Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Here is a great video version by Sherri Lasko of the song we wrote together. It's been getting a lot of performances the last few years, including four this month by the Oregon Repertory Singers directed by Ethan Sperry. Ethan, who is Jewish, told me that until he heard this piece at a reading session at Chicago ACDA 2011 that he hated all Hanukkah music- I'm pretty honored he thinks this one rocks.
The piece is published by Santa Barbara and comes in two voicings- SA/clarinet/piano and SATB/clarinet/piano. The voice parts are not difficult. There is also an orchestration which you will hear on this video. It is available for rental directly from me.
This piece was commissioned by the Michigan State University Children's Choir and their director, Mary Alice Stollak. She had originally asked for an arrangement of an existing Hanukkah song of my choice, but I just couldn't find one that really grabbed me. I then looked for Hanukkah poems that I could set with original music. No luck there either-- the poems I found were either too short, way too silly, or just really didn't inspire me (hey I was feeling the way Ethan does about the Hanukkah repertoire!). It was then that I asked Sherri Lasko for a text. She wrote a beautiful poem that captures the history, hope, and family traditions and fun of the holiday in a very sweet and musical way and we worked together to make my music complement her poem. I'm really thrilled with our final result.
Unending Flame by Sherri Lasko
Unending flame of ages past
burn bright within our hearts tonight,
rekindle hope and love of old
to carry now into the cold.
The greatest strength within us lies,
the promise old renew'd again,
not in our might, but in our heart
do peace and joy within us start.
The gift pass'd on through ev'ry child
I give to you and yours this night,
burn bright your flame,
change the world from dark to light.
Dance, sing, shout, clap,
flame of Hanukkah,
Sing, shout, clap, dance,
shining bright Menorah,
Shout, clap, dance, sing,
Send your glowing light
to bring new love to us this night.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
What I have for you today are some recent news articles about the classical music scene in the Portland area. The second article, an interview with chorister Stephanie Kramer, is one that Ethan shared on FaceBook recently, and the first, from the wall Street Journal online, includes some quotes from Kathy FitzGibbon, a great choral director who I first met way on the other side of the country when her women's choir from Clark University in Worcester, MA was a participant, along with other colleges in the area, in the premiere performance of my "El Limonar Florido" both in Worcester and then on tour of Spain. Kathy was instrumental (haha) in teaching the choirs how to play their cricket clickers in the dream sequence portion of one of the movements (and yes, cricket clickers do figure into another piece of mine- the bestselling kids piece "Peace on Earth..and lots of little crickets"). O f course beyond my silly andecdote, Kathy is immensely talented and a very sweet person.
Here are the articles- hope you enjoy reading them:
From the Wall Street Journal Online Dec., 13, 2011
by Brett Campbell
'We love classical music. We love playing classical music. We love listening to classical music. We are tired of the elitist and inaccessible nature of the classical world. We believe that there are many that would enjoy classical music if they could access it in a setting that is comfortable for them. We believe classical musicians should be allowed to perform in a setting that is more casual—where the audience is allowed to have a drink, eat a scone, laugh a little, and clap a lot. We believe everyone can enjoy the music that we love." So began a 2006 posting on Portland's Craigslist that became the manifesto for Classical Revolution PDX, which today draws on a roster of more than 200 classical musicians for its chamber jams and other performances, including a concert called "Sympathy for the Devil" featuring music associated with you-know-who.
That show was a co-production with Portland's Electric Opera Company, which plays classical music on electric guitars and other rock instruments. More than a dozen such alt-classical ensembles have emerged here in the past few years, enlivening a city better known nationally for bikes, brews, baristas, beards, the television show "Portlandia," and a thriving indie-rock scene that boasts such bands as the Decemberists. The city teems with organizations presenting new music, old music in clubs, or both.
The Portland Cello Project's all-cello performances of original arrangements of everything from Beethoven to Britney Spears regularly sell out some of the city's biggest clubs and attract guest vocalists from the city's indie-rock scene. The group has been touring nationally for the past three years and is recording its fourth CD. Its holiday concerts this Friday and Saturday will feature music by composers ranging from Bach, Khachaturian and Lili Boulanger to Lil' Wayne.
