"First, it's a feeling of exhilaration. Then, as the choir's director, it's, 'Oh my gosh, what did I just get myself into?'"
Philip Brown is sitting in his office at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, recalling the moment when he heard that a choir he conducts — the Treble Singers of Angelica Cantanti — had been invited to perform at the 60th National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in Kansas City, Mo.
Brown is a music teacher at Jefferson, but on weekends you can find him at the Bloomington Center for the Arts, leading rehearsals at the Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs program. The organization has nine choirs in total, ranging from kindergarten to high-school level.
The invitation to sing for the first time at an ACDA conference is a landmark moment in Angelica Cantanti's 38-year history, not least because the application process is competitive and open to choirs across the country.
"You have to submit recordings from three years, to show a choir's ability over a duration of time, not just their ability in one particular year," Brown explains. "After that it's a waiting game to see if you're successful."
More than 50 choirs of various shapes and sizes will perform at this year's ACDA gathering (Feb. 27 to March 2), and making an application stand out from a host of others is no easy process.
"The quality of the choir is the No. 1 one thing," Brown says. "But the repertoire you are offering is a huge factor, too. You have to say what music you would perform if selected, and it has to be deemed creative programming that would fit that year's convention."
The Treble Singers is one of two choirs Brown conducts at Angelica Cantanti. It is an all-female group of 62 sopranos and altos from grades 9-12, drawn from 28 high schools in the Twin Cities.
Although many in the choir are already seasoned performers, Brown is clear that the experience awaiting them in Kansas City is on a completely different level.
"They'll perform for 3,000 to 4,000 choir directors from across the country and the world," he says. "It's a totally different audience in terms of scope and size to even the full house we had at Orchestra Hall recently for Angelica Cantanti's winter concert."
Brown has a particular reason to be happy that his Treble Singers choir will be performing at the ACDA conference this year in Kansas City.
"I grew up there; that's my hometown," he says, smiling. "I've taught for 18 years, and I've never taken any choir I've taught back to Kansas City. So there was definitely a pull for me there."
Brown also is excited about the performance venue.
"The conference is at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a brand-new facility, which is just stunning and great acoustically," he explains. "There's two different performing halls, and we get to perform one 25-minute concert in each."
Performances at the convention are for delegates only, but Brown is delighted that there will be other opportunities for his family members in Kansas to hear what the Angelica Cantanti choir can do.
"The day before we perform at the conference, we're rehearsing at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Mo., and that's an open rehearsal," he says.
"We're also doing a high-school choir exchange, where we'll sing at my old high school. That'll be the first time I've been back there in probably 20 years."
For Brown, getting the choice of music right for the Treble Singers' Kansas City appearances has been crucial.
"The program is very diverse. I wanted to have as much variety of musical styles as possible," he says.
So alongside Heinrich Schutz's "Cantate Domino" from the Renaissance period will be Jocelyn Hagen's "Starting Now" and Jake Runestad's "Rise Up," ensuring Twin Cities-based composers are strongly represented.
"We're also singing a tight-harmony vocal jazz song with drums and bass, a piece from South Africa, and a new work called 'Everyone Sang,' by Kentucky composer Richard Burchard, which we commissioned and will be premiering," he says.
Upping the ante, Brown decided that the Treble Singers' Kansas City program would not be simply a compendium of the choir's "greatest hits," comprising works already firmly in its repertoire.
"We've done it pretty much from scratch, and all of our programs are performed from memory," he says. "I think every concert is to some degree a way to redefine who you are as a choir. Every year is different, with a different combination of voices."
And in an era where social media eat ravenously into time available for other activities and entertainment options are unprecedentedly numerous, Brown finds that plenty of young people are still attracted by the lure of choral singing.
Recruitment "can be tricky," he says, but membership at Angelica Cantanti has risen appreciably during his eight years working for the organization.
"You make the time for things you value," he says. "You can watch a video of something and hear it, and that's great. But as a choir, it's all of us together, actually doing something that is more than any one of us individually could accomplish.
"And because it's a live art form, no two times ever feel quite the same. The kids that come to Angelica Cantanti want to be held to a high standard, and I think they love the fact that it's all happening live."
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