It’s December in Washington, D.C. Public figures from Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor to Sen. Harry Reid to actress Emmy Rossum are flocking to the White House for President Obama’s holiday parties. Greeting them, no flyers in hand this time, are Penn performing arts groups.
Penn Glee Club, Penn Sori and Penn Shabbatones performed at the White House holiday parties in December. They sang in the foyer while guests were entering and leaving the building and,added comma more importantly, got the unexpected opportunity to sing in front of the president and the first lady.
Even though Penn Glee Club is currently going through its “January Hell Week” for the upcoming spring show, College and Wharton senior and the Vice President of the club Jacob Meiner perked up with excitement when recalling his time in Washington.
“All the guests as they were walking into the party had to walk in front of us as we were singing,” he said.
This is its first time Penn Glee Club sung for the president of the United States since 1926.
“President Obama made a joke about how we haven’t been to the White House since when Calvin Coolidge was president, so we looked pretty good for our age,” Meiner said. Penn Glee club sang “Deck the Halls” for the president and the first lady.
Glee Club lobbied the White House to get this opportunity.
Justin Kim, a Wharton senior and the business manager of Penn Glee Club, wanted to make sure that the White House would notice the group.
“I sent them a package with CDs and made a presentation about the club, which was not required,” he said.
He said he also reached out to Penn Glee Club alumnus in politics Robert M. Beecroft.
“We tried so many different channels that in the end we don’t know what actually worked,” Kim said.
Penn Sori, a Korean a cappella group, also performed for President Obama in December, singing most of its concert repertoire and holiday songs in both English and Korean, often singing one verse in English and the other in Korean.
“I don’t think anyone understood [the lyrics] except for this one Korean lady in a uniform,” College sophomore and a business manager of Penn Sori Sam Joo said. He added that when they finished singing “The Ugly Duckling,” by a famous Korean group, the woman came up to them and expressed how comforting and heartwarming it is to hear Korean songs in the White House.
After their performance in the White House foyer, College junior and Penn Sori president Soomin Kim prepared for the groups’ impromptu performance of “Winter Wonderland” for the president and the first lady.
“I actually forgot my first line of the lyrics but fortunately I wrote the first two words down [on my hand]. I totally blanked out,” she said.
On the other hand, the White House might have been a little nervous welcoming Penn Sori as well. Woo-Ju Kim, a college sophomore and musical director of Penn Sori, said she almost did not get into the White House and had to wait about twenty minutes because the White House didn’t put her name on the list.
Joo said Penn Sori’s goal for this performance was to expose people outside of Penn to the group.
“We usually have gigs on campus, so we know who our audience is. It was reassuring to look at the reaction from the audience who was so different,” she added.
Their gig at the White House won’t be the group’s only glamorous performance for the school year. Penn Sori also received a request from the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team to sing the national anthem at a game this semester.
Penn Shabbatones couldn’t believe their inboxes when they got the invitation to perform at the White House Hanukkah Party.
“I thought it was a complete joke,” College sophomore and tour manager Jennifer Gold said.
All the songs the group sang at the Hanukkah party were in Hebrew, including songs specifically arranged for the White House performance by its alumni. Although not all the members understand Hebrew, Goldstein said that “it brings us together in the most unique, amazing and powerful way.”
For the president, Penn Shabbatones performed its song arranged by the founding members of the group called “Umacha,” meaning prayer for peace and love.
“It was one of the most incredible experience. It’s hard to articulate, but there’s a certain amount of connection between people who are watching us and us performing,” Aaron Zell, a Wharton sophomore and Penn Shabbatones member, said.
Among many prominent Jewish politicians and celebrities who attended the party, Penn Shabbatones met actress and a singer-songwriter Emmy Rossum, well known as Kristen in the 2004 "The Phantom of the Opera" film.
Rossum also tweeted about Penn Shabbatones, saying, “Chanukah songs never sounded cool until this acapella group I heard at The White House tonight.”
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