WOOSTER, Ohio – Singing “Joy to the World” alongside the 250 members of the supremely-talented Cleveland Orchestra Chorus as the stage lights flash to the audience of thousands packed inside Severance Hall was an “incredible why am I here, what is going on moment” the first time Jesse Garrett-Larsen, now a senior at The College of Wooster, took part in the Cleveland Orchestra’s holiday concert. Four years later, he still gets the “chills.”
That awe-inspiring moment of performing on stage at one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls can be duplicated each year for any of the 60 members of the Wooster Chorus who so choose to take part in the Cleveland Orchestra’s annual holiday concert because of Lisa Wong’s connection as director of choruses for the Cleveland Orchestra and director of the Wooster Chorus. She is also an associate professor of music at Wooster.
Garrett-Larsen, a biology major from Dublin, N.H., has taken advantage of the unique opportunity three of his four years in northeast Ohio, including this past weekend’s two-hour performance of mostly time-honored Christmas favorites. It became an unexpected tradition for him that has turned into an “integral part of (his) experience here.”
Of course, there is significant practice and performance time that goes into being part of the Wooster Chorus plus an extra commitment for the massive undertaking that is the holiday concert – 24 cumulative hours of rehearsal time in Cleveland during exams week – but it’s “totally worth it” for Garrett-Larsen and others whose “artistic expression with voice” is so enjoyable and important to them.
Wong has held various roles with the Cleveland Orchestra since the 2009-10 season, steadily ascending to her current role as director of choruses for one of the “Big Five” orchestras of the United States, with the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra being the others. But, she still gives the Wooster Chorus her full attention and then some.
“It’s a very big deal that Dr. Wong is qualified for such an esteemed position at the Cleveland Orchestra, and also here every day teaching students making the Wooster Chorus as high quality as it is,” said Garrett-Larsen. “She gives the same, if not more attention, to the chorus here.”
Garrett-Larsen also lauded the Wooster Chorus as “really unique because it brings the level of professionalism and the quality of the musicality that you generally only find in schools … where you have to be a music major to be in the chorus. At Wooster, even if singing isn’t the only thing you want to do with your life, it can still be a part of your life in a very meaningful way.”
And, more and more Wooster Chorus alumni who remain within a reasonable drive to Cleveland are now “graduating” to the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, such as Brian Fancher ’13. Fancher’s freshman year happened to coincide with the beginning of Wong’s tenure at the College, thus he was one of the first students to experience the holiday concert, an exciting “first foray” that allowed him “to perform for an audience as large as the campus.”
Now the high school choir director and assistant band director of Mayfield City Schools, Fancher finds time in his hectic schedule for the professionally-trained, all-volunteer chorus not only because he’s passionate about singing, but for his deep admiration of Wong. “I really enjoy singing under her direction. It’s something I had been kind of missing since my Wooster experience,” he said.
Plus, there remains that hard-to-describe rush of adrenaline Fancher, Garrett-Larsen, and other returnees still feel every time they get to play a part of this must-see show.
“The other big thing is we’re performing on stage with one of the greatest orchestras in the world and in one of the greatest concert halls in the world, which is pretty sweet. It’s a magical thing, a little surreal. When the lights go down … it’s a lot of fun,” remarked Fancher.