There were not many high school students in the audience when soprano Heidi Stober led her Tucson Desert Song Festival masterclass last January.
Which is why the festival’s director, George Hanson, took note of Marana High School’s contingent and its choral director, Sarah Ross.
“She was one of a very small handful of teachers who brought groups of students to the masterclasses,” he recalled last week. “It’s exactly the kind of thing that a really great teacher of music will do, encourage his or her kids to listen to professionals work, not just go and hear them in concert, but to hear them work.”
Later in last year’s festival, Ross again popped up on Hanson’s radar when a group of her students performed an a cappella choral piece at the songwriting finals showcase. It was the only choral work among the student-composed folk, pop and rock songs that made it to the finals.
Hanson called the piece and the students who sang it “just a marvelous thing,” and when he thought last spring about adding another educational element to this year’s festival, “Bernstein at 100: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Leonard Bernstein,” tapping Ross seemed a no-brainer.
“She’s really smart and delightful,” he said.
Hanson left it up to Ross, a University of Arizona alum who has taught at Marana for a decade, to come up with a Bernstein work for her student vocalists. She had an idea that’s been on her to-do list for years: “Chichester Psalms.”
“The ‘Chichester Psalms’ has been on my bucket list forever,” Ross said, so she proposed that her advanced Symphonic Choir perform it as part of the festival’s first-ever student symposium. Hanson, who conducted the Tucson Symphony Orchestra for 19 seasons, will lead the program at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16, at Marana High School; admission is free and it’s open to the public.
The symposium is the pre-opening event for the sixth annual song festival, which runs Jan. 16 through Feb. 4. It officially kicks off later Tuesday with “Leonard Bernstein’s Two Worlds: From Broadway to Opera” at 7 p.m. at the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music’s Holsclaw Hall. Student performers from the UA music school and theater program will showcase Bernstein’s compositional styles that blurred the lines between classical music, jazz and Broadway.
Ross’ choirs will include a bit of Bernstein’s Broadway side in Tuesday’s event. The co-curricular Prima Chamber Choir will perform songs from Bernstein’s Tony- and Academy award-winning musical “West Side Story.”
This is one of biggest collaborations for Ross’ choirs, which perform at a number of community events in Marana including the annual town Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Founder’s Day and Chamber of Commerce events.
“We do lots of things in Marana, but not at this level,” said Ross, who noted that her students gave up their annual Flagstaff retreat to perform for the song festival. “Anytime we can collaborate with people in the community, I think, is better than going outside.”
Ross and the students will perform the Bernstein works again on Jan. 22 as part of the song festival symposium “Leonard Bernstein’s Jewish Heritage” at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Admission is $5, and Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, the festival’s artist in residence, will participate in a panel discussion about her father’s complex relationship with his Jewish faith and heritage. To reserve a ticket, call the JCC at 299-3000.