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Gail Travels to Choral Mecca

Posted By: Gail Eichenthal · 9/10/2012 9:09:00 AM

Singing gets in your blood. So does the mile-high choral mecca known as the Idyllwild Summer High School Choir Festival.

My first visit was with my parents in around 1969, simply a family getaway in the mountains. We stumbled on a performance by the phenomenal festival choir and superb student orchestra (all under the direction of USC’s Daniel Lewis) of the Bach St. Matthew Passion. I had never before heard it.  On that warm August afternoon---and every time since--- the opening chorus of the Passion brings me to tears.

That wasn’t the only great musical discovery of the weekend. We also stayed for a performance of the opening movement of Mahler’s Unfinished 10th Symphony, my first ever hearing of any work by the composer. I was thunderstruck. After returning home the next day, I high-tailed it to one of the many independent record stores in Westwood (sob!) and asked the knowledgeable salesperson for Mahler’s last symphony. He handed me the 9th. I took it home, realized it was the wrong one, and promptly fell in love with every note of that wrenching 88-minute masterwork.

A  year later I was eligible to join the Idyllwild High School Choral Festival myself. Along with pals I still cherish today----fellow alto Joy Horowitz, violist Dorothy Zeavin, violinist turned singer Juliana Gondek---we performed such glorious music in a rehearsal hall framed by glass and surrounded by pines. Demanding works of Jacob Handl, Benjamin Britten, the most stunning Poulenc Easter Motet (“Vinea Mea Electa”) and more.

Plus the complete oratorio “Solomon” by Handel. It was easily the most intense and moving choral experience of my life in choral music.

This past August, I found myself creeping up the dangerous curves of Highway 243 in yet another persona, well, a pair of personae: arts reporter for KUSC and mom.  My son, a vocal performance major at Northwestern, was enjoying his second summer as a section leader at the Idyllwild high school choral festival. Headed by a first-rate group of high school and college choral conductors  from all over the U.S., the program comprises a kind of choral haven for Benjy and his fellow section leaders, many of whom likewise are majoring in voice at such schools as Chapman University, USC Thornton, the Cal State Long Beach School of Music, and the Peabody Conservatory.

The feature I produced that aired last weekend on Arts Alive, therefore, was a labor of love. The choral excerpts aren’t particularly well-recorded, (just one mic in the audience) but I think you can hear the quality and the intensity of the performances. Certainly you can hear the joy in the voices of those I interviewed, those lucky enough to sing and conduct there, an experience that for Steve Fraider, literally shaped his life: now in his 26th year leading the Idyllwild summer workshops, he has returned to the program 43 of the past 48 years, since first attending as an entering high school freshman. See what I mean by Idyllwild getting into your blood?

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