The harvest years: 1988-1990
Part one outlined the Planting Years of Quincy Choirs, from 1971-1986. The Growth Years, 1986-1988 outlined an understanding of how things quickly changed and what they lead to.
Feb. 13, 1988, the Quincy Girls Select Choir (GSC) performed for the entire Washington Music Educators Convention at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma. That year, only Curtis High School in Tacoma and GSC were selected, not the usual 12-15 choirs. The best news, looking ahead, was that of 27 girls there were only two seniors, so that choir had a very bright future ahead.
Our program of 12 songs was split with six songs representing the music of Mendelssohn, Distler, Orlando di Lasso, Bach, Durufle, Kodaly (Austria, Germany, Italy, France and Hungary) and six American selections. The final selection, Beautiful Savior, was performed without a conductor and the choir moved to the edge of the stage, immediately in front of the audience. The choir was awarded, by state music educators, a standing ovation.
Tears of joy and accomplishment were enjoyed by students and parents alike. The training transformed all choirs, and what followed.
In March of 1988, Spectrum performed at the Yakima Jazz Festival. 26 high schools from throughout Washington State. There were three divisions, dividing small, medium and larger schools by student population. Quincy was the smallest school at the festival, but won their division. At the end of the day, trophies were awarded. Spectrum was thrilled winning, for the first time ever, their division. At the end of presentations, the Sweepstakes trophy (the best choir of the entire festival) was awarded to Quincy High School. That was especially exciting since the Edmonds College “Soundsation” nationally recognized choir performed for the entire festival. In Soundsation was Javier Medrano, former QHS grad. He just bounced up and down as he stood behind us and heard the award. In short, this new technique proved itself yet again and boosted our desire to be better than the best, wherever we went.
The dust had barely settled on Tacoma and Yakima when I received an express letter. Based upon the SGC performance in Tacoma, we were extended an invitation to come and compete in the Vienna International Choral Festival, the largest choral competition in all of Europe. At first, I disbelieved the letter, but it was extended by the office of the Lord Mayor of Vienna, and specifics of why we were invited to compete were generic to us. I asked our principal, Sam Willsey if he could authenticate the invitation, he could not. It bore the endorsement of the National Association of School Superintendents, so I drove across town to ask Tom Pickett, Quincy Superintendent of Schools, if he would please contact the association and confirm. He did and they confirmed authenticity.
A meeting was scheduled for all girls and families in April, 1989, to determine, by a vote of all families, whether we should accept or decline the invitation. Much was at stake. I would not consider just performing in Vienna and leaving. If we were going that far, we would perform a five-nation concert tour of Central Europe: Czechoslovakia (at that time) Austria, Southern Germany, Switzerland, and Paris. It was hard to wrap our heads around the concept. I spent many hours running on ditch banks, praying, and considering all that would entail.
The meeting was scheduled and all families were in attendance. Pros and cons were presented. Surprisingly, few questions were asked. The last question was asked by a father of one of the girls: “Can you promise us that if we turn this down we would ever get another invitation?” My one-word answer was “no.” His comment was, “then I say we should take the invitation.” A vote was taken and all were in favor. Reflecting since, I believe that was because this is a farming community. People can and do make decisions. They do not overthink things. No one ever questioned the decision and the energy in the room was electric. How could we possibly imagine such a thing: competing in the largest choral festival in Europe, after two short years of intensive rehearsing? We knew we would be prepared, not just for the competition, but for concerts in the largest and most famous venues in Central Europe.
The competition and concert preparation
International competition requires planned, focused rehearsals for two weeks before departure. The Quincy GSC rehearsed for two weeks, eight hours a day, prior to departure, including a celebratory farewell concert before we left. It was a 90-minute concert with intermission, and, for me, one of the most memorable concerts I have ever been privileged to conduct. It proved to all, especially the choir, that we were ready for Europe.
Our direct flight landed in Frankfurt then we traveled onto Prague. On the flight, we sang for the “economy” class passengers at 33,000 feet. While we sang, a stewardess asked if we would also sing in business and first class. Sure – anywhere, anytime.
We arrived in Prague just six months after the dissolution of the USSR. Our concert in a church in downtown Prague was almost vacant the first 20 minutes. We later figured out that, because under communism, worshipers could be and were filmed and surveilled, people were hesitant to believe they could go into a church without endangering themselves. By Intermission the cathedral was full and at the beginning of the second half of performance, it was an overflow audience, extremely appreciative and generous with their applause. The girls were asked for their autographs. Heady stuff. Onto Vienna and preparation.
The Higashiyama Family in Quincy had a close relative living in Vienna. Through them we asked if that person could please video the outside and inside of the competition venue so that we could view it and be completely comfortable with our arrival and actual competition. It was enormously helpful.
