direction of a nationally-acclaimed guest conductor.
“When our choir director, Mrs. Paffenroth, first brought up the Festival I was so excited and really wanted to do it,” says Salzsieder, who has been involved in her school’s choir and musicals as long as she can remember. “I’ve always dreamed of being on that stage at the P.A.C. I’ve been watching it since I was little.”
The concert choir, which is composed mainly of upperclassmen who auditioned for the group, recorded musical pieces that were sent to the Fox Cities P.A.C. in hopes of being selected for the Festival. Schools are chosen by audition or invitation on a rotating basis.
One of the most anticipated, if not intimidating, aspects of the Festival for students is the opportunity to work with a guest conductor. In order to provide students with an expert perspective, a guest conductor of national stature is brought to Appleton to work with each choir.
“Our choir will gain so much confidence from being held to that high standard of performing for a wide audience with a guest conductor,” Salzsieder says and then starts laughing. “Oh my gosh, I almost said guest ‘corrector.’”
“Well, he is probably going to correct us,” Petersen points out.
This year’s guest is Jerry Blackstone, Grammy award-winning conductor and director of choirs at the University of Michigan School of Music. Blackstone arrives in Appleton the week of the Festival to spend time with each choir in their respective school before convening at the P.A.C. for one group rehearsal before the performance.
Despite the obstacles of a festival like this, which include uniting several hundred students from different schools, developing an artistic perspective and an expressive palette all in a short time, Blackstone says there are unique advantages to working with young vocalists.
“I love working with high school singers. I love their willingness to go for it,” Blackstone says. “You just have to capture their imaginations and encourage them to take that next step.”
Range & Repertoire
The Festival, which began in 2004, was created to satiate the need for a community event that recognizes local performing choirs.
Amy Gosz, one of the Festival’s original founders and director of programming and community engagement at the Fox Cities P.A.C., says the Festival was inspired by the great choral tradition of area school choirs within the Fox Valley.
The group of Festival founders including Dr. Kevin Meidl, principal director for Appleton West High School Choirs, the Fox Cities P.A.C. Board of Directors, and several key staff and community members, assisted in the design of a festival that would provide choirs with the opportunity for a professional performance experience outside of their school auditorium.
“When [the Fox Cities P.A.C.] was built, it was hoped it would be a community center where children from the area could have the opportunity to perform. We are meeting that goal with this wonderful event,” Meidl says.
Each school’s choir gets a chance to sing individually as well as a group, broadening their knowledge of what a full choir can sound like. Receiving direction from a guest conductor provides vital real-life experience that prepares students for the professional performing world. Not to mention, directors approach Festival song selection with an adventurous spirit — choosing works that will not only challenge students, but impress a mixed audience as well.
But it’s not just the students who benefit from the Festival. Attending as an audience member has its own advantages.
“What audiences love in particular is they get to hear four great choirs at one concert, with five great conductors,” Meidl says, his voice rising with excitement. “Even if they don’t know a single kid up there, the audience will get to experience 15 to 20 songs picked by people who worked and thought hard about this program. It’s a home run.”
Prepping for Pitch Perfection
Festival preparation begins promptly after school is in session. With the Festival occurring in late October each year, there is less than two months of rehearsal time. Representing the Valley at this year’s Festival are Chilton, Neenah, Freedom and Appleton West High Schools. Needless to say, they have their work cut out for them.
“I always say it takes nine months to birth a choir,” notes Meidl, who began rehearsals with Appleton West students on September 6. “What the Festival does is it challenges us to move more quickly than we would on a normal year.”
This challenge is one that Festival alumna Mari Panzer, 20, recalls as significant. A 2008 graduate of Appleton West High School and former student of Meidl’s, Panzer participated in the fourth Fox Cities Choral Music Festival during her senior year.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, so we had to work pretty hard to make sure our final product was presentable,” Panzer says. “When you sing with other schools, there are two major feelings: you want to be the best, but you want to be excellent for the sake of being excellent.”
Now a music major at Carthage College, the Festival was an experience that helped guide Panzer down her educational path.
“This event was one of many that gave me a deeper appreciation for choral music and creating something beautiful with people you care about,” she says. “Students involved this year should get excited for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Enjoy it all, even the hard rehearsals.”
—By Amelia Compton Wolff