It takes a lot of work to be a stellar performing arts ensemble. Just ask the Bakersfield College singers. Two weeks ago, the BC Chamber Singers performed for the statewide music educators conference in San Jose, after being chosen through a “blind” audition process to perform. Among the pieces performed was the newly orchestrated version of former BC choral director Ron Kean’s arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” part of Kean’s acclaimed multimedia work, “The Story of Harriet Tubman,” which the choir premiered last year and was immediately considered a landmark work and performance in the choral world.
During Kean’s tenure, the choirs became strongly associated with superstar choral composer Eric Whitacre, who invited the singers to participate in a Carnegie Hall concert of his music, featuring several BC singers as soloists.
In addition to all of this activity, the singers have been working intensely to raise money for a concert tour in Australia this summer.
“For the past three years the Chamber Singers have performed in concerts, sold ice cream, T-shirts, cups, CDs, held various dinners, put together auctions, performed in the community and outside the community, asked for donations, caroled at Christmas, sent letters and much more,” choral director Jennifer Garrett wrote in an email.
But the singers still need to raise more money, and they have two fundraisers left: their Broadway Dinner on Saturday, and their Sydney-Bound Benefit Concerts on March 10. The dinner features a spaghetti meal and a full array of Broadway hits at the BC cafeteria starting at 5 p.m.
The benefit concerts star BC Chambers Singers supporter Monty Byrom and New Life Church singer Lydia Ranger along with choir in two performances at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, one at 5 p.m. and another at 7:30 p.m.
This intense level of effort and accomplishment seems to be the norm in the BC music department now.
In the past three years, the department has added three full-time faculty: Kathryn Kuby, professor of instrumental music (orchestra and wind ensemble); Josh Ottum, lead faculty of the commercial music program; and Kris Tiner, who joined the full-time faculty this academic year after many years as an adjunct, to build a new jazz program for the department.
Department chair John Gerhold said the performing arts program is now bigger and serving more students than it ever has, thanks to increased investment from the college.
“That investment came right after the generosity of Bakersfieldians (sic), through their support of Measure G, resulted in the Simonsen Performing Arts Center becoming a first-class performing/teaching facility,” Gerhold wrote in an email.
That facility, which includes the indoor and outdoor theaters, rehearsal space and music labs, is already filling to capacity, and when the new jazz program goes online next academic year, Tiner predicts the entire building will be overrun with musicians.
“It’s going to be wild,” Tiner said. “We’re going to have simultaneous rehearsals all through the building.”
“There will be opportunities for students to write music, bring in their ideas,” Tiner said. “I really want to encourage original music.”
Tiner has just released advertising materials and social media blasts alerting student musicians about the new jazz program, which will include applied music — private lessons — in instrumental and vocal jazz performance (full disclosure: I am part of the jazz faculty); new small combo jazz groups; and an improvisation class, with auditions to determine placement.
“So a student who is going through as a jazz studies major will have four semesters of private lessons and four semesters of ensemble playing, along with core music classes,” Tiner said. “The improvisation class is not required, but provides the kind of work people going into jazz have to have.”
Tiner said the new emphasis on jazz will complement the commercial music program, which also offers music technology and business courses.
“People who want to get into Latin music, rock and funk all benefit from playing jazz,” Tiner said. “You’re developing your ear and creativity.”
BC’s performance classes took a big hit in the 1990s, with the elimination of private lessons — essential for students majoring in performance — and the elimination of the Renegade Marching Band. All that remained of the once famed jazz program was the large jazz ensemble and jazz appreciation courses.
The BC choirs were the exception thanks to Kean, who became internationally known as an expert in multicultural music and made the BC choral program a leader in the field, hosting and participating in multicultural festivals.
That tradition creating events is continuing, with a now-annual Jazz Day for junior high and high school students, and the new Panorama Creative Summit, which explores all types of music and allows students to experiment firsthand with their own musical ideas.
Gerhold noted that the first cohort of students in the commercial music program, which is considered career and technical education, earned their certificates of achievement in December, and another group will earn theirs in May. Additionally, part-time faculty member Tim Heasley directs the Marching Arts program, which includes the competitive Indoor Drumline, the Golden Empire Drum and Bugle Corps and rebuilding the Renegade Marching Band.