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March 25, 2009 > Local Students' Voices Soar at Carnegie Hall

Local Students' Voices Soar at Carnegie Hall

By Miriam Mazliach

What would entice over 100 students to leave the temperate climate of California and brave the prospect of a cold New York winter? Consider the opportunity of a lifetime - the chance to sing at Carnegie Hall!

Earlier this month, choirs from Fremont Christian School and Ohlone College were able to do just that. Backed by a full orchestra, and singing alongside three other schools selected from across the country, the combined choirs sang an inspired portion of Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah."

An oratorio is a large body of musical work accompanied by a choir, an orchestra and various soloists. This impressive musical composition, completed and first performed in 1846, relates the biblical tale of the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament.

The Fremont students' remarkable journey began last summer when Darryl Guzman, choir director for both schools, heard about the Masterworks Festival at Carnegie Hall. He submitted an audition tape of his high school choir students at Fremont Christian. When they were selected to perform, he inquired about including his Ohlone College choir as well. After Guzman was given the green light, it became a priority to tackle the arduous task of raising funds to cover trip expenses for students and chaperones.

"We calculated that the airfare, hotel and festival performance fees would be approximately $2,000 per person," said Guzman.

With a clear goal in mind, the choir students, parents and Guzman whipped up a frenzy of fundraising activity which included sale of cookie dough, Christmas greens, and We Care Coffee, to name a few. Students and parents also contributed their own money.

In the fall, Fremont Christian School previewed the documentary "Note for Note," which followed the manufacturing process of a Steinway piano from slabs of hardwood to the finished product at Carnegie Hall. The school, in the midst of its impending journey to the great performance venue, contacted director Ben Niles to ask if he would be willing to speak at the documentary's screening. When he agreed, Sherman & Clay, the largest Steinway piano distributor donated the cost of his airfare from New Jersey to California and covered the evening's expenses. Due to the efforts of all involved, this successful fundraising event raised $10,000.

While anticipating the Carnegie trip, the high school students met weekday mornings at 7 a.m. for 45-minute practice sessions. Ohlone students met weekly in the evening for two hours of practice at Centerville Presbyterian Church. Margaret Bellisomi and Mary Ellen Brenneis accompanied the choirs.

On arrival in New York, the two choirs soon met three other school groups with whom they were to perform: the Catawba College Singers from N. Carolina, the Charter Tech High School of New Jersey and the Oratorio Choir from the Presbyterian Church of New Jersey. All five rehearsed as a unit with guest conductor Paul Oakley, since they were to perform "Elijah" cooperatively. Two practice sessions of four hours each were followed by a final one-hour rehearsal with the orchestra.

The choirs' Masterworks Festival performance on March 8 went extremely well and, according to Guzman, the combined voices and orchestral music provided a "thrilling sound" for the 1,600 people who attended. Students were excited and exhilarated by this unique and special experience.

After their successful performance, they continued to enjoy the sights New York had to offer. During their time in the Big Apple, students and chaperones participated in myriad activities. Excursions included ice skating at Lincoln Center, ascending to the top of Rockefeller Center, testing pianos at a Sherman & Clay showroom, taking a dinner cruise at night past the Statue of Liberty, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History, seeing Times Square, shopping in Soho, eating in Little Italy, and paying their respects at the Ground Zero Memorial. This was definitely the trip of a lifetime!

Guzman was the impetus for the trip, and his dedication to his students and music is nothing new to the Fremont community. After all, he's a "local kid" who grew up to contribute much to the appreciation of fine chorale music, first as a student himself at Fremont Christian School, followed by a stint there as a teacher, principal and, for the past 18 years, musical director.

During the last four years, Guzman has also been on the faculty of Ohlone College as director of the community chorale. He remarked, "I really enjoy what I do and am grateful to work where I live and to be part of this community."

Keeping even busier, as director of Traditional Worship and Choral Ministries at Centerville Presbyterian Church in Fremont, he is responsible for its music department, choirs and band. Guzman holds a Bachelor's degree in vocal music performance and a Master's in school administration.

Guzman summed up a lasting impression, "The students felt privileged to sing in such a famous venue as Carnegie Hall. It was an overwhelming experience with the high quality of the conductor, the orchestra and wonderful singers. We were all motivated to do the best we could. Hard work pays off."

Fremont Christian School, Ohlone College and Centerian Choir will perform selections from Mendelssohn's "Elijah" on Saturday, May 9, at 7 p.m. at Harbor Light Church, 4760 Thornton Avenue, Fremont. For further information, email Guzman at darrylguz@yahoo.com.

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