November 30, 2004
The Beards Bow To Leonard Cohen
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
The men dressed in suits are a rough bunch, with mismatched ties, a variety of facial fuzz and an assorted smattering of derby caps and fedoras. They stand out in the crowd of casually dressed hipsters like a battalion of the Salvation Army stationed in San Francisco's 12 Galaxies club. Abruptly, as if answering some silent siren, the suited men abandon their drinks and their cigarettes and head for the stage. They are the Conspiracy of Beards, an all-male chorus that sings only Leonard Cohen songs, and as they assemble in a crescent around choir conductor Daryl Henline, a hush falls over the chatty crowd. "It's really about the joy of singing," says Henline, the group's de facto leader. "Outside of academic settings or the church, people don't really get to experience choral singing, which is a shame, because it's beautiful."
With about 20 members (no one is actually sure how many Beards will show up for a gig), a growing list of dates at venues such as the Hemlock Tavern and Adobe Bookstore, a CD coming out this spring from local label Out of Round Records and plans for a European tour, the Beards are becoming a Bay Area phenomenon. Recently, the Beards took their act to the streets. After an abbreviated practice, they went to the Castro on Halloween night, performing amid the spectacle of costumes and crowds. Henline says that spontaneity is one of his favorite aspects of the Beards.
"We get to go to places where choirs usually can't go," he says. "I've sung in choirs all my life, but I've never had the ability to go to bars or street corners to sing before. Singing 'Everybody Knows' in the Castro was just so fitting with the times right now. It's just a great, wry observation of the multitude of lies in modern society, the kind of stuff people are putting up with every day. "It felt really good to sing that. It's material people need to hear." More
Review Boyz II Men
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO):
There was never any real match for the '90s biggest and best R&B vocal group, Boyz II Men, and that remains true. In fact, the fellows themselves are no match for their former incarnation. Boyz II Men, which performed at the Ambassador Sunday night, has had it tough hanging on to past glories and seen more than its share of disappointments the past several years - from a lineup change to tumbling CD sales to a shifting down to second-tier status. Yet the group admirably and humbly moves on, adjusting to what has transpired.
What hasn't changed are the voices of Shawn Stockman, Wanya Morris and Nathan Morris, which graced many a pop/R&B hit across the past decade. During the group's hourlong concert here, Boyz II Men easily reminded its fans of a recently bygone era of friendlier R&B, when it was OK for the music to not come off as thugged-out and hip-hop-heavy. And the trio managed the feat without benefit of a band (though wouldn't it have been great to hear those vocals laced with live music?) and without retired member Michael McCary, the group's deep bass voice. The trio, dressed in black leather sweatsuits, started it off with the song that started it off for them in 1991, its "Motownphilly," the group's sole dance-oriented hit. A solo Stockman then quickly thrilled with a series of riffs and runs that served as the intro to one of the band's biggest ballads and signature songs, "On Bended Knee."
A trio of cover songs allowed the group to showcase its latest CD, "Throwback," which features the Boyz putting the group's soulful spin on already-soulful tunes. Serving as easy sing-alongs for the crowd were the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New," Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile" and Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love," with a rap by MC Lyte piped in. After saying, "Now that we got the 'Throwback' stuff out of the way," the group went back to its own classics, of which it has plenty, such as the acoustic-leaning "Water Runs Dry." During "I'll Make Love to You," the singers passed out roses to female fans. Concert-goers called their mothers during "A Song for Mama" and held their cell phones up in the air. A couple of phones made their way onstage, and the singers crooned into them. An a cappella verse of "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" followed by "End of the Road" appropriately ended the concert.
November 27, 2004
Boston Globe (MA):
There are a cappella singing groups that harmonize with lilting consideration for sensitive ears. And then there are the Screaming Men, who don't. They perform pretty much as their name indicates -- in cacophonous, conceptual primal shouts. The director Mika Ronkainen has made a likable little docu-profile, also called ''The Screaming Men," that follows his fellow Finns around as they tour the world. (Believe it or not, this is the second documentary about an offbeat Scandinavian singing group; Knut Erik Jensen's ''Cool and Crazy" came through Boston in 2002.)
Ronkainen shows us how the rehearsals go and how audiences respond to their music (usually with bewilderment), which is like strongly harmonized stadium chanting. The film opens handsomely, with the group's 25 members waddling off a boat and onto ice for a song, whose principal audience is the movie's camera. Ronkainen has a good time photographing the men so that they resemble penguins in their black suits, white shirts, and neckties made of sections of rubber inner tube. But the movie goes only so deep. It's content to celebrate the group's quirks without investigating them. The only Screaming Man we get to know is Petri Sirvi, and he doesn't even scream. Sirvi conducts, serving as the focal point of both the film and the curious international media, for whom he can barely keep a lid on his contempt.
In treating the members almost as a single entity, the movie is faithful to Sirvi's musing that the Screaming Men use their ''private voices in a collective way." That way is chiefly subversion. For instance, they do booming, mangled remixes of various national anthems, including a brutalized ''La Marseillaise," which a Parisian organizer tried to prevent. (When the group opts not to do Iceland's -- apparently it's unlawful to alter it -- the prime minister vows to change the law so it can receive the Screaming Men treatment.) But the group does seem nervous about whether they can successfully entertain a Japanese audience. Sirvi gives a cogent lecture that explains why shouting is such a valid form of communication and release, and people in the audience take notes.
