Saturday, March 6, 2010

ACDA in Tucson- The University of Utah Singers

Today the University of Utah Singers directed by Brady Allred sang the most beautiful a cappella program I have heard in the last two weeks. Allred apparently took the words of Eric Whitacre's piece "hope, faith, life, love" and created a program of amazing music that touched on all these basic universals of our existence. In addition to the Whitacre sung beautifully there was also "Wonder" from Mack Wilberg's "Dances of Life" (a bit of Mack channeling Sondheim) plus other pieces which were just perfectly placed in the program and sung in a masterfully inspiring way.

But the two pieces that I want folks to know about and very much want to hear again were by two European composers unfamiliar to Americans:"Salve, Regina" by the Spanish composer/conductor Josep Vila I Casanas (b. 1966, and who will be directing the World Youth Choir this summer)and "A Drop in the Ocean" by the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1978), whose music has been featured recently by Donald Nally's The Crossing in Philadelphia.

"A Drop in the Ocean" uses a text by Mother Teresa and is simply a gorgeous, highly developed piece of music. Full of beautiful moments and sung with amazing richness by Allred's choir, the piece also ended with a beautiful and special moment- the singers gradually unfurled a large white sheet over themselves, and kept the sheet gently swaying over them as they sang quieter and quieter- the sheet representing the waves of the ocean. On the sheet is an image of Mother Teresa, although I'm not sure that is even needed, since the image of the choir singing from underneath the undulating waves is an amazing effect.

The Salve Regina by Casanas was my favorite for a few reasons- and chief among them was the prominence of a very personal ebb and flow between homophony and a gorgeously flowing more contrapuntal style. I feel that American composers are writing too much these days in such a simple homophonic style that it is refreshing to hear a composer seek to intertwine the voices, letting them move about in lovely serpentine manner as dictated by a very close affinity to the text. This also respects the singers more- altos, tenors, and basses feel they are more important than just filling out a bass line or chord tone underneath a soprano line which the ear will usually be drawn to simply because it is on the top.

The other element that set the piece apart was an amazing moment toward the end on the words "nobis post hoc exilium ostende" ([and Jesus...] show us after this our exile). Here Casanas music paused very slightly and then the women entered with a tonality that was completely new-- shocking yet beautiful, over which was then laid another chord in the men which was equally unexpected. This polytonal moment (kind of Gesualdo-like) was of otherwordly beauty and Allred and the choir knew that and embraced it. I see there is a youtube clip of the choir singing this piece, I hope to check it out soon (and you should too).

I also noticed another thing which both these composers did- as their pieces were about to end, there was a brief soprano solo, almost as if signifying with that one voice that the emotion conveyed by the text can and should be internalized by us as individuals, and then the pieces end with the whole choir singing again. This is a most organic and text-driven dramatic idea and therefore a very valid reason to use a solo in a choral piece, and I do believe that a solo written into a choral piece must have a true reason for existing (in fact, it's what I also do intentionally toward the end of the Agnus Dei of my "Missa Brevis Incheon").

The choir's sound is built from the basses up, an approach which I think is highly successful and I wish that more choirs would do this. I actually had a chance to discuss this briefly with Brady Allred after the concert and it was Vance George who brought up the question. I also felt that the Casanas was so beautifully sung because Allred encouraged the men and women's voices to shine at various times during the piece- in other words, there were moments when the music demanded a male dominant or female dominant sound. But in addition there was also this wonderful vertical integration when all four voices were basically equal, and this seamless vertical sound, grounded firmly in the bass/baritones and building up, was something that really sets this choir's approach to tone apart from so many others.

All in all, an incredible performance of inspiring and beautiful music. Thanks to Brady Allred and the choir for introducing us to these amazing pieces.


  1. Thank you, Paul for sharing the recommendation of literature! I will search for these composers.

  2. If anyone reading this blog wants to hear these pieces they can find them on youtube. here is a link:

  3. It is very gratifying to hear you speak so highly of us! Thank you very much!