Inside a rehearsal room backstage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the group is a little rambunctious.
"Remember control," a chaperon tells them, her voice calm but firm. "You can still be excited and in control."
The 26 children, ranging in age from 8 to 12, immediately bring the noise level down. The girls twirl and clap while softly chanting songs in Swahili, as the boys line up to get fitted for black tuxedos with tails. Later, the girls try on princess dresses the color of magnolia blossoms.
The children, natives of Kenya and Uganda, make up the acclaimed African Children's Choir. The group has been on the road for 15 months, singing and dancing in churches and prestigious halls across the United States and Canada.
Despite the rigors of traveling, performing and daily tutoring, none of the young performers shows a trace of weariness. The group is especially excited about its last stop on the tour: the Holiday Spectacular with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The show began Friday at the Meyerhoff and continues through Dec. 23.
BSO principal pops conductor Jack Everly, who created the program, worked with the choir for the first time last year.
"It's really such a pleasure and honor to work with them again," he says, seated in his tiny dressing room. "The arrangements, orchestral and for them, are based on things they know to a certain degree - traditional [holiday] songs. The kids absorb things so quickly. Their sound is almost ethereal. ... It just opens up your heart."
In the elaborately staged Holiday Spectacular, the choir sings a mix of Christmas evergreens and African songs - some with the show's host, Christian music star Sandi Patty. The children appear to be a close-knit bunch, often hugging each other and always smiling. They call adults "uncle" or "auntie." Their peaceful, upbeat energy warms the cavernous rehearsal space and belies their desperately impoverished backgrounds.
Most of the children have lost their parents to the African AIDS pandemic. They come from villages where food and clean water are scarce. The African Children's Choir, founded 24 years ago in Uganda by human rights activist Ray Barnett, has helped thousands of kids in similar situations. Funds for the organization are mainly generated by the choir tour and various donors.
Each year, a new choir is selected and the children from the previous group return to Africa to attend school. Their education is completely funded by the choir. Over the years, many have gone to college, becoming engineers, doctors and other professionals in Africa.
Some have returned to the choir as adults.
"I thought I could give back to the organization some of what they had given me," says David Kan- yosya, who was 7 years old when he joined the choir in 1991. "I was living in the slums outside Nairobi. I had no place to be. A day was just any other day. ... I didn't have food some days."
Kanyosya made it to Nairobi for a choir audition, where he sang a traditional song in Swahili. He received his education through the choir and later earned a degree in business administration from the Kenya School of Professional Studies. He decided a year ago to become a full-time volunteer. A lean, soft-spoken man, Kanyosya is the choir director and personal counselor to the children. On the road, he also teaches math and science courses in Swahili, the children's native language.
"When I came to the African Children's Choir, I learned that life could be different. I could have hope," Kanyosya says. "These students come from similar backgrounds like me. It gives them an opportunity to see life from a different angle."
Anna Kulabako, 9, of Uganda, and Margaret Mzungu, 12, of Kenya, are seated at a table inside a lounge at the Meyerhoff. Their excitement about the Holiday Spectacular is palpable. The two are so used to harmonizing in the choir that they often answer a visitor's questions in singsong unison.
"Sometimes I feel nervous a little bit and little bit shy. But sometimes I'm not shy," Margaret says about performing.
Anna chimes in: "I see all those people and I want to do my best. I feel happy."
She claps her hands; a smile brightens her face.
if you go
See the African Children's Choir and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Holiday Spectacular, through Dec. 23 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 877-276-1444 or go to bsomusic.org.