The movie also gives us another brief window into Finnish culture, which seems to treasure the idiosyncrasies of self-expression or -- in the case of the collective nature of the Screaming Men -- group expression. Ronkainen's camera sits in on a few grueling auditions for new recruits. But these men want to be there badly, as if they couldn't think of a more personally satisfying alternative. In both ''The Screaming Men" and a few movies by the easygoing Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, these flights of musical eccentricity are cooler and maybe mentally healthier than a 9-to-5 job.
November 24, 2004
Boyz II Men take 'Throwback' out for a spin
Armed with a new collection of pop and soul covers, Boyz II Men -- now a trio -- is working the U.S. club and theater circuit. The vocal group, which launched the outing last week, has dates set through mid-December, tickets for many of which are on sale now. The itinerary is shown below. The tour supports "Throwback," an album of covers that surfaced in late August. Among the songs included on the set are renditions of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile," Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love," a track that features guest vocals from veteran rapper MC Lyte.
"Throwback" is Boyz II Men's first album since 2000's "Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya." In the four years since that release, Michael "Bass" McCary has retired from the group, leaving Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris as a threesome. The three singers, who have since parted with Universal Records, released "Throwback" on their own newly founded MSM label, a partnership with Koch Records.
"This is our chance for creative expression, considering that we've been tied to major record labels for the last twelve years," Nathan Morris said in a statement. "The labels would think that an album like this wouldn't be financially viable for them. But we decided that our first album back would be something that we wanted to do." The group plans to return to the studio to record an album of new material very soon, according to Koch. Boyz II Men sold more than 60 million albums worldwide during the '90s, earning them Billboard's Singing Group of the Decade honors. More than 12 million copies of the group's 1994 album, "II," have been sold in the U.S.
Vox Consort delights with stylish 'Galatea'
The Vox Consort, a newish early-music ensemble, offered a delightful performance of Handel's little opera ''Acis and Galatea" on Sunday afternoon. The group arrived on the scene highly recommended by its mentor, Simon Carrington, a founding member of the King's Singers and later director of choral activities at New England Conservatory (and now at Yale), and Carrington wasn't wrong. The singing, under the direction of Richard A. A. Larraga, was trim and stylish, and the semistaging by Stephen Marc Beaudoin was simple and effective.
Handel's black-comedy pastoral on a text by poet John Gay was even more popular than ''Messiah" in the composer's lifetime. The first part is a rural idyll depicting the romance of Acis and Galatea. The second part pulls the rug out from under them. The giant Polyphemus arrives on the scene, falls in love with Galatea, and, in a moment of fury, kills Acis with a boulder. Galatea's lament is so poignant that a goddess helps her turn Acis into a fountain; in this production the chorus wrapped him in watery blue silk.
The Vox Consort played the piece on a bare platform and in modern dress; the setting, the program leaflet told us, was ''a tony party for the reunion of young hipsters," although in context, the cast looked more like a well-dressed Sunday-school class. The exception was Polyphemus, dressed as a burned-out vet with a backpack full of drugs; he hurled the backpack at Acis to knock him down, finishing the job with a few brutal jabs with a box-cutter.
The cast was excellent. Soprano Brenna J. Wells (Galatea) looks and sounds so much like Emma Kirkby in her youth that it was interesting to read that she has in fact been studying with the beloved British early-music diva. Wells sang neatly and affectingly, but needs to beware of blasting her top tones into shrillness. Tenor Jason McStoots sang sweetly and insinuatingly as the confidant shepherd Damon, dressed as a flower child. The direction increased his role in the plot: Damon was pining in vain for Acis himself, and he turned him over to Polyphemus when it became clear that there was no place for him in the happy picture. Baritone Brian Church does not boast the ripely rolling tones traditionally associated with Polyphemus's hit song, ''O ruddier than the cherry," but he invests himself in his singing and acting. Best of all was Lawrence Jones, a new tenor from California now enrolled at Boston University, who sang as Acis. The direction presented him as a kind of nervous Nellie, unable to decide which shirt to wear to impress Galatea (Damon had to help), but his singing had all the elegance and ardor you could want.
The chorus of nine offered disciplined ensemble work, excellent intonation, and attractive tone under the alert, responsive, and lively direction of Larraga. The group's performances of Bach's ''St. John" Passion March 18 and 20 with McStoots as the Evangelist and choreography by Lorraine Chapman promise much.
November 23, 2004
“Al-Fawanees” Wows Them in Ramallah
Palestinian oud player Nizar Rohana looked relieved and amazed as he bounded off the stage and headed for the door of the brand new Ramallah Cultural Palace. He had just finished playing with the Young Sound Forum of Central Europe in the first musical play to be performed in Palestine. “The European musicians just arrived on Sunday, so we only had four days to rehearse together. We were afraid it would be a disaster,” Nizar said with a smile, knowing the evening’s debut performance was anything but. Lengthy standing ovations kept everyone’s spirits up—“at a time when spirits have never been lower,” Rohan added.