Opera Theater Oregon stages cheeky, low-budget productions of classic operas (including Wagner's "Das Rheingold" reimagined as a "Baywatch" episode). Several vocal ensembles, drawn from the city's strong choral-music scene, devote considerable programming to contemporary, often homegrown music. The young Cascadia Composers organization will stage at least eight concerts of music by Oregon composers this year. Improvising musicians have a jazz composers orchestra and an avant-garde presenting series. Two more new-music groups launched this year, and this fall three different organizations presented programs dominated by new music by women composers—electronic, choral and contemporary classical—most from the Pacific Northwest.
This fall also saw CD releases and national tours by both Vagabond Opera, a "Balkan Arabic Klezmer-based, original absurdist cabaret ensemble," led by Eric Stern, a former opera tenor, and the March Fourth Marching Band, which plays original and cover tunes of funk, rock and dance music on its brass instruments.
What's fueling Portland's alt-classical surge? "There's a growing sense with the current generation of performers that those jobs they trained for aren't there, so you have to make your own opportunities," says Katie Taylor, former producing artistic director of Opera Theater Oregon, "and while you're at it, build a new audience."
The West Coast's most affordable cultural center, Portland offers numerous attractions to exploratory classical musicians. "The city itself is a desirable place to live, particularly to those interested in the arts and being around other artists," explains composer Galen Huckins, who runs Filmusik, which sets old films to original live music by various local composers at historic theaters. "Having so many top-tier players around, many of whom have full-time jobs outside of music, means that there's a wealth of players excited to be part of new groups and experiment with emerging organizations."
Many of the alt-classical adventurers share a collaborative spirit. "Relative to other places where I've lived and worked, Portland has an incredibly vibrant and dynamic alternative classical-music scene," says Katherine FitzGibbon, who moved to Portland from Boston in 2008 to direct choral programming at Lewis & Clark College.
Her Resonance Ensemble regularly programs contemporary and 20th-century choral music, and collaborates with poets, painters, dancers and other artists. "Everyone wants everybody else's group to be successful," she says. "Everybody's looking for ways to deepen the performing experience and the audience experience as well."The entrepenurial newcomers are building on groundwork laid over the past 20 years by the busy new-music ensembles FearNoMusic and Third Angle, which have shown listeners that "art music has re-established its claim to beauty," says Third Angle director and Oregon Symphony violinist Ron Blessinger. "Audiences and artists have gotten away from the attitude that it has to be incomprehensible to be art. Our geography helps. We don't have proximity to major cultural centers, so we have this laboratory here where the independent creative culture of Portland gives you permission to be creative."
Opera Theater's Ms. Taylor predicts that the alt-classical scene will continue to blossom. "I would expect more busking and original film projects, and more happening online," she says. "And you'll see more traditional groups applying these alternative methods to build their audiences. I also think heavy turnover is going to become the norm."
The venerable Portland Opera invited both Opera Theater Oregon and Electric Opera to perform at a street party outside its season-opening concert. The 40-year-old Chamber Music Northwest and old-line Portland Piano International, seeing the younger audiences flocking to alt-classical performances, have been presenting less-traditional concerts in some of the same venues.
Still, Ms. Taylor's own experience shows that chronic underfunding makes the alt-classical scene as risky financially as it is musically. Staging even a small-scale opera costs a lot more than bringing a string quartet into a club, and after five years shepherding Opera Theater Oregon to increasing artistic success and burgeoning audiences, she still wound up in debt, and stepped down as producing artistic director this summer.
"Our last show involving filmed elements required sophisticated equipment—software, HD cameras, lighting—the sheer number of people involved made it superexpensive just to feed them, which is the only pay people got," she says. "The longer you do something, the less likely people want to pitch in for free."
Such obstacles don't seem to discourage Portland's many alt-classical musicians. Next spring, composer Bob Priest's annual March Music Moderne festival, involving both alternative and traditional classical groups, will incorporate at least two dozen new music-spiced events featuring about 100 20th- and 21st-century works.
"Portland has never liked being told how to behave or what to do," says pianist Maria Choban, locally renowned for electrifying performances of contemporary and classic repertoire. "I think this is why it's so fertile for spawning a 'bad-boy' alt-classical music scene. We might be the geographic location most likely to give classical music a much needed blood transfusion, in the same way Seattle was for pop when it spawned grunge."
by James Bash
Portland is a haven for choral singers, including the select few who are paid to sing in choirs. One of the very best singers in this specialized profession is Stephanie Kramer. I’ve heard Kramer sing at a number of choral concerts and have found her name listed in several recordings, including the latest Portland Baroque Recording of the St. John Passion. So, I got in contact with her to find out more about her work as a professional choral singer.
