Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Round is a very cool shape, unless you want to be a supermodel

(Bob Chilcott, photo credit: Vicky Alhedeff)

I recently did a three hour clinic with an incredible HS choral ensemble at Jacobs High School in Algonquin IL. They were preparing for some invited performances in San Diego in early April and one of the pieces was my Mashed Potato/Love Poem from the three tune set Play with your Food! (published by Walton). So I was there to work with them not only on their mashed potatoes ("stirred, not whisked") but to give them some feedback on all their other music as well.

Wow, this is a great choir, directer by an amazing young director- Andrew Collins. Andrew has truly inspired these students. When he sent me some of the repertoire they are doing I remarked to myself that this looked like college material. And I really often wish that HS directors would stop overreaching what their students can really handle. But... after hearing them sing a few things I realize that they truly could sing at the college level in every way- impeccable tone, intonation, balance, phrasing, you name it (oh yeah, they also had plenty of very accomplished tenors- rare here in Chicago and most other environs as well).

We worked on a number of things- foremost being my pet project- effectively communicating text and mood to the audience and make a true connection with them. And one of the most amazing things we did was to get in a circle and sing to each other. The tune was one of their easier ones but quite gorgeous and very meaningful- Bob Chilcott's choral arrangement of U2's MLK (about Martin Luther King of course). So we sang it in the circle and since they had it memorized I had them hold hands and make that connection throughout the choir. But the most electric moment was this-- when I had Andrew stand inside the circle-- not to conduct (hey, by now I also had them singing with their eyes closed!) but to feel the energy inside the circle of these souls singing a text with heartfelt meaning. Also, keep in mind, they also had to sing "together", ie. start and finish their phrases without any visual cues from Andrew or each other. So... when they finished, the intensity of emotion in the room was such that it was many seconds before they all had opened their eyes... and many seconds more before anyone finally spoke. And then when the moment had ended, I asked Andrew to tell the choir what it felt like to stand inside the circle. Basically he told them that it made his hair stand on end at times, and that their energy and connectedness was what he had been hoping for all year. They did it! And the best thing about it was that we all connected, all focused, and I really think that more choirs should rehearse in this circle formation as much as possible- it really connects singers to each other in so many positive ways.

Andrew's school presented me with a very rewarding honorarium as I left, but the real reward for me was the honor of working with them for a very intense, but also very fun three hours. Best wishes to them all as they perform in sunny San Diego!

Monday, March 30, 2009

2009 ACDA performance- Lawrence University Concert Choir

(Rick Bjella)

Saturday at ACDA's 2009 national convention was already amazing- performances to die for from the Incheon City Chorale from Korea and the Cantoria Alberto Grau. These two international choirs used so many elements to deliver their musical messages- including staging, lighting, costumes, etc. The only American choir to come close to the approach of these amazing performances was also on Saturday- Rick Bjella's choir from Lawrence Conservatory.

Their program began with an extremely haunting score (by Aussy composer Steven Leek) called Knowee, the Aboriginal name for the sun. In the folk tale, Knowee was once a woman who lived in a time of darkness. One day she left her cave with her bark torch in search of food for her young sun but became lost, and eventually fell off the side of the earth, at which point she and her torch became the sun, traversing the skies in constant desperate search for her way back to the son she left behind in the cave. In the staging of the piece, a few female singers with lanterns roamed the totally darkened concert hall issuing piercing laments and calls; the choir joins in eventually as the piece progresses. This piece was eery, heartbreaking and magical. The rest of the program also included some great off the beaten track pieces from Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, etc. Tying the program together was the element of folk percussion, played brilliantly by Lawrence percussion professor Dane Richeson. Their final piece was a Venezuelan folk tune with some very fun choralography by Yvonne Farrow.

I have known Rick Bjella for awhile now; he has conducted my music yet I haven't been able to attend those concerts. So this, oddly enough, was my first chance to see him conduct. He's all there in the moment with his choir- nothing left for reserve and no prisoners taken. I'm sure he and the choir were exhausted (in a good way) physically and emotionally from all the preparation this program demanded.

Rick' s programming for this concert reminded me of some of the very creative themed programming and staging that Brad Homes has done with his Milliken University Choir- notably at the ACDA convention in Miami in 2007, but elsewhere as well. Here are two minds who think alike in their desire to create sophisticated programming themes, interesting stage presentation, and unusual music that challenges themselves, their own singers, and the entire audience.

