ACDA 2015 – Salt Lake City

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Another great American Choral Directors Association conference has come and gone. Like each one, the week seems to go by very fast and yet offers a large wealth of things to learn from and incorporate into our art form. Sometimes, these conferences can be just the shot in the arm you need to keep fighting the good fight.

It was particularly great that this year’s national conference was in Salt Lake City. What a perfect place for a conference! Two great halls: Abravanel and the Salt Lake Tabernacle, along with the Assembly Hall, the Cathedral of the Madeline, the Conference Center, the Salt Palace and the new City Creek Shopping Center, TRAX, along with all the other amenities downtown SLC has to offer. It was also unseasonably warm for most of the time we were there.

The USC Thornton Chamber Singers had the opportunity to perform where we gave two excellent concerts that were genuinely fun to be a part of. Whenever you perform at the conference it does limit your ability to attend. After Wednesday, however, we pretty much had the rest of the time to ourselves and I made full use of it.

Here are some highlights as well as some thoughts in no particular order:

  • Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 11.42.52 AMRepertoire: I can’t help myself. Out of all of the regular gold/blue track concerts, there were aprox. 224 compositions performed (folk songs with no author credited didn’t get counted). Of those 224 compositions, 16 came from the Renaissance or earlier (7%), 8 from the Baroque (3.5%), 4 from the Classical (2%), 17 from the Romantic (7.5%), 21 from 1900-1950 (9.5%), and 158 from 1950-Today (70.5%)
  • While this has shifted from year to year, in many ways, it does represent pretty accurately what repertoire is being performed by choirs throughout the United States. Classical music was much better represented than in Dallas (which had 0 compositions). Renaissance and Romantic music were better represented thanks to the King’s Singers, National Youth Chorus of Great Britain, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
  • I hear a lot of people complain that all we do is sing old music by dead people. I also often hear choral musicians saying that we need to “start” performing more recent music by living composers. As you can see above, this is already the majority of music we perform. It was very much the same situation two years ago in Dallas.
  • There were a lot more choirs from outside the United States performing than previous years. It some cases, multiple ensembles per concert. This is GREAT because it exposes Americans to more ensembles, repertoire, and choral tones than what they encounter in the US. Choral musicians have a tendency (especially in large metropolitan areas) to be insular and only focus on ensembles in our own vicinity while being vaguely aware of ensembles in other parts of the country and world. We saw choirs from England, Estonia, Cuba, South Korea, and Japan, among other places.
  • The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra performed under the baton of Tõnu Kaljuste. While their singing and playing were top-notch and their program cutting-edge, they messed up in a big way–they gave us NO program. They performed Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament, Brett Dean’s Carlo, and Lepo Sumera’s Concerto per voci e strumenti (along with an encore by Arvo Pärt). It’s a brilliant selection and music that we all need to be exposed to, but how can ANY audience be expected to follow what’s happening with no texts, no translations, no program notes, or any sort of explanation. It was only after the performance that I was told that Carlo was inspired by and quoted Carlo Gesualdo’s music–something that would have helped me enjoy it more if I had known that before the performance. As a result, many people walked out in the middle of an otherwise incredible performance. This is why modern audiences are alienated by classical music (more on this later).
  • mormon-tabernacle-choir-background-blueThe Mormon Tabernacle Choir was in top form with some of the best programming I’ve seen them do. It was Mack Wilberg, being the incredible Choral Lit. teacher he is, showing the rest of American how to program a concert. Brilliant choices. Many of the pieces from the Romantic era were ones that I hadn’t been exposed to yet. The entire 75 minute program was done without any applause in between. The whole program was a tremendous statement! We ALL need to study that program much deeper and learn lessons from it.
  • One of the most inspiring programs and performances was the Sante Fe Desert Chorale at the Cathedral of the Madeline. They sang and read a lot of texts by Rumi and Hafiz, and incorporated other music closely related to it. The tone was rich and the performance engaging. Whenever people got up to give readings, a little bit more of their personality came out. It was definitely a moment when they shined. After this performance, it’s easy to see how the Sante Fe Desert Chorale have become one of the finest small choirs in the United States. Bravo to Joshua Habermann.

Overall the conference offered a lot of great opportunities. I purchased bags full of music and I’m ready to dive in and find lots of new treasures. It also inspired me to keep writing (easier said than done). I only wish the next conference would also be in Salt Lake City, but I’m looking forward to Pasadena for western division in 2016 and Minneapolis for national in 2017.

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ACDA in Dallas

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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):

  • morton-h-meyerson-symphony-center-95My 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.
  • IMG_0033Incidentally, 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).
  • Downtown_Dallas_Arts_District-1Other 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.

Dnews Craig Jessop Tabernacle ChoirThe 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.

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The Pure River Flows Premiere

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This has been a couple of crazy weeks! Was in Dallas for ACDA then Plano for St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church and now Utah for the BYU Men’s Chorus.  I’ll talk about ACDA and Men’s Chorus later, but for right now, St. Andrew’s.

