AURORA | It was a harmony in the making, James Laguana recalls.
While on a retreat with his students at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park in 2019, Laguana, a Rangeview High School choir teacher, learned that they weren’t the only choir there.
The Denver Gay Men’s Chorus was also on retreat preparing for its holiday concert. His students asked if they could watch the chorus perform, and they agreed.
“We sang a couple of pieces for them, they were great students,” said James Knapp, artistic director of the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus. The students then asked if they could sing in return, and he said yes.
Secretly, Knapp admitted he was wondering how well the high school choir would be. To his delight, “they were wonderful!”
The two directors became friends, and for the next two weekends the Rangeview choir will join the DGMC on stage for its “Motown and More” concert. It’s the first time a high school choir has joined the DGMC for a professional performance.
The group will perform in Highlands Ranch on Sunday, March 27 and then on stage at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver on April 1 and April 2.
Laguana said he’s ecstatic for his students to have the opportunity to perform at such a prestigious venue. Many of them have never even been to Ellie Caulkins, let alone been onstage there.
He hopes that working with the DGMC will show them that they can continue to be involved in the arts after school, even if they don’t pursue it as a career.
With the exception of a holiday concert several months ago, this is the first DGMC performance since the beginning of the pandemic. The concert will feature half a century of African American pop music, “from the Temptations to Lizzo.”
The Rangeview choir will join the DGMC for “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a 14-minute vocal arrangement inspired by the last words of seven unarmed Black men and teenagers who were killed by police, including Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
Knapp said that he had been aware of the piece beforehand, but following the 2020 deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the nationwide protests that followed — including the push in Colorado for justice for Elijah McClain — he “became very convinced that this was a really important piece to do.”
The arrangement is the most high-level work that his choir has done, Laguana said, and is designed to be performed by singers at the college level or above. His students have been practicing since September, and have thrown their all into being performance-ready, he said.
“As a high school, we wouldn’t normally be accomplishing this level of work,” he said. But “having the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus with us has made my group rise up to the occasion.”
Along with practicing the music, the students have also been learning about the people featured in the song and incorporating it into lesson plans, Laguana said.
The singers will also be joined onstage for part of the concert by dancers from Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, an iconic, primarily African-American dance troupe based in Denver. The DGMC commissioned Cleo Parker Robinson, the founder, to choreograph routines to three of the songs the chorus will be singing, including Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
“It’s going to be a really special performance,” Knapp said.
The DGMC was originally scheduled to hold the “Motown and More” concert in 2020, at which point neither Rangeview or Cleo Parker Robinson were involved, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. The chorus held its first rehearsals the day before Denver shut down all its performance venues, Knapp said.
Singing is not an activity that’s conducive to being done virtually, and the chorus was shut down on March 15, 2020 and didn’t hold a live rehearsal again until September 2021.
“It was incredibly emotional to be reunited again,” Knapp said.
He said that having this performance, now with the dancers and the student choir involved, feels like coming full circle.
The pandemic was hard on Laguana and his students as well. For many of his students, choir is more than just a class, it’s like a family. He missed getting to see their faces and hear their voices. He even missed the frustration of working to get a difficult piece to come together.
He’s excited that now, as live music and theater gradually reemerge, his students have the opportunity to perform again and is honored that the DGMC asked Rangeview to join them onstage.
“We’re blessed to be a part of such an amazing arts community,” he said.
For more information on the performances and to purchase tickets, go to denverchoruses.org/events.