January 30, 2005
St. Olaf conductor's cold start led to warm ties
Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Anton Armstrong, ebullient conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, has grown accus tomed to the harsh winter weather in Northfield, Minn. But the first time he visited St. Olaf College 30 years ago, he experienced an icy blast of culture shock. Then a black teen who was born of Caribbean parents in New York City and raised on Long Island, he was touring Lutheran colleges in search of a strong undergraduate program in choral music. "I flew to Minneapolis with my brother," he said by phone from his home in Northfield. "It was 8 degrees in February. There was fresh-fallen snow. I had never seen hoarfrost. It was spectacular, it was so blinding and bright." Driving 35 miles through the countryside, Armstrong was sure his brother had gotten lost. "But then I saw the college on a hill," he said. "Everything was white: the snow, the buildings, the people, the food in the cafeteria. But the people were so kind, so warm."
Armstrong already knew about the college's lack of cultural diversity. At a Lutheran college fair, he had asked the admissions director how many people of color he would see at St. Olaf. "Not too many," the director said. "But we are good people. We don't look at the outer person. We look at the heart, soul and mind." A couple of years earlier, Armstrong had been introduced to the St. Olaf Choir, which stops in Northeast Ohio Monday night for a concert at Severance Hall. "I was going with friends to hear a rock concert by the Moody Blues at Madison Square Garden," Armstrong said. "But my pastor had bought tickets to the choir concert at Avery Fisher Hall, and my mother said, 'You will go to the choir concert, and you will have a right attitude.' "
Armstrong was aware that the St. Olaf Choir was renowned for the a cappella tradition established by F. Melius Christiansen, the Norwegian immigrant who founded the ensemble in 1912, and he was expecting to see Olaf Christiansen, the tall, silver-haired authority figure who had succeeded his father in 1943. But the conductor who walked onstage was small, stoop-shouldered and dark-haired. And the first piece, a Bach motet, was sung with the accompaniment of a portative organ. The conductor, Kenneth Jennings, had taken over the choir in 1968 and instituted a more historically informed performance style. During Armstrong's student days at St. Olaf, Jennings became his mentor and role model. In 1990, Armstrong was named Jennings' successor. At age 33, he was the choir's youngest conductor and its first black leader.
This weekend, Armstrong and the 75-voice ensemble embark on a 16-city American tour that includes performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. "We have three people of color in the choir," Armstrong said. "The Christiansens never had a black person. Ken [Jennings] had seven over 22 years. "We are struggling to recruit. But it's hard when it's minus 5 degrees here."
Because he could not find such basics as black hair products or Ebony magazine at St. Olaf when he was a student, Armstrong is pleased that the college now employs a dean of community life and diversity and attracts minorities to its international programs. Despite the scarcity of black faces in the choir, Armstrong has not hesitated to add African-American music to its repertoire. The choir has recorded an album of spirituals arranged by William Dawson, and it has performed a gospel Mass in such an idiomatic style that a black audience member in Chattanooga, Tenn., said, "Child, I thought I was back home in church."
This season's tour program consists of sacred and secular music sung in Latin, German, Norwegian, Spanish and English. Every piece on the program relates either to Armstrong's background or to the choir's history. Works by Norwegian composers Edvard Grieg, Knut Nystedt and F. Melius Christiansen honor the choir's heritage and presage its three-week tour to Norway in June. A group of hymns and spiritual songs includes arrangements by Robert Scholz, the St. Olaf Chapel Choir conductor who was Armstrong's voice teacher, and John Ferguson, the St. Olaf organist who arranged "Jesus Loves Me" for Armstrong's family after his father died. The concert also features music by Bach, Ives and Gretchaninoff, and it ends with the choir's signature, F. Melius Christiansen's thrilling arrangement of "Beautiful Saviour." To Armstrong, the hymn's last line, "Glory and honor / praise, adoration / Now and forever more be thine," expresses the motivation for each performance. "It's why we've done everything," he said. "It's not just entertainment. We do it for excellence. We become a vessel for faith, hope and love. "Not every kid in the choir is a deep believer. Some are wrestling and fighting with God. This music is a healing balm.
David Lerchey, member of doo-wop group Del Vikings, dies at 67
David Lerchey, a founding member of one of the first integrated vocal harmony acts, the Del Vikings, died Saturday, his family said. He was 67. Lerchey suffered from cancer and pulmonary problems and died at a veterans hospital, said his wife, Linda Lerchey. The Del Vikings were formed by five airmen in 1955 at an Air Force in Pittsburgh, said Harvey Robbins, founder of the Doo-Wopp Hall of Fame of America. Three members were black, Lerchey was one of two white members. "David Lerchey was a wonderful singer, he was a courageous individual, he certainly carried himself on the stage with dignity and pride," Robbins said. Lerchey sang baritone and tenor.
The Del Vikings appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1957, Robbins said, the same year they had two No. 1 hits: "Whispering Bells" and "Come Go With Me." Other Del Vikings hits included "Cool Shake," "A Sunday Kind of Love," "Summertime" and "Bring Back Your Heart." The group was inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame in 2003. Lerchey gave his final performance last summer in a concerned organized by the Hall of Fame at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. He sang with the other known surviving group member, Norman Wright, who continues performing as the Del Vikings with his sons. "We all knew that David was struggling over the last several years, and yet when he hit the stage his spirit was still as it was as a teenager," Robbins said. Lerchey is survived by his wife, two sons and a stepdaughter.
