Shawnee students head to White House with Allegro choir
As members of Allegro Choirs of Kansas City, good friends Chloe Stewart and Erin Stout, both of Shawnee, have gotten the chance to travel to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and even St. Peter’s Basilica in Italy.
But a recent trip was “definitely special,” said Chloe, a senior at Mill Valley High School.
In December, Chloe and Erin were among 27 members of Allegro Con Brio, an advanced Allegro Choirs ensemble , who got to travel to the White House to sing at a presidential reception. During a break from singing, the students also were surprised by a personal introduction with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who asked the group to sing a song for them personally.
“That was really awesome, because they looked every one of us in the eyes and they were genuinely happy to see us,” said Erin, a senior at St. James Academy. She also recalled that “they both shook hands and personally spoke with every single girl.”
Other members of the Allegro Con Brio ensemble who traveled to Washington, D.C., included Makena Jarboe and Maddie Torline, both of Shawnee and both of whom attend De Soto High School.
The chance to perform at the White House came as somewhat of a surprise. Kim Stout, Erin’s mom and Allegro’s outreach coordinator, said choir leaders had formally applied to perform at the White House in the spring of last year but hadn’t received an initial response so assumed it was a no-go. Then, on Nov. 14, they were contacted and given a performance date of Dec. 4.
Initially told they could bring 25 members, Allegro leaders got permission for all high school seniors, most of the juniors and one sophomore in the group, totaling 27, to attend. The members had to prepare a 30-minute, a cappella set of Christmas music, which they would get to sing for guests as they entered the reception and as they left.
“It was pretty hectic,” said Chloe of the three weeks of rehearsal time prior to the performance. “We had a lot of extra rehearsals.”
The singers and eight Allegro staff members, including artistic director and founder Christy Elsner, also received a private tour of the U.S. Capitol during their visit. The singers met and sang for Sen. Jerry Moran, as well. “It was unforgettable,” Chloe said. “Just every part of it was so special and definitely something I’ll carry with me.”
The Washington, D.C., visit capped a big year for Allegro, starting with a search for a permanent rehearsal space due to the choir’s growth. The group found that space in a then-vacant downtown Bonner Springs building.
Then, in the spring, Allegro singers got the chance to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In the fall, Allegro also expanded its youth ensembles, adding a young men’s choir for older boys with changed voices.
Each of these items were on Elsner’s “bucket list” of accomplishments for the choir.
“For one year, to cross all those off … It’s like, ‘OK, well, now, we can dream bigger,’” she said.
Elsner said she “got the bug” to create a children’s choir while a student at Kansas University, where she earned her music education degree, serving as an accompanist for the Lawrence Children’s Choir.
She said she knew creation of a choir could allow singers some opportunities they wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.
“I grew up in a small town, and I always laugh because I say, there was nobody in town that played a stringed instrument, and when we toured, we toured to Kansas City,” Elsner said. “I just thought, here I can give all these things I never got to experience.”
The choir, which takes its name from the Italian word meaning “quick and lively,” started with 38 members. By 2005, Allegro had grown to 150 members and three different choirs.
Now, Allegro has more than 200 singers in five different choirs for grades two through 12. Members come from as far away as Liberty and Gladstone. Allegro has done very little self-promotion, growing largely thanks to word of mouth — proof positive that young singers in the area were looking for just such a group.
“The school music programs around here are very strong, and they do wonderful things, but there’s a limit to how much (they can do),” Elsner said. “And there’s always that kid that just wants one more taste, wants something different or wants that to be their focus for their time and energy.”
While members must audition for most of the choral ensembles, Stout said the expectation for Allegro’s singers is set higher — each ensemble learns three to four times more songs each year than the typical school choir. But the choir’s staff members often say that what they teach is 80 percent character development.
“It’s not just about the singing here,” Stout said. “I say that to any parent who walks through the door. I think Allegro is about being excellent in everything you do, which is Christy’s motto, and she instills that in every kid from the day they walk through the door.”
Each year, the choir aligns itself with a charity that is focused on serving children. Choir members do fund-raising drives and volunteer work throughout the year, too.
The choir’s new home in Bonner Springs was all a matter of timing. Els-ner said the choir has constantly been looking for permanent facilities all over the metro while renting rehearsal space from churches or schools.
A year ago, the choir’s growth caused them to start a facility search once again. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Mo., asked Allegro to be its choir in residence, but there were concerns with the downtown location.
Allegro had been basing some of its administrative functions out of the downtown Bonner Springs office buildings owned by Elsner’s husband, Sean Elsner, who also is president of Infusion Design in downtown Bonner. He told her that the Mexican restaurant Freseros had recently closed and the corner building at 228 Oak St. had more space than one might think.
It took some major reconstruction, including cutting through 3.5 feet of concrete to create better basement access in the building that started out as a service station and then a car dealership. But it turned out to be a good fit, with room for expansion that the choir is already planning to make use of.
In addition to allowing for the creation of the young men’s choir, Allegro Con Spirito, the choir hopes to expand in other ways thanks to its new home: offering private voice and piano lessons, a summer camp, summer choir for alumni and a chamber orchestra for high school students.
For now, however, Allegro members are still basking in the glow of their most recent trip and memories that include one special moment when Chloe blew the pitch pipe to begin the performance for the president and first lady.
“Mr. Obama looked right at me and we made eye contact for three seconds and he kind of nodded. I like to think it was with approval, but I could just be making that up in my head,” she said with a laugh.