Wednesday, February 15, 2012

2012 North Central ACDA Conference Highlights

A hugely successful 2012 North Central ACDA Conference just finished up in Madison, Wisconsin. We got lucky with the weather- Thursday was fine, Friday got really cold and super windy with a touch of snow, and Saturday was a bit warmer. We were certainly blessed by the fact that there wasn't a major blizzard, which meant that every choir was able to arrive, sing, and depart without being assailed by dangerous winter weather. And, by the way, all the conference venues were within about two blocks of each other- wow!

The conference revolved around the theme “Beyond the Notes” as devised by NC ACDA president Aimee Beckman-Collier and her able division co-workers. According to Aimee the conference would “center on ways to engage singers' imaginations; to develop artistry by connecting mind, body, and spirit...[one would not only] hear exhilarating performances-- but also learn from inspiring master clinicians...assisting members to lead their singers to heightened independence, artistry, and a broader contextual understanding of their music.” The conference delivered on all of this--bravo, Aimee and NC ACDA.

Thursday started off with a number of fine performances, included Karen Bruno leading the Lawrence Academy of Music Girl Choir in a drop-dead gorgeous Casals' “Nigra Sum” and other selections. Another highlight was a splendid Madison, WI community chorus, “Isthmus”, led by Scott MacPherson. In addition to selections by Gibbons and Bach, they sang Rudolf Mauersberger's “Wie legt die Stadt so wüsst”, which mourned the firebombing of the civilian inhabitants of Dresden, Germany in the later stages of WWII, an historical event I know well, as it is partly the subject of my own extended work for choir and string orchestra “1944” with text by Hilda Doolittle. The performance of this piece was truly powerful and the score should be studied by more directors (it's published by Verlag Merseburger). This was the first of two amazingly artistic performances by community choirs from NC ACDA. I was certainly highly impressed because our community choirs in Illinois are, sadly, nowhere close to this level of musicianship.

Also part of the morning session was a TOM Talk (Talks On Music- modeled after the TED talks) by ACDA executive director Tim Sharp which was highly entertaining. Tim talked about all the new variety of choirs out there- lawyers' choirs, military wives' choirs, “complaint” choirs, and even cannibal choirs (pass me that Memphis BBQ sauce please, Tim). Along with delivering this with his own special brand of droll delivery (and his newly acquired Elvis blazer) Tim also made sure to mention more socially dedicated choirs such as hospice choirs and prison choirs. Tim always has something new and unique for us to ponder. The TOM Talks, sprinkled throughout the three day conference, were quite exceptional. Veteran classroom music teacher Patricia Trump's talk on Friday was both rambunctiously humorous AND deep- she received a standing ovation for sharing her ideas with us.

I finished up my morning by attending a great interest session by Millikin University's Brad Holmes- his session was about ways to unleash greater potential in the choir. Brad spoke on a highly personal level about many things and had some great examples of how not overlooking a composer's intentions can really make great things happen. One of the best scores he showed us was a piece where the discovery of syncopations related to text underlay might be overlooked if you weren't paying close attention. As we sang this passage with Brad's insight totally changing the musical effect, the whole room had an a-ha moment. Brad was truly inspiring.

In the afternoon, The St John's Boys' Choir from Collegeville, MN led by Andre-Louis Heywood took the stage. This was a group I had no knowledge of previously since I am not in NC ACDA (I was a guest as I was presenting an interest session on Saturday). This group was great- though perhaps biting off something quite difficult in Mark Sirett's “Song of the Angels”- a lengthy a cappella piece whose tonal centers shifted often and in ways that were unexpected. I applaud them for tackling a challenging piece for a group this young. They went on to totally nail Stephen Hatfield's “Tjak!” which is a wild monkey chant. The boys were brilliant and so energetic on this piece-- the audience loved it so much! They then finished with another Hatfield wild and crazy piece, his “Überlebensgross”.

Following this performance was Joshua Bronfman's Concert Choir from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. Josh programmed a beautiful set which included Gjello's “The Spheres”, with the opening overlapping chords tuned impeccably. There was also an overwhelmingly visceral piece called “War Song” by Japanese composer Ichiro Ikebe, based on sounds from war chants of the Cook Islands. This piece required great energy and concentration from the singers-- there were periods where non-pitched chanting and even shouting had to jump back into pitched sections- the choir's ability to return accurately to pitched sections was truly impressive. This quite varied program was sung in a highly artistic manner, utilizing a number of very appropriate tone shadings (quite interesting since a much more well known university choir had, earlier in the day, sung their whole program in a one-size-fits-all tone color). Josh, who earned his DMA under Andre Thomas at FSU, is a young conductor we'll be keeping our eyes on. He was also a great panel discussion member at the November NCCO conference I attended in Ft Collins, CO.

