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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Two Anticipated Recordings

There are two recordings that will be released in the next few months or so that I’m really looking forward to.  First is Beyond All Mortal Dreams by Trinity College, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Layton.  Second is a so-far unnamed album by the Phoenix Chorale of Ola Gjeilo‘s music.

Trinity College at Cambridge is known for all their wonderful performance.  I first had the opportunity to see them while they were preparing and performing for an Evensong service in their chapel.  It was a remarkable performance and included Arvo Pärt’s “Nunc dimmitis,” which was incredibly powerful.  They also sang a piece called “O vis aeternitatis,” by American composer, Frank Ferko.  I’d never heard of him nor the piece but was amazed at the moving aesthetic of it.

Since then, Stephen Layton has decided to record an entire album of American a cappella works including this piece by Ferko.  In addition, it has works by Stephen Paulus, William Hawley, Healey Willan, and curiously Ola Gjeilo.  Some of the finest works of each of these composers will be represented if fine form.  I’ve listened to some of the samples Hyperion Records posted on their their website and I’m very excited to hear the rest.  It sounds very promising.  This is a promising step for some English musicians who aren’t familiar with American choral music.

The Second recording also features the music of Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo.  He’s made quite the splash on the choral scene with some very defining qualities, and a distinctive sound.  It’s difficult to define exactly what his music sounds like, but it’s his.  Anyway, he’s now the composer-in-residence for the Phoenix Chorale, conducted by Charles Bruffy, and has written a number of pieces for them.  Bruffy, in turn, decided to have the Chorale make a recording dedicated specifically to his music.  This just finished the recording sessions yesterday (Monday) and already I can’t wait to start listening to it.  It should be out this coming Fall or around then.

Here’s a video about the Phoenix Chorale recording Ola Gjeilo:

Anyway, here’s to waiting . . .

Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

For those not familiar with Górecki, he was a Polish composer who became one of the leading musical voices of our time.  He spent much of his life struggling and writing without much success until his Symphony No. 3 (or “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) became an overnight success on England’s record charts decades after he’d written it.  For more about that watch this clip from a BBC documentary:

For some reason, we have a difficult time putting his music into any sort of genre, but most compare him to “holy minimalists,” like Arvo Pärt, or John Tavener. All three composers spend time writing in a serialistic style and then abandoned this to find a different voice, and this is what most of them are known for. To hear the powerful, stirring second movement of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony watch this video:

Oxford + Cambridge = Oxbridge

Wow!  So much to cover and such a short period of time.  Let’s see if I can get to some of this.  First off, I’m rather surprised I even got to these universities in the first place.  It was such a blessing to go to each of these places and drink in what they have to offer.

First, Oxford – It wasn’t what I was expecting.  First, the entire university isn’t just one body, it’s divided into smaller colleges (St. John, Magdalen, New, Corpus Chrisi, Wadham, Kings, Queens, etc.) that have their own chapel, living quarters, halls, and studies.  Also, I was expecting it to be a campus set aside from the town, but I found just the opposite.  The university and the town are indivisibly woven into each other.  There’s a college here, and a college there with a number of shops between them.

I had the opportunity to sit in on rehearsal with the choir boys of New College.  It was remarkable.  8 to 12 year olds all together singing the treble part of whatever piece they were learning.  They knew what key the piece was written in and what key they were choosing to sing it in.  They knew which marks were editorial and how to tune certain intervals.  There’s nothing like this in America.  One of the highlights was hearing them rehearse “Lift Thine Eyes,” by Mendelssohn.  Unbelievable.

The highlight of the entire trip was being able to sing with one of the college choirs for an Evensong service.  We’ve got some really sweet hook ups into a lot of different colleges there (Thanks Ruth!).  I had the opportunity to sing with St. John’s College Choir.  We pretty much showed up and hour before the service, learned the program (including Anglican chant), and then started learning some of next week.  I was impressed that they all could sight-read so well.  It must have rubbed off or something because I started sight reading better!  Next to me was another bass named Rory who helped show me the ropes.  Without his help I would have been completely lost.  I was really glad that one of the pieces had the same words as a song we did in BYU Singers this year, and the other one was “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,”  the same version we did with the combined choirs at BYU.  Way to take a load off my mind!

Between rehearsal and service we had tea in a common room.  It was a great way to get a bit of food, water and socializing in before singing.  An interesting part of the service was that before and after we went out to sing the service in the chapel, there was a prayer and a blessing.  It’s a part of the service you never get to see unless you’re apart of it.  And I guess, if you’re doing this week in and week out it becomes routine for you and might not be as novel as it is for us.  After the service we had a wee reception in the chapel and then dinner in the hall.  They sang a blessing (that was more like a Verdi opera chorus then the Tallis cannon we learned) and then ate.  We had a great time chatting with the students and learning what they do and why they choose to do it.  They really are a keen bunch.  I found them to be really open, warm and friendly.  Awesome people.

Next, Cambridge – We have only spent a day here so far (as opposed to three in Oxford), but already, it’s an engaging place and very attractive.  It’s much like Oxford in the sense that there are different college with the town woven in.  We got to walk around a bit and felt that the place was really bright and open with a really good feel about it.  We took a punting tour down the River with great guide and had a blast.  The punting tour essentially shows you nine of the colleges that sit on the river.  I found Cambridge to be a bit more bucolic then Oxford (which is always a plus in my book).

After our punting trip and our walk around the place, we went to rehearsal and Evensong with Trinity College Choir conducted by Stephen Layton (who conducts Polyphony).  It was a great choir with a really fantastic repertoire.  They sang the “Nunc Dimittis” by Arvo Pärt (LOVED IT), “O Vis Aeternitatis” by Frank Ferko (a new favorite) and a new unpublished piece by Stephen Paulus called “Little Elegy” (Uh-mazing).  They sounded really amazing, and are definitely up there on the list of choirs I need to get to know better (along with Tenebrae, Elora Festival Singers and The Holst Singers).

Sadly, we didn’t have much more time besides that.  On the way to Cambridge we found a US Memorial a few of the troops who died in the European Theater, many from the air force who were shot down over the sea.  It was a moving experience.  I really want to go back there.

One thing that I noticed with both choral experiences is that most of the what choirs ever do is church music.  Literature specifically written with a church service in mind.  They see very little secular repertoire, if any at all.  I found that very peculiar to me since I find myself about half and half with the sacred and secular lit.  I can’t see myself giving up either.  Then again, with so much focus on church music, they know it all and have a vast amount of it.

Sorry for the long delay and hope I can write more soon.  Just having a blast here!  I highly recommend it.