January 28, 2005
New Way To Get Girls: Sing Emo Tunes A Cappella
Somewhere between the slight goofiness of the barbershop quartet and the life-or-death dramatics of the opera, there lies a cappella, a form of harmonized singing usually reserved for bow-tie-clad lawyers-to-be at Ivy League colleges across the Northeast. But one group of students at George Washington University is aiming to change all that, by bringing a cappella to the hoodie and studded-belt set.
They're called Emocapella (spelled with one "p," which, in itself, is way emo), a bunch of sensitive lads who harmonize tunes by emo faves like Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday and Saves the Day at nearly sold-out concerts in activity centers and dorm-room socials all across the GW campus. Once or twice a year, they even pack into rented vans — DIY style — and hit up colleges all across the Northeast, hoping to pour out their pain to the masses. "Actually, part of the reason we started the group was to get girls. Girls like sensitive guys," said Emocapella president (and self-described "sensitive guy") Lee Seligmann. "And it's definitely helped with the girls. We're the only all-guy a-cappella group on campus."
OK, so maybe preaching the emo-gospel isn't the main focus of the group. Seligmann cops to being more of a classic-rock fan himself (Led Zeppelin are his favorite), and is hard-pressed to even define the term "emo." According to him, the whole group is only half serious. But don't tell that to Taking Back Sunday, who invited Emocapella to perform with them back in December 2002. "They opened for us at one show in Washington, D.C., and it was amazing," Taking Back Sunday guitarist Eddie Reyes said. "We are very flattered that they covered one of our songs."
And don't tell it to the many, many emo fans inhabiting chat rooms and operating blogs all over the Internet. Emocapella, to put it mildly, aren't exactly their favorite group. "When we first came out, there was a lot of talk on the Internet about us. Lots of 'You guys aren't emo!' and stuff like that," Seligmann laughed. "I kind of think that people in emo and punk bands take themselves very seriously. We mainly do this for fun." But there are instances in which Emocapella tiptoe the line between fun and dedication. Witness, for example, their rigorous rehearsal schedule ("We practice twice a week for two hours, but usually less," Seligmann said), or the long hours they poured into recording their debut album, the appropriately titled I'm Sorry. "We recorded the album in two days, in two sessions," Seligmann said. "And the album is selling pretty well. I mean, we have a lot left, but I think it's doing pretty well. But I wouldn't know. I've never really made an album before."
As for the future of Emocapella, Seligmann is brutally honest. The group lost nine members to graduation last semester, and finding new (and sufficiently emo) singers to fill the void is going to be tough. Plus there's the issue of rampant tardiness at Emocapella rehearsals. But the group pledges that it'll still perform the occasional "guerrilla-cappella" concert — basically a spur-of-the-moment show on GW's lawn — because, as Seligmann puts it, "Sometimes people stop and watch. But it usually depends on when we perform and how drunk people are." But before he calls it a day, Seligmann said he'd probably like to have one more crack at GW's annual "Battle of the A Cappella Groups," which Emocapella has, somewhat improbably, never won. "Oh, we never win those. The first year, we won 'Most Energetic,' which is kind of like the 'E for Effort' award," Seligmann said. "Last year we didn't win anything. But that's OK. Not winning is way more emo anyway."
Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir at Glasgow Cathedral
The Scotsman (UK):
As their slightly stuffy name suggests, Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir are more than a gospel choir. This five-strong a cappella ensemble of Melanie de More, Lamont van Hook, Rhonda Benin, Elouise Burrell and their leader Linda Tillery, plus percussionist Simon Monserrat, adopt a scholarly approach to traditional black music, with a repertoire of spirituals, field songs, blues, jazz and work songs from all over the United States, the Caribbean and Africa, all of which were instructively introduced by Tillery at this candle-lit Celtic Connections debut.
Fortunately there was nothing stuffy about their delivery and, despite the formal ecclesiastical setting, the audience were quick to get into the choir’s groove as they ricocheted fluently from gospel lament to earthy blues to funky soul. The transition from, say, the naked soul of an archetypal gospel tune such as Roll Jordan Roll to a demonstrative singalong was never jarring.
They made their mark immediately with the haunting Good News, the Chariot’s Coming, showcasing van Hook’s formidable falsetto and Tillery’s reverberating scatting, but it was not long before they managed to coax the crowd out of their reverie and on to their feet to shake their booty to the strains of The Old Lady Come From Booster . After learning that the "ranky-tanky" dance style was present in all of us (but particularly in a hirsute gentleman in the audience called Keith), we were instructed in the appropriate ebonic response to their intuitive harmonies, enchanting contrasting vocal tones and overall emotional impact. And that response was: "Say yo’ bid’ness!"
In their vocal arrangements, the choir effortlessly drew connections between their traditional material and the soul, funk and R&B styles which sprouted from these roots. James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone are as much a part of this group’s cultural heritage as Louis Armstrong and slave songs.
But their musical kinship stretched further than even they probably realised. During one stately, dolorous work song, Tillery’s rich resonant voice was not leagues away from the ululating female choirs of Bulgaria. As for the Celtic Connection, the desire to strut one’s funky stuff and holler spontaneous approval knows no cultural boundary. Sho’ ’nuff!