Dedicated three months ago, the Cultural Center was built with the help of Japanese donors. The hall seats more than 700 people, has excellent acoustics, comfortable seating, state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, a recording studio, and a control panel to oversee the electronics. When the lights went down the curtain rose to reveal a sophisticated stage set of diaphanous screens, misty mountains and magical light beams that slowly exposed the children filling the stage in splendid costumes. They wore headset microphones close to their mouths through which they sang solos, duets and choral numbers as they danced and moved across the stage with professional timing and precision unlike anything ever seen in children’s theater in Palestine. “We trained for almost two years…something like 350 hours, where we sang, danced, acted, learned all about theater and musicals,” said Zeena Amer, 15.
Two years ago, with help from the European Union, Khoury explained, he and producer Dahlia Habash began a talent search throughout the West Bank. They ended up auditioning 500 children between the ages of 9 and 15, mainly from schools in Ramallah and Bethlehem, due to the tight closure permanently in effect in the Israeli-occupied territories. Once the final cast of 58 children was chosen, the strenuous training began.
Director Nopé, originally from Colombia, added that the experience changed his life. “As an artist, this entire experience was worth any ‘danger’ I may have confronted,” he stated. “These children could very likely be future leaders of the Palestinian people and, in addition to their talent, they have learned very valuable lessons about discipline. We always stressed the concept of mutual collaboration and that they never forget their friends.”
According to Zeena Amer, a junior in high school, when she first began rehearsing “Al Fawanees” she thought she might like to be a performer when she grew up. As the two years passed, however, she decided she would become a music therapist, having seen the wonderous effects of music, song and dance on children, including herself. Indeed, one of the more famous photos of an 8-year-old boy boldly lobbing a stone at an Israeli tank in 1987, during what is known as the first intifada, has been juxtaposed onto a poster hanging in the halls of the National Conservatory of Music—where, 10 years later, the same Ramzi Hussein is playing a violin. More
How so very much I wish I could read more articles like this about the Middle East. The children are the future, and involving them in the Arts can only have a postive effect. - Editor
Murder suspects saw through bars and escapes.
Daily News (South Africa):
It's back to square one for a team of Durban detectives today as they start the task to recapture a group of dangerous suspects in murder and robbery cases who escaped from police custody yesterday. Seven awaiting trial prisoners escaped from the Cato Manor police cells yesterday morning. Among them are an alleged cop killer and two suspects in the killing of Ben Shabalala, the brother of Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Four other prisoners who were in the cell with them refused to escape and are helping police with their investigations. Police identified the escapees as Gcolo Zuma and Themba Shazi, who were arrested for the killing of Shabalala who was gunned down in Newlands East in June when he dropped his two children off at school. Hijacking was alleged to be the motive for the killing.
November 20, 2004
From heads to toes, a winning combo
Tap dancer Savion Glover makes an easy fit with his current touring partner, vocalist Bobby McFerrin. Meeting center stage to exchange a friendly handshake at the start of their whimsical, shared concert on Wednesday at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, the two improvisational artists looked like contemporaries. Both wore relaxed clothing, and their heads sprouted complementary tangles of braids. McFerrin, though, is more than 20 years older than Glover. He made his debut at the Kool Jazz Festival in 1981, three years before Glover was discovered as a prodigy at an audition for "The Tap Dance Kid." Ironically, Glover seems far more mature.
McFerrin takes an approach that seems childlike, leading the audience in Romper Room sing-alongs during his segment of the program, teasing us by making humorous, unexpected noises, and displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of "The Wizard of Oz." In contrast, Glover turns his face upstage and submerges himself in a world of complex rhythms and colored sounds, interacting with his five-piece band while his feet produce a steady but ever-changing pattern of virtuosic taps. Glover's art is the epitome of sophistication.
What brings these artists together appears most evident in the show's opening segment, where Glover and McFerrin face off to explore the possibilities of their respective arts, extracting nuances of sound from their feet (Glover) or the human voice (McFerrin), not to mention the microphone that McFerrin blows into or rubs against his shirt. This polyglot dialogue, conducted mostly without words, is a tour de force. Phenomenal, too, is Glover's performance with his band, which features musical director Tommy James on piano, Brian Grice on drums, Patience Higgins on reed instruments, James Zollar on trumpet and Andy McLoud on bass.
At the start of his own set, Glover taps around the perimeter of the dance floor as if to take possession of it. Around him the band produces a loose texture of sound that drifts like smoke around Glover's solid rhythms. Then he cues them with a series of hard slams, and Higgins picks up the rhythm on his saxophone. What follows is an amazing journey, as original music pours from Glover's feet, based on this rhythmic foundation. His taps have a speed, consistent strength and diversity that seem superhuman.