Kramer: I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. Music is a part of my heritage. My mom sang in her high school choir and her church choir. My grandmother taught piano and played organ at the same Lutheran church for sixty years. She started when she was twelve and played until she was seventy-two.
I grew up in little towns, singing in school and at church. Growing up Lutheran played a big part. As Garrison Keillor says, ‘Lutherans are bred to sing in four-part harmony.’ I also had a great high school director, John Baker at Rex Putnam, who taught us music theory and sight singing.
I went to Concordia University in Portland for a couple of years and then transferred to Portland State University where I sang under Dr. Bruce Browne. I sang for him in the PSU Chamber Choir. That led to singing in Choral Cross-Ties, which was a professional vocal ensemble. I ended up singing with Choral Cross-Ties for ten years. One of the highlights of my early career was returning to my high school and performing with CCT as a professional choral singer.
How many choirs are you singing with now?
Kramer: I’m singing with several professional choirs. I mainly sing with Cappella Romana, under the direction of Dr. Alexander Lingas, and Resonance Ensemble, under the direction of Dr. Katherine FitzGibbon. I also frequently sing with Trinity Episcopal and Cantores in Ecclesia. Looking back over my career, I’ve sung with many of the groups in town: Oregon Repertory Singers, Portland Symphonic Choir, Portland Pro Musica, and Portland Opera Chorus. I’ve had quite a few church choir jobs.
There must be times when you could be in a rehearsal or concert every night of the week.
Kramer: Right! Certain months can be very busy. Last March I had a crazy schedule… performing, touring, and recording the St. John Passion with PBO, and then going directly from that to a tour to San Francisco with Cappella Romana. I think that I had something every night. August was like that too, with the William Byrd Festival and preparing for the Greece tour with Cappella Romana. December, of course, is always full. This is my fourteenth year in a row to sing the Messiah with PBO, and I never get tired of it!
So some gigs have taken you to foreign countries?
Kramer: I’ve been to France with Cantores in Ecclesia, and to London, England and Greece in two separate tours with Cappella Romana. I also took some wonderful trips when I was in the PSU Chamber Choir, including a tour to the Czech Republic.
Are you a soprano or an alto?
Kramer: I sing a little of both. I have a pretty big range and an ability to blend with different vocal timbres. I’m singing alto this week in the Vaughan Williams Hodie with the choir at Trinity. Next week I’m singing soprano in Handel’s Messiah with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Then I go back to singing alto for the Rachmaninoff All Night Vigil with Cappella Romana.
Do you ever do solos?
Kramer: I’ve done some – usually within the context of a choral concert. But I’ve never truly had the desire to be a soloist. Over the years, I’ve found that singing in small ensembles is really my niche. Ensemble singing requires a different skill set than singing solos. It just suits my personality better.
Have you every counted how many languages you’ve sung?
Kramer: Oh no! I’ve lost count of that a long time ago. But some of the more interesting and challenging languages I’ve sung in are Czech, Finnish, Serbian, Russian, and Greek. Having a good ear to hone the language skills is a great asset.
Do you teach voice?
Kramer: No. I’ve never felt that I had the gift of teaching. So that is not something that I’ve been inspired to do. But I have mentored a few younger singers, and am a hundred percent supportive of music and arts education in our schools.
Then do you have a day job in addition to your choral singing?
Kramer: Yes. I work part-time at Oregon Catholic Press in its recordings department. Many of my professional singing friends teach voice or conduct school or church choirs. I’m also the Managing Director of Resonance Ensemble, and I do some administrative work for Cappella Romana.
I feel extremely blessed to have a job in music.
How many recordings have you done?
Kramer: I’ve probably done more than fifty recordings with Oregon Catholic Press. I’ve been singing for them since 1996; so it adds up after a while. I think that I’ve done about twelve CDs with Cappella Romana. The most recent release is our recording of the Bach St. John Passion with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Cappella Romana also just recorded a new CD when we were on tour in Greece. It’s been a wonderful year!
Are recordings more difficult than singing for a live audience?
Kramer: Yes! I find that it’s difficult to keep the same energy that you have when you are in front of an audience. Sometimes I try to picture the people who might listen to the recording – like my mom. That seems to help me.