January 27, 2005
Another movie about a choral director nominated for Oscar
Hollywood Reporter (CA):
Alone in a field of tall grass, a young boy plays the violin beautifully, but his solitary hideaway puts him no closer to the harmony he seeks in his imagination nor far enough away from the local bullies who hound him. In Kay Pollak's deeply affecting film "As It Is in Heaven," those twin torments borne of hope and fear drive the talented but haunted young musician to become a celebrated conductor, Daniel Dareus (Michael Nyqvist).
He is a fierce maestro, willing to bleed and excoriate his orchestra to achieve the musical heights he strives for, and finally he pushes himself too far. When a heart attack forces Dareus to give up the podium, he returns to the tiny village where he grew up and, as the poet said, discovers the place for the first time.
Filled with passion, humor and much sadness, this Swedish-language film could do very well with global audiences that enjoyed such films as "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Billy Elliott," with their appealing mix of music and aspiration. The film is the Swedish entry for the foreign-language Academy Award.
From a jet-set life, in which his agent had him fully booked for the next eight years, Dareus finds himself alone with an empty calendar. Hoping to remain unrecognized in the snowbound village, having changed his name at the outset of his career, the maestro buys the old village schoolhouse. He seeks a quiet existence in order to take care of his heart, which his doctor has described as completely worn out.
His anonymity is soon breached, however, and soon he is reluctantly coaching the local church choir. He becomes cantor and spiritual leader of the mixed band of choristers who include local businessmen, housewives and village oddballs. There also are three women whose involvement leads to both love and conflict. Lena (Frida Hallgren) is fresh-faced, blond and eager for life. Gabriella (noted singer Helen Sjoholm) has a beautiful voice and a jealous wife-beater for a husband. And Inger (Ingela Olsson) is married to the guilt-ridden village priest, Stig (Niklas Falk).
Using original and unconventional methods, Dareus leads the choir toward his dream of perfect, soaring harmony, and many life lessons are encountered along the way. By the time the choir is ready to compete in a major festival, the internecine fears and squabbles and external sniping place the group's fate, and the conductor's life, in jeopardy.
Nyqvist makes a completely believable near-genius whose human frailty gives greater anguish to his driving musical passion. Hallgren is endearing as the young woman who offers him the chance of love. The rest of the cast offers sterling work as a range of characters masterfully established by Pollak and his co-scriptors. It's extraordinarily difficult to capture on film the indescribable miracle that results in musical creations of great wonder. This film, with an inspired score by Stefan Nilsson, comes closer than most.
January 26, 2005
Cantata Singers are powerful, poignant
Boston Globe (MA):
In one sense the Cantata Singers can say "mission accomplished." They were among the pioneers in exploring the cantatas of J.S. Bach, works that were relatively neglected 40 years ago when the ensemble was founded. They made the first recordings of two of them; now of course most of the Bach cantatas have been recorded many times over. They are central to the repertory of choruses around the world, including several in Boston, and an important part of the musical experience of hosts of listeners.
In another sense, the mission of the Cantata Singers can never be accomplished. Focused work on Bach led the ensemble to expand its vision to perform music and texts from several centuries that engage the same kind of political, ethical, moral, and spiritual issues that Bach's works do. Cantata Singers concerts explore difficult questions without providing easy answers, and thereby make statements.
Last night's program featured two Bach cantatas, one about pride and humility; one about hypocrisy and humility. These were preceded by a vivid and unsettling setting of the tragic and vengeful Psalm 137 by Heinrich Schuetz ("By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept"), and the close of the program brought Arnold Schoenberg's visionary unaccompanied anthem from early in the 20th century, "Friede auf Erden" ("Peace on Earth"). Non-musical issues emerge most clearly in performances aiming for the highest musical standards. The choral singing under David Hoose last night was first rate in quality of sound, balance, intonation, ensemble, and involvement with text -- the shifty harmonies with which Bach depicts hypocrisy intensified the verbal drama.
The vocal soloists were just as committed but more variable in effect. The best were tenor William Hite, who has evolved into one of today's most eloquent Bach tenors; the direct and musicianly bass Mark Andrew Cleveland; and, new to these concerts, young Dana Whiteside, who boasts a warm and charismatic bass-baritone that is both impressive and expressive. The vibrant and voluptuous timbre of soprano Karyl Ryczek, so effective in contemporary music, sounds a little strange in Bach, skillful as she is. Veteran soprano Luellen Best was not consistent, but she brought a lovely soft timbre to her beautiful aria, a little like a baroque flute.
Schoenberg composed "Friede auf Erden" in 1907 in a late-romantic, highly chromatic style. The poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer begins with herald angels greeting shepherds with a promise of peace on earth, a promise that man fails to keep. Music and text nevertheless end with an ecstatic vision of a coming kingdom of righteousness. Hoose tends to program this piece in circumstances of international crisis, and it has become a signature piece for his singers. Under his direction, alternately angular and flowing, the performance traced an intense emotional journey.
Taking the big risk of undermining the effect, Hoose and the chorus responded to a standing ovation by repeating the work; almost no one left, and the second performance reached an apocalyptic intensity.
