A Sacred, Joyful NOISE

Novelist Nicola Griffith described choral music as silvery, soaring and glasslike, sharp and whispery. She writes that it had bodily effects on her titular character, Hild, in the book of the same name that imagines the early life of St. Hilda of Whitby. It’s an apt summation of the way choral music can enfold the listener in sound.

It’s also a description that defines the marriage of the human voice to the soaring architecture of Gothic churches … a phrase that touches on the absolute ineffability of music where it edges close to faith and perhaps even transformation. 

Darren Dailey is the president and artistic director of one of Northeast Florida’s most successful nonprofit arts organizations, the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus. And this year, 24 of his singers—the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus’ Touring Choir—sang on New Year’s Day, before His Holiness, Pope Francis I for Holy Mass, the Holy Day, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Yes,
that Vatican.

The chorus left on Dec. 27 to be in the third annual Youth & Young Adults Choir Festival in Rome. The group was invited by Dr. Hans-Albert Courtial, founder and general president of Fondazione Pro Musica e Arte Sacra.

It’s a Very Big Deal—“One of the highest honors in the choral world,” explained Dailey, who’s spent the lion’s share of his career in choral music. He says his work as a choral director is a “calling” (a passion he and his wife, Susanne—also a professional musician—share) and says this is not the first group he’s taken to Rome. “I’ve taken the Chorus before to sing at the Vatican, but it wasn’t a Papal Mass. And, about 25 years ago, I took my church choir [I was working at a Catholic church at the time], to sing at a Papal Mass.” He explained that over the years, he’s gotten to know a few people in the international choral community, and because of his background in church music and the fact that they want to incorporate more children into the liturgies—particularly American choirs, a friend who is conducting on Epiphany (in Rome) recommended Dailey as a guest conductor.

The invitation to visit the Holy City arrived last June 15 but, Dailey explained, the tentative invitation—discussions about the trip—had started about a year earlier, “but the Vatican takes a while,” he said with a laugh, acknowledging the huge bureaucracy that is the Papal State.

For the event itself, the chorus performed a 20-minute selection of works that included Italian, Latin and American composers, with two arrangements of Ave Maria.

The group also performs on Jan. 4 in the Basilica of Sant’Ignazio de Loyola in Campo Marzio and, in between, said Dailey with a smile in his voice, they’ll do “typical tourist things” like visit the catacombs, the Colosseum, and ice-skate at Castel Sant’Angelo.

It’s important to note that though the Touring Choir is made up of young people, “the kids are cute, but this really isn’t a children’s choir … this is a professional children’s choir of the highest order,” emphasized Dailey.

The group—which owes its success in large part to Dailey’s commitment and charisma during a 12-year career there—serves more than 1,000 children a year, and any interested child is welcome to audition. Before his move here, he was director of the Boston Children’s Chorus. “I’ve been very lucky,” said Dailey, when asked about the level of professionalism and commitment required of participants in the choir, “I think here in Jacksonville, there’s been extraordinary growth [because of] interest in the arts.” The JCC offers intensive training and scholarships, brings in guest artists and strives to ensure that any gifted child can participate.

But Dailey is very clear about what he believes is the core of the group’s success. “Diversity [racial, ethnic, geographic, socio-economic] is really at the heart of what we do and we try to make this experience as broad-reaching as we can, while maintaining high artistic standards. We want kids to know what is possible with their voices.”

This trip is not the group’s first trip abroad. In just 2017 alone, the chorus has traveled to Croatia, Slovenia, Malta and Greece. “We believe we are on the path of being one of the continent’s best youth choirs […] this is where magic is happening.”

As the chorus is a nonprofit entity dedicated to inclusion for all children, regardless of financial or social situations, JCC is grateful to accept monetary donations. To donate and learn more about local superstars in our own backyard, go to jaxchildrenschorus.org.

Jacksonville Children’s Chorus performs 5 p.m., Sat., Jan. 27 at the 15th Annual First Coast Honors Choir, Mandarin Presbyterian Church, jacksonvillechildrenschorus.org.