Recording sessions have their pitfalls. Sometimes (especially in large works) you have to take sections of music out of order. That can disrupt the flow of the music. And of course it’s always frustrating when you have to stop in the middle of a great take because of a motorcycle going by or a rooster crowing.
A rooster crowing? Kramer: That happened on the Greece tour. We were recording in a lovely little country church on the island of Paros, and a rooster crowed during one of our takes. We all burst out laughing. Singing, and all of the experiences that come along with it, is one of the greatest joys of my life.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Hey, I just wanted to give a shout out to the following directors and their groups who are performing some of my holiday music in December. And if you are a director who is also doing a piece of mine, please let me know. It's great fun for me to meet people from around the country and the world who are doing my music, AND the more performances I can show ASCAP, the more reimbursement humble classical composers like myself can receive from money set aside from the pile of money that pop artists have (this is called the ASCAP AWARDS program- it's a yearly cash award based on performances, recordings, premieres, commissions, etc, but I have to document it all).
Anyhoo here are some performances I do know of and I thank these people so much!
Nov 30th (Philly) Temple University Men's and Women's Choir performing Winter Solstice, directed by my bud Rollo Dilworth (Rollo is also doing this piece at the New Mexico All-State choir in early January- thanks, Rollo!)
Dec. 2 (Hotlanta) The Gwinnett Young Singers perform Hush My Dear Lie Still and Slumber, directed by Lynne Duke Urda
Dec. 3 (Kansas City) The Kansas City Children's Choir will perform Peace on Earth...and lots of little crickets, directed by Becky Penerosa
(this will be one of a gazillion performances of this piece this month- it's been viral for at least three years now with kids choirs)
Dec. 4th (Chicago) Northwestern University Chapel Choir performing I Saw Three Ships, directed by Stephen Alltop
Dec. 4th (Newark, NJ) The Newark Symphony with The Delaware Children's Choir (Marybeth Miller) will perform Unending Flame in the choral/orchestral version, directed by Simeone Tartaglia (say all of that ten times)
Dec. 5th (Omaha) Madrigali et al performing Ding Dong Merrily on High with the Joslyn Castle Brass Consort, directed by Matt Harden
Dec. 8th (Vancouver, WA) Clark College Women's Choir PREMIERES Winter Moon, directed by April Duvic
Dec. 10th (South Bend, IN) The Vesper Choral PREMIERES Gabriel's Message, directed by Wishart Bell
Dec. 11th (Naperville, IL) Various choirs of The Young Naperville Singers PREMIERE Alone in Winter, directed by Anne Kasprzak, and also PREMIERE Come Christmas the Morn, the massed choirs directed by me (yay, twill be great fun)
Dec. 11, 16,17, 18 (Portland, OR) Oregon Repertory Singers perform the Chanukkah piece Unending Flame, directed by Ethan Sperry
Dec. 12 (Pittsburgh) the Children's Festival Choir of Pittsburgh perform Clap Your Hands, directed by Christine Jordanoff
There may be gobs more performances of Hush My Dear Lie Still and Slumber and also Ding Dong Merrily on High- sales of those two pieces are really strong- I just haven't heard from many directors performing them!
Thanks, cool directors-- and relay a big thank you to your singers!
If you happen to read this post and you are performing one of my pieces this holiday season, please contact me at email@example.com I'd love to hear from you!
Monday, May 16, 2011
PC: You've become known for your brilliant folk music series at earthsongs. Can you describe how that series came about? And can you talk about your interest both in Haitian music and in Indian music- including Bollywood?
ES: I’ve been interested in Indian music and culture for a long time, then I started working at Miami University and there was an inspirational Indian musician named Srinivas Krishnan. Srini is an engineer from Chennai, India who had come to get his masters in Engineering at Miami in the 1980’s and then stayed in the area to work for Proctor and Gamble. In addition to his scientific skills, he is a phenomenal tabla player, vocalist, and entrepreneur.
When I arrived at Miami in 2000, I heard his Global Rhythms ensemble, which at that time was three flutes, a trombone, a cello, a keyboard, and two percussionists (all Miami students) playing an Indian raga while he accompanied on the tabla. Srini doesn’t read Western music notation, so had taught the students the raga melody by ear. The performance was hair-raising and I was inspired by the idea of performing the music of India on Western instruments. I asked Srini if he had ever involved voices in the ensemble, and he said he had always wanted to, but no one had been interested.