January 25, 2005
Bobby McFerrin has every reason to be happy
Denver Post (CO):
Demember 1988? That was the year Bobby McFerrin's bouncy "Don't Worry, Be Happy" skyrocketed the multitalented a cappella artist to international musical celebrity. But the 10-time Grammy Award winner is anything but a one-hit wonder. This week, in four solo performances from Fort Collins to Denver, the "Stimmwunder" (wonder voice) - so-called by German critics - will bring his innovative improv to Colorado.
"What I perform is up for grabs," said McFerrin from his home in Philadelphia. "I just walk onstage and see what happens. A lot of it depends on the vibe I get from the audience. "The audience is like my instrument. It's not just me up there, it's collaborative." Thanks to his bottomless talent, this lack of preparation and planning doesn't spell disaster. Instead, McFerrin's whimsical, on-the-spot renditions of popular and original songs, not to mention his seemingly superhuman ability to produce a range of rhythms and tones with his body, captivate sold-out audiences worldwide.
While McFerrin's crossover appeal defies categorization, his capacity to constantly redefine vocal jazz in new or unexpected contexts is perhaps his single most meaningful contribution to the genre. An example is his invention of the "voicestra," his term for a vocal orchestra.
An inspired jazz vocalist with a four-octave range, McFerrin was raised by classical musicians. "My dad (Robert McFerrin Sr.)(CQ) was the first African-American opera singer at the Met," he said. "And when I was in school, there were music programs. Maybe once or twice a month, we'd even go sing in a choir or learn a dance. "Music was all around me, at home and at school."
But the state of today's music education worries him. "Music programs are one thing that the public school system could do to open kids up to creativity," said McFerrin, who started learning music theory at age 6 and studied piano during his high school years in Los Angeles. "But now, there are hardly any music programs except in some private schools. "If I had my way, when kids have their heads in their books studying history, I'd say, 'Put your pencils down and follow me.' And we'd have jam sessions and do anything to get them familiar with all kinds of music - Bach, Mozart, James Brown, Duke Ellington.
"It's a matter of integrating music into every other area of life, so that it's familiar, not a foreign language," he said. "Pretty soon, experiencing different kinds of music is as comfortable as walking through different rooms in the same house." It's just that kind of musical upbringing that nurtured McFerrin's artistic versatility. "There were never any lines between classical and jazz in my home," said McFerrin, who also is a composer and conductor. "I heard Beethoven alongside Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin."
And then there was radio. "In the '60s, when the Beatles brought the music of India back to the U.S., suddenly the radio was full of that exotic influence," said McFerrin, 55, whose "Simple Pleasures" album is a tribute to that period. "The Top 40 music of the '60s was a little of everything. You'd hear music from Africa or salsa or rock. "But radio today is very segregated," he said. "Hip-hop on one station. Jazz on another. Classical on another. And world music on yet another. I don't like that."
Something else that McFerrin doesn't like is publicity, and all that it implies. He limits interview times. Family is important to him. In the wake of recording "Don't Worry," he went against conventional wisdom and decided not to tour the song. Instead, he stayed home for more than a year with his wife and three children, now ages 13, 19 and 23. Such retreats clearly aren't to the detriment of McFerrin's career. His recordings have sold more than 20 million copies, he's in hot demand as an educator and performer, and he frequently collaborates with other creative luminaries, from Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Jon Hendricks to comedians Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.
The Los Angeles Times sums up the musical voyager this way: "The hyperkinetic, superpersonable, wide-ranging singer, scion of a family of musicians, does more than vocalize, conduct and produce music. He lives it." Busy as he is, McFerrin says another timeout is on the horizon. "In September this year, I'm taking a sabbatical," he said. "I haven't done that in about 15 years. I just want to stay home and write music for a while."
January 21, 2005
Choral movie hopes for an Oscar
PARIS - One is tone-deaf, another a sneering troublemaker, part of a motley crew of young boys that hardly seems made for stardom. But their bell-like voices are the soul of a Cinderella story that has swept French cinemas, surprising critics and the director himself. "The Chorus," or "Les Choristes," could have been just another quaint portrait of postwar France. But the film, a testament to the transforming powers of music, has struck a deep chord among moviegoers here and turned the young stars - none professional actors - into household names.
There are no car chases, no violence and no steamy encounters in "The Chorus," director Christophe Barratier's first feature-length film. Set in 1949, it is the story of an out-of-work musician who takes a job as supervisor of a boarding school for troubled boys in the French countryside, and works magic through song. Special effects there are, but of a different sort: The voices of the Little Singers of St. Marc, a Lyon chorus that sang for the movie and is now touring France to full houses. Their soundtrack is at the top of French music charts. Critics were less than enthusiastic when the movie came out in France last March. By year's end they conceded that "The Chorus" was a national phenomenon. "It's the success of the year, but also the mystery," the daily Le Monde wrote in its Jan. 1 edition.
The movie led the list of France's box office successes in 2004, outshining the comebacks of the lovable Shrek and the magical Harry Potter and belying its modest US$5.5 million budget. It has been sold in scores of countries. The DVD and video of the film have sold 2.1 million copies since their release in October, a French record, according to the movie magazine Ecran Total. An even more telling sign of the film's success may be that in France, choir music has become cool. Opening across the United States on Jan. 24, "The Chorus" is France's candidate for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film. Oscar nominations are to be announced Jan. 25.
