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Several Hundred Turned Out for BVU Concert Choir Featuring Simon Estes

November 23, 2021 10:13am

(story by Tim Gallagher)

Nearly 700 spectators turned out this past Sunday, November 21st to enjoy the “Roots and Wings” scholarship tour bass-baritone Simon Estes brought to Schaller Memorial Chapel on the campus of Buena Vista University.

Estes, one of the world’s best known opera talents, commanded the stage for portions of a two-hour show that also featured soloist Dr. James Thompson, pianists Jodi Goble, Dr. Jenna Braaksma, and Deanna Larson, as well as the Buena Vista Concert Choir and vocalists from Storm Lake, St. Mary’s, Alta-Aurelia, and Newell-Fonda high schools. BVU Director of Choral Activities Christopher Phalen served as conductor for the event, which culminated with a standing ovation.

Estes, a philanthropist who has built schools and raised millions for those in need around the world, donated half of his appearance fee back to the high schools as they awarded four scholarships. With funds matched by Buena Vista University, four senior performers earned awards of up to $1,875 to be used to offset tuition as they embark on their collegiate pursuits.

“Several years ago, I was teaching at Boston University and singing in opera houses around the world,” Estes said. “My wife, Ovida, said, ‘Simon, maybe you should slow down a bit and head back to Iowa, where you can travel and sing.”

Estes laughed and said he’s a good husband, a trait he showed by listening to Ovida. The appearance Sunday marked the 60th county he’s visited on the “Roots and Wings” tour. To date, he’s awarded in excess of $230,000 to students on this tour.

On Sunday, he started with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and soon worked his way through nine additional selections, such as “I’ll Walk with God,” “Go Down Moses,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and more.

The vocalists who earned the awards include: Tegan Owens, of Alta-Aurelia; Clare Stephan, of Newell-Fonda; Elizabeth Tapia, of Storm Lake High School; and Yeeshai Valdivia, of Storm Lake High School.

For both Tapia and Valdivia, the concert was the culmination of a dizzying 10-day span as the two performed leading roles in the high school’s production of “South Pacific” last weekend. On Thursday, they traveled to Iowa State University to participate in the 75th Annual Iowa High School All-State Music Festival. Then it was back to BVU with instructor Joanne Tucker as they readied for solo performances on Sunday during Estes’ concert.

“I was so excited to be a part of this,” said Valdivia, future engineering student who possesses a 4.0 grade-point average at SLHS. “Meeting Simon Estes and hearing him sing was so cool. Maybe, someday, this opportunity could lead to something bigger for me.”

Estes said singing provided nearly every opportunity he’s experienced in his life, starting with education. With the encouragement of his parents and teachers at Centerville High School in Centerville, Estes matriculated to the University of Iowa, where a vocal instructor told him his voice could open career opportunities. Little did Estes know that he’d sing at the The Juilliard School before his voice (“a gift from God” as he calls it) and skill took him to leading performances in 84 opera houses on six continents.

Along the way, he sang for six U.S. presidents, kings, queens, and prime ministers, as well as numerous Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

The free concert and Estes’ appearance were made possible, in part, through the generosity of BVU benefactors, including the late Doris Grau, a lover of music and the arts who attended BVU in the 1940s before embarking on a successful business career with Wells Fargo in San Francisco. Grau, who died in 2019, bequeathed a 160-acre Buena Vista County farm to BVU, which resulted in a gift of $1.575 million designated for an endowment in support of the University’s music initiatives.

“We cannot thank Dr. Simon Estes enough for the time, talent, and treasure he’s sharing with all of us,” said Phalen. “This has been an incredible experience for our students to listen to and sing before a world leader in the arts who continues to excel. We are so grateful to the high school choirs who joined us, the hundreds of spectators who expressed their appreciation, and to the BVU givers, like the late Doris Grau, whose gifts allow us to bring about such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

Savannah Davis, a senior member of the BVU Concert Choir, said she’ll think fondly of the ways in which Estes greeted members of the choir backstage throughout the concert.

“It warmed my heart to see Simon smiling and wishing the BVU Choir good luck with our performance,” she said. “I also really enjoyed him being on stage with us for the final song, ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ It, by far, topped all music-based experiences I’ve had since I started vocal music in 2011.”

“God bless you all,” Estes concluded following a lengthy standing ovation. “This was only my second concert singing in two years, since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. It was great being able to sing with all of you and to hear the enthusiasm in all of your voices. I love you all, God bless!”