Monday, March 21, 2011

Day One Concert Review: 2011 ACDA National Conference

Sorry for the delay in getting some new blog material up as I was in Hong Kong for a full week teaching and conducting a festival (yes, it went very well) and then straight back to Chicago for the ACDA conference. This was two weeks of little sleep, but it was well worth such a minor deprivation. I will blog about the Hong Kong experience later and now try to get at least a little about the ACDA conference posted for those of you who could not attend.

The opening concert included performances by Illinois choirs whose directors I know and admire– Anima, Young Singers of Greater Chicagoland (formerly the Glen Ellyn Children's Choir) led by Emily Ellsworth and the Millikin University Choir, directed by Brad Holmes.

Anima led the concert off, and they were in fine form. The group performs in outfits with delightfully lively colors and moves through various highly effective stage formations and movement during many of their pieces. Emily conducted from memory, thereby freeing herself from being being anchored to a podium/music stand - she even moved about the stage herself to some extent, a freeing you rarely see of conductor from being a static, deadening stage element. When I have felt like doing this lately I keep thinking it breaks too many so-called rules about what conductors should do or not do, yet I saw Emily making this subtle conductor freedom of movement really work.

Truly Anima is all about freedom of expression-- free singing, movement, joy, and a great celebration of singing. And, hello, they actually breathe (something many choirs later in the week weren't really doing)! In addition to older scores by Mendelssohn and Handel sung with great finesse, a major highlight was Rautavaara's “Suite de Lorca”, movements 1 and 2 (published by Walton). In Rautavarra's usual very personal style, the music and text are merged in a highly complementary and darkly expressive manner. This is music which advanced children's treble choirs on through more mature women's ensembles should know better, and Anima's dramatic performance proved that young choirs are quite quite capable of singing texts which are not all just sweetness and light. A great leader and mentor to many for years, bravo to Emily Ellsworth and her choir Anima, Also a round of applause for pianist William Buhr, whose playing, to me, has never sounded better than it did at this performance.

Millikin University Choir director Brad Holmes has developed a reputation for presenting ACDA performances showcasing highly artistic, unusual a cappella repertoire, dramatic stage movement and brilliant singing. Millikin's concert at ACDA 2007 Miami is still remembered for its brilliance, especially in the staging elements. The concert the Millikin choir presented this year was not so much about staging this time -instead Brad's programming expertise and his way of combining various pieces in novel ways was front and center.

The concert began with what Brad called “An Eclectic Singet dem Herrn” which presented, in seamless manner, the Distler “Singet dem Herrn”, which flowed directly into the Mendelssohn “Der Herr lässt sein Heil” (a further Psalm 98 text), which further flowed into the Bach final Singet fugue. This was all sung so beautifully with vocal substance AND bounce, not one without the other. I especially loved hearing someone present Distler at an ACDA conference since he is such a great composer and really underperformed.

Continuing the theme of creatively pairing or connecting music, the choir then sang Tallis' “Te lucis ante terminum” (“before the close of day”) and the same text as set in a lovely harmonic idiom by thirty-five year old Hungarian composer Gyöngyösi Levente. Subtle harmonic hints of Bartok, or even more accurately, the mature Kodaly (melodic cells of major floating at times over minor chords) made Levente's heritage apparent.

The next piece was Eriks Esenvalds “A Drop in the Ocean” (published by Musica Baltica) which I heard sung beautifully last year at ACDA Tucson by the University of Utah, directed at that time by Brady Allred. This is a wonderful piece to Mother Teresa texts which we would hear sung again the next night by the international choir “Kamer”. As Millikin concluded this piece you couldn't help but be amazed at the maturity of interpretation which comes from Brad's leadership and deep understanding of music. Millikin's performances are profound and it is always apparent that every member of the choir is “all in”. The tone is always gorgeous, never forced, the choir is always aware of the overall arc and shape of a phrase, a section or an entire piece, or even for that matter, the arc of their entire program. This is music making of the highest order, and the Millikin Choir continues to set the standard at virtually every ACDA event at which they perform. Even days later and after many concerts, interest sessions, receptions and so on which can really tire you and cause the memory to become momentarily foggy, people were still coming back to the topic of the brilliance of the Millikin choir.

To finish up the program Brad went off in a new direction, into the land of folk music in the form of a lively Shaker Dance he has arranged and J. David Moore's “Seinn O”. The staging of the Shaker Dance was hilarious, and even included moments when the choir seemed to have formed battle lines over the story, and even toward the end very pointedly took on Brad as musical adversary. This was all played up to great comedic effect. “Seinn O” was all drama and drive, mouthmusic drums and pipes, as a Scots lad dancingly defies anyone else who might want a piece of him. As they finished this piece, the audience roared with applause.

I talked to Brad a day or two afterward and he intimated that he was worried that the eclectic Singet dem Herrn would perhaps not work for the purists in the audience. I assured him that it was brilliantly conceived and presented and that, I think, virtually all of us truly appreciated his mixing and matching of music in these very creative ways. And really, when you think of it, why shouldn't a director let it all hang out and do innovative things- is there any true reward for just playing it safe?!

P.S. For any young people looking for a great university choral experience within an outstanding liberal arts environment,you should be looking at Millikin. You should also know that Brad's colleagues, Guy Forbes, Ted Hesse, Beth Holmes and Michael Engelhardt are also brilliant musicians and mentors.

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