PIEDMONT -- In 1982, the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir was founder Susan Rahl, 23 boys and Artistic Director Robert Geary.
Thirty years later, the choir is an internationally recognized, new music megaforce with five choirs, a triennial Golden Gate International Choral Festival, collaborative partnerships with major, professional Bay Area arts organizations, a role in an upcoming Estonian documentary and ... Robert Geary.
No doubt, the charismatic, bold Geary has had help -- from the considerable talents of Sue Bohlin, composer and associate director of ensemble, among many others -- but there's no denying his inner Pied Piper has led the choir to a robust position on the choral landscape.
At "Making History," the choir's most recent display of 12 newly commissioned works, performed March 23 at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, Geary was characteristically exuberant in a pre-show interview.
"Singing contemporary music takes musicians, not just kids who like to sing. They must be skilled, courageous -- with a vigorous mind and sensibility," he said.
Reed Criddle, a guest composer and former choir member, said he encountered the most challenging works of his singing career while with the choir. He doesn't recall direct instruction on attitude, but credited Geary with creating the choir's "undeniable, unstoppable confidence."
And, moments later, when the concert choir filed in to open the concert with three impressively rendered works, Criddle's words gained credence.
Self-assured in "The Birch Tree's" five-beat irregularities and swift to capture the tender articulations of "The Snow," the choir's youngest performers handily forecast the evening's expansive dynamic and compositional range.
Immediately following, the alumni choir took on the West Coast premiere of Riddle's "Pieta."
Sublime, minimal and eloquent, Kati Kyme's haunting solo violin countered the wordless choir in a richly layered piece that soared and groaned. The open tones and communal, sonic approach were remarkable in musicians assembled rapidly (and bringing divergent vocal influences) from hither and yon.
Next up was the ensemble -- and the pleasure of listening to 11-year-old soloist Andrés Beck-Ruiz. Leaping intervals with ease and laying a path to justice with crystalline, pure tones in composer Kirke Mechem's take on the Langston Hughes' poem, "Daybreak in Alabama," Beck-Ruiz's performance was worthy of a one-word review: glorious.
Mark Winges' "Magic Strings" had the ensemble crouch, arranging themselves in triangles, while Bohlin reached inside the piano to establish the work's slithery sonicism and jittery percussive contrasts.
Proving Gear's earlier point -- about contemporary music requiring an out-of-the-box mindset -- the musicians two-finger clapped, whispered, sighed, clawed, grimaced, and dropped chins to chests as if their necks were abruptly broken.
Eric Tuan, another choir product, treated the audience to a thigh-slapping, American folk-style "Johnson Boys" and Bohlin's "In Anchor Bay" hid its complexity behind the ensemble's calypso-lively, assured performance.
Ecco, the third choir to appear, demonstrated mastery of traditional and new music with three works combining to form a mini "history of music" soundscape. But the two-movement shape of Stacy Garrop's composition was most memorable for the first half's bursting, bubbling canon overflow, countered by a sustained, unflaggingly blissful second section.
The all-female a cappella Ancora choir brought to mind the embryonic condition we humans have in common. A mother's heartbeat is one of the earliest sounds we hear and although the tempo may vary from one woman to the next, each of us first bonded with just one heart. Especially in Bohlin's "Summer's Here," Ancora used the work's escalating drama judiciously, reaching a mutual, celebratory peak.
The choir not only sings, they listen; modulating their individual voices to achieve a unified, pure sound often lacking in less mature children's choirs.
Perhaps the most ambitious piece (although the term loses punch amid the harmonically-thick, rhythmically-eclectic, stylistically-vast program) was Winges' "Water Doesn't Drown."
"I tried to write for the different sound worlds of each choir," the composer said, in opening remarks.
Their "worlds" resulted in a work that was an investigation of the human voice as much as a demonstration of musical skill. Much like contemporary artist Meredith Monk, who explores the splendor of breath and tone, Winges had the young singers barking phrases with impeccable rests, whistling into hissing, and shading a note's sweet tone until dark edges turned it sour. The piece lost energy in the over-long final section, but the magic remained.
A 2008 premiere by Pekka Kostiainen, revived with massive power by the collective choirs, harked back to liturgical, gospel roots and showed off the choir's collective, indomitable spirit.