They came, they sang, they conquered.
After months of practice and fundraising, the Savannah Children’s Choir brought home a gold medal from the Concors Internazionale Di Canto Corale, held in Italy last month.
Also known as “The Days of International Song,” the competition takes place every April in the ancient city of Verona, on the road between Milan and Vienna. (Think the top of the boot.)
The 28 local middle schoolers who make up SCC’s senior choir competed against 19 other choirs from around the world, including Croatia, France, Germany and Russia. Only two were children’s choirs.
“We were the youngest singers there,” reports SCC Executive Director and co–founder Cuffy Sullivan. “Even the other children’s choirs were high schools.”
Their tender ages didn’t prevent them from making a lasting impression on the international panel of judges. SCC was one of five gold medalists, an achievement Sullivan attributes to the choir’s versatility.
“One of the things we pride ourselves in is that we do such a variety of music, which is unusual for choirs,” she says. “A gospel choir does gospel, classical does classical, and when they throw in something else, it can sound kind of painful.”
“We sing classical, early music, jazz, swing—and we do each one appropriate to that style. The judges could hear that.”
Each choir had 15 minutes onstage at the exquisite Teatro Nuovo, which is still new by European standards, built in 1846. Even though the choir spent months preparing the challenging 16th century sacred piece “Sicut Cervus” by composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Sullivan and artistic director Roger Moss chose to leave it out for the competition.
“They didn’t want to hear our Palestrina,” reflects Sullivan. “That’s old hat in Italy. They wanted to hear our jazz and gospel.”
Instead, the choir performed the Sacred Harp song “Wayfaring Stranger,” the American spiritual “City Called Heaven” and Benny Goodman’s big band anthem “Sing Sing Sing.” For every other choir, the audience held its applause until the last song as is customary for this competition, but much to the singers’ and directors’ surprise, the crowd roared with appreciation after the third song, “City Called Heaven.”
“We had prepped the kids that no one would clap, that it’s just the way these things are,” said Sullivan. “Then everyone was clapping and we weren’t even finished!”
By the final number, Moss reports, the crowd went nuts.
“People came out of their seats from the balcony to make a receiving line for the kids, they were such a hit,” he gushes. “I was so proud of them.”
The choir did get their chance to perform the “Sicut” after all, when the gold medal winners convened to for an encore in the Arena di Verona amphitheater, built in 30 AD.
The preparation that led up to this victory wasn’t just in the music room. Each choir member had to raise the money for the trip by participating in fundraisers, including singing at spaghetti suppers and working with Letty’s Purse, a grant–giving foundation that delivers funds in exchange for good deeds.
“We were able to get paid by doing things that give back to the community,” says Harmony Kelly, a SCC seventh–grader who traveled to Verona. “I sang at Hospice Savannah and wrote a song.”
For three months before their Italian adventure, Sullivan also brought in local Italian speaker Sylvia Frezzoline Severance, who volunteered to teach the kids a few helpful idioms.
“These are already very polite kids, and I wanted them to be able to use the same ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as they would at home,” says Sullivan. “I was surprising to see how easy it was to see how easily they fell into the cadence of the language while we there. Then again, they’re singers. They have good ears.”
Harmony found the lessons helpful, especially when ordering food, though she admits she used the phrase “parla inglese?” (“Do you speak English?”) the most.
“The Italians take a lot of things literally,” she recalls. “One girl ordered a pepperoni pizza and got a ‘pepper–only’ pizza. No cheese, no sauce, just peppers.”
Other than that minor meal mishap, the young travelers had a grand time, receiving a crash course in Shakespeare while touring Juliette’s balcony and gliding in a gondola along Venice’s famous canals. One of SCC’s donors sent along the cash to ensure every choir member indulged in gelato.
For some of the singers, including Harmony, it was their first time on a plane and even their first extended time away from home. But Sullivan and the rest of the chaperones were amazed by the children’s independence and confidence.
“We did a friendship concert in this tiny little town, San Pietro di Lavagne,” says Sullivan. “The kids were so gracious, hanging out with the townspeople and two other adult choirs. They didn’t speak the same language, but they tried out their Italian and then in a blink got up and sang a song with the adults.”
“That shows you how amazing these kids are.”