Glover prompts individual band members to engage in dialogues, and when a particular avenue of discussion seems exhausted, he backs up and his feet ask another question. Throughout these conversations, his lithe and muscular body shakes and storms. The talented young tapper Marshal Davis dances a solo interlude, giving Glover a break before he returns to present a new composition. Titled "Stars and Stripes Forever -- For Now," this dance seems like a multicultural call for peace in the world. "We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord," Glover intones, as his ensemble launches into a "Caravan"-like travelogue, weaving melismatic, Middle-Eastern influences into a broad, lush theme that advances in a stately manner, then suddenly shivers as a jolting riff of electricity passes through it.
McFerrin returns for playtime after intermission, prompting the audience to sing along to familiar tunes like "Ave Maria" and "99 Bottles of Beer." While many people of a certain persuasion identify with Judy Garland's character in "The Wizard of Oz," McFerrin aspires to take ALL the roles, and he does a hysterical, one-man version of the movie in which he completely absorbs its world of fantasy.
November 19, 2004
Katzenjammers test new Microsoft products
What if your student group could get a free Xbox? How about a bunch of video games to go along with it? And maybe even a few new computers, a digital camera and individual mp3 players for members? In a Microsoft product testing arrangement, the Katzenjammers have received all that and more. The coed a cappella group has been asked to use the technology — in whatever way its members see fit — and then comment on it. President Daniel Skora '05, thought Microsoft was particularly interested in input from the Katzenjammers because of the demographic they represent. "College students purchase a lot of technology and [Microsoft] wanted to hear our thoughts about their products," Skora said.
The Katzenjammers were contacted through an alumna and began to receive the Microsoft products at the end of the summer, Skora said. Some of the technology — music composition software, iPod-like media players, speaker systems and mp3 players — is especially useful to the singing group . Since the group's only regular funding comes from paid performances spread out over the course of the year, the opportunity to get such valuable equipment was particularly welcome. The group also received a set of tablet computers. "They are about equal price [to standard laptops] and have a new technology that allows a person to write on the screen with a magnetic pen," Skora said.
True descendants of the Drifters
IC Liverpool (UK):
Among all the great American singing groups, The Drifters have had the most confusing history. There have been constantly changing personnel, at one time the entire line-up was fired and their places taken by a different group and different Drifters groups have sprung up.
But The Drifters appearing at the Liverpool Empire on Sunday, November 28, may have the strongest claim to the name. Group member Peter Lamarr tells me: "We are all direct descendants of The Drifters. We may not be blood related but we worked with many of the early guys like Ben E. King and Johnny Moore." It was Moore - whose distinctive lead voice is heard on the group's original recording of Under The Boardwalk - who in 1972 relocated to England with a new Drifters lineup.
Moore died in 1988 but The Drifters have continued to this day with changing personnel as usual. "We are keeping The Drift-ers tradition alive," says Brooklyn-born Lamarr. But he admits to being irked by the number of Drifters groups spread across the world. "There are Drifters in Majorca, Canada, the USA, everywhere," he says.. "Many have just used the name to make money."
There has been a court case instituted by Lamarr's Drift-ers to secure the right to the name. "It has been on-going for years," he says.. "But we hope it might all be resolved sometime in the New Year." In the meantime, he and his fellow Drifters - Patrick Alan from Los Angeles and Brits Rohan Delano Turney and Victor Bynoe - continue their non-stop tour of one night stands across the UK.
The act consists mostly of the classic Drifters songs from the early 1950s to the 1970s, Lamarr says, such as Saturday Night At The Movies, Kissin' In The Back Row and Up On The Roof. There are also original Drifters songs which people did not know they recorded like Memories Are Made Of This and Oh What a Night! Lamarr's personal favourite is Under The Boardwalk. With musician parents - mum was a backing singer for Aretha Franklin, dad played sax with Junior Walker - he heard a lot of music but he was just five when he heard Under The Boardwalk. "I had never heard anything quite like it and it proved very influential to me."
November 18, 2004
Alley Cats on the Late Late Show
The Alley Cats received some great national exposure when they performed as the "house band' on last night's Late Late Show on CBS, hosted this week by D.L. Hughley. The group got to sing a song along with a cappella intros and outros to the segments and joshed around with the host quite a bit. They looked great, sounded great and looked they were having a whole lot of fun.
November 15, 2004
Dance move by Singing City
In its 57th season, Singing City is among the stalwart choral groups in Philadelphia. Like other arts organizations around the city, it seeks to attract new audiences by including works by contemporary composers and through collaborations with artists in other disciplines. With music director Jeffrey Brillhart conducting Voices of the Heart, the Saturday evening performance, Singing City drew a full house at Philadelphia Cathedral. Their collaboration was with dancer/choreographer Amanda Miller and videographer Tobin Rothlein, who recently broke away from Phrenic New Ballet to form miro dance theatre.
With the chorus singing Benjamin Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb," Miller and Rick Callender performed in 19th-century costume. Miller first appears to enter the space through a ladies' vanity table with a triptych mirror, outfitted by Rothlein with screens showing her dancing image. The two begin their dance from seated positions in front of the vanity. As soprano Anne Hess, alto Sharon Babcock, tenor Steven Zeigler and bass Jonathan Hill enter their space, the dancers remove clothing - skirt, peplum, frock coat, bodice - and drape them over the singers. In turn, the singers replace them on the dancers' laps as they return to the chorus at the end of the dance.
