January 23, 2003

The ABCs of do-re-mi

Youngsters will see how voices are blended into a chorus.

By Brenda Rees, Special to The Times

It's the first instrument children learn to play, and through it they experiment with sounds and explore the magic of music. No, this music doesn't come from banging pots and pans, shaking a rattle or clapping hands, but from a child's own voice.

Kids will get a chance to discover more about the highs and lows of the human voice -- from soprano to bass -- at a performance Friday at Shumei Hall in Pasadena. The goal of "What Makes Up a Chorus?," presented by the Los Angeles Chamber Singers, is to involve, educate and entertain.

"I like to think of it as a concert-demonstration," says group director Peter Rutenburg. "We don't want to be formal with children. We pose the question about how music functions using the human voice and we let them discover it along with us."

Orchestras have performed such works as Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and Benjamin Britten's "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" for decades to introduce young listeners to the range, depth and artistry of music. Most kids, however, have had far less exposure to professional vocal groups.

Rutenburg's 16 singers will incorporate a wide range of musical styles, including Renaissance, jazz and folk. They will vocally display how a standard "mixed" chorus is composed of women's and men's voices divided into four parts -- soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Some choruses have eight parts, breaking up the vocal distinctions even more.

"There are many different ways to organize a chorus on stage," says Rutenburg, explaining that most choruses stand in sections, so all the voices of one part are together. Some choruses stand soprano-alto-tenor-bass across the stage; others put the women in front, the men in back, with high voices to the left and low voices to the right.

At the performance, youngsters will learn the building blocks of music -- the primary elements being melody, rhythm and harmony; secondary ones being color, texture and form.

"For melody, we will take a piece with a clearly recognizable melody and have everyone sing it in unison," Rutenburg says, citing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." "We may show how melodies can be layered on top of each other in parallel motion -- called 'organum' beginning in the 10th century -- or with staggered entrances, commonly known as 'round' or 'canon.'

"Our singers will go out into the audience and lead a section, trying different combinations with different groups of voices. We'll also experience staggering entrances by four beats, then by two beats. They will hear this more complex version of the same with a much greater understanding."

"We get our singers on the kid's level for some eye-to-eye contact," Rutenburg says. "It's part of the fun."

The performance is an entry in the Shumei Children's Concert Series, now in its third year. The Shumei Arts Council of America was founded in 1998 by Shinji Shumekai of America, a spiritual society, to enrich the cultural life of Pasadena and Los Angeles.

In keeping with Japanese tradition, Taiko drummers will play before each concert to purify the performance area.

Rutenburg hopes this concert will find a permanent place not only in kids' hearts, but also in their heads.

"The earlier you expose kids to any kind of arts, they will have a place in their brain for that experience for the rest of their life," he says. "And I hope they learn to develop their own voice. Everyone has a voice to be heard."