Lifting the City of Angels

bird soaring above the city

Photo Credit: Irina Iriser/Pexel

During a pandemic, even a musical duo would have to social distance.

So you can only imagine what it meant for the 180-plus-member Angel City Chorale — the Los Angeles–based pop, classical, jazz, and gospel choir best known for its appearance on America’s Got Talent — when shelter-in-place orders went into effect in Southern California in late March. For starters, they knew their late-June concert would be put on hold, as would many of their community-based activities. But that didn’t mean the chorale itself needed to be.

The founder and artistic director of Angel City Chorale, Sue Fink, 72, and executive director Winifred Neisser, 67, knew they needed to pivot. They focused on how to create music virtually, but also, and perhaps more important, how to keep their tight-knit and diverse circle intact when virtual performances continue to be the only safe option.

The answer, in part, was a video set to the group’s prerecorded live performance of Christopher Tin’s soaring “Sogno di Volare,” an inspirational piece in Italian that translates to “The Dream of Flight.”

The video — the Safer-at-Home Edition, released on May 20 — features choir members going about their daily lives in quarantine: front-line workers outside of hospitals, parents homeschooling their kids, yoga instructors teaching virtually. It’s interspersed with drone-shot aerial views of an empty Los Angeles, symbolic of a world that is ready to take flight and rise together once again.

“We have all these diverse people with different beliefs,” said Fink of her huge group, “but we share wanting to come together to create something beautiful that is better than the sum of our parts.”

The video, only the start of more virtual performances to come, was a way to show both choir members and fans that Angel City Chorale is unflappable, even in the face of a pandemic. And that somehow, even while distanced from one another, virtual performance can effectively capture the bond of this community.

“When we saw the rough cut, we all cried,” said Neisser. “It just seemed so hopeful and joyous, and it captured the real essence of the group.”

Message of Hope

R.J. Pierce, an avid fan of the chorale since 2018 and a professional musician based in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, had a similar reaction to seeing “Sogno di Volare.” She was struck by how the video, which now has more than 26,000 views on YouTube, showed the unique connection of the individuals who make up the choir.

“I sat there and I cried,” said Pierce. “Even in the middle of this quarantine, they decided they were going to connect with the people to tell them they were not alone.”

Pierce came to know Angel City Chorale after a friend sent her a video of the group’s 2018 America’s Got Talent performance. “I could not believe the quality and talent of these singers,” she said.

She was so moved that she sent Fink an email, and the two corresponded until Pierce found her way to Los Angeles and had the chance to attend a rehearsal. She’s been a loyal fan ever since. For now, Pierce is looking forward to the next virtual performance.

“Sogno di Volare” has encapsulated the crux of this chorale: a uniquely attached community of people. And even though the choir isn’t performing under ideal conditions, the spirit of the chorale isn’t lost through this new mode of performance.

The group attracts a wide range of members, who, when they’re not performing, have all manner of full-time professions: bus drivers, lawyers, musicians, ministers, educators, and refugee workers.

Neisser herself is a member of the Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, but she believes the Angel City Chorale’s bond is so strong it functions as something close to a religious community. It was this interdependence and happiness that she had hoped viewers would be able to see on-screen.

“It’s a real way of connecting, and I think that the connection is kind of spiritual,” said Neisser. 

When Fink founded the group 27 years ago in a small room in McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, there were only 18 members, but the goal was always to create a group that was more than simply musical. And now with 180 members of different ages, cultures, and religions, she’s done just that.

The group attracts a wide range of members, who, when they’re not performing, have all manner of full-time professions: bus drivers, lawyers, musicians, ministers, educators, and refugee workers. Carol Reich, an active member in her late 80s and a professional musician, sings alongside a young woman in her early 20s who’ll soon start law school. Donald Paredes, a minister in a church in South L.A., and a young woman from Tehran — two individuals who might not be in the same group otherwise — are now linked. Republicans sing next to Democrats, said Fink, along with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian participants.

The group is a melting pot, something Fink believes comes across in this latest project, but also in all the work they do. “People can see the diversity and the joy of so many different people coming together,” she said.

They’re currently preparing for their next virtual endeavor, a holiday video where members will be recording individual parts and editing them together to create a cohesive performance. If “Sogno di Volare” has taught them anything, it’s that their passion and unity will not be lost on-screen.

“My goal with Angel City has always been to build community,” Fink said. “When the pandemic hit, I, along with others, did everything in our power to keep the community vibrant.“


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