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With hometown member, famed Yale chorus to visit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mitchel Kawash has traveled to all seven continents with the Whiffenpoofs of Yale University, and he will come home to Charleston to sing with the group next week at the Clay Center.

The Whiffenpoofs, an all-male a cappella group, will be in concert with the Appalachian Children's Chorus at 2 p.m. March 25 at the Clay Center.

Kawash, a George Washington High School graduate, took a few moments from his busy schedule to talk about the yearlong adventure in a phone interview from Las Vegas.

"We are in Las Vegas, performing at a lot of schools here. Then on Friday, we're headed to Los Angeles to do a benefit concert with [actress and singer] Zooey Deschanel ['New Girl'] and Jesse Tyler Ferguson of 'Modern Family,'" Kawash said. "Then we're performing at the Lincoln Center on Monday."

The group, made up of 14 senior men from Yale, tours for a full year. Members take an academic leave for the year so they can travel without missing school.

How did Charleston get on the list?

"We try to go to the hometown of our members; a lot of people said they wanted us to come," Kawash said. "I believe it's the first time the Whiffs have performed in Charleston."

The group hooked up with the Appalachian Children's Chorus for the concert, Kawash explained, because ACC director Selina Midkiff and Kawash's parents, Steve and Perri, made the connection.

This year's group is the first to visit all seven continents, and Kawash chats with enthusiasm about Argentina, Europe, Asia, Africa and other far-flung places. He enjoyed a visit to Antarctica last summer, and lots of photos were taken for posterity in the snow with penguins.

The penguin theme reappeared recently when members had their "tap night," when they select the next year's group. Kawash and other members appeared on the front page of the Yale newspaper holding the "tap cup," part of the ritual. Someone in a penguin suit, appropriately, is in the photo as well.

"You get a 'new' middle name when you're tapped, that incorporates your last name. It can be funny, or awful ... depending on what you get," Kawash said, laughing. "I have 'OK' written on my forehead in the photo because my middle name from the group is 'The Good, The Bad and the O' Kawash."

"Yale has an enormous a cappella community," Kawash said. "There are 13 to 14 underclass groups, either all male, all female or coed." All of the Whiffenpoofs were in one of the younger groups before joining the prestigious senior group, Kawash said, and he was in one called Red Hot and Blue for three years.

Following this year's tour, Kawash will go back to Yale for one more year as a theater studies major, and then he has his eye on the theater in New York City.

The concert in Charleston will be selections from the group's two-hour tour repertoire, which includes a variety of genres.

"We will do an hour-long set -- with Broadway, traditional Yale drinking songs, pop. Our newest arrangement is by Bon Iver, who just won a Grammy Award. We have some comedy mixed in -- short sketches that are broadly appealing to all ages."

Kawash said the Whiffs' appearance on the television show "The Sing Off" made them move from their old style to add some comedy and fun to the 103-year-old traditional group.

The concert is free and sponsored by the John and Ruth McGee Foundation, The New Holiday Inn and Suites-West, The Charles and Mary Fayne Glotfelty Foundation Inc., Andrew and Becky Jordon, Dunbar Printing and Graphics, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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