The whole had an anachronistic feel as the provincial-looking couple danced spare modern movements interspersed with touches that once were featured in coy country dances, as when Miller crosses her wrists over her bosom and directs her gaze demurely downward. Nancy Dowlin's four-sectioned Rumi Reflections fit right into the program's other works by Schumann, Bruckner and Rachmaninoff, but for contrast, I would much rather have heard the more contemporary sounds of a Toby Twining or a Jennifer Higdon.
November 11, 2004
King's Singers are regal and refreshing
A concert by the King's Singers is always something of a bait-and-switch operation, but in a good way. No sooner has the six-man a cappella ensemble from England seduced you with the loveliest, most faithful renditions of Elizabethan madrigals and Renaissance polyphony you may ever hear than they're playfully sending up the style by delivering 1960s pop tunes with a 16th century flavor.
Such was the case Tuesday night when the group made a stop at Minneapolis' Ted Mann Concert Hall as part of the University of Minnesota School of Music's choral showcase, "InterPlay." After the English ensemble presented its credentials as one of the world's great male choruses, the second half of the concert was full of fizzy pop flavored with vibrantly colored harmonies. The result was a show that was not only spiritually rewarding and musically educational but a font of fun, as well.
Despite appearing the essence of stiff-lipped, dark-suited nobility, the six men always seemed itching to throw off the pompous airs and dish up a frothy dessert after the culturally nutritious portion of the program. But the main course proved quite tasty, as the troupe traded tunes from the oeuvres of two composers who lived three centuries apart: Italian Renaissance madrigal writer Carlo Gesualdo and Germany's Max Reger, whose early 20th century choral works bear the air of the ancient.
The Gesualdo pieces proved ideal for displaying the strengths the King's Singers have at each end of the register. Countertenors David Hurley and Robin Tyson soared high above the bass of Stephen Connolly, which was always powerful but never overpowering. And the Reger pieces, particularly the soothing "Nachtlied," proved the perfect departure from Gesualdo's tortured tales of death and betrayal.
But then it was time for dessert, and the concert's second half was delightfully sweet, as the group made a smooth samba of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," jazzed things up with Hoagy Carmichael and the Manhattan Transfer and returned to the classical realm (sort of) with their best imitation of an orchestra for Rossini's overture to "The Barber of Seville." But this admirable ensemble never lets its respect for the repertoire flag, even exposing a hidden beauty in an old Mindbenders ballad, "A Groovy Kind of Love," that featured a lovely lead by Paul Phoenix and, believe it or not, may have been the closest thing to perfection all evening.
Change good for Sweet Honey in the Rock
When a vocal group loses a key member, it can be a disruptive event for fans and the group itself. But in the case of Sweet Honey in the Rock, change is good. "We are very much about change," says Ysaye Barnwell, Sweet Honey musical director. "We understand anytime someone comes into the group they bring new musical influences. They bring their own passion about issues. So, change is a good thing."
Indeed, the change is significant for this glorious and joyous a cappella ensemble. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey over 30 years ago, retired from the group last February. Added are two new singers, growing Sweet Honey from its traditional six-member ensemble to a septet. And, yes, Barnwell says, she hears the comment a lot that it takes two to replace the charismatic Reagon.
"People have been saying that, but it's not what happened," Barnwell said. "She is definitely a powerful force. But we have had 22 women in Sweet Honey, so we were used to people going and finding ways to bring a new person in. In no case have we said we are finding someone to replace so and so."
The two new members actually were already part of the Sweet Honey family. Louise Robinson was an original member who left and wanted to return. Arnae is a veteran singer who has been a main substitute in the group. "At the end of the auditions we said, 'We can't decide between these two people,'" Barnwell said. "So we brought in both and it's one of the best decisions we have made."
Barnwell says long-time fans will find a new energy to the group. "A lot of people are curious about whether they will miss Bernice on stage. What people will find are some newer and fresh arrangements of songs that we have been doing. They will find a very different energy. I feel we have a really brilliant ensemble and we are working together in some very different ways. It's given a nice new life."
November 10, 2004
Software Helps Singers Find Perfect Pitch
NPR - Morning Edition:
For those with less-than-perfect singing voices, technology offers help. A number of computer programs can correct pitch to make just about anyone sound in tune -- even NPR's Renee Montagne, who lends her voice to show how the software works. The technology has become quite prevalent in the music industry, finding its way into many of today's pop recordings -- and some classical ones, as well. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports. Listen
A 33-year-old vocal group continues to defy reason.
The Manhattan Transfer is a marvel of ultraslick nonconformity. Their swooping, tight-formation vocal harmony is instantly recognizable — not just because they do it so well, but because they’re almost the only ones to do it at all. Their polished populism is too sophisticated to appeal to the broad pop audience and too commercial to charm the critical elite. (Village Voice critic Robert Christgau infamously condemned them as “a blast from the racist past,” a frothing bit of political correctness akin to hitting a puppy with a ball-peen hammer.)
