Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Pt. 3: 2012 North Central ACDA Conference Highlights

Here is the rest of my Friday at NC ACDA in Madison:

The afternoon concert session started off with the Concert Choir from Armstrong High School, Plymouth, MN, directed by Stephanie Trump. This choir was great- easily the best high school choir at the conference. Their sound was free, rich, melodious and the repertoire was varied and quite interesting. This was also quite a large choir- the program at this school must overall be extremely well-developed. I saw these students later and they were totally pumped by the strong audience response to their performance.

A little later Aimee Beckman -Collier, the president of NC ACDA, came on stage with her Drake University Chamber Choir (about thirty voices I believe). This was an impeccably programmed presentation filled with excellent repertoire and conducted with grace and artistry by Aimee. I had never seen her conduct nor heard this choir before and I must say that I was enormously impressed by their entire program, and especially by a very unusual stage formation for Frank Ferko's "O verbum Patris". This program by Drake and Aimee was one of the high points of the conference.

After dinner we all reconvened for a very moving performance of Stephen Paulus' "To be Certain of the Dawn", a piece which memorializes the Holocaust and its children in a very different way than most Holocaust music. The libretto for this piece, by longtime Paulus collaborator Michael Dennis Browne, is about real people, their stories, their losses, etc. and never really directly visits the atrocities of the Final Solution-- since we already know it, they felt there is no need to go there. I have not (yet) written a Holocaust piece since I feel there have been enough works of art done about it- and in fact many people think the subject has been extremely overmined. This is why Paulus' piece is so special- its music and text creates high art and explores the inner human experience , instead of exploring the evil in all it dirty details.

The performance was for massive forces-- the combined choirs of Minnesota State U (David Dickau), Nebraska Wesleyan U (Bill Wyman), and Wartburg College, all under the baton of Wartburg's masterful conductor, Lee Nelson. Add in two segments of the Madison Youth Choirs, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony, and four soloists and there were hundreds of folks on stage. Throughout almost the entire evening, I was usually not even made aware that we were listening to a youth orchestra, since their skills were so remarkable. Also, the two female soloists, Virginia Sublett and Ann Cravero, sang beautifully and with incredible depth of feeling. The college choirs were outstanding. Lee Nelson's conducting was masterful throughout- he was in control of every moment, whether a large cry or an intimate whisper. I was thoroughly impressed with Lee. And even though there were large forces on the stage, the score was often intimate- Paulus never felt the need to blast away with fortissimos without good reason. For a large scale piece to contain so many intimate chamber music-like sections was wonderful.

(Lee Nelson)

This piece deserves more performances. It has only had a handful following its premiere a few years ago by the Minnesota Orchestra. I do believe some performances are coming up. I would advise anyone looking for a special large-scale piece (though I believe the duration is not unwieldy- about sixty minutes) to look at this important piece, details of which can be found here. Another remarkable thing about this piece is its origin. It was commissioned by Father Michael O'Connell of the Basilica of St. Mary's in Minneapolis as a gift to the Temple Israel Synagogue in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1945. Father O'Connell, who was present to introduce the piece, felt that Christians must own and teach about the Holocaust as much or more than Jews.

Following the performance I attended the NC ACDA President's reception. The main contributors to the performance of "To be Certain of the Dawn" were all there. I had a good time chatting with Lee Nelson for a moment, as well as David Dickau, Matt Harden, Mike Scheibe, and others. When I chatted with Aimee we found out we had some interesting things in common. I didn't know she is a St. Mary's College grad, and she didn't know that I have just made a new arrangement of The Bells of St. Mary's for Nancy Menk's choirs to sing at St. Mary's campus functions. I also told Aimee that I used to ride horses at the farm of retired Met Opera superstar Sherrill Milnes back in the day when Sherrill was just out of Drake and had not yet become famous. I also had the honor of accompanying Sherrill, a very gracious man, a few times at Chicago area musical fundraisers. Aimee knows Sherrill since he is a Drake alum and returns now and then to do masterclasses. It's a small, small world I guess!

FINAL POST: My interest session Saturday and a wrapup

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