At the end of September, the San Francisco Symphony celebrated American composer Leonard Bernstein, and two Half Moon Bay boys were there for the show.
While middle school student Nick McKee waited in the wings, the spotlight shone on young soprano Nicholas Hu.
After the last note was sung and the glitter of the bright lights faded, the compelling story of how two boys from a small coastal town defied all odds and found themselves together at the San Francisco Symphony remained.
Hu and McKee share a lot of firsts. They first met in kindergarten and first learned to sing at the Community United Methodist Church in Half Moon Bay. While they eventually ended up at different schools, they both joined the Ragazzi Boys Chorus in Redwood City and have traveled the world delighting crowds with their songs.
Over the summer, the San Francisco Symphony sent out a call to various Bay Area choir organizations looking for a boy to sing a part written by Bernstein in his Chichester Psalms. Both McKee and Hu answered the call. In an unbelievable twist of fate, Hu was selected as the main soloist while McKee as chosen to serve as his “cover.”
“Ragazzi has its own summer camp where you work extremely hard every day for four hours a day, and for 10 days in July. It’s really fun,” said Hu. “One day, while we were practicing, someone said, ‘Oh, hey, there’s a symphony going on. Do you want to do it?’”
“At first, it started out almost too casually. The first time they announced the Chichester Psalms was over the course of lunch,” added McKee. “They said that anyone who wanted to audition was to come over at such-and-such a time.
“They would give you some sheet music, you might go for five minutes learning the first two phrases of it and then just sing for your director,” he continued. “Then four people stayed after that. Then that was when we started to actually work on it.”
Both boys spent a significant amount of time memorizing the piece. In addition, to ensuring that every note was pitch-perfect, there was the added complication of the song being written in Hebrew.
“They had Hebrew coaches,” added father Alan Hu. “It was not just an operatic thing. There was a lot of detail.”
After hours and hours of grueling, but fun, practice, the boys were ready for the audition. The pair stuck together through it all, supporting each other during intense moments while finding humor in the little things.
“At first, I felt a little nervous,” said Hu. “Really, once the music started, it just kept going and going. At a certain point you don’t care that people are watching you, you just try your best and let the music keep you on.
“The front, when you watch the show, seems very polished. Behind, there’s a lot of stuff going on,” he continued. “It’s closer to a middle school musical than you might think.”
“You have 74 musicians being ushered around by other people. Everybody is running around getting from place to place. You have to assume that all the pieces are going to fit together, jig saw puzzle-style for this to work,” added McKee. “If you have to glue a couple of pieces together in order to make the puzzle look good, if something happens, it’s showbiz. You can’t exactly, not worry about it, but just take it all in stride.
“It’s challenging,” he continued. “The hardest thing about working with other people is other people, and so when you have a lot of other people working on this huge project together, the sense of unity and separation is unparalleled.”