The evening concert was shared by two groups, the Czech Boys Choir, led by Jakub Martinec, and the Kansas City Chorale.

The Czech Boys' Choir is an SATB group of boys/men from ages 10 to 22. Their sound was fresh, free, boisterous at times, and wholly a species unto itself. They breezed through standard Czech choral pieces by the major composers such as Smetana, Janacek, Martinu, and Dvorak. They then trotted around the globe singing folk songs from many countries with a youthful energy which delighted the audience. About every 2-3 songs throughout the evening, two singers would step to the mike and introduce the next few selections. One boy was about fifteen and the other about ten. The younger one was a natural comedian- he had the entire audience in stitches with his deadpan delivery of some very droll comic patter about the music. This kid could do comedy club standup right now, he was so funny! They finished their evening with America the Beautiful and the house went up for grabs. This was a spectacular performance- everyone was so glad we got a chance to hear this amazing choir. Their pianist, Martin Fišl, has serious chops- he sounded like Franz Liszt on some of the wild, fistful of notes piano parts some of the arrangements had-- yet he never overshadowed the boys.

(The Czech Boys' Choir having fun in the USA)

With this stellar performance, as well as the St. Johns Boy Choir performance earlier in the day, one of the themes which evolved throughout the day was that boys and young men cannot just sing, but that they can sing up a storm of major proportions - and it's time we all kept remembering to pitch in and keep working toward the boys/men singing renaissance that is starting to turn the tide in this country, which has been in danger of completely losing mens' interest in singing or any other arts activity permanently in favor of sports, beer, and more sports and more beer. Let's all realize that there may be really nothing MORE manly than a man singing out his heart and soul. It's far more pure, strong, and brave (and yet a bit personally vulnerable, which actually requires inner strength) than putting on a jockstrap, helmet, and pads and bashing other people around, or drinking beer after beer on the couch. Agreed??

The Kansas City Chorale was the second major headliner for the evening. While the programming, "Chant and Beyond", seemed to have potential, the interpretation was uninspired, or more accurately, missing in action, and the singing never soared. No program notes or translations of texts were supplied, so some of these Latin texts might have been difficult to connect for some of the audience. This, to my knowledge, is not repertoire that Charles Bruffy does often, and it showed. On piece after piece, contrapuntal voices were treated as constantly gray equals, meaning that no line ever came alive or truly engaged other lines in dialogue. It was as if all color, dimension, and life had been stripped from the counterpoint of great works by Dufay, Tallis, Morales, and others. There was no effort to tailor the sound to any composer's world- shouldn't the Spaniard Morales sound at least a bit different than Tallis? Music such as this comes alive in the hands of Harry Cristophers' "The Sixteen" and other groups (for the most part European groups), while here all we had to listen to was professional singers do what they do- which was read notes off the page. There was no real direction or artistic interpretation from Bruffy, whose gestures seemed listless. One could even venture that the singers without Bruffy would have actually done more with this music, as they would have perhaps freely started to allow their lines to interact and engage in real dialogue. But then again, at times it felt as if the singers, most of the evening with scores in hand, very little memorized, did not know some of the pieces well enough to be singing them to this caliber of audience.

Pieces were linked by a rather annoying new-agey chime tone piped in through speakers and the singers occasionally moved about the stage in a very pale imitation of Anuna. The stage movement seemed stillborn- it was used for awhile, then abandoned, then picked back up-- as if a project or vision for this program had been started but never really finished and brought to fruition. Thus in many senses this program, both musically and in its presentation values, seemed like it needed another six months of rehearsal and development to really work.

Many selections suffered from lack of rhythmic integrity--for instance, the Durufle Quatre Motets, a bit of a cliche to sing in front of this audience, were very sloppy and were only saved a bit by the women in the Tota Pulchra es. Sorry to say, but the only piece on the program which seemed unified in approach and where the singing came to life was the final number, Jackson Berkey's "Ascendit Deus".

The opinions expressed here in this blog were also voiced by many others I talked to later that night and the next day. We were very disappointed by KC Chorale's performance. I hope that they will consider further development of this program and also keep singing the music which shows off Charles' musical strengths and that they know the best- 2oth and 21st century American scores.

But all said and done, the day was spectacular.


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