By Jenny Neyman
Understatement alert — Simon Nissen is excited, as evidenced by a few comments from a recent choir rehearsal:
“It has such a pure ring to it. Aaah! So exciting! … That is everything that we need! … Oh, man! I really, really, really liked that! … Oh my gosh, that is awesome! I’m so excited! I hope you guys are inviting people to this concert, because it is something I am so excited about … .”
Nissen is the new choir teacher at Kenai Central High School. He also plays viola, a fact that spread throughout the local music community before he even moved up from Arizona last summer. He was recruited for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra and was playing in its summer music festival five days after he got to town. Finding a venue to make music and new friends in his new community was, well, exciting.
“I just get really excited about music and just about being around people. So, yeah, I get kind of bouncy and jump around a lot.” Nissen said. “… People have, I think, responded well, and enjoy the music. I found that even if maybe it wasn’t their cup of tea at the beginning, if I’m very excited about it and can convey that through the way that I teach, I can usually get them to at least appreciate it, or find some excitement in the song.”
But he wasn’t thrilled about the lack of a community choir in town. Every few years a choir will form when the orchestra takes on a choral work for its summer festival, but there isn’t anything consistent.
“I wanted to sing in a choir because I do miss that. And there was no opportunity for that here, which I thought was just kind of a shame. So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just start one.’ And so I did,” he said.
Last fall he put the word out that there would be a community choir performing with the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra’s annual “Evening of Christmas” concert.
“I think I announced, like, told my friends on a Saturday, ‘Hey, we’re starting rehearsals on Tuesday.’ And so didn’t really know how to get the word out there,” Nissen said. “But that first rehearsal like 45 people showed up. Which I was like, ‘Whoa.’ And then the second rehearsal it was 80-something. And by the time that Christmas concert came around it was around 90 people consistently.”
The weekly choir rehearsals started up again this semester. The group is down to about 60 singers, victims to schedule conflicts and maybe that a spring concert lacks the shine of Christmas music. But it’s 60 strong, with a diversity of range and depth of talent.
“I’ve been really impressed with the level of musicianship. I wasn’t expecting to have many people who read music, but I’ve been blown away how quickly this group is doing just that. The amount and level of music we’ve been able to accomplish has really impressed me. We have people of all levels but it really is evening out, everybody is stepping up and being strengthened by the experience,” he said.
There are current and retired music teachers, high school students, parents of students and people in the community who, like Nissen, just like to sing.
“One of my favorite comments I got was after our first concert, one of the ladies in the choir said, ‘I’ve been waiting 40 years for something like this.’ So I was like, ‘Oh.’ That made me feel like there is a need,” he said.
Of course, conducting the choir means he doesn’t get to participate in the choir, but that’s been a small price to pay.
“I still don’t get to sing, but at least other people do. Ultimately, I like teaching music as much as I like signing it, so this has filled that need for me. One of the greatest things about choir to me is camaraderie and fellowship and forming connections, and I still get to do that and get to make great music and help other people make great music,” he said.
The choir performed Friday at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School, with the KCHS Women’s Ensemble and local musicians rounding out the program.
They’ll take a break over the summer but Nissen plans to start the choir’s weekly rehearsals again next fall. It will continue to be open to anyone who wants to participate, no matter his or her level of singing experience. But some enthusiasm might be required, or at least contagious.
“As you would expect, I’m really excited about that,” Nissen said. “I would love for it to continue and word to get out for anyone who would like to sing, there’s a place to sing. We’re going to start back up in October and do the holiday stuff with the orchestra again. It’s going to be exciting — have I conveyed that?”