Tuesday, December 15, 2009

25th Anniversary St. Mary's Women's Choir Festival

This past summer my good friend Dr. Nancy Menk of St. Mary's College in South Bend, IN asked me to be one of the judges for the 25th anniversary of the high school women's choir festival she hosts every year. This was a big honor, and Nancy also decided to make it a three way composer/conductor panel of judges, so I was joined by Lee Kesselman and also Eleanor Daley from Toronto. Nancy also changed the event into a two day festival and commissioned Eleanor to write a piece for the groups to sing en masse. It sounded like a great way to celebrate this impressive 25 year milestone.

I arrived Wednesday night early enough to work with the St. Mary's College women's choir (well, actually this is a women's college, so all the choir's are women's choirs) on my new arrangement of A City Called Heaven (recently released by Roger Dean). The young women were doing a great job, so I simply asked them to look more deeply into their souls and to reflect on the origins of this very intensely personal African-American spiritual in order to really convey the hurt and hope that it holds in a dual manner. Their facile young minds seemed to wrap around these ideas very nicely and I not only heard greater expression that night, but also continued exploration and highly expressive singing when they sang the song two days in a row during their performances for the high school choirs. Nancy and I then picked up Eleanor at the airport and had a fun, casual dinner at a local eatery. We had never met Eleanor before, and were delighted to discover that she is lots of fun and a real mensch!

Thursday morning- up bright and early and hearing choirs by 9 AM. Some really great groups and Lee, Eleanor, and I seemed to be in a good groove. The way Nancy works this is as follows- a group comes onstage, sings 2-3 selections, and then one of the judges works with them live while the other two judges make written comments. The judges rotate and Nancy worked it out so that if a choir were singing a piece by one of us in particular, then that composer would work with that choir.

Each judge had a different style of course, but I think we complemented each other nicely. Eleanor was very much into meaning of text and beauty of sounds and vowels. She also worked a lot on creating naturally flowing expressive lines. Lee was very good at finding what a choir did well and then build more successes on top of that. I was spending much of my time working with choirs to be more expressive and joyous musically and with their stage presentation, though that was not my only interest. I also worked with a few choirs using non-traditional rehearsal techniques, working on choir members taking more responsibility and ownership of their groups, and also working on color (more on that later).

Eleanor Daley

At lunch both days we shared our mealtime with the directors, which was fun, and on Thursday night Nancy took us to her favorite upscale restaurant. Lee was very adept at picking out an excellent wine!

I think that all of the choirs did a wonderful job and I applaud the directors for attending this event, which provides a wonderful opportunity not only to perform and get professional feedback, but also the opportunity for all the young singers to be out in the auditorium listening to each other sing.

A number of groups deserve special attention. On Thursday, the standout choirs in my mind were the Neuqua Valley HS Chamber Singers, led by Anne Kasprczak. The group was topnotch in everything they did and it is obvious Anne knows how to teach, motivate, and lead some very strong, enthusiastic young singers. Another standout choir from Thursday was from Toledo (OH) Christian HS, led by Dennis Johns. Their highly expressive performance of Eleanor's "Child with the Starry Crsyon" took HER breath away, and the underlying love of music taught in this program was obvious to all.

On Friday, despite their youth (just freshmen and sophomores) the choir from Glenbard West HS (Glen Ellyn, IL) directed by Andy Jeffrey was a joy to listen to and a joy to work with- as I know because I got to do their clinic. We had so much fun experimenting with tone color just by talking about tone in actual colors of the spectrum and just playing with paletes and smiling and laughing- what a great bunch of young singers who were never shy about speaking up or trying new ideas!

Probably the most amazing discovery of the event was the Friday performance by the ensemble from Portage Central HS (MI) directed by Cindy Hunter. All three of us judging were blown away by their presentation, enthusiasm, vocal abilities, repertoire and sheer joy. They seemed to have the stage presence and singing ability of a quality college choir and it was so amazing and wonderful to get to hear them. At lunch we then found this out- the group used to be a regular classroom choir for credit course, but because of district "budget" reasons, the womens choir had been axed recently. The director told the young ladies and they chose to rehearse once a week after school for seven weeks and still attend the festival. When we heard this we were even more blown away, their performance sounded like a choir that rehearsed multiple times per week, without a doubt. I even went out and found the young ladies in the lunchroom to let them know how blown way all three of the judges were- I felt they deserved as much praise as possible for all their hard work, as it was obvious that they had all worked very hard on this music at home or in a practice room on their own time.

The other big highlight to the festival was the premiere performance of the piece Nancy commissioned from Eleanor especially for the festival. Each day, Nancy's college choir sang through it once so the HS kids could hear it sung well, and then Eleanor worked through the piece with all the choirs massed in the auditorium. Eleanor did a beautiful job teaching them the piece, and telling them her motivations in how she set the text. And then the massed choirs did a final "performance" of the piece for themselves. Lots of smiles all around. These kids got to sing a new piece written especially for them, coached by the composer, and surrounded by hundreds of peers. What a great experience!

So congratulations, dear Nancy Menk- you have been an amazing, inspiring musical leader and mentor to so many people of all ages, and you've certainly left your mark on the choral world- with still plenty more to come I am sure!

(Nancy and myself with Gwyenth Walker, from a few years ago)