Judge calls group 'highlight of the weekend'
by: Photo courtesy of, The Gresham High School choir poses in Times Square during their New York trip.

Christine Greenhalgh rolls her eyes in mock disgust when asked how many Clay Aiken tunes are in her iPod.

'All of them,' she answers with a laugh.

The Gresham High School senior's iPod now also contains the famed American Idol runner-up's John Hancock, which Christine was able to obtain after meeting him at the stage door to 'Spamalot,' the Monty Python musical playing on Broadway.

'He is a really good singer, and I respect that in everybody,' Christine, 18, adds.

However, Aiken only came in second in the 2003 edition of 'American Idol,' whereas Christine and her fellow Gresham High Concert Choir members can now claim two firsts from the prestigious Heritage Festival of Music.

Seventy-two members of the 90-member choir as well as 20 adults traveled to New York to tour the city and compete in the Heritage Festival from Thursday to Sunday, March 27-30.

Under the direction of Janine Kirstein, the high school students sang at the famous Riverside Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, whose former members include Martin Luther King Jr. The Gresham singers competed against 40 choral groups from all over the United States, including concert choirs as well as madrigal, chamber, men's, women's, jazz and show choirs.

Gresham won first place in the concert choir division and also won first place as the 'Outstanding Overall Choral Group' at the festival. From three judges, the young singers received two scores of 100 out of 100 and one 99.

Hilary Apfelstadt, president of the American Choral Directors Association and the Choral Director at Ohio State University, was one of the two judges who gave the choir perfect scores. In her remarks, she wrote: 'I have never given a perfect score before, but you earned it - every point. Remarkable! Thanks for being the highlight of the weekend.'

The choir performed five selections: 'Verbum Caro Factum Est' by Hans Leo Hassler, 'Lux Aurumque' by Eric Whitacre, 'Sanctus' from the Mass by Frank Martin, 'In Remembrance' by Jeffrey Ames, and 'Daniel, Daniel Servant of the Lord' by Undine Moore.

Emmanuel Henreid, 17, a senior tenor-baritone, says singing at Riverside was an emotional high for him.

'The sanctity of it, the reverence of it, and the acoustics were amazing.'

Jason Chess, 18, a senior first bass, adds that the church's roof seemed to be a 'football field' high

The choir also paid a visit to Dan Wood, former principal of West Gresham and Highland elementary schools, who now serves as principal of the Harlem Success Academy, a charter elementary school.

'It was fortunate to connect with him and be able to share our talents with some very beautiful and enthusiastic students at his school,' Kirstein said. 'It was a life changing experience for everyone.'

The students say they were treated like celebrities by the little children, some of whom got up to dance with members of the Overtones, the school's elite choir.

'They were just so grateful,' Emmanuel says. 'They said, 'We want a picture with you when you're finished!' '

The seniors add that they also enjoyed singing the national anthem during a trip to the Statue of Liberty. The group faced Manhattan when they sang, and said several tourists stopped to listen, some with tears in their eyes.

'It was kind of like singing to America,' Christine says.

'It was just awesome to sing the national anthem in front of a national monument,' Jason adds.

Emmanuel's personal highlights included meeting Mariah Carey cohort Melanie Daniels, with whom he swapped singing knowledge. He adds that he's not surprised the Gresham choir did so well.

'We work pretty hard, and the time and the effort has definitely paid off.'

He adds that sometimes the group's members engage in 'slashing throats,' or argue heatedly. The three singers wonder if they should acknowledge this in public - 'we all love each other,' Emmanuel says - but relax when reminded that the public will not be shocked by the news that people of an artistic temperament sometimes disagree.

Kirstein was beaming as she spoke about the success of her students, whom she complimented for their discipline and good behavior on the trip.

'This is the best group I've taken anywhere.'

Apparently, the judges agreed.

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