Saturday, December 17, 2011

Young Naperville Singers 2011 Holiday Concerts

Happy Holidays! I thought I would share some recent thoughts and experiences working with young choirs and especially with the Young Naperville Singers (Naperville, IL) where I am the composer in residence for 2010-11.

The holiday concerts were Sunday, Dec. 11th, and they were a smash hit. The choirs have grown so much that they now have to present three full concerts throughout the afternoon and early evening in order to have enough seats for all who want to attend- a good problem to have. The organization now boasts well over 300 singers grade 2-12. The Chamber Singers, generally high school age young women and some young men with unchanged voices, under artistic director Angie Johnson, can sing up a storm and match any other top independent children's choir in the country.

My son Aidan sang in the first concert- they did a great under the leadership of Amanda Block. This was a great experience for Aidan at age eight- last year, his first as a singer, was a bit of overload for him. He is just now getting the idea of what it is to be in a musical ensemble and how much responsibility goes into rehearsals, memorizing scores, etc. We are proud that he has more than just sports activities in his life- since so many of his male friends at school do NOTHING but sports- ugh.

The first and second concerts held the premiere of my new piece written for the "Concert Singers" directed nicely by Anne Kasprczak - a simple setting of a beautifully atmospheric poem called "Alone in Winter".

The second and third concerts held the big massed piece I wrote for the organization "Come Christmas the Morn"- to a poem by Eleanor Farjeon. Here is the text I used (this is about 3/4 of the full text):

Now every Child that dwells on earth,
Stand up, stand up and sing!
The passing night has given birth
Unto the Childrens' King.

[refrain] Sing sweet as the flute,
Sing clear as the horn,
Sing joy of the Stars
Come Christmas the morn!
Little Christ Jesus
Our Brother is born.

Now ever Star that dwells in sky,
Look down with shining eyes!
That night has dropped in passing by
A Star from Paradise.

Now every Bird that flies in air,
Sing, raven, lark and dove!
The night has brooded on her lair
And fledged the Bird of Love.

Now every Beast that crops in field,
Breathe sweetly and adore!
The night has brought the richest yield
That ever harvest bore.

Now every Child that dwells on earth,
Stand up, stand up and sing!
The passing night has given birth
Unto the Childrens' King.

Here is a phone video of the second performance- hopefully we will have a more official recording sometime soon:

Some words on the writing of this piece- for the third year in a row I was able to complete a commission in June/July (or at least get pieces mostly written) while teaching at the North Carolina Governor's School in Raleigh, NC. This is a job I love- the students are ridiculously talented, dedicated, and also wacky- totally amazing young people. Late at night I often steal back into the music building and work on commissions- yeah, I'm kind of tired but working on these pieces is something I am of course dedicated to and which I later look back on with pride- the fact that I could teach in such a pressure cooker and still complete commissions. The 2009 commission I worked on there was for the prestigious Incheon City Chorale, one of the great choirs in the world, in 2010 it was a Christmas big honking processional tune (SATB, brass, organ, percussion, massive bell choir) for Edie Copley's Holiday Dinners at Northern Arizona University, and then of course for 2011 these Young Naperville Singer's pieces.

Searching for a great Christmas text and writing a Christmas piece, for this Chicagoan, feels weird in the 100 degree North Carolina heat of June and July! I visited the Meredith College library where Governor's School is held, and found an ancient collection of holiday texts and checked the compilation out- the librarian and I remarked that the book hadn't been checked out in 28 years! But lo and behold, this poor little ignored book contained Farjeon's poem, which I felt was festive and so prefect for young voices- so I was thrilled that this little book and I found each other.

Ideas came quickly and the idea of including a flute and horn part floated into my brain and was quickly squelched- too much of a cliche. Angie did suggest we utilize handbells as she was already inviting a great bell group, the Agape Ringers directed by David Weck. There is a bit of chromaticism in the music, which I thought might be a problem with the sustain of bells- but that was overcome later when one of the ringers volunteered to write a bell part, and he simply left the bells out of the chromatic passages.

I met most of the singers at their early Fall retreat- retreats are brilliant tools for team-building. The kids were great fun in our chat and Q and A about music and what not-dead composers do. We then worked here and there on some misc. rehearsals in November and December. Around October Angie and her great accompanist Melinda Arnold challenged me gently to tweak the ending of Come Christmas Morn. How could we come up with the biggest massed choir joyful impact and still make sure the poetry made sense? And as you see the poem has a lot of repetition- could we ellipse that repetition a bit to be less predicable toward the end? So of course I gained more gray hairs as these two cool people made me jump through the hoops of suggested rewrites but it was truly worth it- after about 5-6 slightly different endings I think we truly nailed it. The ending builds and builds dramatically and still fits the poetry. So I thank Angie and Melinda for being tough critics! And actually when we set out on this composer in residence thing I told them this is what it can be about- the idea that a composer can and should be open to editing a piece and that the choir be open to trying those rewrites. In other words, we as musicians stay flexible to each others ideas. Many choirs will never experience this relationship with a composer, but for us to create this atmosphere for all these young singers is a gift, I would say. And of course they give back the gift of joyful singing and spontaneity to us as well. What a great dynamic to have and to experience.

Angie asked if I would like to conduct Come Christmas the Morn. I at first suggested she should conduct since this is her choir/organization, but I also realized that she wanted me to take some ownership of not just the piece but the performance too, and beside, this woman would of course be totally exhausted at some point in the day- it wouldn't kill me to conduct a piece and take some load off of her.

In rehearsal we had plenty of fun- I teased the older singers about their purposely mismatched socks (I actually think this fashion statement is pretty awesome- but I pretended to be a non-understating old fogey) and we also joked around about them singing more like bests for the section "Now every Beast that crops in field" and let them know that for years I have been hoping for Santa to bring me a baby Congo Buffalo. Hey, anything I can do to get them laughing and breathing is always a good thing. I'll blog soon about a similar rehearsal I had with young people in Hong Kong-- it's really pretty funny.

In concert the piece totally rocked- the bells were amazing-- they used both standard handbells but also chimes- the voicing of those chords and the truly sweet, vibrato effect of the chimes was perfect for the piece. Melinda was rocking on the piano and the singers were totally pumped. The Chamber Singers (the mature HS voices) sang the entire piece, with the younger choirs added into the refrains and some echo effect passages. I got a kick out of the timbral shift from advanced HS to very young voices during the echo effect passage- it was fun to listen to! And I would also like to point out that EVERY song by every ensemble at the three concerts was memorized by these young singers. That meant they were all fully engaged with their directors, audience and the musical sound waves in the room- NO scores getting in the way of communication and joy.

When I conducted Cone Christmas the Morn at concert number two I just came out and did the piece, but at concert three I really felt I wanted to talk to the audience for a tiny but. All I really all I wanted to say was this-- that I know plenty of people at the university level around the country doing great things, but I truly feel they are missing out on the fun of working with young singers. Young singers can be highly artistic, and also are so full of fresh ideas, the joy of singing, etc. They are not jaded and are so much fun to work with. I remember my good friend Mary Alice Stollak working with her own youth choir at Michigan State University and also guest conducting youth honor choirs and she also made a point of letting them know that she considered them musical artists- they just happened to be young musical artists. Whenever Mary Alice would say this to a young choir you could truly see the pride swell in each singer- they were being honored and recognized for striving for and achieving something most people might think was far beyond their reach.

Happy Holidays!


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