The Pacific Boychoir Academy is like a triple threat, a term often applied to a musical theater actor whose powerful trio of skills -- acting, singing and dancing -- can combine for unparalleled performances.

Kevin Fox, the academy's founder and artistic director, has assembled a 120-member choir -- masters of classical, folk and popular music -- that may even constitute a quadruple threat, once you factor in the academic scholarship of the 56 students enrolled in the academy's all-boys day program.

Three Grammy Awards shared with the San Francisco Symphony and a recent invitation to sing at a Nelson Mandela commemoration in Washington, D.C., indicate appreciation for their talents.

Twenty-six of the choir's singers, who range in age from 11 to 18, were invited by the South African Embassy to sing Wednesday morning at the National Cathedral in Washington. The choir, which has performed in South Africa several times, was set to sing on their own and with the Children Of Gospel Choir.

Fox calls it a "rare and humbling honor for us to be asked to perform at the memorial for one of history's greatest leaders."

The choir is equally versed in liturgical/classical, American spiritual and rock. A typical week might include singing the national anthem in front of 48,000 fans at an Oakland A's playoff game; rehearsals of "Vespers," Rachmaninoff's masterwork for an 80-voice choir; recording Moses Hogan's "Elijah Rock" for a CD; and hearing judges heap praise after a rendition of "California Dreamin'" on TV's "America's Got Talent."

The Oakland-based day school accommodates fourth- through eighth-grade boys. The after-school choirs program stretches out to include boys age 4 to 18. The entire seven-choir enterprise is in sort of a race against the clock, a daily sprint to train a boy's angelic voice before it descends from soprano to tenor or bass.

Fox began the after-school program in 1998 with six boys.

"The families were interested in the idea, and an idea is all we had," he says. "We didn't even have a copier; we copied music at Kinko's."

Fifteen years later, a school tour includes academic classrooms, a practice room with elongated music stands and no chairs, a full-size touring bus, a small performance hall and a well-used basketball court.

"We don't try to stop the boy energy," Fox says. "It's channeled: That's why people get a different feeling when they see us (onstage)."

That energy isn't wild or willy-nilly. Fox says the professional groups the choir works with (San Francisco Symphony, Oakland-East Bay Symphony, Kronos Quartet and numerous national and international orchestras on their frequent tours) consistently compliment his singers' behavior.

"Our goal is to show we belong," Fox said. "And they don't have to dumb down their music; we keep pace with them."

Jonathon Hampton, the choir's associate director of music and outreach, says the choir learns independence from professional musicians and that the focus of his young singers is "light years ahead" of their peers.

Adding the day school component in 2003 changed the choir's operation. Staffing grew to include academics. The board shifted to support a full-time program, and musical expertise -- especially in maintaining healthy voices and the boys' genuine enthusiasm under a rigorous schedule -- became critical.

"From a musical standpoint, the boys were going three times faster," Fox says. "Singing is habit, so high on the list is not wrecking their voices."

Programming for international tours is selective. After hearing European choirs sing American folk music for years, Fox decided his choirs should add spirituals to the repertoire.

Their first spirituals CD, "That Promised Land," in 2006, won an Academy of Gospel Music Award. The choir typically tours one piece selected purely for its musical value, one American work and one song native to the country they are visiting, to demonstrate cultural respect. Both Fox and Hampton insist there's nothing more barrier-busting than two boys who may not be able to converse, but who stand, side-by-side, their voices joined in song.

The choir's "Harmonies of the Season 2013" performance will be Friday at First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

On Dec. 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, 60 choir singers will join conductor Donato Cabrera and the California Symphony for a "Home for the Holidays" performance. Sharon's "Children's Christmas Medley," Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Christmas Carols," classic holiday selections and audience singalongs will all be on the program. A summer tour to Vietnam will cap the choir's busy 2013-14 season.

California Symphony with Donato Cabrera and the Pacific Boychoir Academy, 'Home for the Holidays'
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23
  • Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
  • Information: http://www.lesherartscenter.org/california-symphony-3/