By Margaret Evans
When I spoke on the phone with music director Jay Forrest, he and his Clover Choraliers were a week away from opening night of their full-scale theatrical production of Little Shop of Horrors. A few days after that run, their spring choral tour begins, starting in Gastonia, NC and ending in Nassau, Bahamas. In between, they’re swinging down to Beaufort.
If you love choral music – or any kind of music, really – you can’t miss the Clover Choraliers when they perform at my church, First Presbyterian, next month. I’ve seen them twice now, and words simply can’t do the experience justice. Even music falls short.
“I don’t like listening to recorded choral music, myself,” Jay Forrest told me. “I never do that.” This from a man who has spent the last 30 years of his life toiling in the field of choral music.
The thing about the Clover Choraliers is that you have to see them to really hear them. And what happens when you see them and hear them is that you feel them. And that feeling is pure transcendence.
Hailing from Clover High, a large public school in the upstate of South Carolina, the auditioned choir is 110 teenagers strong, an eclectic group of kids – athletes, artists, scholars, etc. – all profoundly committed to each other and their championship choir.
Vic Varner, Music Director at First Presbyterian and retired high school choral director, says of the Choraliers, “I’ve worked with high school choirs for 40 years, I’ve traveled far and wide to hear high school choirs, and I’ve never heard anything like this. It’s over 100 voices, and all of them study voice privately. They will completely mesmerize you.”
Varner calls his friend Jay Forrest “enormously talented,” saying, “He’s a real-life Pied Piper. He leads and kids follow.”
“I don’t know about that,” Forrest told me. “But I will say that I probably spend more time thinking about how to motivate these kids than I spend preparing music. And it’s all about student leadership. We’re very passionate about the hierarchy here, with the seniors at the top. The upperclassmen teach and lead the underclassmen. One of the dads once told me that we have a ‘corporate culture.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but apparently it means that if anybody loafs – doesn’t give 100% – then nobody buys the product.”
And what a product it is! For those of us who love the Choraliers – and they have quite a fanbase in Beaufort – it’s about more than just their sound. (Though, believe me, their sound is pretty amazing.) As I mentioned above, the Choraliers need to be seen and heard. They’re a bit of a spectacle, in fact. Subtly costumed and choreographed, they’re somehow both precise and free-flowing. Their bodies move with their music. Their faces shine with emotion. Every bit of every Choralier – mind, body, and soul – seems connected with every note they sing. And as a result, we audience members connect, too. With the music, with them, and with each other. “Sublime” is not too strong a word for the experience.
I’ve wondered how Jay Forrest gets his teenagers to “go there” – to perform with such open-hearted passion and sincerity. Don’t teenagers just want to be cool? Detached?
“Again, it’s that leadership hierarchy,” he told me. “The freshmen would never do it if they didn’t see the upperclassmen doing it. We just have a really strong tradition of students leading students, and a long-standing culture of excellence. It’s all about the culture.”
Forrest has been building that Choralier culture for a good long time. The program – which is supported by an extremely active and devoted Booster Club – will turn 30 next year, and he’s been there from the beginning.
During those three decades, he’s led his choirs to countless championships, music festivals, appearances at the Governor’s mansion, and other special performances.
Years ago, while attending a choral competition on a cruise ship, the Choraliers were touring Christ Church Cathedral in Nassau when the kids broke out into some impromptu a capella singing. The rector of the church heard them and immediately invited them to come back and perform a full concert, which they did in 2017.
This year, they’ll finish their spring tour by performing at Christ Church again as part of the celebration commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Bahamian Independence from the UK.
Christ Church Cathedral is the oldest Anglican Church in The Bahamas, dating back to 1670, with Carolinian ties documented back to 1731 by a missionary from SC, and stained-glass windows on the northern and southern sides made in Statesville, NC, during a 1990s refurbishment.
“We are very honored to be invited to celebrate the rich history of music in the Bahamas as part of their Golden Jubilee,” Jay Forrest told me, “but also to add to the Carolina history in the Bahamas and our growing relationship with Christ Church Cathedral.”
But back to the concert in Beaufort. First Presbyterian is no cathedral, but Forrest told me he and the choir really loved performing in that “intimate venue” last year.
As a member of that audience, I can only say that the feeling was entirely mutual. Which may just be the understatement of the year.
The Clover Choraliers will perform a concert of eclectic choral music on Thursday, May 11 at 6 pm at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Beaufort, at the Corner of North and Church Streets. The concert is FREE and the public is not only welcome, but strongly encouraged to attend!
Margaret Evans is the editor of Lowcountry Weekly and a choral singer at First Presbyterian Church.