Thursday, March 24, 2011

Day Four:2011 ACDA National Conference

The final day of the ACDA conference in Chicago was absolutely amazing. The day was filled with great performances, topped off in the evening by the gold track presentation of Mendelssohn's Elijah by the Chicago Symphony orchestra and chorus, professional soloists, and guest conductor Helmut Rilling.

But first for me was an 8 AM multicultural reading session which held my Hanukkah piece "Unending Flame" published by Santa Barbara. A few weeks ahead of time Clayton Parr of DePaul University here was able to secure a young, talented clarinetist for me so we could show this piece off right- it's for SABar (originally SA, commissioned by MSU Children's Choir founding director Mary Alice Stollak), solo clarinet and piano (orch version available as well). The clarinet is important because the piece travels from a slow introductory section (with text about the more serious side of Hanukkah, by the way the text is by the very talented Sherri Lasko) and then moves into a fast section where the clarinet is very much in klezmer, latkes sizzling on the griddle mode.

So I got up early, took the El down, and got there right at the chime of 8 AM. The room was pretty filled for 8 AM on a Saturday morning and the session, led by national chair Sharon Gratto, was great. This was probably the most diverse music I have heard on a multicultural reading session, and included for the most part legitimate music, not dumbed-down Americanizations of ethnic pieces. Great job, Sharon! A number of composer/arrangers led their own pieces, and I led the reading of my piece- we had great fun and the piece, especially the ending, seemed to make people smile. What made my day was when Ethan Sperry came up to me and said "Now, I can no longer say that I hate every piece of Hanukkah music ever written". Thanks, Ethan, for that compliment. It means a lot to me coming from someone who "knows from" multicultural.

I then finally met up with Diana Saez who was about to conduct my piece El Limonar Florido, a major piece in Spanish which she would be conducing with her group Coral Cantigas based in Washington DC. We went over a few musical things about the piece and had a chance to get to know each other. Diana is a really sweet person.

Later on in Orchestra Hall was a great concert session, in fact, the top one I attended in regard to uniformly excellent music making by everyone on the session. The groups singing were the University of Kentucky Mens' Chorus, the Lawrence Conservatory Women's Choir,The Young New Yorkers Chorus and the Brigham Young University Singers.

U of K led off and this is, to me, the absolute premiere men's large chorus in the country and has been for quite awhile. They led off with a great yarn of a piece, text by Melville as set by Peter Schikele, who you may know as PDQ Bach. Of course Schikele is a fine composer in his own right and the chorus sang this piece with just the right amount of drama, movement, and energy. The program then wound through some Schubert, Rachmaninoff, a piece by Paul Nelson and then "Wedding Qawwali", an Indian song energetically arranged by the aforementioned Ethan Sperry. The audience loved this number and the applause was rocking the room. Then an even greater thrill- an arrangement of Ol' Man River by Russell Robinson which heavily featured a bass/baritone soloist, Reginald Smith, Jr. Reginald has a gorgeously developed gigantic instrument. This young man has a future in the opera world I am sure ( he is a recent Met Opera regional finalist). The piece was tenderly choreographed and the stage movement matched the ebb and flow of the music's dramatic unfolding. This was one of those moments when you thank God or Buddha or whomever that you have ears and a heart, and that you can witness the overpowering beauty of music. Young Mr. Smith's performance took our breath away, as did everything Jeff Johnson's choir did. Jeff showed us his textbook on how you pack a wallop of a program into twenty-five minutes. I thunk we all could have listened to them sing for two more hours, and the applause, the hoots and hollers, the whistles and standing ovation went on and on. Wow, U of K- you are amazing!

Reginald Smith, Jr.

Michael Kerschner

I kind of felt sorry that any choir would have to follow this performance, but the Young New Yorkers Chorus did a fine job. This is a group which is just ten years old, and is composed of 20- and 30-somethings led very ably by Michael Kerschner. Their repertoire leans toward the modern and they sang quite beautifully, though I felt their repertoire was a bit hit or miss, but that's just my opinion. The singing on the Vaughn Williams "See the Chariot at hand" was so velvety and gorgeous and full of line (gasp, it's okay to sing lines?) that I spent most of the tune with my eyes closed just enjoying being wrapped in the loveliness of the moment. I think RVW was a-smilin' over this peformance! Here's hoping that Michael can continue the evolution of this fine young adult choir.

Next up was a fantastic performance by the Lawrence Conservatory Women's Choir, "Cantala", directed by Philip Swan. Their program was full of great new music filled with moments of energy and moments of beauty. I had never head this ensemble before and I was really pleased to finally hear them. The program held, among other music, pieces by Brahms, Szymko, and Gwyneth Walker, but to me the highlight was a really creative, busily sibilant piece by Abbie Betinis- movement two "suffer no grief" from her "From Behind the Caravan". I would like to see this score and am curious how much of the everchanging tone colors are notated there and how much Philip added to the mix, but no matter how it happened, it was fresh and somehow seemed simple and complicated at the same time. Abbie Betinis is obviously a young composer to watch- she doesn't seem to have any interest in writing mundane music just for the sake of getting more pieces out there.

Philip's group represented what the best women's choirs out there are doing today. The leading choirs are presenting performances of quality texts in quality settings by strong composers who have done the work necessary to understand how to write effectively for the adult female voice. The tone was natural and vibrant in all sections and none of the hooty boy soprano sounds I complained about earlier in the week in performances by either treble choirs or the sopranos of mixed voice groups would ever come out of this group.

The final group of this amazing session was the BYU Singers led by Ron Staheli. Staheli took an old-fashioned approach to his session- this was a simple, elegant theme about (a cappella) singing and it basically was that- all SINGING, with the annoying percussion instrument (read: piano) retired to a corner of the stage and not a drum or colorful costume in sight. Yes, I have spent much of the last few blogs praising groups for their staging elements, but none of that works unless the singing is artistic to begin with, as it was here.

The two highlights to me were the Argento "Everyone Sang", and a sweetly lyrical piece titled "There is Sweet Music Here" (the Tennyson text most people know) set by L.J. White. The Argento was fabulous and is not an easy score. The White was totally unfamiliar to me and, as I found out, to everyone. I asked Ron later where it came from and he smiled and said that he just happened across it one day in the BYU music library by chance. Further research yielded little new knowledge about the piece or its composer. The piece is quite gorgeous and deserves to be discovered by more choirs, and how cool is it that Mr. L.J. White, whose dates seem to be either 1831- 1913 via Ron, or perhaps 1910-1949 according to the internet, gets some time in the spotlight in 2011 in front of so many choral people. I'm sure he would have never imagined it.

After this highly rewarding presentation by four choirs I met with Reg Unterseher, Michael McGlynn, Philip Copeland, Sydney Guillaume, and Nick Cummins for a chat. I already mentioned this meeting in a previous blog entry. Then it was time for the Mendelssohn Elijah, the last ACDA concert for gold track folks.

Up Next: the Elijah performance and my own quirky Elijah story

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