Barratier, who co-wrote the scenario with Philippe Lopes-Curval, concurs that the movie's success is phenomenal - "even extravagant" - and says there is no single explanation. "If I could answer, I could do it again," he said in a telephone interview from New York where he was promoting the movie with Miramax. But the director said the movie seems to have a "universal force." Barratier said he has traveled to some 20 countries and "the public reacts exactly in the same way everywhere." "You don't have the impression of being French. You really have the impression of belonging to the whole world," Barratier said.
The young boys have endeared filmgoers, from tone-deaf Corbain to the troublemaker Mondain or Morhange - the angel-faced soprano played by Jean-Baptiste Maunier. The 14-year-old is the film's revelation, and newly anointed teen idol in France. Gerard Jugnot, a leading French actor, plays the down-and-out musician Clement Mathieu who quietly stands up to the despotic school director (Francois Berleand). Against all odds, he transmits his musical savoir-faire to his troubled charges. Tourists are making pilgrimages to the place where the film is set - Chateau de Ravel, in central France's Auvergne region. "We kept the name of the school in the movie over the main gate, and everybody is thrilled to get their picture taken in front of it," Etienne Brochot, co-owner of the property, said by telephone.
Local choirs are having a heyday. In the past, "choral singing was not a so-called virile activity," said Bernard Lallement of the Association of Choir Directors for the Paris region. "It was better to play soccer than dare confess that you sang in a choir." Last year saw a 15 percent increase nationwide in children signing up for choirs, according to Thierry Thiebaut, director of a federation of 600 choral groups, "A Coeur Joie" (With a Joyful Heart). Demand is up 30 percent in the Lyon area, home of the choir featured in the movie.
"The Chorus" is inspired by a forgotten 1945 film "La Cage aux Rossignols" (The Cage of Nightingales), by Jean Dreville. But Barratier said it was his own painful childhood that provided the real grist for his movie. He said he was "exactly" like the children shown in the film. After enrolling in a country school after his parents' divorce, he said he became "very depressed, very timid, very solitary." A music teacher "transformed my life." Will there be a sequel? "Out of the question," Barratier says. "This movie was very sincere. When you put a No. 2 after it, it's not sincere at all. ... It means you want to make money."
Watch a clip of the movie here
January 20, 2005
M-Pact delivers at ICCA
Daily Trojan (CA):
Ever wonder where all the good bands are? Ever been bothered that major headliners show up at the Staples Center or (gasp) UCLA instead of filling the Coliseum or at least Bovard Auditorium? Well, one incredible music act just hit campus on Saturday - and didn't get paid for it. Professional jazz-pop sensation m-pact donated their show-stopping vocal chords to the cause of collegiate a cappella, serving notice that Billboard's Best Unsigned Band of 1999 is now based in Los Angeles. Only the sound of these six men's voices can adequately praise them, as the 1,000 folks who crammed into Bovard Auditorium Saturday night can attest to.
While m-pact was the highlight, the purpose was to see which of seven collegiate groups would move on to the regional competitions for the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. Huh? What's a cappella? "It's a band without instruments," said Kevin Simpson, music director of USC's Reverse Osmosis. "We take songs off of the radio, arrange them for voice and sing them. It's like choral music, but different." A lot different. No choir ever rolls out a Snoop Dogg riff or rocks out on Maroon 5, but a cappella groups do.
Concert hosts Reverse Osmosis were clearly the hometown favorite Saturday night, netting a standing ovation after a set highlighted by excellent choreography and the best tuning of the competition. Opening with a raucous and tight "I Need a Hero," Reverse Osmosis quickly proved that their three-year-old group has grown up fast. If only all collegiate bands could be this good. Fluid movement between songs earned the USC group best choreography and contributed to their second place finish, but it wasn't enough to top the powerhouse that is Mt. San Antonio College's Fermata Nowhere, returning champs from 2004.
Fermata Nowhere blew everyone away with a rockin', hip-hoppin' performance in bright blue jumpsuits and unstoppable dance moves. Following an intense rendering of Michael Jackson's "Stop Pressuring Me," they went on to prove their chops with a soulful duet ballad that deservedly won best soloists honors. The crowd at Bovard screamed with laughter at this year's parody of "Obsession," "Drop It Like It's Hot" and other hot hip-hop and R&B tunes. As the tough-looking men of Fermata Nowhere formed a cheerleader's triple pyramid, the audience exploded into a thunderous standing ovation. USC's Reverse Osmosis is a truly excellent group, but Fermata Nowhere simply takes collegiate a cappella to the next level.
Elsewhere in the competition, Mt. Antonio's all-women group, Nothing But Treble, delivered a sensual punch to the ear and eye, strutting on stage in pinstripes and bustiers. While their soloists needed more oomph, Nothing But Treble gave a lesson to all-women's a cappella groups on how to be sexy. The USC Siren managed fourth place with great musicality, but their tunes, especially their signature "Heartbreaker," were once again almost laughable in their feeble sweetness. Both the Sirens and Nothing But Treble could learn from one another - let's hope they do.
USC's diSCord took home a surprising "best arrangement" for an uninspiring version of "Under Pressure." The University of California at San Diego's Tritones earned third place for a musically energetic performance. And Caltech's Fluid Dynamics, who showed absolutely killer blend earlier, fumbled on stage with goofy choreography and shaky musicality. As the judges deliberated, m-pact gave a lengthy, divine set, cranking up the volume and energy for nearly another hour of the best that a cappella can deliver. Perhaps that's why it was such a disappointment that winners Fermata Nowhere ended the night with an encore of their "Obsession" medley. Surprised or not, Fermata Nowhere made it clear they'd indeed taken collegiate a cappella to the next level ... but only for three songs.