“Our manager at the time said any publicity was good,” recalls longtime member Janis Siegel, reached at her home in Greenwich Village. “We did stuff from a lot of black groups, but we were just mining this American music, looking at everything from a musical perspective.” They’re often compared to the jazz vocal improvisers Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, but the band’s real models according to Siegel were the ’40s swing vocalist “The Pied Pipers” and ’60s folk band the Kingston Trio, groups that are innovative, influential and deeply out of fashion.
The band has evolved over time. “We’ve been together 33 years this month,” Siegel says. “Tim [Hauser] is the founder, leader and benevolent dictator; he came up with a lot of the material from his vast record collection. Alan [Paul] came from Broadway and did the staging. I did a lot of arrangements and led rehearsals.” The precise vocal architectures leave little room for improvisation. “People don’t come to hear us for that,” Siegel says. “The real skill is singing consistently and accuracy, blending with the chords while being in the moment.” More
November 8, 2004
Chanticleer brings crowd to feet
In what has become effectively an annual tradition, the all-male chorus Chanticleer brought its unique, eclectic brand of vocal music to Cincinnati's St. Peter in Chains Cathedral on Friday. The warmly received program brought the capacity crowd of nearly 900 cheering to its feet with a thoughtful mix of old and new, sacred and earthy. The title of the concert, the second of the cathedral's 2004-05 concert series, was "Women, Saintly and Otherwise," a theme carried through the subjects and composers of the night's varied works. The first half was dedicated to the spirit of the Renaissance -- and, appropriate to the venue, particularly to the Virgin Mary -- while the second half comprised 20th-century music, most written specifically for Chanticleer.
Perhaps because of the setting and its acoustics, the Renaissance works -- by Josquin Desprez, Claudio Monteverdi, Tomas de Victoria, Thomas Weelkes and Vassily Titov (a Russian choral incarnation of Gabrieli with an antiphonal style) -- were the most successful of the evening, showcasing Chanticleer's warm, homogeneous sound, and its powerful mix of expression and clarity. The group reminds audiences that, regardless of what has followed, this was passionate music in its day. Even the brief Gregorian chant introducing Victoria's "Ave Maria" was startling in its drama, thanks to almost Romantic-sounding dynamic contrast. Ravel's "Nicolette" was less successful. Its fleet harmonies turned soupy in St. Peter's expanse, and even Chanticleer's usual guaranteed intonation faltered.
The half closed with Renaissance revival pieces, one each from the 19th and 20th centuries. Robert Pearsall's "Lay a Garland" showed a clear mastery of the polyphonic style of the predecessors he so admired spiced with Mendelssohn-like harmonies. John Tavener's "Song for Athene" -- written after the accidental death of a young family acquaintance but made famous through its use at Princess Diana's funeral -- harkens back even farther, to Byzantine mysticism. The Tavener marked a musical high point in the program; the emotion from Chanticleer's dozen members ranged from loss to hushed reverence to blazing affirmation in the cathedral's resonance.
Centerpiece of the second half was "Purple Syllables," a group of Emily Dickinson poems set by American composer Augusta Read Thomas and written for Chanticleer. Besides matching the night's theme of women, the work features further symbolic ties: All the poems concern birds, an idea inspired by the group's namesake, a rooster in one of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." The settings are mostly playful and lyrical, and the group's clarity and ensemble unity again served them well.
Folk songs from around the world closed the performance. The first, Britain's "Down by the Sally Gardens," followed Minnesotan Eric Barnum's setting of Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" and clearly showed one of Barnum's stylistic inspirations. A set of three Korean tunes, traditionally sung by women at work let Chanticleer show off its earthy side. The program ended with two spirituals, "There Is a Balm in Gilead" and "Keep Your Hand On the Plow," which are featured on the group's latest CD. While both were spirited, the arrangement of "Gilead" gave it an unfortunate Pat Boone impression.
November 5, 2004
Group finds success varying voices and styles
South Bend Tribune:
There is currently no king of England, nor has there been one in the entire history of the English a cappella singing group the King's Singers. The group, which performs Sunday at the University of Notre Dame, is named not for any particular monarch that it serves, but rather for its place of birth: King's College, Cambridge. That's where six of the college's choral scholars decided in 1965 to band together and perform outside the college's chapel. Taking the name of the institution that had brought them together seemed a logical move, and it was much easier to say "the King's Singers" than "Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense," the first idea for a name that came to mind.
In the beginning, choral scholars Al Hume, Simon Carrington and Brian Kay merely wanted to extend the enjoyment they found in singing for the college into the bigger world outside. They performed at events around Cambridge, arranging any music they could get their hands on -- madrigals and pop songs were equally in demand -- into complex vocal tapestries. The idea was a hit, and soon the "Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense" had recorded its first album, albeit one that didn't sell so well. Despite the significant handicap of its name, however, the group continued to gain attention and concert bookings; Hume, Carrington, Kay and their colleagues wisely began to call themselves "Six Choral Scholars of King's College Cambridge."
In 1968 the sextet finally faced the fact that it needed a name that would fit on a standard theater marquee. Thus, the King's Singers were born. Hume, Carrington and Kay were joined soon after by Nigel Perrin, Alastair Thompson and Tony Holt.