We started planning, and the next Fall the Miami University Collegiate Chorale joined Global Rhythms for four songs: a spiritual, a Romanian piece by Pascanu, a Cirque du Soleil piece, and a Tarana by Ravi Shankar which was my first arrangement of an Indian piece. The arrangement was scored for unison choir and over a dozen instruments. The Collegiate Chorale has performed in the Global Rhythms concert at Miami every Fall since 2001.
The summer after that I got a grant from Miami to travel to Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai for three weeks to study Indian music. After some study of Indian music theory (mostly Carnatic) and attending a lot of concerts, including many children’s concerts, which really helped me grasp how the theory was put into practice, I decided to try a purely choral arrangement. However, India has no choral tradition and no large ensemble tradition. The music is all improvised and large groups don’t improvise well.
So, I decided to fuse two ideas together. I got my start as an arranger singing a cappella in college. In this style we give all the instrumental parts to the voices and use the voice to try and imitate their sounds. I decided to try this same idea on an Indian raga. I chose the raga Ramkali because it strays so far from Western scales. I decided to improvise on the raga as if I were singing the piece and write down my best ideas. Then I did the same thing for the vocal parts, trying to use syllables that would make them sound like the Indian percussion and drone instruments that usually accompany a singer.
Ramkali was premiered by the Miami University Men’s Glee Club at the 2004 ACDA Central Division Conference and several people, including Paul Rardin (who was at Michigan at the time) asked for manuscript copies after that performance. Paul brought the piece to Ron Jeffers at earthsongs and he asked to publish it and to begin a series in this style which I named Global Rhythms in honor of Srini and my collaboration.
Ron also asked me to produce an SATB version of Ramkali, but I resisted – I really think it’s a male chorus piece and many pieces that are reworked from TTBB to SATB (most notably Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria) suffer from being altered. I suggested that I write another raga in a similar style for SATB chorus and he liked that idea, so I wrote Desh in 2005. I don’t write these pieces quickly, but the series now includes Jai Bhavani (SA - 2007), Dwijavanthi (SATB - 2008), Pallanda (TTBB or SSAA -2009), and Mantra (SATB - 2011).
In 2003 I was listening to the Putamayo World Music Hour on NPR and I heard this incredible piece of Haitian music called Peze Café being performed by a choir with drums. I used Putamayo’s website to order the CD and found out that it was a Swedish choir called Amanda that had been singing. The booklet gave me enough information to use google and eventually order the sheet music for the piece from a Swedish website. I also ordered every other piece I could Sten Kallman who had arranged that piece. The sheet music used Western music notation but there were very few performance notes and what notes there were were in Swedish. I got some friends to help translate the notes, and used the CD as a performance guide, and on we went. My students immediately fell in love with his arrangements and a few years later I invited him to come work with us for a week and perform two of his arrangements with us at the 2010 ACDA Central Division Conference in Cincinnati. He also agreed to let me re-publish some of his arrangements as part of my series with earthsongs, this time with much more extensive performance notes that are all in English.
While I was in India in 2002 I also became infatuated with Bollywood music. And I had some good luck. Friends of Srini’s introduced me to a number of film composers including A. R. Rahman whose music is truly exceptional. From 2002-2006 I produced about a dozen arrangements of Rahman songs for choir and a very large Global Rhythms ensemble. He came to the US in 2006 and performed them with us in Detroit, Dayton, and at the Hollywood Bowl on my 35th birthday which still stands as one of the highlights of my musical life. Rahman also invited me to conduct some of his music at The Filmfare Awards (the Indian Oscars) in 2008 – another highlight.
Over time I was able to produce a few arrangements of his songs for choir and percussion, and Ron agreed to publish these on my series as well. Of these, I am most proud of Zikr. Rahman converted from Hinduism to Islam in his twenties (A. R. stands for Allah Rakha or servant of Allah), and despite having written almost 1000 songs, Zikr is his only statement of faith in music. The media gives a lot of air time to a relatively small group of Muslims who are terrorists, and almost no attention to the millions of Muslims (138 million in India alone) who are not. I hope this song will help some people understand that there’s much more to Islam that Al Qaeda.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Ethan Sperry is Director of Choral Activities at Portland State University, where he conducts the world-renowned Chamber Choir and University Choir and leads undergraduate and graduate programs in conducting. Beginning in the Fall of 2011, he will also be the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Oregon Repertory Singers.