January 18, 2005
Toxin Paul on new E! TV show
Paul Sperrazza, Toxic Audio's backflipping guy, is one of 10 contestants on the new E! TV talent show called The Entertainer. Hosted by Wayne Newton, the participants get the chance to win a featured spot in his long-running Las Vegas extravaganza (and hopefully a decent size check as well!). Dubbed "The Wild One" by the show we wish Paul the best of luck as, having had the pleasure of seeing him perform several times, he is certainly a highly entertaining and naturally gifted performer. The show runs for ten weeks and premiers on January 23rd at 10PM. See Paul on the show's website here.
January 15, 2005
Sweet Honey in the Rock performs at Carnegie Hall
New York Times (NY):
It started with a letter from an earnest producer. "I am interested in expanding your audience here to those who don't go to Carnegie Hall," she wrote, "the children. I have reserved Washington Irving High School's 90-year-old auditorium for a concert on Monday, Jan. 15, 1990, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The date itself is magnificent." Sweet Honey in the Rock, then a five-woman a cappella group, was convinced. Its first children's concert in honor of Martin Luther King's Birthday was a standing-room-filled success and the start of an annual tradition at the school, on Irving Place in Manhattan. Tomorrow, instead of singing at the high school, where for the last 15 years regulars have learned to line up, Sweet Honey will perform as part of the Family Concert series at Carnegie Hall, in the Stern Auditorium.
The shift is one of many recent transitions for Sweet Honey, a venerable vocal ensemble, founded in 1973, whose music is variously labeled gospel, folk or protest. The group's founder, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a historian, retired last year after three decades in charge. At the same time, the group parted with Virginia Giordano, the producer who initiated the children's concerts and organized the group's first major appearances, including its debut at Carnegie Hall 20 years ago. "We're thrilled to be on Carnegie's roster," Ysaye Barnwell, a member of the group and its new director, said in a telephone interview from Washington, where Sweet Honey is based. "But there's something a little bit sad in it, too, because we're no longer working with the independent woman producer who brought us there in the first place," she added, referring to Ms. Giordano. While the new location may seem upscale, tickets, at $8, are actually about half of what they cost when the group played at the school.
After Dr. Reagon's retirement, the quintet became a sextet. It added two new members: Louise Robinson, a founding member of Sweet Honey, returning from a 27-year-hiatus; and Arnaé, who at 44 is the youngest member of the group. Dr. Reagon's departure also forced Sweet Honey to question its goals. "Why are we here?" Dr. Barnwell asked. "Is this a women's group? Is it an African-American group? Do we still want to do the range of material we've done before? "Yes to all of it. We are African-American women. We have the impact of the experiences of all of our ancestors residing in us, and we want to be the voice of those experiences and people."
This sense of identity, Dr. Barnwell says, is what makes Sweet Honey resonate for people of different races and faiths. "One of the things I've learned from being in Sweet Honey," she said, "is that when you are as specific as you can be about who you are, you are the most universal." She cites a song she wrote for the group, "No Mirrors in My Nana's House." Rhythmically playful but deeply moving, it describes growing up in a home without mirrors, where the only way a child knows her own image is through her grandmother's loving gaze.
"We'd be singing it, and I'd see white people in the audience crying," she said. "And I would think, what is it they're understanding? Because in the song I'm saying, 'I never knew that my nose was too flat, I never knew that my skin was too black.' So I'm thinking, literally, what is it about this that they get? But they had comparable experiences, and somebody in their family loved them unconditionally and let them know they were special." Dr. Barnwell has watched classrooms of white children and gay men's choirs sing her song without changing any of the words. "That, to me, is an indication of what universality can be," she said.
Dr. Barnwell, 58, was a champion of tolerance long before she became serious about singing. As a child, she wanted to teach deaf children to speak, but her father, Irving Barnwell, had other plans. A violinist in string quartets during the Harlem Renaissance, he named his daughter for the renowned Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaye and taught her the instrument from age 2 until she left for college. She was talented and was even singled out by Leopold Stokowski in the New York City All-City High School Orchestra. But she stuck to her own plan and studied speech pathology. She earned a Ph.D. in craniofacial studies at the University of Pittsburgh. In Washington, where she taught at the College of Dentistry at Howard University, she started a choir for people who could not read music, at All Souls Church. In 1979, during a church service with a sermon about disabilities, she sang a solo while signing the lyrics. The performance brought Dr. Reagon up from the pews to ask Dr. Barnwell to audition for Sweet Honey in the Rock. It also led to one of the group's trademarks: performing with a sign-language interpreter.
In the concert tomorrow, the theme of inclusiveness will be part of the program. "But this is not Piggly Wiggly," Dr. Barnwell said. "We don't play down to kids." The spirit of the program comes through in the lyrics of "Ella's Song," written by Dr. Reagon to honor the civil-rights leader Ella Baker: "To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail/ And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale/ The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on/ Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm." Dr. Reagon's words may also provide reassurance to fans fearing that without her, Sweet Honey will be like a motherless child.
