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Review: The empyrean reach of Vintage High School singers

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Vintage High School

The Vintage High School choral music students performed in October, their first performance in more than a year. 

When I found out that Vintage High’s choir program was having their fall concert on Oct. 20, I was a little disappointed not to be invited, or at least informed. When I asked accompanist Liz Amendola about it, she said that since the students hadn’t sung in over a year, I should probably wait until the Christmas concert when the students will have had more practice. (Dec. 11. Mark your calendars now.)

On the contrary. I determined that it was even more important that I should see the first concert after the pandemic-induced hiatus of one of the most venerable educational programs Napa Valley has to offer. And I’m glad I did.

Napa high school students, Armand Shakeri and Stefan Shakeri, have launched a drive to collect backpacks and school supplies for Afghan refugees with school-age children. They attend Vintage High School in Napa. Take a look here.

When the first choir came out, I was disappointed to see that they were wearing masks. But such accommodations are what make things like this possible. The district had provided special singing masks that did not obstruct their mouths the way others do. Thankfully, the singers’ voices were barely muffled.

The concert began with the Men’s Choir’s rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the Elvis Presley tune from the 1961 movie “Blue Hawaii.” Forty-one young men sang about the inexorable plunge of the highest human emotion from a movie that predates their birth by nearly half a century. It was not only an education in American music history but also, I hope, a forecast of their personal experience. Would they one day sing that to the object of their affection?

I’ve heard that the a cappella group, Vocal Music Workshop, comprises the most elite singers in the program. These 12 students sang “Can’t Help Falling Love” as well, but this time it was an unaccompanied version arranged by the ecstatic a capella group Pentatonix.

The complementary harmonies resonated throughout the hall with strength and confidence, but what was really moving was to watch the interactions between the singers. You could tell there was a respect between them that only comes from complete trust. It’s such a healthy, life-affirming experience for young people to have.

Amendola told the audience that despite the fact that she and Mark Teeters spend all day together, (for the past 21 years) the song’s repetition on the program escaped their attention until it was too late to change. I thought that the variation on the theme just made that theme more interesting.

Then came the Treble Choir, with a medley of Disney songs that brought back movies I hadn’t seen in years; movies, most of whose premiers predated these students’ birth.

Next, the Chamber Singers, which seems to offer an elegant and erudite program. Then the Concert Choir gave us a rousing preview of Vintage’s spring musical, “Momma Mia!”

Finally on the program was the Traditional Vintage High School Benediction. When I read this, I was made a bit uncomfortable, given the current hubbub about religion in schools that occupies so much of our national conversation.

But when someone behind me said, “This is my favorite part!” I realized I was in a safe space. It was a relief and so refreshing that the beauty of a time-honored tradition would be preserved.

And beautiful it was. All of the singers came out and lined the stage, then the aisles, surrounding the audience on three sides. Teeters said they would ordinarily hold hands, but due to Covid, for now, they wouldn’t.

As they sang, I began to wonder where I was. Was I In the ancient auditorium of Napa High School surrounded by parents and students on a rainy weeknight? Or had my consciousness been transported to some celestial empyrean where the cherubim, seraphim, archangels, and angels were singing the high praises of some benevolent deity? Or are they the same? Is heaven a place on earth?

I’d consider the gangly teenagers on the risers and see that I’m in Napa. Then I’d close my eyes and listen to the sound. There was a purity, an ethereal perfection, in their voices that I heretofore thought only exists in a place you have to die to get to.

But no. A Wednesday night, 7 p.m., $10, at Jefferson and Lincoln. That’s all it takes.

Napa high school students, Armand Shakeri and Stefan Shakeri, have launched a drive to collect backpacks and school supplies for Afghan refugees with school-age children. They attend Vintage High School in Napa. Take a look here.

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Follow John Henry Martin on Instagram @john_henry_napa.

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