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Rochelle Small Clifford: What They're Saying

The admirable performances of fine vocal soloists Rochelle Small and Jason McKinney, the North Carolina Master Chorale, the Tar River Philhamonic Orchestra, and pianist Susan McClaskey Lohr, obviously reflected the artists' enjoyment in making music that challenged their skills. Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis clearly took pleasure in conducting these well-prepared musicians, acknowledging their best performances with smiles of approval.

The suite of well-loved pieces from Porgy and Bess, arranged skillfully by Robert Russell Bennett, was admirably suited to the fine voices of baritone Jason McKinney and soprano Rochelle Small. These talented singers, blessed with ringing, powerful voices that reached to the back of the hall, took pleasure in singing Gershwin's passionate love songs to each other. In no time at all the audience was pulled into the deeply emotional connection between them, clearly conveyed by their body language and facial expressions. ...Moreover, their obvious vocal abilities showed plainly in their superb phrasing, soaring high notes, and expressiveness.

Although all the performances in this suite deserve kudos, there were several that must be singled out for special recognition. McKinney's best numbers were the spirited "I Got Plenty o' Nothin'," "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," and, with the North Carolina Master Chorale, "It Ain't Necessarily So'" and "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing." Small showed off the beauty of her voice in "Summertime" and the plaintive "My Man's Gone Now."
Raising the rafters in the PAC or putting up tents in the foothills of the Los Padres, this month’s Anacapa Fellows—operatic soprano Rochelle Small Clifford and survival expert Ruth Cooper Ward—opened up vastly different worlds to lucky members of the Thacher community.

The Anacapa Fellows Program, inaugurated last year, brings artists, scholars, and other specialists to campus with the explicit mission to “complement Thacher’s faculty, broaden students’ experience, and reinforce the School’s distinctiveness among America’s top boarding schools.” Through a dynamic blend of workshops, lectures, demonstrations, concerts, formal and informal interchange, these talented guests bring expertise that both extends and expands.

Rochelle Small Clifford’s journey to our doorstep actually began three decades ago, when, at Wichita Collegiate School, she first met and became mentored by Thacher’s Sabbatical Music Man James Ockerman and his wife, Susan. Says James of the student whose vocal gifts were abundantly obvious from a young age, “I knew she would have doors open for her wherever she’d go.” With an unusual blend of pure talent and ambition tempered by personal warmth, Rochelle went on to study at the Manhattan School of Music, then at The Mannis School of Music, where she finished her B.A. and her M.A. in opera. Now, when she’s not appearing far from her home in New York (in, say, Bucharest, Romania, or with the Wagner Theatre), Rochelle performs regularly in and around Manhattan—for commemorative events, with the Harlem Opera Theatre. (She also routinely seeks venues where those who might not otherwise have access to her gifts—in nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, and schools—can share the abundant wealth.)

Here on campus, Rochelle spent several days in the thick of Thacher life—teaching Introduction to the Arts 9th graders and coaching both soloists and members of the Chorus and Chamber Singers, attending formal and informal meals, essentially filling any space she was in with “infectious energy” (Cameron Kemp) and “positive, genuine feeling” (Alex Simon) for her art. An amazed Alessandra Waste says, “After working with Rochelle, I felt the notes just float up out of my new second pair of lungs and clear out into the air.” Beyond technique, though, “Rochelle really opened the questions of Why are we singing? and Who are we singing to?” contends Sarra Wynn. “She taught me how to find ways to convey the feeling of the song, to make it believable and not just notes of music.” Ellie Wilkinson agrees: “She inspired us to stand up for ourselves and sing out what we truly believe. She helped us become more confident singers.” And a final benefit, noted by Moizee Stewart: “Not only is Rochelle able to work with people in a way that not only allows them to improve their singing abilities but she also works on making sure that no one takes what they have in their lives for granted.” In fact, that’s a mantra for Rochelle: “I want these kids to become aware of everything at their disposal here, to reach out to every opportunity in this mecca!”

In a culminating and riveting performance on Friday evening, Rochelle sang to an awestruck audience, filling the PAC with Puccini, Mozart, Franck, Delibes, Gershwin, and Bernstein, and generously sharing the stage with student performers Matt Eilar, Sam Meyer, Emmo Gates, Jeffrey Chen, and the Chamber Singers. Of Rochelle’s voice, Brianna Bohnett grins, “It was the highest sound I have ever heard come out of a human mouth. My ears were vibrating!”

And as if all that weren’t enough, Rochelle capped off her time in classic Thacher fashion, trading gown for jeans and a T-shirt and heading from the PAC to the Upper School Lawn for a post-concert wiffle ball game. Reports Rich Mazzola, Director of Athletics, “When I made an off-hand request for Rochelle to sing The National Anthem to kick off the game, she didn't skip a beat before answering with an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ While the clouds blocked out the light of the silvery moon, we moved some Suburbans around the field, turned on the headlights, and listened as Ms. Clifford graced us with a powerfully beautiful rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, punctuating it at the end with the traditional ‘Play Ball!’ We then broke out some glow-in-the-dark wiffle balls and revived the century-old tradition of ‘recess baseball on the Upper School Lawn.”

Now that’s how to conclude an Artist-in-Residency at Thacher—and how to hit a home run into the hearts of those whom you’ve touched with your spirit all week long.
Finally heeding the cocoon’s call, the caterpillar goes in for some serious womb time, birthing anew as the butterfly. For me my own cancer experience served the same purpose. Emerging the me I knew I could be was no easy feat. But, I’d never go back to crawling!

In keeping with the theme, Rochelle Small-Clifford performed an amazing rendition of “I Believe I can Fly.” This woman looks & sounds like an Earth Angel if ever there was one. I often hum this same number to myself while wandering the streets so it definitely hit home. It might sound cheesy but every once in a while I require a reminder that “I can soar, sunshine, I can soar.”
On this wet and dreary day a ray of sunshine found its way through the clouds to us. Horizon Concerts sent us Clive Lythgoe, Rochelle Small, and Sergio Reyes to serenade us with beautiful light and classical music in the Coler auditorium. Lythgoe on piano, Reyes on violin, and the heavenly voice of Rochelle Small infused the room with sound that was warm and exhilarating. Each instrument spoke to the hearts and minds of the listeners present and transported us back to sunlit meadows and clear mountain air and to some sandy beaches with seagulls calling overhead. Ah, the joy of music that can inspire the soul . What a gift on a rainy Thursday afternoon. Thank you Horizon Concerts.