January 13, 2005
Verde Valley Online (AZ):
It all began in 1948 when Hal Kratzsch, Don and Ross Barbour and Bob Flanigan created a new vocal sound while they were attending Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind. Ross Barbour and Bob Flanigan are still involved with the group. There have been 22 variations of the group up to this point, but they are still The Four Freshmen and carry on the original cutting-edge sounds.
They became one of the first vocal Quartets to use the High Melody on top of the Chord. Working without written arrangements, they arranged each chord by ear. They spread their voicing over a wider range than other groups at the time. They wanted the feel of a large brass section a la the Stan Kenton Band. Stan heard the group in Dayton, Ohio, and immediately recognized their potential. Because of Stan’s interest, he spoke to Capitol Records, and The Four Freshmen were signed in 1950. Their first single was It’s A Blue World released in 1952. The record set the standard for The Four Freshmen and groups like the Beach Boys, the Lettermen, and singing groups all over the world.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, they played every major University in the USA and concerts in 40 countries throughout the world. They have over 40 albums, over 70 top selling singles, six Grammy nominations and numerous television appearances. The Four Freshmen have been voted the No. 1 Vocal Group of the Year by Downbeat Magazine two out of the last three years.
Brian Eichenberger sings the lead part while playing bass, guitar and piano. From July 1996 until January 2000, he sang the second part in the harmony with The Four Freshmen. Eichenberger, from Apple Valley, Minn., has now become only the third lead singer in the 50-plus year history of The Four Freshmen. Eichenberger got the call to join the group while studying jazz arranging and performance under Phil Mattson at the School of Music in Creston, Iowa. Creston was in the middle of nowhere, and the 50 music students had nothing to do except play, sing, eat, sleep and breathe music. Eichenberger, whose birthday is May 16, 1976, spends most of his time writing new songs.
Vince Johnson is an accomplished singer; singing second part harmony as well as playing bass, guitar and trombone. He brings a distinguished resume to the group. He received his bachelor of music in 1994 from California State University, Long Beach, and his masters in jazz studies from the University of Southern California in 1999. Johnson has worked as an accompanist, educator and performer, which includes performing throughout the world for Princess Cruise Lines. He knew he wanted to be a musician in junior high school. Johnson’s birthday is Sept. 3, 1970, and he has all of The Four Freshmen albums.
Bob Ferreira began singing the fourth part harmony and playing the drums in 1992. Originally from Seattle, Wash., Ferreira’s introduction to group harmony began when he studied with former Freshmen Kirk March at Edmund Community College in Washington. In August 2001, he officially became the “senior” ranking member of the group. “I’m kind of like the big man on campus; the other guys look up to me,” he said. Ferreira studied classical voice training in his first few years of college, auditioned for The Four Freshmen in ’92 and has been with the group ever since. Ferreira was born July 21, 1970. Curtis Calderon is the “Freshest Freshmen,” having joined the group in 2001. Hailing from San Antonio, Texas, he began his jazz career in earnest playing trumpet at age 11. Curtis joined the renowned John Marshall High Jazz Band, which won many consecutive national competitions, and he earned his stripes by going on the road with Russ Morgan’s big band. Coming home to San Antonio, he was a regular fixture at The Landing Jazz Club, where The Four Freshmen’s Brian Eichenberger discovered him. He recently celebrated his 30th birthday on Jan. 8.
January 12, 2005
Sir Elton John 'moved' by Durban Aids choir
Independent (South Africa):
Sir Elton John is determined to give "hands-on" support to South Africans infected and affected by HIV and Aids. John jetted into Durban on Monday. The visit was hosted by the Aids Foundation of South Africa in conjunction with the United Kingdom's (UK) Elton John Aids Foundation and had been kept under wraps for several months.
For the Sinikithemba ("give us hope") choir members at Durban's McCord Hospital, who learned only seconds before their performance who their VIP guest was, it was a moment they'll never forget. Welcoming John and his party to the hospital's Aids care and treatment clinic with a selection of traditional songs, their performance ended with a personal invitation from the star to sing at his foundation's concert at his UK home in July.
"Your beautiful singing, your grace and passion is absolutely thrilling," a clearly moved John told the 15-member choir, who are all open about their HIV status. "Seeing you, healthy and full of joy, leading normal lives again is an inspiration to everyone. The world is a better place because of you." He asked the choir to rehearse a special song for the occasion, The Circle of Life, from The Lion King, which he has promised to sing with them on stage that evening.
He was fresh from his charity white-tie and tiara concert in Cape Town, where R7-million was raised by his foundation for a number of Aids projects. Dressed in low-key casual clothes, he emphasised that the visit to KwaZulu-Natal was a time to "learn, listen and understand". "Last year at our annual fundraising concert we saw a documentary about orphaned children in Nkandla (a rural area in the heart of Zululand) and their suffering. It was deeply haunting. This year we want to focus on hope and the courage and tenacity of people to overcome disease and despair. What I have seen and heard today has been wonderfully uplifting," John said.
The star could not resist joining the choir on stage in a final impromptu choral number, clapping and cheering the choristers. Said choir leader Phumulani Kunene, close to tears: "We have sung for many famous people during our tours, like Bill Clinton, Michael Johnson and Mary Wilson of the Supremes, but we have never experienced anything quite like this. There is only one word for it - magic." As the star left, the choir sang Wathinta Thina - isiZulu for "you have touched us". Choir member Ncamisile Yengwa said: "This is a good man - we can never forget him."