Sperry also serves as the National Repertoire and Standards Chair for Male Choruses for the American Choral Directors Association and the Vice-President of the Intercollegiate Men’s Choruses. From 2000-2010, Dr. Sperry was on the faculty at Miami University in Ohio where he conducted the Men’s Glee Club, Collegiate Chorale, and Global Rhythms Ensembles.
A prolific arranger of World Music for choirs, Dr. Sperry is the editor of the Global Rhythms series for earthsongs music, one of the best-selling choral series in the country.
PC: Judging by the joyous interaction I saw between you and your singers that I saw in Cincinnati at the ACDA Central Division Conference in 2010, how hard was it to leave Miami University and start a new position at Portland State this year?
What do you think was the key element in that special relationship you had with your singers at Miami?
ES: It was very hard to leave my job at Miami University, especially because of how close I was to the students in the choirs. We had formed meaningful bonds and shared some truly special experiences.
However, turnover is inevitable in the academic setting. In my ten years at Miami I had watched hundreds of students I was close to graduate and move on. Last year it became my turn. Taking this attitude towards my leaving was actually suggested to me by some of the students, and it helped me adopt the best possible perspective on the situation. And of course we still stay in touch.
But I’ve been lucky I guess – I seem to form this kind of relationship with most of singers I work with. But since I was at Miami for ten years, seven years longer than I have held any other teaching position, the bonds ran much deeper than I was used to, and yes it was very difficult to decide to say goodbye.
And now that I just read the great piece by Weston Noble on your blog, I’m going to use his word, VULNERABILITY to answer your question. I learned from my father (who is also a musician) that great music is great because it captures some essential human feeling or experience and brings it to life. Our goal as musicians is to make a personal connection with that spark in the music and share it with others. You have to be willing to be vulnerable to do this.
As a choral conductor, I spend a great percentage of my rehearsal time on this issue: exploring what the text and music or a piece is trying to say and trying to connect it to our own experiences. I share my thoughts and actively solicit the singers’ thoughts as well. That requires them to be vulnerable too. In my opinion, there is no way NOT to feel close to people once you are that open with them.
PC: Oregon and Washington have such amazing choral programs, all the way from children’s choirs through the university choirs. Now that you have been there for a while, to what do you attribute this to?
ES: The choir directors I’ve met in Oregon and Washington really know each other and like each other. They all want their programs to be the best, but that does NOT translate into them wanting their colleagues to fail. I find this especially surprising at the high school level. Both Oregon and Washington have state championships for choirs – one choir each year is named #1, and I find that their colleagues congratulate the winner and are happy for them. Then they go home and work harder to try and win the next year.
I think this has happened because there are three majors events in Oregon where these choir directors spend significant time together, get to know each other, and really learn from each other and from the best choir directors in the world. One is the Oregon Bach Festival which I think needs no introduction. The second is the Liederkranz Club, a social club of choir directors who go to a beautiful retreat on the Columbia River Gorge each November and invite famous clinicians to come and hang out with them. Everyone you can think of from Robert Shaw to Eric Ericsson have been guests at Liederkranz over the years. The third is Rodney Eichenberger’s Haystack Rock summer conference where choir directors spend a week at Canon Beach sight-reading new releases and working on their conducting.
[PC: I'll add a fourth: Chor Anno, the brainchild of Howard Meharg]
I also want to give some credit to Bruce Browne, my predecessor at Portland State University, who was Director of Choral Activities there from 1978-2006. Bruce tackled the most difficult repertoire possible with the PSU Chamber Choir and was very aggressive in seeking new challenging repertoire for choirs. He was a leader in introducing the music of Tormis, Rautavaara, and a host of other Scandinavian and Baltic composers to the United States. Many of the best high school directors in the Northwest studied with Bruce at PSU and seem to have absorbed a love of this music. It’s crazy to hear so many high schools not only learning but mastering Rautavaara’s Lorca Suite. Taking on this kind of repertoire really raises the bar on what a choir can do.
PC: What do you think are the best ways for an aspiring high school director to get into “authentic” folk music of the world and do it well, so that it respects the music and does it justice? How can they conquer the fear of doing it badly?