The competition was on a Monday so we rested the day before. We were not just ready, we were anxious to demonstrate what commitment, dedication and creativity could produce. The day before, Sunday, I was invited to lunch with the Lord Mayor and all conductors. It was enjoyable to meet our direct competition and speak together.
Competition day was relaxed and predictable. We had a fabulous tour guide for the three weeks and he always arranged details to make our arrivals seamless. This was the case as we arrived. After viewing the videos at least five times, we knew where to go and I asked one of the girls to guide us to the performance hall. We sat and listened to a couple of choirs, particularly the Sandefjord Jente Chor (Sandefjord, Norway “girls” choir). They had 85 girls, from age 10 to married women age 23. It was a huge sound and they performed well. Then it was our turn.
In warm up we did exactly what we always did to prepare our voices and attitudes for a competition. I asked if anyone had anything they would like to say and only one person responded: “Let’s sing!” We gave each other high fives on the way out to the stage. Standing there was already familiar and we felt relaxed and comfortable.
GSC sang even better than we had prepared, or imagined. Every measure, every phrase was perfect, and we knew it. That was so energizing that we threw caution to the wind and sang artistically. The challenge for me was to keep my focus and not tear up. Conducting heaven. I only wished the entire community could have been with us.
At the end of the day, we boarded the bus and I delivered news to the choir:
1: You have won a prize…which they will award on Thursday (but we did not know what prize)
2: We must rehearse on Tuesday because you have been asked to sing for the entire festival in the concert of winners on Thursday.
3: You have been requested to sing in the final concert Thursday evening conducted by a world-class orchestral conductor flown from London, to conduct a festival orchestra and the four choirs chosen to sing.
Of course, we had hoped beyond hope to win a prize, and actually were awarded three prizes. Quincy had been validated.
That evening, we went to an outdoor restaurant that also had an orchestra for waltzing. We had given the girls waltz lessons but, of course, there were no boys to waltz with. However, the Sandefjord choir was there as well so Quincy waltzed with girls from Norway.
Concerts in the hills outside of and in Vienna in the Stift-Geras monastery in a beautiful gilded salon made of Carnelian marble. Just as it was 250 years ago. It was full and the audience, again, was very appreciative. We then did concerts throughout Vienna and prepared for the awards on Thursday.
We sang at the concert of winners and were awarded second prize, with Sandefjord winning first prize. After the concert, their conductor, Sverre Valen came to me with the first-prize trophy. Pressing it slowly into my chest, in broken English, he looked directly at me and said, “I tink dis is yurs.” Honestly, I believe he was correct. Our 26 girls boldly sang with panache, control and swung for the fence…there was no holding back.
We left Vienna for Salzburg for well-earned sight-seeing and an impromptu concert in the Salzburger Dom – the main cathedral in Salzburg. Touring and onto Oberammergau, Germany, the site of one of the Passion Plays. We found a stunning, smaller baroque church and again, sang to test the acoustics in an impromptu concert with passers by coming to listen.
On to Meiringen in Central Switzerland for touring and a full concert in the Evangelist Church and an exchange concert with a men’s yodel choir and Alpen Horn ensemble. It was a dinner theater and full. The choir sang our “peoples’’ concert music, complete with a staging of the music of the Wizard of Oz. We had such a wonderful evening in early July. Touring for two days and onto Paris.
In Paris, of course there was plenty of touring. When we toured Notre Dame, the cathedral was packed. Standing in front of the Rose window (which we discussed before leaving), pressed against thousands of tourists, we sang a couple of our Renaissance songs, without accompaniment. Before singing, the noise was almost deafening. When the Quincy Girls Select Choir began, a sustained hush fell over the cathedral. Applause and a second song. We left with smug grins on our faces.
Our adult chaperones and parents who came along were stellar and we had a trip the families will long remember. Sweat, blisters, and organization all paid off returning to see the town decked out in our honor. Each girl has both memories and lessons that have changed their lives, and, likely, those of their own families as well. The culmination of three and a half years of dedication and community commitment was life-changing for all of us. I am most appreciative of my 19 years in Quincy. The lessons I learned I carried with me as Associate Conductor of the Seattle Girls Choir and 12 years at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. I learned the value of seeing much less of yourself and more of the best in others. I experienced first-hand, patience and love given freely with no strings. I observed a community with deep roots and open hearts. I have learned to say I was raised in Longview, but I grew up in Quincy.
Thank you for reading. I do hope you enjoyed the adventure many of us experienced and joy we were able to spread across this country and abroad. May God bless Quincy richly and give it a vision uncommon to most communities. Others are watching.