A true discovery was made here by those attending the Southern Division ACDA conference in Memphis—a glorious program sung by the University of Alabama @ Birmingham Concert Choir directed by Philip Copeland. Philip presented a program which through a very creative mixture of sacred and secular music travelled through the day from dawn to night. The concert opened with the chant “Spiritus Domini” with a drone (the vibrations of the universe, or the first shimmer of sunrise?) coloring the aural atmosphere. This led directly into Peteris Vaskis’ “Mate Saule” (“Mother Sun”) sung in Latvian and describing in wonderful ways the break of morning using a mixture of sophisticated, non-cliched aleatoric elements and beautiful ebbing and flowing word-painting. This piece was sung in an amazing way, with each phrase, each moment counting and with a full palette of colors elicited with ease by Copeland from the choir. The program proceeded through William Byrd (quite a stylistic shock coming from the Vaskis, not that I mean that in a bad way), through Cecilia McDowell’s fine Regina Caeli, to another fantastic piece, Jakko Mantyjarvi’s take on an old William Billings tune “Death may dissolve me”. This piece also was sung with beauty, energy, and a spectacular sense of phrasing . The piece had sort of a false ending which took many in the audience by surprise, and which, whether Philip meant it or not, sort of returned momentarily to the drone idea from the beginning of the concert.
The program gradually headed toward evening with an absolutely velvety peaceful, lovingly understated rendition of “Esti dal”, a child’s simple prayer by one of my favorite composers, Zoltan Kodaly. After such a wild ride through the Mantyjarvi this was a wonderful return to serenity and an apt reminder to us all that simplicity can and should be a goal in our lives. The concert ended with a Nunc Dimittis by Vytautas Miskinis, which I thought was more successful when it was sounding European than when it slipped toward the end into some clichéd American harmonic language (unprepared ninth chords and the like that we have been hearing for the last twenty years here). Tiny quibbles aside, the programming of this concert was unique and creative in a wonderful way and the singing and conducting…. oh my!
Copeland does not conduct in the way you usually think of that word- he literally sculpts the sound directly from the actual musical gestures - there is very little beat marking in his conducting style and when you do see beat marking it has organically risen out of the musical gesture. His graceful hands shape and color the sound and thus the singing was always flowing, always organic, and phrases and subphrases appeared and disappeared magically. Downbeats have all sorts of different weights to them depending on the situation- there is really no “tyranny of the barline” with this approach to conducting. Along with this fantastic flow was a use of choral colors to shade phrases with meaning as related to the text and music. I don’t think I could count how many colors we heard from this choir and they were not there just for show- they served the text and music at all times. This performance along with the University of Utah’s in Tucson were the absolute highlights of the (non-professional) a cappella singing I heard at the three ACDA conferences I attended. Bravo to Philip and this group, and you didn’t just blow me away; everyone was talking about this performance afterwards.
I ran into Philip shortly afterward out on the street and was amazed to find out that this choir is made up of a high number of freshmen and sophomores. I hope that Philip has sent in an application for this group to sing at the next national conference- everyone needs to hear this choir.
One final thought- the choirs that thrill me the most in performance also pique my interest in attending a rehearsal or two or three. How much fun would it be to sit in on an American Spiritual Ensemble rehearsal or U of Alabama/Birmingham rehearsal to see how they put their music together? The final performance and interpretation of course is, I suppose, the group’s goal; but it would be really insightful for interested outsiders to see the process as well and see the organic growth in the rehearsal room. This might be a cool idea for a future ACDA event, open rehearsals of carefully chosen master groups. What do you think, Tim Sharp?
To the readers
6 years ago