In 1972, the group toured Australia and New Zealand, traveling extensively outside the United Kingdom for the first time. Tours of North America and the European continent followed, and the King's Singers quickly transcended their modest origins to become international stars, acquiring their own television show in the U.K. and becoming regulars on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" in America.
In 1978 Thompson was the first original member of the group to leave. He was ably replaced by Bill Ives, and the perpetually renewing tradition of the King's Singers began. By 1993, the group had been passed on to an entirely new generation of singers. To date, 19 performers have been a part of the group.
The current lineup of the King's Singers is a mix of veterans who have been with the group for the better part of two decades and newcomers. Stephen Connolly, the group's bass, joined in 1987. Countertenor David Hurley joined the King's Singers in 1990. Tenor Paul Phoenix became a King's Singer in 1997. Former school teacher and baritone Philip Lawson joined in 1994. Robin Tyson, another countertenor, became a member of the group in 2001. Baritone Christopher Gabbitas is the newest member of the group.
Over the past four decades, the King's Singers have tackled any type of music that can be arranged for six voices. Sixteenth-century madrigals, Elizabethan songs, English folk songs, South African street music, the Beatles, the Beach Boys -- you name it, the King's Singers have sung it. The program for Sunday's concert in Notre Dame's Leighton Concert Hall promises to be a little less far-ranging, however; expect the singers to concentrate on the madrigals and folk songs rather than Paul Simon and Paul McCartney
Singing gets mind, body in harmony
San Francisco Chronicle:
A number of recently released international studies have found that singing in harmony promotes mental and physical well-being by reducing stress, strengthening the immune system and elevating mood. The studies, conducted in Germany, Australia and San Francisco, also credit group singing with boosting concentration, fighting infection and helping seniors have fewer accidents and require less medication.
A cappella music, the singing of songs without instruments, has a long history of overcoming racial barriers. Back in the '50s when society was much more segregated, doo-wop groups singing on street corners were routinely integrated. John Neal, producer of the a cappella summit, recalls a friend of his who sang doo-wop telling him, "When you walked into a neighborhood where members of another race weren't welcome, if you sang in a doo-wop group, everyone just let you be."
Producer Neal stressed that a cappella music now encompasses all forms of music, including barbershop, hip-hop, heavy metal, jazz and opera. He also emphasized that novices are welcome at the summit.
"They'll feel better for it," he said. Neal pointed to a recent Washington Post article in which Kelsey Menehan, a therapist and chorus member who lectures each year at Washington's Center for Mind-Body Medicine, said, "I think (singing) does something chemically, maybe in the same way that exercise does." Not only do you get an endorphin rush, Menehan said, but singing provides "the added benefit of beauty."
In one study, members of a university college choral society were asked whether the chorus benefited their health. Three-quarters of respondents said they benefited emotionally, and almost six in 10 said they noticed a physical gain. Half of the respondents said there was a spiritual boost as well. Survey participants also reported feeling more positive, an enhanced lung capacity, reduced stress and feeling more alert.
In a study in the Bay Area conducted by George Washington University's Center on Aging, Health and Humanities, seniors who participated in a weekly choral group were less likely to be depressed, required less medication and had fewer accidents. More
November 4, 2004
A cappella success in Africa
They are probably the most sought-after singing group in Nairobi. And with an average of 18 engagements per week during peak season, Kayamba Afrika, Nairobi's main a cappella group, can only be described as successful, compared with other similar groups. "The demand is overwhelming," says Juma Odemba, the band leader. "Each voice has a double so that we do not decline invitations or let down our clients when one of us is unwell." Another reason they have two or three people for every voice is because they want to make it an institution.
Because of the high demand, they have recruited more singers and Kayamba Afrika is now comprises 15 singers. This enables them to perform at different functions on the same day, or even time. "We do songs in different local languages, but if a client wants songs only in one language, we can always dig into our repertoire and satisfy such a clients' needs," Odemba says. "Because we can sing in different languages, we have performed in different towns in the country." This is also why Kayamba Afrika gets invited to different towns, and by clients from different ethnic groups.
To learn a song in a particular language, they get a resource person from that community to either teach them the song, or to explain its context and meaning to them, so that they can deliver in meaningfully. "We try to learn the different languages so that we are not too far off the mark in terms of pronunciation and nuances when singing," he explains. In most cases, Kayamba Afrika picks up folksongs and reworks them. The knowledge of a particular language comes in handy when they have to compose new songs in that language. More
Kerry closes with a cappella
New York Times:
It was eerily quiet here on Copley Square at 1 a.m. Wednesday. The drizzle that had dripped intermittently throughout the night had turned to a strong, steady rain. Scores of empty white folding chairs in the front section were dotted with droplets, a roll of blue Kerry-Edwards stickers on one a soggy mess. Umbrellas and Red Sox caps dotted the small, silent crowd that remained at what was supposed to be Senator John Kerry's victory party.
