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Young voices are joining in song

It's spring concert time for the Chester Children's Chorus. Its offerings vary from Rossini to gospel.

Chester Children's Chorus bass Nkenge Daniels (right) sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The chorus, directed by John Alston, has 64 singers.
Chester Children's Chorus bass Nkenge Daniels (right) sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The chorus, directed by John Alston, has 64 singers.Read more

The Episcopalians at St. Peter's in the Great Valley are proud of their choirs, all five of them.

But the historic Malvern congregation probably hasn't heard anything like the young upstarts of the Chester Children's Chorus, warbling boys and girls from Delaware County's gritty Chester City.

With its robust motto of "strong voice, strong mind, strong spirit," the 64-voice ensemble will troop west this month for a performance at St. Peter's church. The free concert - the chorus' Main Line debut - will take place May 19 in the church's new Fellowship Hall.

What's more, St. Peter's beloved Children's Choir will join voices with the Chester singers for a few pieces - an anticipated highlight of the 90-minute performance.

"When all of our voices come together, it's going to sound really, really good," said Sage Beachem, 13, a seventh grader at Our Lady of Charity school in Brookhaven.

With a vast repertoire, the Children's Chorus can go highbrow with French Renaissance songs and Rossini operas, sound heavenly harmonizing classic hymns, and get funky with rearranged spirituals and show tunes. Some of the singers compose gospel songs that become part of the troupe's varied program.

Before traveling to Chester County, the chorus will perform two concerts, its annual spring showcase, at the 450-seat Lang Concert Hall on the Swarthmore College campus.

"When we're in Swarthmore, we're singing for the hometown crowd," said founding director John Alston, an associate professor of music at Swarthmore who also directs the College Chorus.

The scrappy chorus youngsters meld the classic with the urban contemporary. They croon a solemn "Sunrise Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof, then break out a funky version of a Jewish folk song, "Hine Ma Tov." Their rendition of Paul Anka's "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" proves a syrupy confection, and their reworking of the Beatles' "Let It Be" pays homage to soulful collectives such as Boyz II Men.

"One-third of our concert is music that will make the audience move - they'll clap, they'll sway," said Alston, who writes and arranges gospel music specifically for his young charges. The newest songs, collaborations between Alston and the chorus, stress social responsibility and building community.

For Alston, that sense of community took root in Newark, N.J., when he first experienced music while part of the Newark Boys Choir. Much later, after earning his Ph.D. in music, Alston was hired to teach at Swarthmore College.

That's when he stumbled onto Chester, an impoverished city just three miles from campus. The stressed community reminded him of his North Jersey beginnings.

"It felt like home working with these kids," said Alston, 45, who now lives in Parkside.

With only the money in his pocket and a classroom, Alston began in 1994 with seven second-grade boys. Not long afterward, the group evolved into the larger mixed chorus of today: 27 boys and 37 girls, students ages 8 to 17 who live in the Chester-Upland School District.

Each February, Alston recruits a new group of second-graders; he visits 26 second-grade classes and auditions about 600 children annually.

Those accepted attend on full scholarship and can stay with the chorus through high school. Financial support comes from grants, corporate donations, and individual contributions. Swarthmore College provides the space, insurance and tenured professor, Alston.

"It's something so positive in their lives, in a city that's not always good to them," said Heidi Wood-Tucker, whose son Darrin, 9, is part of the Training Chorus. "This program is one of the reasons we would want to stay in Chester."

Chorus members rehearse twice a week during the school year. Most participate in a five-week summer program on the Swarthmore campus. The program includes daily music training, reading, science and field trips.

"It keeps her out of the street," said Josephine Morgan, whose 13-year-old niece, Jenniffer Foster, has sung with the chorus for five years.

Foster's composition, "When I Think of Love," will be featured at the concerts. In the fall, the seventh-grader hopes to sing with the Swarthmore College Choir - a perk Alston affords the more advanced singers in the chorus.

"When you work with kids, you just believe that things are possible," Alston said. "I know it sounds corny, but they're kids - they can do anything."

If You Go

The Chester Children's Chorus presents its spring concerts in Delaware and Chester Counties.

Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Swarthmore College, Lang Concert Hall. Visit for directions.

May 19, 7 p.m., the Barn at St. Peter's Church in the Great Valley, 2495 St. Peters Rd., Malvern. Visit or call 610-644-2261 for directions.

Admission to all events will be free; a free-will offering will support the Chester Children's Chorus. For more information, call 610-328-8180 or visit