Friday, May 2, 2014

A Great Collaboration!

I just finished a three day residency with the Escanaba (MI) Junior High School and High School choirs, where last night the Chorale, their top group, premiered a new commission from me entitled "April" (SATB/piano).  This trip was a long time in planning and I have to say, the singing was epic and that I was treated so wonderfully by everyone.

When I arrived Sunday afternoon to my spacious hotel, there was a large gift basket awaiting me. The basket was filled with all sorts of great Upper Peninsula Michigan products, especially local Escanaba products- honey, wine, candy bars, candles, and so on. What a sweet touch! I also found out later that the beautiful box that contained the gifts was handmade by one of the high school's music booster folks- wow!

In the days before the concert I worked with the junior high school chorus on my piece "May I be Happy" (published by Roger Dean), a piece which is growing in popularity across the country. My main focus with this group was to project the text, and try to present more joy as they sang. I also have to say that a certain passage in the piece which throws quite a few choirs was spot-on as sung by these folks since their director, the very talented John Beck, had them solfege the piece, thus avoiding the pitfalls that trip up a lot of choirs who don't utilize solfege.

I also worked with the HS Chorus on my piece "Bright Morning Stars" (published by Colla Voce), an old, yet still vibrant American folk hymn. We worked on tuning of this pentatonic song and especially sweetened up the major thirds, once again by using solfege. We also had some fun channelling our opera diva voices. By asking to hear their take on a diva voice, we were rewarded by them propelling a lot more air through their full vocal mechanism and we not only wound up with more sound projection, but better tuning as well. Of course we weren't trying to teach them to belt- just move more air! The kids had fun with this and I think it will pay off when they sing other pieces- looking to find a bigger, yet still healthy voice production more in line with their maturing voices. As many of you know, a lot of kids in early high school still have their 6th grade sound model in their head and don't realize that they can, sometimes quite easily, move beyond that toward more full vocal production.

Most of my time was spent with  the Chorale, the top group at the high school and the group singing the commission premiere. I worked intensively with them Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday polishing the piece. This was really fulfilling for all of us, and it was only possible because they had learned the piece so thoroughly in advance and had it well-memorized. This meant that not a single singer was struggling with notes, text, or anything, and we could try different phrasing, dynamics, word-stresses, and other nuances to find just the right performance presentation. The Escanaba Chorale has a long-standing history of choral excellence, and has been, for years, one of the very top high school programs in the entire state of Michigan, which is a very strong choral state both at the high school and collegiate level. For anyone who thinks the U.P. of Michigan is just about "Yoopers", hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling, they couldn't be more ignorant of the facts. Music is very strong in Escanaba and Marquette, and there are many fine artists, photographers, poets and novelists throughout the U.P.

I loved that every person in the Chorale was committed to working hard with me- to engage and share some real collaborative exploration toward more expression of the text and music, and even have fun along the way. Each and every one of them was ready to pitch in and tune a particular chord, try slightly different tempi, etc. Leading the way, of course, was their amazing and very talented director of thirty-six years, John Beck, and his wonderful accompanist, Kim Beck - a keyboardist capable of fine nuance as well as sparkling pianism.

John Beck

When the choirs performed Wednesday night the JHS Chorus shone as did the HS Chorus. John and I felt that the latter was reaching a new zone of skill and confidence that night. When the Chorale took the stage and wowed the crowd with a number of pieces preceding mine, the stage was set for the premiere of my piece. Now this piece is quite subtle- it begins and ends softly and many high school audiences won't be drawn in by quiet pieces, they usually want big and bold music to listen to. But this evening's audience was different. I sensed them becoming very focused by the quiet beginning, and when there were climaxes of sound they were quite excited by them (believe me, we composers can read an audience during a performance quite well- we can sense the audience's energy response to the music!). By the end of the piece they were all totally drawn in- the auditorium was totally quiet, even younger siblings were totally silent, and when the piece was over there was a tiny magical moment of silence and then a big standing ovation when John had me stand. Getting standing "O"s as a composer isn't really that common- sure, people usually applaud plenty, but the standing "O" in the middle of a concert is not that common. Needless to say I was thrilled by the performance. At the reception following the concert I had dozens of people shake my hand, stood for pics with choir members, and so on. And at the reception, the wonderful booster folks had a ginormous cake with an edible image of the first page of the score on the cake (yay for modern cake technology). All in all the concert evening was spectacular and the whole experience with the choir, John and Kim Beck, the boosters, and choir parents was one of the most epic experiences I have ever had. I was also treated to two wonderful dinners while I was in town. Maybe I should apply to become the Escanaba, MI composer-in residence!

Here is a nice news article on the prep for the piece:

One final word about our process for this piece. John and I had some difficulties finding a text. He had done some "big" pieces by me like "My Friend Elijah" but I felt that maybe I wanted to do something more intimate. We agreed on that after awhile but still didn't have a text. Then I found out that they might have found an Escanaba poet we could work with. That turned out to be a dead-end, however. Then we finally found a text we liked, BUT, now I was going to be on the road for quite a spell. So I decided to try to start the piece at home, make some progress on it, and then work on it as I travelled to composing and music conference gigs I had in Jacksonville, FL, Little Rock, AR, and New Orleans. While still at home, I was able to get about halfway through the piece and send that much to John so the choir could start on it. I was then able to find a few hours here and there on the road to complete the piece. This was a new way of working for me- I had never tried to compose on the road before. But it worked, and I actually enjoyed finishing the piece in New Orleans in my hotel overlooking the French Quarter. Who knows, maybe there is a measure or two of zydeco in there somewhere!

So in conclusion, the friendliness and hospitality in Escanaba from EVERYONE was overwhelming. This week was an absolute joy. To anyone from Escanaba reading this- thanks for an amazing time there. You are great people!

COMING UP: More epic music-making starting in a few days; this time in Eastern Washington state with the very talented, energetic young conductor Justin Raffa and the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers in a program of mostly my music, including a very serious, unusual commissioned piece (oh yeah, plus zombie music too!).