A moment before, when Tom Brokaw had announced via twin Jumbotrons that President Bush had clinched Ohio's 20 electoral votes and it was "all but impossible" for Mr. Kerry to win the presidency, there had been no booing. Al Franken, the Democratic comic, muttered an oath under his breath. A faint cry of "Let's go, Kerry" from behind the four-story platform of lights and speakers quickly faded out. One Kerry volunteer pointed a finger at another and said determinedly, "Not over." But her friend just shook his head.
Then, for a full five minutes, there was silence. NBC News was flicked off, and a graphic of a waving flag filled the enormous screens. A man walked onto the stage, said nothing, and walked off again.
Finally, nine young members of the Greater Massachusetts Gospel Choir strode to the microphones. First one woman, in a proud, bold a cappella, then the chorus, and then, even some in the crowd, belted out "God Bless America" into the bitter, rainy night.
November 3, 2004
Life in Vienna is filled with song
Imagine living in a palace built in 1692, overlooking lush grounds on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria. Benjamin Kleykamp got up early Saturday morning to give a tour of his school in the Augartenpalais - from the elegant, gilded salons dripping with crystal chandeliers to his dorm room in a modern wing, with neat bunk beds overlooking formal grounds.
Benjamin is modest, multi-talented and a bit shy. He's sung before presidents and emperors, but he takes it all in stride. "Once you're going onstage with your white uniform, you have a feeling that just tickles," says Benjamin, a high soprano, as his parents, Alexandra and Steve Kleykamp, look proudly on. "I like everything about it." Benjamin, 12, and fellow Cincinnati-area native Andrew Markowich, 14, are successors to Donald Smith and Ryan Slone, the first from this area (and just the second and third Americans ever) to join the world's finest and oldest boys choir, the Vienna Boys Choir (Wiener Sangerknaben). All are former members of Cincinnati Boychoir.
As we ascend a stairway, the sound of high-pitched, heavenly voices floats down. The door opens, and the boys stand up to welcome their colleague. The Vienna Boys Choir is all about tradition, formality and excellence. On this Saturday morning, Benjamin's group, the Schubert Choir, is hard at work with choir leader Robert Rieder, preparing to sing Sunday Mass in the Hofburg Chapel. The choir has sung Mass there for more than 500 years.
A distinguished-looking maestro, Helmut Froschauer, enters to conduct the rehearsal for the Mass, which will be accompanied by members of the Vienna Philharmonic. The boys' pure tone is extraordinary and clear. Besides Schubert, they run through Adeste fidelis, already tuning up for a Christmas concert in Vienna's Konzerthaus, "Christmas in Vienna." There's a chance they'll also be singing in December with superstar tenor Jose Carreras in London, still being negotiated. More
Simon Cowell's new singing stars
Pop music impresario Simon Cowell has unveiled his latest singing group, the opera quartet Il Divo. The band were formed after a worldwide search which took more than 2 years. Il Divo (literally meaning Divine performer - or male Diva) are a classical pop group and will be releasing Regressa Mi as their debut single, a song which is more commonly known as the Toni Braxton smash hit Unbreak My Heart. Their album which will be released this month consists of a wide range of styles from a cover of Frank Sinatra's My Way to Nella Fantasia (based on Ennio Morricone's score from The Misson). The band consists of American David Miller, Sebastien Izambard from France, Urs Buhler from Switzerland and Carlos Marin from Spain.
November 1, 2004
Sweet Adelines convention sings a swan song
Sweet Adelines -- those fun-loving ladies of four-part harmony who descended on Indianapolis this week for their annual international competition -- are a pretty easy-going bunch. That is, until you call one of their a cappella singing groups a choir. That's liable to get the women, who've spent the past four days singing, shopping, making new friends and taking in the sights of Indianapolis, pretty riled up. "We always call it a chorus," explained Patti Cole, 39, London, Ontario. "Choirs are too stuffy."
There's nothing stuffy about the 12,000 visiting Sweet Adelines, who wind up their stay here today with chorus finals from noon to 6 p.m. at the Indiana Convention Center. "We sing with full-body involvement," Cole said. "In addition to the music, there's a lot of waving and carrying on." That was evident Friday during a lunch-hour mass sing on the RCA Dome steps. Hundreds of women -- from across the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, Australia and New Zealand -- bobbed and swayed and threw their hands into the air as their voices joined in fluid chords of tight barbershop harmonies. When they weren't singing, the women were laughing.
"Up there on the steps, there were people from all over the world who know and enjoy the same music. You just feel a real connection," Cole said. "It's a real sisterhood." And that sisterhood -- as well as the singing and carrying on -- has spilled out of the Convention Center, Cole said, "to wherever four or more of us get together." When Sweet Adelines converge, she explained, singing is a given. It doesn't matter if they're in a concert hall, hotel room, elevator or restaurant.
"We sang at Cracker Barrel for our waiter the other day," said Tammy-Lyn Yungblut, 28, also with the London (Ontario) Chorus. The 58-year-old group is dedicated to advancing the art of barbershop harmony through performance and education. Some members have spent most of their lives steeped in the unique musical style, while others, like Yungblut, are newcomers. "I got started two years ago. I went to an open house with a friend and saw how much fun people were having," she said. "I love to sing, and I love having fun, so here I am."