There is no getting around it: no matter how joyful retirement celebrations are; they are events tinged with sadness. Thus there were more than a few tears spread around the nearly-full Baldwin Auditorium at the Durham Children's Choir's 10th anniversary concert. Having conducted school choirs from elementary to senior high school for thirty years, including the establishment and shaping of the award-winning School of the Arts High School Choir; Scott Hill took up the founding and development of the Durham Children's Choir. Since its inception, the choir has sung concerts in Durham's sister cities of Toyama, Japan, and Durham, England, and with guest artists like Bobby McFerrin and the Kronos Quartet. Hill put the recent performance with the Choral Society of Durham, under Rodney Wynkoop's direction, of the US premiere of James McMillan's St. Luke Passion as a crowning achievement. In this farewell concert, Hill put on a brilliant display of the talents required for this unique art form.
The program began with lively settings of three Shaker songs under the title Welcome Home as arranged by Robert Hugh. The choir entered in three equal sections each one on a different verse of the music which was accompanied by an array of percussion instruments. This was followed by "Amani" (A Song of Peace) by Jim Papoulis. This moving appeal for peace, sung in Swahili and French, was accompanied by an African drum.
Let me mention here that the entire program was done without any sheet music in the choristers' hands. They had memorized over an hour of music. This enabled them to follow their conductor's movements, which were always musically interpretive. Attacks and cut-offs were even, Phrasing was full of expression and meaning. Pitch was on the mark and tone quality was always balanced and beautifully produced. In other words, the musicianship of the choir was outstanding.
The music continued with a traditional song arranged by Douglas Beam, "Peace Like a River." Then, incoming Durham Children's Choir director Dena Byers took the podium to conduct "Keep Your Lamps," a traditional spiritual arranged by Greg Gilpin, and an arrangement of Franz Schubert's lovely "An die Musik". Her command of the choir, confident and assured, promised a bright future for the DCC.
Hill returned to recount a brief history of past associations and the creation of the next piece, "The Call of Wisdom" by Will Todd. This special anthem was performed at the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II and was performed here with a sense of special dedication and affection. "Double Trouble" by John Williams, from the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was sung with all of the mischief intended in it. Particularly delightful was "Picnic of the World" a colorful setting of Jacques Offenbach's Can-Can music.
The familiar poem by Lewis Carroll, "Jabberwocky," was sung with choreography by Yvonne Faro, assisted by Eddie Sanders. It was pure enjoyment watching the children do the inventive arm and body movements and steps while singing the creative setting by David Brunner.
The featured work on the program was a commission from Tom Shelton composed especially for the Durham Children's Choir's 10th anniversary concert. In the process of preparing this work, the children were invited to write their own thoughts and poems about their experiences with the children's choir. The winning poem was submitted by 14 year old Naomi Wagner. An appeal for another verse was led by Wagner's submission. Her poetry, "Luminescence" was set to music by Shelton with a charming lyrical melody and rich flowing accompaniment. The children sang with great pride and sweet projection including a lovely solo part sung together by Wagner and Emily Turkington.
One of the hallmarks of Hill's leadership over the years has been collaboration. Engaging with other community groups and even creating special groups added a great deal of variety and creativity to the DCC experience. We heard from the Forest Singers, a group of seniors from the Forest at Duke retirement community with which Hill has been working for seven years. They sang "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. One of the young men from the chorus played the piano in a performance of Irving Berlin's swinging "I love a piano". Another collaboration was with the Brogden Middle School Chorus, Corinne Huber, director. They sang with DCC "I am but a small voice," a piece by Roger Whittaker, arr. by John Coates, Jr. For the song, "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, alumni of DCC joined with the chorus.
The concert closed with all of the groups on stage singing "Rhythm of Life" from Sweet Charity. Such rousing singing you can hardly imagine.
After enthusiastic applause and several thank-yous, Byers took the podium again and conducted, as an encore, "We Raise Up Our Voices" by Amy Bernon, a piece about the origin of choral singing. It is the kind of song that celebrates all the power and camaraderie that choral singing offers. DCC sang it as a hymn of praise to themselves, to the singing that has meant so much to them, and to Hill. The solo part was sung in the pure crystal clear voice of Fiona Hill.
It is not often that a talent comes our way able to inspire, challenge, and impart values to our young people in such a persuasive manner as Hill has done. Her secret was not discipline, though that was there. It was not technical knowledge, though that was there as well. Her secret was her ability to communicate both the love of music and the love of her charges. We won't see her likes again for a while and for that we are sad. But the joy of those who heard the singing and the enrichment of the hundreds of children who participated in this choir will continue for generations to come. Thank you, Scott Hill!