ES: One reason I love performing non-Western music is because I don’t find non-Western ideas in the music. I find basic human emotions and experiences that I have, I share, and I understand.
School administrators approach Diversity from the perspective that we need to learn about and highlight human DIFFERENCES. I absolutely hate this approach and think it is exacerbating racial and social problems in our country. When I sing music from another culture I feel how similar I am to people that other people (administrators) keep telling me I’m supposed to be very different from.
So, don’t be afraid of performing World Music, because it’s not as different as you think.
However, there are differences in vocal technique and style from culture to culture (as there are large differences in technique and style in various types of Western music) and we do want to do justice to all the pieces we sing.
The way to learn is by immersion, even just a little bit of immersion in the culture(s) you are interested in.
The best way to get an authentic performance is to travel to the place the music is from, meet some musicians, and hear some concerts. For most of us that’s not possible due to time or money or both. But we have recordings. And we live in America: there are communities from almost any foreign culture you can think of in almost every American city, even the small cities. The number of truly phenomenal Indian musicians I met in Dayton, Ohio was staggering to say nothing of Cincinnati.
And I’ve never been to Haiti, but I perform a lot of Haitian music. I know lots of Haitians who live in the United States, and I know Western musicians who have lived in Haiti for extended periods. I’ve been to concerts in Haitian communities, and I’ve invited Haitian percussionists to accompany my choirs and talk with my singers.
PC: You are one of our up and coming young conductors full of energy and vision. What changes do you envision in the US choral scene over the next ten or twenty years?
ES: I’m seeing, well hearing actually, American choirs making a much wider variety of sounds. I’m not referring to pieces that require expanded vocal techniques, I’m talking about choirs changing their sound to suit the piece they are performing. I think this is at the crux of great choral music-making, and I find it very inspiring. Britain has this amazing choral tradition where they all sing so cleanly and so perfectly and I think we have been trying to emulate that for a long time. In doing so we created some beautiful choirs, but I think we missed a lot of musicianship along the way. American choirs have been much more adventurous in programming, not only in championing modern music but in exploring the music of other cultures. I’m glad our concept of choral sound is becoming as flexible as our choice of repertoire.
PC: Can you tell us about a) the most influential a-ha moment for you as a student, and who the teacher was and/or the situation b) a similar moment when you felt you, now as a teacher, had made an amazing positive impact upon a student's life and view of music?
ES: I had a very powerful experience during my junior year of college while on spring tour with the Harvard Glee Club. We were in Solana Beach, California and were performing at a small church. Not a particularly special concert, not very nice acoustics, not the highlight of our tour. But for some reason, we sang differently that night. For some reason, we blended and tuned so well that I actually felt other people’s voices coming out of my mouth. I even felt myself singing several notes at once. I started looking around, and I could see it one everyone else’s face too, several guys had stopped singing and some were even crying. I don’t think any of us has ever forgotten that concert or that feeling. Before that concert I was pretty sure I was going to be a choir director, but after that concert there was no doubt in my mind.
I still don’t know what causes this phenomenon, but I’ve been able to replicate it. Not on demand, and not on purpose, but it’s happened to me twice more as a singer and in about a dozen concerts I’ve conducted. It’s a very powerful and reassuring feeling to know – even if for just an instant - that you’re not alone in the world.
PC: End of Part One- I will post part two in a few days: Ethan talks in depth about his experiences exploring world music and the development of his music series at earthsongs
Sunday, February 28, 2010
The Millikin Ensemble was impressively musical-- exquisite phrasing and no oversinging- avoiding the issues that a few other college ensembles seemed to be having problems with. Their opening number, Charles Wood's "Hail Gladdening Light" was full of color shifts and gorgeous rubato, and when the choir reached an obvious high point, Guy Forbes led them in expanding the sound, not just trying to rev up rpms on a Hummer. An "Ave Maria" by Pawel Lukaszewski was gorgeous as was Forbes' own "Come back to me, Me Love". I have just visited Forbes website (www.guyforbes.com) and apparently he has only been writing since 2005. I have already heard a couple other pieces by him, most notably a very fine Ave Maria. Guy obviously has some real talent as a composer and I wish him all the best as he keeps writing more and more.
Two nicely uptempo pieces were sung with energy, and once again, without trying to muscle the music-- Michael McGlynn's "Dulaman" and the Hogan "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel". The entire ensemble exhibited the usual Millikin confidence and comfortable stage presence. All in all, this was one of the finest concerts at the conference, especially if you took the care to listen to nuance, sophistication, and detail.
