HomeCommunity NewsDavid Laurell: Director Keeps Burroughs’ Music Program Poppin’

David Laurell: Director Keeps Burroughs’ Music Program Poppin’


After Mary Rago began a three-decade career in teaching vocal music at Burroughs High School in 1979, the music program at the high school changed dramatically.

Rago, who retired in 2006, established the JBHS Vocal Music Association and greatly expanded the program. Under Rago’s tutelage, the choirs became widely acclaimed for their excellence in both concert and show choir mediums.

Along with the award-winning program she created, Rago also started the annual show that presented pop music, a genre that was not the typical repertoire of high school choirs.

In the wake of a 1979 Christmas cantata that was followed by a January production of classical vocal music, Rago felt it was time to direct concerts with she called “lighter music.”

That first VMA pop music concert, which included performances and accompaniments by a band known as Lion that featured Frankie Avalon Jr. and his brother Tony, the two eldest children of actor, singer and former teen idol Frankie Avalon, kicked off the ongoing Pop Show era at Burroughs.

Sadie Beal was a part of Sound Sensations performance of “Goddesses and Warriors.”

Now recognized as one of the highlights of the school year, and an important component in garnering benefactors for VMA’s fundraising, the annual Pop Show is as much a part of Rago’s legacy as was her ability to challenge and inspire her students, one of whom was Brendan Jennings.

Last week, as Jennings, who took over the program from Rago in 2006, and his students were putting the final touches on “Pop Show 45: True To Your Heart” that was staged this past weekend, he said that this year was the first in which he feels things are back to normal since the pandemic.

“The choral program is one that is social, that provides students with the opportunity to perform and receive feedback,” said Jennings. “That element was taken away during the pandemic and participation in the program waned.”

Proudly stating that the program is now back to pre-pandemic enrollment, Jennings said both he and his students are excited about continuing the VMA’s longstanding tradition of excellence.

“I’m proud to say that this is one of the kindest and most hard-working groups of students I have ever had,” said Jennings. “We are back to full strength and the kids are fully engaged.”

Jennings, who has said he became a choral director because of the positive experience he himself had as a student in the program, has seen his students garner national prominence with all of the ensembles he oversees which have been consistently ranked among the top in the country in their divisions.

While Jennings, a classical devotee, admits to being a bit of out of his personal element when it comes to staging a pop music concert, he understands that this show has become a school tradition, one that the kids connect with on a whole different level.

Explaining that their program is a hybrid of classical, show music and popular music that ranges from classical music and songs from the Great American Songbook — the canon of influential songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century — to the songs that populate today’s music charts, Jennings said that diversity offers students a breadth of experience that is valuable in shaping their future.

Senior Emerson Riley was a standout among standouts at Pop Show 45.

“The selections for our pop shows are decided on by our creative team,” said Jennings. “But the songs we select are greatly influenced by the students, who constantly introduce me to singers and music I would otherwise not be knowledgeable of. The kids are dragging me into being more up to date on music than I am, and, to be honest, some of it I like and some of it I don’t.

“But that’s what pop music is about. It resonates with individuals of different eras depending on where they are in their life, what emotions they are experiencing, and what memoires those songs will then conjure up for them for the rest of their lives.”

While Jennings’ students are partial to songs by big name artists including Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna and John Legend, this year’s show, which was presented by VMA chair Natalie Worsham and her committee, also included selections that were made popular by Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Billy Joel and the Spice Girls.

“The kids in this class are open to so many genres and eras of music,” said Jennings. “And even when it comes to the artists of today, it is not only the ones whose name everyone knows. I would say one of the most popular artists of today with my students is Laufey [a bossa nova and jazz-inspired artist from Iceland], whose name I’m really not even sure how to properly pronounce.”

Last week’s Pop Show 45, directed by Jennings and artistically directed by Jen Oundjian, featured the advanced mixed choir Powerhouse, the advanced women’s choir Sound Sensations, the intermediate mixed choir Sound Waves, Decibelles the intermediate women’s choir, and Men at Work the high energy men’s choir. Also performing were Neo-Chromatics, the mixed contemporary a cappella group, Muses, the female contemporary a cappella group, and the school’s Dance Ensemble.

The JBHS VMA has now turned their focus to their upcoming spring concert, their final performance of the season, which will be presented in May. Tickets for that show along with general information on the VMA, including financial benefactor opportunities, are available by visiting jbhsvma.com.

DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at dlaurell@aol.com or (818) 563-1007.

Natalie Worsham chaired this year’s VMA Pop Show.
Lexi Palomino performs with Sound Sensations.
“Uptown Girl” Eliza Goulet, with soloist Caleb Perez and his backups Miles Tesfu and Makabe Ganey.
Noël Mason belts it out on the stage of JBHS.
A highlight of this year’s show was Miles Tesfu’s performance with Powerhouse.
Pop Show presents an extravaganza that rivals Broadway productions.

First published in the March 2 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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