Jeffrey Benson, director of the Choraliers, answered his phone on Friday, April 19 and was unexpectedly offered an opportunity of a lifetime.
Benson said colleagues from Los Angeles put in a good word for the Choraliers, “a 32-member choir of the top auditioned singers on campus,” to a Rolling Stones agent.
“The Stones add another level of energy and enthusiasm to our plate now. It's truly an incredible opportunity,” Benson said.
He made the announcement to the choir in rehearsal the following Tuesday.
Pamela Ketcham was absolutely confounded by the news because Benson had told her the previous day that he needed her help with something he would announce on Tuesday.
Ketcham said she contemplated what her task and the announcement could be all night long.
She was late to rehearsal and missed the announcement after hurrying in from work, but somebody filled her in.
“Suddenly, I was sitting there in a state of disbelief, even more so because I thought 'help out' meant to work at a registration table or stuff envelopes,” Ketcham said. “For a few days when I woke up I asked myself if I had dreamt the Rolling Stones gig or if it was really happening.”
The Rolling Stones seem to be searching for help from local campuses for their 50 and Counting tour, which celebrates the band's 50th anniversary.
A review by the Los Angeles Times said the UCLA marching band opened up the first show of the 2013 leg of the tour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and the Choraliers of SJSU will handle two shows in the Bay Area.
The first was last Sunday at Oracle Arena in Oakland, and the next is in San Jose at HP Pavilion.
“I am treating this like most of our other performances,” Benson said. “The Choraliers perform at a high level of musicianship all of the time, so this is no different from a musical standpoint.”
Jaco Wong, a member of the Choraliers, said Sunday's performance was a success, but looks to improve on Wednesday.
“We will be much more comfortable and less nervous because we have already done it once,” Wong said. “To be in front of such a loud crowd and particularly singing in new acoustics are both difficult things, but with experience on Sunday, I think Wednesday's performance will be even better.”
In these two performances, Benson estimates the Choraliers will be singing in front of 30,000 people, which is a lot more than their usual gigs, but the group has been in this position before.
The Choraliers sang in HP Pavilion with Italian classical music superstar Andrea Bocelli last November in front of a similar sized crowd, according to Benson.
Wong said he faced some minor stage fright at the Bocelli show.
“My brain totally went blank for the first 10 minutes in front of the huge audience in HP Pavilion, but I know the performance will go well and we all will have a lot of fun,” Wong said.
Julie Smith, who will be shadow-conducting the performance, said a large crowd is not so much an obstacle.
“I think it's easier to do a show this big because you can't see individual people's faces,” Smith said. “Intimate settings are harder because it's more personal.”
The Choraliers perform about 20 concerts throughout the school year according to Benson, and he said he hopes the singers will take all they have learned in prior performances to impress the Rolling Stones with a level of professionalism that lives up to their reputation.
“They will pull from their past experiences as professional-level performers and be ready to conquer this gig with similar energy, enthusiasm and professionalism,” Benson said.
At the 1991 International Musical Eisteddfod, a prestigious, annual music competition held in North Wales, the Choraliers won the title 'choir of the world,' and has since upheld its credibility with victories in other competitions both in Europe and the United States, according to Benson, who took over as director in 2011.
Wong said he expects the fans at the Rolling Stones concert to provide a different environment from some of their other shows.
“Just because of the genre of rock, I can imagine the audience will just go crazy,” Wong said. “The audience in the Bocelli concert was probably quieter because of the type of music.”
Smith said she hopes the Choraliers feed off of the liveliness of the crowd and a spirited performance from the Rolling Stones, which Mick Jagger is sure to deliver.
“The audience will be loud and the music will be louder,” Smith said. “Hopefully the energy from the audience will transfer to us on stage.”
One thing Benson doesn't have to worry about so much is members of the Choraliers not being able to focus because of their rabid fandom of the Rolling Stones.
“To be honest I wasn't really a fan probably because I'm just too young,” Wong said. “But my mom and aunt definitely know them well and are very excited for me.”
Upon hearing the news of performing with the Rolling Stones, Smith had other things on her mind.
“I thought that it sounded like a fun opportunity, but I was also a little concerned because it falls at the end of the semester when I'm super busy,” Smith said.
Despite their age and the surmounting pressure of schoolwork, Wong and Smith do realize the performance is a grand opportunity and they are not oblivious to the prominence of the band.
Benson is a fan of the Rolling Stones and said one reason why this is exciting, besides being a great experience for the Choraliers, is because this will be the first time he will see the band live.
Ketcham is also a fan and recalled highlights from Sunday such as Jagger thanking the Choraliers during soundcheck and Keith Richards winking at them in acknowledgment.
“It was what I would expect and completely surreal all at the same time,” Ketcham said. “The Stones still have that sound that I can’t get enough of, and I can’t wait to go back on stage on Wednesday.”
Sometimes, you can always get what you want.