West High Singers participates in annual Choral Collaborative

LeAnne Bugay, Editor-in-Chief

In 1996, Maestro Ernest Richardson of the Omaha Symphony met with Bellevue West choir director Don Reimer to find a way to connect young singers with the symphony. By the time their meeting ended in Reimer’s office, the two had created a mixed concert, called the Choral Collaborative, between West High Singers and the Omaha Symphony that would be held annually for several years to come.

That year’s concert was held in the Bellevue West Auditorium. Now, the Choral Collaborative is an official event on the symphony’s schedule at the Holland Center, features professional vocalists, and includes over 400 students representing seven metro high schools each year.

They like to rotate some of the choirs to get multiple groups opportunities,” West High Singers director AJ Reimer said. “Thankfully they ask us every year and we are happy to say yes.”

Every year a major classical piece is selected, and this year’s is Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” an 82 minute biblical story retelling events from the prophet Elijah’s life in the Old Testament. The piece features all four vocal sections evenly using polyphonic motifs, or melodic layering with variations of each note.

In the beginning it’s really desperate and there are other movements that are happy,” senior tenor section leader JP Engelkamp said. “It changes from song to song. It really goes through everything.”

During the first song, or movement, the symphony will play while hundreds of singers wait above them in the loft area to join in after. As “Elijah” progresses, soloists handpicked from Maestro Richardson’s New York City auditions will each perform.

Reimer said that Maestro Richardson primarily searched for great voices, but also people that can connect with and educate the students.

“Singing with the professional soloists is game-changing,” Engelkamp said. “Besides working with the Omaha Symphony, I think it’s the best part of the Choral Collaborative.”

To be on par with the soloists and symphony, West High Singers started practicing at the beginning of the school year. They practice in class, grade students in short one-on-one check-offs, and hold sectional rehearsals outside of class.

“I’m fortunate that the class carries a lot of pride with it and a lot of respect,” Reimer said. “[The Choral Collaborative] has had a lot of success over the years and the kids don’t want to be the group to let them down. They push themselves and set a high standard.”

Maestro Richardson uploaded online resources for the students, including his alterations on “Elijah” to help the students along in the process. The markings can change the flow or sound of the movements. Senior soprano section leader Hannah Urban said the difference in quality is noticeable if everyone isn’t on the same track with the Maestro markings.

“We have to do a lot more than if this was just a Reimer piece,” Urban said. “For example, you have to listen to what Mr. Reimer is saying and write that down then go online and find the Maestro markings and write all those down too.”

Even with combining in-class practice, additional rehearsals, and studying the Maestro markings, “Elijah” is still a tough piece to tackle according to Reimer.

“There are some parts we can work on but I also know there are some parts we are nailing,” Urban said. “We always get there because we are such hardworking people and we all love music so much.”

West High Singers jumps around in learning the different movements. Instead of starting with movement one and going forward consecutively, they started with 29, then five, then one.

“I always try to start with the hardest stuff so that you’re not waiting until the end to learn it,” Reimer said. “I want to be the choir that has the hard stuff down. I love when we get to the hard stuff and they ask ‘Who can do it?’ Well, Bellevue West can.”

They’re rehearsing today at the Holland Center for eight hours with the other metro high schools, Omaha Symphony, and soloists.

“The practices with the other high schools are so magical,” Urban said. “It’s so amazing to hear all of them together. Singing with the symphony is such an amazing moment.”

Reimer is glad to be able to have West High Singers perform every year because it teaches the kids to appreciate the classics and get a chance to grow their musical skills. Reimer said that every year when he asks students if they want to perform in the Choral Collaborative again, the answer is always yes.

“I’ve learned so much in doing the Choral Collaborative,” Urban said. “I’ve learned how to properly do my breath support, how to listen to my notes, and all that. I love getting to do it every year.”

West High Singers will perform in the Choral Collaborative tomorrow at the Holland Center at 2 p.m. Some tickets are still available online through Ticket Omaha.