Oh my flippin’ heck. Easters is over and has finally concluded my last three weeks of whirlwind ALL THE THINGS! (Can’t brain, I have the dumb). Do I actually have a few minutes to myself here? I wanted to take some time and reflect on my thoughts and experiences at ACDA a few weeks ago in Dallas.
First off, it was great (SURPRISE!). I love geeking out during these things. Seeing gaggles of friends both old and new is always a great time for me. I also like seeing all the new music that’s available, combing through books and octavos, and dropping WAY too much money on very heavy purchases (I think I’ll start measuring my purchases in pounds rather than dollars). Combine that with a bunch of choir nerds swarming through several venues like locusts o’er the land is a sight to behold. Above all though, the company of friends is something I greatly cherish.
Rather than write in long (boring) paragraphs, I’ll just distill most everything into bullet points. It’ll be easier to digest (although you still might get heartburn):
- My priority lies with the performances. I try to attend every single performance I can. What I look for most in a good performance is choice of repertoire, communicating the spirit of the music and text, and tone (in that order). I felt that there were several choirs that filled all three, and many more that filled 2 out of 3. There were MANY great offerings.
- The Meyerson Concert Hall was by far the better venue. If I saw a choir in the Winspear, I tried to give them room for the unforgiving acoustic. I’ve been there, and I know what it feels like to work really hard for a conference performance only to feel as though you’re singing into cotton.
- If someone had brought a fruit/veg truck outside the concert halls, they would have made bank.
- For me, there is a huge difference between seeking to impress and seeking to express. Some choirs came to do the former, others the latter. You could smell which it was the moment they walked on stage.
- Out of the 200 pieces (I counted) performed during the main performance sessions, only 16 (8%) were from year 1750 and earlier. Out of those 16 only 6 (3%) were from the Renaissance. As far as I can tell, there was nothing performed from the classical era. I believe that the lifeblood of any art form is its new works, but I also believe that some of the best new works come from looking back at earlier masters. As a friend mentioned to me, “Renaissance and early baroque is an era that instrumentalists just don’t have much to work with. Why would choral musicians choose not to exploit that?” For me it’s not a matter of specializing in that music but acknowledging it as our heritage. There is more music written for the human voice than any other instrument, much of it comes from these earlier eras.
- Incidentally, There were a few very interesting choices made when performing music from the Renaissance. Some choirs held that literature at arms length and weren’t very successful with it. Few ensembles actually embraced it with open arms and made it their own. Obviously, this is related to the bullet point just above. Renaissance Music is still considered too remote by most of us to really dig deep into its wells. We need to fix this.
- I’m also seeing a somewhat troubling trend towards the gimmick. Rather than talking about the lit, spirit, or tone, we’re talking about the gimmick. Red flag.
- Went to hear Dale Warland speak. Took away two great points: One of the most important places to put your attention with a choir is in it’s literature. Selecting, studying, finding literature is one of the most important places to put your energy. Second, We need a good mix of the old and the new. In Dale’s opinion (the man who commissioned and premiered DOZENS of new pieces), we neglect the old far too often.
- Cal-State Fullerton – Bold program choices. Wonderful spirit. Beautiful tone. I loved how they moved from the Pärt Berliner Mass right into Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden without a break. Also, their performances of excerpts from O’Regan’s Tryptych were some of the best I’ve heard. Very proud to call them a neighbor here in LA.
- Pacific Lutheran University – Hands down, one of the finest ensembles of the entire conference. Just spell binding from the very first piece.
- San Antonio Chamber Choir – The highlights for me here were the Britten (A.M.D.G. . . so difficult!), Brahms (with very, very little vibrato) and “Mille regretz” by Rindfleisch (heart-wrenchingly beautiful).
- Other honorable mentions include: Marcus High School Varsity Treble Choir, University of Philippines Madrigal Singers, University of North Texas, Crystal Children’s Choir, Houston Chamber Choir, University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, and the Florida State University Singers.
- The Tallis Scholars were outstanding. I absolutely love listening to them sing and try and listen to them live as often as I am able. Talk about a choir that sings early music with real, full tone. No kid gloves. Nothing brittle or wimpy. Just true, clean, full tone. Love it. (P.S. When are you going to release the recording of Gabriel Jackson’s new piece?!)
- The Mormon Choral Organizations simply knocked it out of the park. I walked in with skepticism, but was quickly proven wrong. It was impressive from beginning to end. The highlight for me were choral/orchestral transcriptions of Liszts transcriptions of Schumann’s “Widmung” and Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” Thrilling music and so tastefully orchestrated. For “Erlkönig,” they had the children sing the son’s part, the men sing the Father’s part, the women sing the elf-king’s part on the combined men and women sing the narrator. Totally effective. If you didn’t see this, you missed out big time.
The climax of the entire conference for me was the Britten War Requiem. I must start by explaining that I don’t enjoy much of Britten’s music. I admire it, respect it, and recognize the genius of it, but I just don’t really enjoy it. Much of the time, to me, if comes off as “overly studied” and “cold” (no matter how many times I say this, people somehow try and convince me that my tastes are “wrong”). The same goes for the War Requiem. I’ve studied it a few times and every time I hear it mentioned, I break out in hives.
Nevertheless, I wanted to hear it in person and experience it for myself. I sat with a friend of mine who feels the same way about Britten that I do. We were both moved very much after that performance. All we could really say afterwards was, “Do you like this better after hearing it in person?” Yes. Oh yes indeed. Do I enjoy it more? Not so much. Do I love it more? Yes. It was a magnificent, chilling, powerful, evocative performance. Few other performances have moved me to that extent. Stanford Olsen’s performance was soul-shattering. So much of the mood was dependent upon him and he delivered every time.
The real hero of the night though was Craig Jessop. I’ve seen him conduct MANY times before, this was absolutely his best. A servent of the score, he stayed calm and collected while unleashing heaven and hell upon all of us in attendance. He didn’t spare us one iota of what Britten intended. At the conclusion of the performance, after he released the choir from their final chord, he held the silence in that hall for what seemed like forever. No one in the Meyerson dared to breath until Jessop put his arms down. I felt like I was going to suffocate. It was the most silent I’ve been with so many people. It was a performance that left you weary and defeated, but never more grateful. Jessop never really took a bow for himself, he just kept acknowledging others. I just looked at him and said to myself, “That’s the kind of conductor I want to be like.” It was a night that we will remember for a very long time.