I had the opportunity to hear the premiere of “The Pure River Flows.”  It was a wonderful experience.  The Chancel Choir at St. Andrew’s was a very dedicated and enthusiastic ensemble.  It was a joy to work with singers that are dedicated to the words and to communicating that with an audience/congregation.  They’re all very lovely people and I felt very welcome by everyone there. I’ve received some very lovely emails from members of the choir about how they loved singing the music.  I hope to work with them again soon.

Here’s a recording from that morning:

We know not a voice of that River,
If vocal or silent it be,
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows to no sea.

More deep than the seas is that River,
More full than their manifold tides,
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows and abides.

Pure gold is the bed of that River
(The gold of that land is the best),
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows on at rest.

Oh goodly the banks of that River,
Oh goodly the fruits that they bear,
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows and is fair.

For lo! on each bank of that River
The Tree of Life life-giving grows,
Where for ever and ever and ever
The Pure River flows.

– Christina Rossetti

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“The Pure River Flows” Premiere + Everyone Sang Now Available

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Hey Friends,

A week from tomorrow, my new commission, “The Pure River Flows,” will be premiered at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas the day after ACDA wraps up.  I’m very excited to finally hear this brought to life by the Choir there under the direction of Chris Crook!  It’s going to be a great time I can tell.  In other news, I will also be performing a solo at the same service!  I will be singing “I Stand All Amazed.”

In addition to all of this, “Everyone Sang” is now available for purchase through Hal Leonard’s website as well as through JW Pepper. It will be available for purchase at ACDA in Dallas this next week!  If you’re attending, I’ll see you there!

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Review: musica intima – Into Light

Last March, when BYU Singers was in Chicago for ACDA, I had the opportunity to walk around the exhibits in the basement of the Hilton.  After picking up a bunch of free sheet music and meeting some of the folks at Walton and Hal Leonard, I came across the exhibit for a Canadian ensemble named musica initma.  A few of us here at BYU had discovered their video of “Christus vincit” by James MacMillan and we were very impressed by what we heard.

Basically, the group consist of 12 voices without a conductor.  This sort of thing is very, very difficult to manage.  Keeping that many people together without a conductor is a serious challenge.  I mean, even keeping two or three people together without dragging is a serious challenge.  Put expression into that mix and you’ve got a whole new bag of problems.  With this opportunity to meet with some of them I had questions about how they ran their ensemble.  Simple things like, who picks their repertoire?  Who decides on interpretation choices?  How do they stay together?  How often do they rehearse?  How important in sight-reading?  One of the members went above and beyond gracious in answering all my questions (I wish I could remember her name).

After a while they gave me a free copy of their newest CD Into Light charging me, “listen to it . . . tell all your friends about it.”  Such great people.  Well, I listened to it, but completely forgot to talk about it!  I decided that in order to make up for that, I’ll write a review here, hoping that will make up for it.

The idea behind this album was to make a recording of all-Canadian choral music.  The group is from Canada and there hasn’t really been a collection like this before, makes perfect sense.  Naturally, the most arguably famous Canadian composer, Healey Willan, is missing from the line up.  Rather than make a typical, whitebread, cookie-cutter album of the most famous Canadian choral pieces, musica initma has made a bold choice to offer music that we’ve probably never heard before.  Willan’s music has been recorded dozens of times by great choirs, why record them again only to subject yourself to unfair comparisons?  Why not offer something fresh and new for you listeners and get them to stretch a little?  musica initma has done just that in a brilliant way.  It’s a lot like what Stephen Layton did with his recording of American music with Trinity College.  If Canada ever had to prove that it could produce world-class choral music (both in writing and performance), this album is a solid “exhibit A.”

The album does open with a piece by Canada’s second most famous composer, Imant Raminsh.  His “Ave verum corpus,” has become quite popular here in the States and around the world.  It sets up the album quite beautiful; It sets the tone for the rest of what is to follow.  We have heard it before but it allows us something familiar to hold onto before we venture into new territory.  I was also glad to see R. Murray Schaffer on the recording (Canada’s third most famous composer) but with some pieces we’re not really familiar with.

I was never really worried about what I was being offered.  I mean, this is the choir that introduced me to “You Have Ravished My Heart” by Stephen Chapman.  It’s like that friend you have with great taste that takes you to a new restaurant: you feel comfortable ordering just about anything on the menu because they brought you there.  Some highlights from the disc for me include “Agneau de Dieu (Lamb of God)” by Rupert Lang, “Exaudi” by Jocelyn Morlock, “Ice” by Bruce Sled, and “Le Pont Mirabeau (The Mirabeau Bridge)” by Lionel Daunais.  “Le Pont” in particular is exceptionally beautiful and makes a great album closer.

Is this album perfect?  No.  What album is?  This album is, however, a solid offering from a great ensemble and also serves as a great representation for all of Canadian choral music.  This group has recorded a number of other disc that I’m looking forward to listening to in the future.  This is the kind of group that I would love to write music for (especially if I had the time).

