When Kyle Zeuch stepped in as director of the MSU Children’s Choirs in 2013, he knew he had big shoes to fill. He is just the third director of the group, which won two Grammy awards in 2006 while under the direction of founding director Mary Alice Stollak. The choirs sang on the Grammy-winning recording of Ann Arbor composer William Bolcom’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” recorded by the University of Michigan School of Music and conductor Leonard Slatkin. But Zeuch soon realized he couldn’t measure himself against the past.
“I felt pressure at the beginning, but I quickly learned that we don’t make music to win awards,” Zeuch said. “The accolades come when you’re doing good work day in and day out.”
And that hard work is paying off. The choirs recently released an album and are preparing for a European tour.
“The MSU Children’s Choirs have never done an international tour,” Zeuch said. “This was a great chance to do something we’ve never done before.”
The MSU Children’s Choirs is actually five choirs, with singers ranging in age from 7 to 18. Between the five groups, the program has a roster of over 200 singers. Zeuch said that people are often surprised by the sophistication of the groups’ repertoire. He can challenge the groups, in part, because they don’t have some of the mental hang-ups of adult musicians.
“Young people don’t know what’s supposed to be hard. They don’t have this preconceived notion of, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,” Zeuch said. “They just sing because they love to sing.”
That repertoire is on display on the groups’ new album, “We Are One,” which was released last month. Pieces on the CD range from a Bach cantata to a traditional South African song to the title track, “Sisi Ni Moja: We Are One,” which was commissioned for the combined choirs from composer Jacob Narverud. Physical copies of the CD are available at MSU’s Community Music School, and Zeuch hopes to make it available on digital outlets soon.
“The kids are really excited that they’ll be able to find themselves on iTunes,” Zeuch said.
The choirs raised over $9,000 to help cover recording costs, licensing fees and the cost of commissioning the new work. To raise the money, the groups performed private concerts and collected donations. They also organized creative fundraisers like a service where the singers would send videos of singing Valentine’s Day greetings for a small fee.
“We’re trying to get away from selling candles and cheese logs,” Zeuch said.
The CD was recorded over the course of two days in MSU’s Fairchild Theatre and was recorded and engineered by MSU recording engineer Jen Shangraw. The condensed recording schedule was chosen to keep the project from dragging on too long.
“They were pushed, but they still had an enjoyable experience,” Zeuch said. “I didn’t want them to hate the process.”
The recording sessions gave the singers an inside look at how the music they listen to on CDs — well, more likely their smartphones or iPods — is made.
“It took a lot of work, but it was worth it,” said Carter Findlay, 12, a choir member who sang on the CD. “It was really cool.”
The groups will celebrate the album release Wednesday with a free performance at the MSU Community Music School. The concert doubles as a send-off for the group’s European tour, which will take 25 singers on a week-long concert tour with stops in Munich, Salzburg and Austria.
“The kids are very excited to visit Salzburg, which is where ‘The Sound of Music’ was filmed,” Zeuch said. “It’s also Mozart’s hometown, so we’ll explore that too.”
The groups will have to make a few changes to their repertoire for the tour. Many of the concert venues are cathedrals and chapels. Some don’t have a piano, and others prohibit non-sacred music.
Findlay, who will also be on the tour, visited Europe when he was 4, but doesn’t remember much of the trip.
“I’ve been there before, but there are going to be some cool things I haven’t seen,” he said.
And while a trip to Europe is a great opportunity, Findlay finds enjoyment in the simpler parts of the choir experience.
“I really like singing with my choir friends,” he said. “We have some really cool songs. I just love to sing.”
CD release/ Europe sendoff concert
MSU Children’s Choirs 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 1 FREE MSU Community Music School 4930 S. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing (517) 355-7661, cms.msu.edu