A very different program was presented by Miami University. While this choir does sing all repertoire, they are best known for their amazing performances of world music. I also found out in talking to Ethan later that this is an almost completely non-music major group- these are young people who love singing for Ethan and share his infectious enthusiasm for authentically prepared world music.
The program was divided into two parts- Haitian music and music from India. The Haitian music was great- uptempo music full of amazing rhythms (btw, these world music programs have drumming throughout most of the program) and some quieter music of great soulfulness. Present for this portion of the program and leading with flair was a guest, Sten Kallman, a Swedish fellow who has been to Haiti many times and has studied the music. Sten led the group mostly by his enthusiasm and moving about the stage- Ethan introduced him as a non-conductor in the usual sense. None of this mattered to the audience who ate up the joy onstage. The last section of music from India, including some sassy Bollywood stuff, was such great fun. The whole performance was a blast and done so effectively. I have always been leery of American choirs trying to do world music- I cringe a bit when I think how badly and lazily they may be doing it, or how caricaturized many of the arrangements are. Here was a shining example of how to do it right.
Later that evening I just happened into Mike Scheibe (current ACDA president) and Ethan. Mike and I listened as Ethan told us all about his program, the kids and their enthusiasm, his love of world music, and so on. It was fun to listen to Ethan talk as he is so excited about world music and the global paths it has taken him on, including many trips to India.
Friday, February 26, 2010
I was able to hear Lyons HS from Michigan sing in the morning and just the first couple tunes from Augustana College directed by Jon Hurty. I've heard Augustana a number of times over the last few years, so I know how capable they are. Jon does some very creative programming, and I recall a great performance of the McMillen Cantos Sagrados a few years ago which was breathtakingly dramatic. They did it in the scaled down version, which I actually think is far superior to the orchestrated version (kind of like how I feel about the Bernstein Chichester Psalms). Lyons HS was excellent and since they are a small ensemble, I liked that Steve Lorenz had the singers spread out a bit and have some of that personal sound space which can be really effective when singing. But I couldn't help chuckling over the "la-la-las" in Gwyneth Walker's otherwise very nice setting of "How Can I keep from Singing" (the space-filling "la-la-la's" on my "Mashed Potato Love Poem" from "Play with your Food" are a friendly dig at Gwyneth's overuse of la-la-las!).
The reason I had to get moving and miss the balance of the morning's concerts was that the JHS honors choir directed by the always awesome and indefatiguable (hmm, never used that word before) Lynne Gackle is singing my "Peace on Earth...and lots of little crickets", and Lynne wanted me to drop in and hear their progress. Well, they were doing just fine on it and they seem like a great bunch of young singers, and the energy between Lynne and them was awesome. We worked on opening up the sound more without getting "Disney", as Lynne put it, and got them moving to this tune- a piece you can't sing standing still. The kids were great fun to meet and I even noticed a few of them with hand decorated "cricket" teeshirts. I asked what was up with that and it turned out that these seven sweet kids from Emerson School in Michigan had decided to make up these shirts (and make one for their conductor too) since they like the tune so much. So Lynne was kind enough to let us go out in the hallway and take some photos of these cool fun shirts- wow, classical music can be fun...who knew?!
After that I wound up chatting for quite awhile with two dear friends, Mary Alice and Gary Stollak. Mary is newly retired from leading the Michigan State University Children's Choir to greatness, and she is here because she is receiving a "major award" from ACDA on Saturday (let's hope it is not marked "fra-gi-le" and is in the shape of a leg). Gary was his usual witty self, and I love hearing his thoughts on everything, but especially child-rearing, as he has been a leading child psychologist working out of MSU for decades. Everything Gary says is in earnest jest, or jestful earnestness.
Post this were some afternoon performances... I'll put this current post up now and continue with those performances when I get back to the laptop keyboard later night or else over the weekend.
Final random thoughts:
PLUS The college choirs performing are all smiling when done- they seem to be happy and proud when they finish their performance-- I've been seeing too many dour or, even worse, blank bored looks on college performer's faces these last few years at performance events. Tom Carter- you and others are making a difference!
MINUS No one attempted a quad today, but I bet some of those wild and crazy kids from Ethan Sperry's choir were thinking 'bout it.