//PICTURED ABOVE: The Angel City Chorale performed during America’s Got Talent’s 13th Season, wowing the audience with their moving performance, awe-inspiring unity and Simon Cowell-approved song choices. Marian Higginbotham Niles ’62 was one member of the 116-member choir. Photo courtesy of Angel City Chorale.
If you look hard enough, Hockaday alumnae can be found all over the globe: making breakthroughs in the field of medicine, exploring the vast reaches and archaeological sites throughout our planet and making their mark in male-dominated professions.
It’s safe to say, Hockadaisies are known for their determination, dedication and natural spunk. So, when Marian Higginbotham Niles ’62, along with the Angel City Chorale, took “America’s Got Talent” by storm in 2017, one wouldn’t have to look too hard to see just what a former Hockaday student can accomplish.
Before Simon Cowell hailed the group “one of the best choirs he’d ever had,” Niles wasn’t always garnering a crowd of around 12 million viewers each performance.
“Since my days with the Hockaday Glee Club and Mr. Merriman, I have always loved to sing with a group. However, after high school I didn’t pursue that interest in any formal way,” Niles said.
“A friend of mine who sings in the choir knew of my love of singing and encouraged me to try out for Angel City. About five years ago, I mustered up my courage and decided to audition. I got in and was immediately surrounded by an incredible group of warm and welcoming people.”
The Angel City Chorale was started by Director Sue Fink to give her voice students a place to sing together. From the beginning, the mission was to “build community one song at a time,” according to Niles. Twenty-six years later, and now one of the premier singing groups in Southern California, Angel City Chorale has over 150 singers from all over Los Angeles, ages 18 to 88, representing the city’s many diverse cultures.
Michael Lever, a representative and press contact for Angel City Choral, has watched the group grow and evolve.
“Angel City Chorale reflects the spirit and diversity of Los Angeles in its membership, its music and its outreach activities,” Lever explained. “Equally committed to good music and good deeds, the chorale is dedicated to ‘building community one song at a time.’”
Anyone with a passion and appreciation towards music with a heart for building community is welcomed and encouraged to audition, regardless of age, race, religion, sexuality or political views.
“The music director wants everyone to feel the joy of singing and doesn’t like to turn anyone away,” Niles said. “How- ever, it is important to be able to carry a tune and read music.”
Before their “America’s Got Talent” debut, the choir had been busy with two concerts a year in a variety of music genres, such as classical, pop, jazz, world music and gospel.
“I soon found out that many were singers at about my level but a remarkable number were highly trained and very talented,” Niles said. “I was immediately immersed in learning a piece by Christopher Tin called ‘The Drop that Contained the Sea,’ a cycle of songs inspired from music around the world and written in languages such as Urdu, Bulgarian, Man- darin and Swahili. It was a challenge to be sure but we conquered it and eventually took it to London, where it was Premiered at Cadogan Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.”
In late 2017, the group received a call from The National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) top-rated talent competition, “America’s Got Talent,” asking them if they would audition for their upcoming thirteenth season, after seeing the group on YouTube. The show urged the group to sing their version of Toto’s “Africa,” which had gotten over 30 million views.
Saying that the group was a hit would be an understatement.
“We thought it would be a fun experience but fully expected it to be a one shot deal—we would perform once and be done,” Niles said. “Well, that was the beginning of a seven-month odyssey involving hours of rehearsal time, hiring a choreographer, costume fittings, make-up sessions and, of course, performing on live television.”
Angel City Choral ended up earned the coveted Golden Buzzer and reached the Semi-Finals, touching over 20 million viewers with their rich sound and compelling message of unity and diversity.
“On our second round we got the ‘golden buzzer’ when sirens went off, lights flashed and golden confetti poured down on our heads,” Niles said. “It meant that we automatically advanced to the final rounds, which would be broadcast live from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, home of the Academy Awards.”
Unfortunately, the group was shockingly eliminated during the semifinals, after performing “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen in honor of the heroes from 9/11, but for Niles and the rest of the choir, the gift of performing was all the prize they needed.
“We made it to the semi-finals which was way beyond our dreams and gave us a publicity boost which we could never have gotten otherwise,” Niles said. “We learned that the world of television is one of patience and repetition, but it was new and exciting as well and such a thrill to be in the middle of myriads of lights, sound systems, stage hands, props and T.V. stars.”
After captivating a wide American audience, Niles may have a fan a little closer to home—her niece, Alice Roberts, a current Hockaday junior.
“I admire how she’s found a group of people that, no matter how diverse, has come together to create amazing music,” Roberts said. “We were really excited for her when they made it to ‘America’s Got Talent.’ You can spot her on stage because she is very tall, so she stands out.”
Although their foray into television pushed the group into the limelight, allowing them to sing at higher profile gigs such as halftime entertainment at a Rams football game, they remain dedicated towards service and works in their community. Continuing with this theme, they plan to embark on their annual Tour of Hope program, in which the singers perform concerts for the homeless, the elderly and others whom the group hopes would benefit from an infusion of holiday spirit.
“Being a part of Angel City Chorale has widened my horizons tremendously, which at my age is a particular gift,” Niles said. “I’ve met and gotten to know a new and diverse group of people I wouldn’t otherwise have known and more than anything, I think, I have reaffirmed my belief in the power of music to bring people together, break down barriers and build community.”
With a plethora of performances in the works, and talent seeping from every singer’s mouth, the chorale is on its way up. Unmistakably, for Niles and her group of talented fellow performers, the spotlight has proved beneficial, and as judge Simon Cowell perfectly stated, after hearing the group sing, “if this is heaven, I’m happy, because this is what it felt like.”
Story by Paige Halverson Managing Editor
Photo courtesy of Angel City Chorale