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Shelton musician performs for the Obamas

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

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When Matthew Blegen first received a call from the White House, he thought it was a joke.

The Shelton resident listened to a message on his phone from the president's office in October, inviting Blegen and one of the choirs he directs to perform at the White House during the holiday season.

"I listened to the message and thought, There's no way,'" Blegen said. "I even Googled the number, and yes, it was connected to the White House."

Apparently, White House staff heard recordings of Choral Arts, the Seattle-based volunteer choir Blegen has directed during the past year. The presidential staff spent months listening to choirs from around the country and handpicked a few top choices, which they invited to perform during various holiday parties at the White House.

Blegen was blown away.

"I emailed the choir and asked them if this was something we wanted to do," he said. "And of course, overwhelmingly, they said, 'Uh, yes!' "

The group was told they would be performing for a holiday party at the White House during the weekend before Christmas, but they never expected they would be able to sing for — let alone meet — the President of the United States or the first lady.

They were in for the performance of their lives.


All 25 members of the choir who signed up to travel to Washington, D.C., for the performance underwent rigorous background checks over a two-week period to ensure everyone was able to enter the White House.

After all members passed the checks, the choir had less than a month to raise funds and arrange travel plans for the trip.

There was just one hitch — the choir wasn't allowed to publicize the gig.

At first, the choir members hoped they would be able to announce the trip once it got closer, but after the attacks on Paris in November, the White House staff requested the choir not advertise its trip until after it returned.

Instead, all fundraising had to be done by word of mouth.

"We sat down one-on-one with some of our significant donors to tell them about the trip," Blegen said.

Then, at their annual holiday concert just one week before the trip to Washington, D.C., the choir was finally allowed to announce their big news.

"It was so special, because we had a packed house and a great audience," Blegen said. "It was so amazing to get to stand up there in front of everyone who supports us to tell them this big news."

The next week, the group was jet-setting to D.C.


On Dec. 18, Choral Arts arrived at the White House an hour before their performance. After getting through another round of security checks, the group got their first glimpse of the inside of the historical building.

"We walked in and I just remember thinking, This is phenomenal,'" Blegen said. "It was like a Christmas fairy land."

Each room was decorated in a different theme, with ornaments and decor from different eras of presidential families. Laser-cut snowflakes hung from the ceiling, with larger snowflakes honoring each of the 50 states.

"There were at least two to four Christmas trees in every room, sometimes as many as a dozen," Blegen said. "All real, which they really wanted to brag about to those of us from Washington."

The group was given a private tour of the first floor before their performance, and after recovering from the shock of all the decor, Blegen said he began to notice more historical aspects of the building.

"I was looking around and realized, 'Oh, there's a portrait of Abe Lincoln, and, oh, that's JFK and George Washington,'" Blegen said. "These are their actual presidential portraits hanging on the wall. This is for real. This is weird."

But the thing that shocked Blegen the most was the attitude the staff had throughout the whole experience.

"Everyone from the Secret Service to the culinary staff, the photo staff, the dog handlers, they were all having a ball," Blegen said. "You would think after eight years of this, and a month of parties like this, they would be use to it, that it would kind of hum drum. But they were all just having the best time."

The choir then gathered together on stage, and performed their holiday concert for the Democratic Party's Christmas celebration.

Choral Arts was on stage in a wide hallway area between two rooms, but that didn't stop them from performing with all their heart.

"Anyone who's heard us knows we're not background music," Blegen said. "And we kind of told the staff that and they said, 'Oh, no, we know. Do your thing.'"

As prominent members of the Democratic Party were ushered from one room to the next, many stopped to listen to songs by the Seattle choir. Some even stood in the hallway for a full set to hear the group sing.

The group was scheduled for a break in their set, and led to a backroom.

Then, Blegen said a White House staff member came in and told the choir, 'The Obam-as have heard you sing, and would like you to perform one private piece for them.'

The choir was then led into the White House Diplomatic room to await the President of the United States and the first lady.


As Choral Arts waited nervously for the country's leader, a White House staff member quickly briefed them on what to expect: The Obamas are huggers.

And it was true.

"I have never met anyone more intentional and more genuine," Blegen said. "They made us feel like guests at their party."

Both President Obama and the first lady went to each member of the choir individually to welcome them to the White House and thank them for their performance.

As Michelle Obama made her way to Blegen, he said he was struck by her poise and beauty.

"She's even more beautiful in person," he said. "I don't think we've had a first lady with that much style and class since Jackie O."

When the first lady greeted Blegen, he admitted he didn't know what to say.

However, after seeing the security measures the White House staff takes every day and how tightly run the entire operation is, he spoke to her as a parent.

"I told her, 'As a parent, I want to thank you,'" he said. "'I've seen a tiny amount of what your family must endure on a daily basis, and for you to continue to go through that for this country, thank you.'"

Then, the choir lined up to perform a single song.

The piece they chose is called "Not One Sparrow," which is a Choral Arts staple, Blegen said. The group ends every holiday concert with the hymn, which was arranged special for the Seattle choir.

As the group wrapped up the song, Blegen said many choral members saw the first lady wipe a tear from her eye.

Now, more than three weeks later, Blegen said the choir is still trying to process the whole event.

"The whole thing was beautiful, really magical," Blegen said. "We felt like our art was really honored."

"I have never met anyone more Intentional and more genuine. They made us feel like guests at their party."

Matthew Blegen, Shelton resident and director of Choral Arts of Seattle, after meeting President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama

Copyright 2016 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: January 7, 2016

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