Here’s a video of the gorgeous “Agneau de Dieu” by Rupert Lang.  While it’s not the recording from the album, it shows you what a live performance is like with them.

ACDA in Chicago

I still have that lovely souvenir I got in Chicago, but I’m well enough to start writing about how ACDA went.  It was awesome!  First, Chicago is a great city, didn’t have a lot of time to explore the whole thing, but I really enjoyed the parts that I saw.  They’ve got some awesome public art.

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I got to see a concert session with Fountain Valley High School, Calvin College Alumni Choir, The Singers – Minnesota Choral Artists, and the CCNU TianKong Choir (A women’s chorus from a Chinese University).  All were great and had something amazing to offer.  Fountain Valley really impressed me by singing Six Chanson by Hindemith.  What a feat!  That’s no easy set of pieces, especially for a High School choir.  I’m glad that some high schools in this nation are still challenging themselves like this and not just singing any old Lauridsen/Whitacre copycat that happens to catch their eye (Please understand that I love Lauridsen and Whitacre, it’s just disappointing to see so many people try and copy them and fail because it’s profitable.  Only Lauridsen and Whitacre can write like they do).

Calvin College Alumni Choir did a great job singing “Magnificat” by Alberto Grau.  It’s quite a doozy and they really brought the house down with it.  Unfortunately they ended with a rather white-bread “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and “Gabriel” that just seemed like a much too obvious attempt to get the audience riled up and a standing ovation.  Well, it worked, but I wasn’t played that easy.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a very good choir, but I can tell when I’m being played.  I felt like their goal was to impress rather than express.

Next was a truly wonderful performance by The Singers – Minnesota Choral Artists, directed by Matthew Culloton.  This was a fantastic performance from beginning to end.  They started with excerpts from Mid-Winter Song by Morten Lauridsen (the real deal),  a piece by Libby Larsen that ended a little confusingly, two pieces by Brahms and two original works by their composers-in-residence, Abbie Betinis and Jocelyn Hagen.  The highlight of the performance were the pieces by Brahms.  They were so beautifully sung and masterfully shaped, it was unbelievable to listen to.  It made me so excited that we were doing Brahms in BYU Singers.  Some people didn’t like The Singers because they chose the wrong music.  I disagree, I thought they made great choices and were seeking to express something rather than impress or manipulating their audience.

After the concert session I visited the exhibits downstairs at the Hilton.  I found the Walton Booth and found my piece that they published!  I was thrilled to see my piece there rubbing shoulders with some other great pieces.  I chatted a bit with some reps. from Hal Leonard who all “welcomed me into the family.”  Kind of a cool phrase, and then I remembered that this family included Samuel Barber, Dale Warland, Eric Whitacre, Ola Gjeilo, and Frank Ferko.  That’s a pretty awesome family.

I ran around, collected some music, bought some books, met some new people, and got to chat with some members of musica intima who are all awesome (They gave me a free CD!).  I got to ask them a bunch of questions about what it’s like singing in a small ensemble with no conductor (good advice to someone in a six voice group).  They seem like a really awesome group.

BYU Singers in Auditorium Theater and Roosevelt University

BYU Singers had a great time getting ready, rehearsing, sound-checking and a lot of other great stuff.  First we sang in Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theater.  Not my favorite space.  They put up a shell to help with sound, but it still wasn’t a good acoustic to sing it.  It felt like we were singing into a vacuum (a lovely vacuum at that).

Our program was “Everyone Sang,” by Argento (one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever had to learn or sing) “I Have Had Singing” by Sametz (much harder than it looks), “Chantez à Dieu,” by Sweelinck, “Wenn wir in hösten Nöten, sein,” by Brahms (one of the greatest of his motets, absolutely rocked!) “There is Sweet Music,” by EJ White, and “Each Day” by Stephan Paulus.  The Paulus piece is not very hard to learn or even sing, but it is a beast to tune.  Singing each of these pieces is fine and dandy, but we wanted all of them dead in tune and beautifully phrased.  It was tough as nails, but we did it.

The better place to sing was Symphony Hall, here it was a much better acoustic to sing in (it only took a few minutes for us to get the hang of the space).  It was also gorgeous and a much more rewarding venue to sing in.  Our performance there was astounding to be a part of.  Sometimes you can tell when it’s going really well, and this was one of those times.  There were a few times when we started singing something different to what we had rehearsed and all of us followed without hesitation.  This was one of those moments when our minds all fused together and we made decisions without any word passed between us.  This was one of those moments we became “an eighty legged animal,” as Gabriel Crouch once put it.  It was a truly incredible experience for us.  For others it might not have been that big of a deal, but it was a triumph to us.

Anyway, it was awesome.  I explored the rest of Chicago with some friends, and then got sick and brought that stupid souvenir home.  Gross, traveling while sick is not good, and then I got the rest of BYU Singers sick.  After we got back about half of us have been sitting out of rehearsal (including yours truly).  This happens every year, but this time it was I who got everyone sick.  Whoops.

BYU Singers in Chicago Symphony Hall