When Ralph B. Woodward formed the Salt Lake Children's Choir, he never thought it would last, or that he would still be directing it 25 years later.
"I was taking it a half year at a time then," he said. That was in October 1979. And now, much to his surprise, Woodward and the choir are getting ready to celebrate their silver anniversary. "That's startling when I think about it," he said. "I never expected it would last this long."
Special anniversary concerts will mark the occasion. The first takes place Saturday in Libby Gardner Concert Hall. The other will be on May 14 in Abravanel Hall. The programs will be different for each concert but will feature the choir along with guest performers. Each will have a different focus, Woodward said.
Common to both concerts will be the range of music. It will include early music, art songs and folk music. "I like some representation of art songs on the programs," Woodward said. "I've always felt that the beauty of this music is best brought out by children."
Woodward's love for early music, and specifically that from the Renaissance, is due to his father's influence. Ralph Woodward Sr. devoted his life to choral music, directing the Brigham Young University A Cappella Choir, the BYU Men's Chorus and his own Ralph Woodward Chorale for many years. "I got it from my dad, I think. Early music was important to him, and if I don't program it, I feel like I'm cheating everyone."
The programs for the two concerts will feature music from Purcell to Brahms, Schubert and Kodaly. There will also be spirituals and a number of works that Woodward has written over the years, some of which he's collected under the title "Postcards from Paradise." The children will also sing several folk songs from around the world. "I like to have a program that includes music from the far reaches of the world," Woodward said. "It makes it interesting."
A string trio and a string quartet consisting of former choir members will accompany the choir on some of the songs. And several other former members, as well as a current chorister, will provide instrumental interludes during the Gardner Hall concert Saturday. Among them will be harpist Elizabeth White and flutist Andrew Stamp. "Andrew has played in the Chicago Lyric Opera orchestra and in the Chicago Civic Orchestra," Woodward said. Cellist Michael van Dam and violinist Kelly Parkinson will also play. Current choir member and pianist Andrew Cheng will solo in a piece by Villa Lobos.
Woodward, who played French horn professionally in Germany before founding the Salt Lake Children's Choir, will perform a movement from a sonata for horn and piano by Glazunov.
In some ways, the concert in Abravanel Hall on May 14 will be more traditional. "We'll start with some early music, and there will be some stand-out pieces we've done over the years, and which the kids love to sing," Woodward said.
The Abravanel Hall concert will spotlight an alumni choir. The first time Woodward assembled a group of former members was for the choir's 20th anniversary concert, which was also held in Abravanel Hall. "That was a real revelation to me," Woodward said. "I had no idea that so many people would come and that they would sound so good." This year, Woodward expects an alumni group of around 90. "Most of the things they'll sing are pieces they sang as members of the children's choir." And as a finale, the alumni will join the children in Sibelius' stirring "Onward Ye Peoples." What will make this year's alumni choir special is the fact that several alumni also have children in the choir now. "We've been around long enough that we have a few children of former members, which makes it kind of fun," Woodward said.
It was almost by chance that Woodward became involved with a children's choir. After he returned to Utah from Germany, Woodward was the choir director for his LDS ward. "I came up with the idea of augmenting the choir with a children's choir," he said. "I wrote some descants for some Christmas songs, some of which we still use, and I realized that this was it, this was something I would like to do." After printing some fliers, which he distributed around Salt Lake City, Woodward held auditions for the fledgling choir in the piano store where he was working at the time.
Woodward's prime motivation in starting a children's choir was to teach young people the correct way to sing. "I wanted to provide an alternative to how children were singing at the time. Kids would just shout, and that gave me the push to actually go ahead and do something about it."
The Salt Lake Children's Choir had a modest beginning. There were less than two dozen youngsters the first year. "We had a little group of around 22 kids," Woodward said. Their first Christmas concert was in Whitmore Library.
Woodward admitted that those early years were difficult. "I was never sure from year to year how long I would stick with it," he said. "But gradually it kind of perpetuated itself."
The choir has been rewarding in many ways, Woodward said. "There have been a lot of rewards over the years. The initial reward was the experience of seeing a child suddenly having the freedom to sing, because singing adds something to a person's life. If a child can be launched into having a happy life singing, that is a reward in itself, whether they end up at the Met or just in front of the piano at home."He's stayed with the choir for so long for numerous reasons. "First of all, it's the kids. You see all of these bright, eager faces ready to drink in what you give them. And the thought that they're getting something long-lasting out of it for me, that's an esthetic satisfaction." Woodward said he doesn't consider the choir a job, and he can't think of anything else he would rather do. "I want to keep doing this as long as I can. These kids are wonderful. I owe it all to them."
If you go
What: Salt Lake Children's Choir
Where: Libby Gardner Concert Hall
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $10
Phone: 355-2787 or 1-888-451-2787Web: www.arttix.org
Where: Abravanel HallWhen: May 14, 7:30 p.m.