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Classical Notes

He’s singing praises of young choristers

Latin Academy’s Wurman sees a program blossom

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By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2011

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“You’ve gotta learn to love the 5 a.m. alarm clock. Learn to love the morning coffee, the commute to work. It just has to happen.’’

This bit of career advice comes from Eytan Wurman, who is wrapping up his first year as director of music at Boston Latin Academy. He imparted it during a recent address to a group of rising student teachers at his alma mater, Boston University. Wurman, in his mid-20s, speaks with an energy and a passion for teaching that can make even hard-to-swallow inspirational words seem authentic and sincere.

“I feel like I’m doing this for fun and they just kind of give me a paycheck every once in a while,’’ he says during a recent phone conversation.

A lot of hand-wringing goes on these days over the state of music education, in part because of its link to the supposed decline of classical music. Amid the doom and gloom, though, it’s good to check in on what actually goes on in the music room at a public school like Boston Latin Academy, a grade 7-12 exam school in Dorchester sometimes mistaken for the better-known Boston Latin School.

And a lot is going on at BLA. Until Wurman’s arrival, the school hadn’t had a chorus in at least two decades, as he reckons it. Now it has two — a seventh-grade choir that meets during the school day and a concert choir, open to anyone, that meets after school. The combined membership is around 150 students.

All of them will be on stage for the choirs’ final concert of the year, next Thursday. (Some also participated in the Mssng Lnks-Opera Boston production of Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha’’ earlier this month.) While there are, no doubt, many worthy music programs throughout the Boston area, going from zero choristers to 150 in less than a year seems pretty spectacular.

“Well . . . we have a combination of me — somebody’s who’s new, who’s young, someone with energy — pair that with an administration that is willing to grow and expand a new program, and you have yourself a winning combination,’’ says Wurman when asked about the success.

Wurman’s training was in classical music, but he doesn’t program classical works exclusively, or even predominantly, in his choirs. “As a choir teacher in a modern school, where the students are so aware of their own culture, I can’t be the teacher that walks in and says, here’s Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus,’ let’s sing it. I can’t always do something like that. There has to be kind of a give and take.’’

So he brings in arrangements of spirituals, pop songs, hip-hop — anything to keep the kids interested and involved. Regardless of genre, though, everything has a didactic purpose. Wurman notes that the biggest hit from the choirs’ winter concert was a trio of spirituals — “Wade in the Water,’’ “Motherless Child,’’ and “I Want to Die Easy.’’

“I was actually trying to teach them how to follow my conducting and not just sing on their own,’’ he explains. “Because they can’t just sing on their own — they have to sing with everyone. It’s this whole combination of, let’s do what they want, but it can be perfectly educational.’’

Wurman has also expanded the band program — whose final concert is next Wednesday — and is already looking to grow the choral program, since he has the happy problem that “the numbers are getting too large.’’ So next year the school plans to add a women’s choir and an auditioned group called the Chamber Singers. It’s a structure that allows him to get students early and let their passions emerge.

He has a goal that he admits is “robust,’’ probably a few years off: He wants to bring the band students and choristers together to perform an arrangement of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.’’ Orff’s boisterous Germanism isn’t necessarily the first thing you think kids in an urban high school would get excited by. But not long before our conversation, Wurman says he showed a video of Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in “Carmina Burana’’ to his chorus students.

“And my kids were like, ‘Can we do that?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, we can! I mean, you guys want to do this?’

“But it takes time,’’ he says. “You need to build the skills, you need to build the expertise, you need to build the musical knowledge, the vocabulary, to do it.’’

That may be the best example of what Wurman, following his BU mentor, Sandra Nicolucci, calls the rubber-band effect: approaching kids where they are and using music to slowly guide them toward new horizons. And it might just help new generations get involved with an art form whose demise — real or imagined — seems destined to take a while longer.

“The reason we wring our hands that classical music isn’t going to survive is that we don’t think that today’s youth is going to appreciate and love the music we listen to,’’ says Wurman. “And the only reason we think that is that we haven’t exposed them to it. It’s like saying, ‘Oh, these kids won’t like green olives.’ But you have no idea. And I feel like most of the kids will love art music, they’ll love it.’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.

BOSTON LATIN ACADEMY Spring Band Concert, Wednesday, 6 p.m.

Spring Choir Concert, Thursday, 7 p.m.

At: Carroll Hall, Boston Latin Academy, 205 Townsend St., Dorchester. Tickets: $5 suggested donation. http://www.blamusic.org