(Note: Rick Bjella will lead the conductor's choir at the Illinois ACDA Summer Retreat this July, hosted by Illinois State University)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

2009 ACDA performance- Cantoria Alberto Grau

(Maria Guinand)

The 2009 ACDA convention performance by Maria Guinand's Cantoria Alberto Grau brought tears to my eyes- just amazing tears of joy. In fact, as they danced and swayed off the stage after an incredible performance, the sheer joy of the music and the act of profoundly beautiful musicmaking overcame me. First some little tears and then more- and finally to the point that manly me thought I might totally lose it and cry like a total baby! So... of course being a manly man I did fight back the tears, but really RE-learned how much sheer simple joy music can bring and just how strong its affect on the emotions can be. This was a choir that wore colorful costumes, sang silly songs, did some campy antics on stage, and brought us all immense childlike happiness. God, how I wish our American concert choirs could put away the funeral clothes, the straight Puritan faces, the stiff posture and lack of facial expression and loosen up- is that just too hard to do? The DVD of this performance should be required viewing for all of us!

I have watched Maria Guinand in workshops (without her choir) , and while she was quite interesting to listen to as a clinician , nothing prepared me for how much joy her choir projects from the stage-- often while Maria herself takes a comfy backseat to the action, often just playing the claves.

Another fun thing to do was to read the translation of some of these folk texts into English. Some are so delightfully silly and refreshing already in their native tongue that direct translation into another language is nearly impossible- but the translation attempt into English just pointed out even more that this culture is far beyond us in its embrace of the whimsical, the sly, etc.

Like the Incheon City Chorale from Korea, the Cantoria Alberto Grau blew away the audience at ACDA and received a standing ovation that went on for a very long time. They gave us the gift of a rainbow of color, both musically and with their costumes, and sang with their hearts on their sleeves and a knowing wink of the eye. Bravo!

2009 ACDA performance- Incheon City Chorale

(Paul Carey & Hakwon Yoon - ACDA 2009)

Greetings! Yes, this is my first blog-woohoo. I'm going to travel back a few weeks to talk about some of the choirs that performed at the American Choral Director's Association (ACDA) 50th anniversary convention in Oklahoma City.

It takes some pretty cool stuff to make me gush, but I am going to do just that about the Incheon City Chorale, directed by the amazing Hakwon Yoon. Their progr
am consisted of three modernized pieces of Korean folk music plus the Whitacre When David Heard. The Korean music, all incredibly electric pieces by a young composer named Hyowon Woo, just floored the entire audience. The pieces were presented using various degrees of lighting/stage effects, drumming, antiphonal spacing, stage movement, etc. This music was so powerful and creative on so many levels that the Whitacre was actually an unneeded interruption (no offense intended to EW). I'm sure their intent was to showcase their choir singing some American music, but really, most of the people I talked to just wished we could have heard their own core repertoire for the full performance (and for a few hours more perhaps).

This is a choir of 50 dedicated professional singers between the ages of 28-45, but they sounded like about 150 singers when singing full voice- wow. I've heard the Chicago Symphony Chorus at 150 voices or so (Schoenberg's Moses and Aron, conducted by Boulez) so I know whereof I speak.They could roar through a ff passage (the only choir all week who had the mass of sound and incredible overtone production to make the concert space "ring") and switch to a pp texture at any moment, and possessed the ability to paint far more than the single tone color many of our American choirs present. The conductor's chops were blowing everyone away- the minimal use of gesture to create any sound desired- a great lesson to all conductors not to overconduct! Mr. Yoon at times looked as if he were at some sort of invisible magic floating console which he barely had to touch to create the sound he desired. Obviously, the choir has amazing discipline and a shared goal of excellence. Their love of the music and texts and of performing to an appreciative audience was especially loved by all. As they left the stage to our thunderous applause they all waved to us and grinned from ear to ear- they had as much fun performing as we did listening to them. I will have to say that this is the best choir I have ever heard (and I've hear some good ones for sure).

I was lucky enough run into Mr. Yoon and the choir at the airport on my way back to Chicago. I introduced myself and gushed over the performance, kind of feeling like a little kid talking to his major league baseball hero! Mr. Yoon and the choir were very gracious, asked about what I do, and we took turns shooting photos. No diva attitudes here- just wonderful, gracious, smiling talented real people. It was great fun to meet them.