Music News & Reviews

‘We create magic’: Davis High School choir shines during tour of Italy

Decked in costumes befitting the birthplace of the Renaissance, the Davis High School Madrigals brought tears to the eyes of those in the Teatro Verdi in Florence, Italy, last week during an international choral competition — and came home with a second place.

The Madrigals, 31 students between the ages of 16 and 18, participated in the third annual Leonardo Da Vinci International Choral Festival, wearing Renaissance-era costumes created by the choir’s own designer.

It was a new high for Karen Gardias, who has directed the Madrigals for 25 years. The Madrigals toured Italy last week, also performing in the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. During the three-day competition, from July 9-12, the Davis students competed against 15 other choirs, from countries that included Spain, South Korea and China, triumphantly taking home second place.

Gardias herself was honored as the best choral director, but she shrugged off the spotlight.

“I’d rather be the background and let the kids shine,” Gardias said. “It’s all about them.”

To Gardias, music is one of the most creative forms of art. For her, music education is paramount.

“As musicians, our art is happening by the second,” Gardias said. “A live performance is remarkable. I always tell my students, we know we’ve created the best performance when not only our parents, but people we don’t know, cry.”

That day in Teatro Verdi, Gardias watched as spectators in the audience broke into tears as the Madrigals performed “Let My Love Be Heard” by Jake Runestad, written for the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

“Even the choir that was waiting in the wings to go on next was crying,” Gardias said. “There are moments when everything comes together and we create magic.”

The magic, however, requires rigorous practice back in the concrete and brick walls of Davis High School.

The Madrigals practice 5½ hours per week, preparing for 40 performances each year. Founded in 1966, the group’s repertoire is diverse, including works by composers such as George Frideric Handel, Giuseppe Verdi, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Queen and Lin Manuel-Miranda. Although works by Palestrina aren’t typically what teenagers blast in their headphones, Gardias said that her students are deeply invested in the music.

“A lot of them have decided since the age of 5 that they want to be a madrigal,” Gardias said.

Being a part of the Madrigals extends far beyond the music, Gardias said. The Madrigals are intertwined with the Davis community.

Each year, the singers attend the tree-lighting ceremony during the holidays, and they can be found serving food at homeless shelters, performing at senior homes and teaching choral workshops to elementary school students who do not have access to a stable choral program. Each year, the choir hosts the festive Madrigal Dinner, serving Renaissance-themed dishes such as bread pudding and beef and performing for 2½ hours to over 200 audience members.

“I look at the choir as a vehicle to create good citizens,” Gardias said. “It’s so important that we give back to the community.”

Gardias said that the experience of being a part of the Madrigals is something to be “poured into a bottle,” something to be cherished.

“Take a sip every time you need it,” Gardias said. “When I see my kids later on and they’ve created great things in their lives, I’m glad to have had a chance to be a part of it.”

Candice Wang, from Yale, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in climate change, sustainability, socioeconomic inequality, and culture. She grew up in Connecticut.