Longtime Semiahmoo Peninsula choir leader Sarona Mynhardt gives a lecture during a teaching workshop in Taiwan.

A celebration in song for choir leader

20th Christmas concert marks an end and a beginning for the White Rock Children’s Choir

Some 20 years ago, when she started her first children’s choral group on the Semiahmoo Peninsula – after school hours in a portable behind Ray Shepherd Elementary – Sarona Mynhardt had a carrot to offer the young singers.

“I told them if they got good enough we would go down to Disneyland (in California) and sing there.”

It was a goal that the then-recent immigrant from South Africa quickly accomplished. After a trip that included a couple of public concerts at the theme park – Mynhardt’s success in inspiring her young singers soon led to the establishment of the White Rock Children’s Choir.

The organization grew rapidly into a family of White Rock-based ensembles, including the beginner Prelude group and the Ad Libitum Chamber Chorus, which in addition to international tours, festival and concert appearances also branched out to produce five full-scale musical theatre productions, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cinderella, Guys and Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie and this year’s The Lion King.

Next month, Mynhardt will be retracing the footsteps of her first Peninsula group, going back to Disneyland with 41 young members of Ad Libitum.

Joining them will be husband Johan – well-known as a popular rugby coach at Elgin Park Secondary – and their daughter Maderi, a WRCC alumnus and co-director of the choir in recent years. (Their son Janco, recently married, will be staying in Vancouver, where he is now general manager of a restaurant).

But the trip, which will include public concerts in Anaheim and Santa Monica, will be a bittersweet one, Mynhardt confessed.

In January she and Johan will be moving to the Sunshine Coast – “a major life change” which Mynhardt said is motivated by Johan’s health challenges, which have included battling cancer.

“Johan has been so supportive,” she said, acknowledging her husband’s many years of tireless, uncomplaining help with setting up stage risers and chaperoning kids.

“He’s always been a farmer in his heart – he just needs a piece of land where he can dig in the ground.”

But that, says Mynhardt, means the end of the WRCC “as everyone has come to know it over the past 20 years since I founded it.”

“The choir family has been our family and my whole life for the past 20 years and it is very hard to say goodbye,” she said.

The good news is there is still time for one last hurrah locally – the choir’s 20th annual Christmas concert, titled Celebrate Our Song, Sunday, Dec. 11 at 6 p.m. at White Rock Baptist Church, 1657 140 St. (Tickets – $18 and $15 for students and seniors – are available through www.whiterockchildren’s choir)

It will include many of the choir’s favourite repertoire pieces and – as one might expect – will feature not only current members of the choir family but also alumni from the last 20 years and such faithful accompanists as pianist Janet Rendell (returning from Vancouver Island for the concert) and bassist Steve Johnston.

Young recording artist and TV actor Josh Bogert (“he was only one of three boys when he joined the choir in Grade 6 and there are now 13 – he’s become a major part and inspiration of the organization,” Mynhardt said) will be singing as part of the choir and as a soloist, and will also accompany some of the numbers.

Mynhardt herself will sing a solo with the choir, she said.

“It’s a piece that I’ve wanted to do with the choir for years and flautist Bernard Blary arranged it for me. It’s called El Nacimiento and it’s a song I sang when I travelled with my university choir from South Africa to an international festival in South America.”

WRCC alumnus Samara Ripley – now pursuing a masters degree in conducting at UBC – will return to lead the choir in Here’s To Song, and is set to continue Mynhardt’s work with her adult women’s choir Cantrix.

And there’s further good news. Although the Mynhardts’ decision to move from the community seemed at first like the end of the road for the WRCC (“The day I told the singers and their families in May was almost worse than a funeral,” Mynhardt said) a connection she made this summer with Burnaby music teacher Jake Autio at an event organized by the B.C. chapter of the Kodaly Society may lead to a new chapter, and probably a new name, for the choir.

“He’s going to continue it for the rest of the year and we’ll see how it goes. It’s important to me that he feels he can create something and make it his own. He conducted two pieces at our Remembrance concert, and the kids are responding to him well.

“He’s excited to provide an opportunity for the kids to go on singing, to continue to be together and make music and inspire and support each other. The most important thing for me is that this family is not going to fall apart.”

Mynhardt is going to continue to be heavily involved in music, of course.

She’ll remain on the faculty of the BC Choral Federation teaching summer conducting courses, and will still be adjudicating music and choir festivals in B.C., the Yukon and Alberta while leading vocal, choral and conducting workshops in Canada and internationally.

And she and her singers have many accomplishments to look back on with pride – including hosting two B.C. festivals, WorldBeat 2005 and WorldBeat 2015, performing across Canada and representing White Rock in international children’s choir festivals in Italy, Hawaii, Mexico, England, France, South Africa and the U.S., where they were invited to sing in Carnegie Hall, New York, in 2014.

But there are more important accomplishments that have been an untold part of the story, she said.

“The choir has been a lifeline for many young people for many different reasons, just as it was for me when I was a young singer in South Africa many years ago,” she said.

Whether children decide to pursue music or not, she said, music is a key emotional outlet for young people.

“And it’s something they can do whether they go to a choir or just sing in the shower,” she added.

But now she’s focused on helping other teachers and conductors – so that the process can continue in the future.

“I’ll give them anything I have, anything I can do to help I will,” she said.

“That’s what I received from my mentor, Henry Leck, director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and one of the biggest children’s choral directors in the world.

“The only goal is to give every child that wants to sing the opportunity to sing. Nobody learns anything without feeling something – and music makes you feel something.”

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