January 11, 2005
Soweto Choir Brings South African Gospel to U.S.
Gospel music has always been fueled by great choirs, and though names like Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Mississippi Mass Choir are legendary, the United States is not the only country to produce such great musical traditions. Stateside audiences will soon become familiar with the considerable talents of the Soweto Gospel Choir. This month the South African group embarks on a 35-city North American tour supporting its American debut, "Voices From Heaven," on Shanachie Entertainment. The tour kicks off Jan. 28 in Gainesville, Fla., and concludes March 26 in Vancouver.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 by its musical director, David Mulovhedzi. "We ended up with 34 very good members with very good voices," he says. "The first tour was Australia and New Zealand in April 2003. The venue that stands out most in my mind is the Sydney Opera House. It was just wonderful." The choir's profile in its native land increased in November 2003 when Nelson Mandela launched a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the impact of AIDS in Africa and invited the group to perform along with Bono, the members of Queen, Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Cliff and Eurythmics.
The choir has also performed in Germany, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Mulovhedzi says touring North America has always been a goal. "The whole choir is excited about performing in the States, because we are bringing our traditional gospel," he says. "We as Africans are here to thank God for all the wonderful things he does for us. We have got different ways of doing that, because we sing and we beat drums, and dancing. When people come watch our music, they'll enjoy it, because there's a lot of action within the music itself." Mulovhedzi says South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo has helped pave the way for his choir. "We respect them and love them a lot," he says. "They have opened doors for most of the choral groups throughout the world."
"We're not reinventing the wheel here in the beginning because, happily enough, there's a lot to work with," Grass says. The label will target world music and eclectic noncommercial stations. A three-song sampler will be sent to gospel radio. Grass sees a broad audience for the Soweto Gospel Choir. "The shows have great costumes and dance. A lot of people don't realize dance is a part of church services in many parts of Africa. Some people in America might see that and say, 'It's show business,' but no, it's their worship. There are many dimensions. It's not just people standing there singing. It's the whole pageantry of it and all the emotion and energy."
January 8, 2005
Singing Tree looking for a new home
The Mona Shores Singing Christmas Tree, a local Christmas season favorite so renowned that it once traveled to the White House, is seeking a home. Members of the Mona Shores Choir Association and church leaders at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, which has hosted the massive structure for two decades, have squabbled the last couple of years about the tree's future there. Choir and school officials say a move, possibly to the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, is being explored.
Shawn Lawton, who directs the choir, acknowledged moving the tree has been discussed, but didn't want to speculate as to what direction the relationship between the organization and the church is headed. "It's an extremely sensitive subject," said Lawton, who directs the choir.
Last year was the 20th in which students performed choral concerts at St. Francis de Sales while standing on a 53-foot-tall steel structure shaped like a Christmas tree. The tree frame holds more than 300 singers and weighs 30 tons when all are aboard. The performances, which almost always are sold out, are coordinated and funded by 200 volunteers. At issue is how the tree affects church services and its Christmas message.
The association has been "exploring" other sites, Kartes said. The tree will be set up in the Frauenthal May 22 to determine if the tree will fit vertically; also in question is whether the stage will bear the tree's full weight, which is equal to that of the Army's armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Even though the Singing Tree is not an "official" school event, Mona Shores Superintendent Terry Babbitt said it's one in which the district takes pride.
Thanks to a push from local fan and newly elected Muskegon County Treasurer Tony Moulatsiotis, Mona Shores High School's Singing Tree was invited to Washington, D.C., in 2002 to perform. With a $65,000 loan from the school board, the choir department sent a modified version with 90 students as opposed to the normal 300. Twenty-five students performed at the White House, while the entire group gave performances at other areas in the nation's capital.
Finding an alternate location for the mammoth structure is proving to be a challenge, said Kartes. "It was built and designed to be in St. Francis," he said. The association has a contract to hold the event in St. Francis de Sales Church and current plans are for the 2005 performance to be at the church. But it could be the last. "St. Francis is a beautiful setting. I'd hate to pull it out," Kartes said. More
January 7, 2005
Nationwide A Cappella Festival seeks groups to perform
The Harmony Sweepstakes is soon to commence its 21st season and looks forward to another year of great performances. Considered to be a wonderful way to broaden the exposure of an a cappella group it is also a fun experience and a chance to perform with other vocal harmony groups. The Festival is still accepting applications from groups interested in participating although interested groups should contact them soon. Open to groups of any style they welcome all singers looking for an opportunity to perform. For further information please click here
2005 HARMONY SWEEPSTAKES SCHEDULE
Los Angeles - Feb 12
Hermosa Community Theater
New York - Feb 26
Symphony Space Performing Arts Center
San Francisco - Feb 26
Palace of Fine Arts
Boston - March 12
Cohen Auditorium, Tufts University
Pacific NW (Olympia) - March 12
Washington Center For Performing Arts, Olympia
Rocky Mountain (Denver) - March 26
Tiekyo Loretto Hights Theater
Chicago - March 26
Northshore Center for Performing Arts
Mid-Atlantic (DC) - April 9
National Finals May 7
Marin Veteran’s Auditorium, San Rafael CA
January 5, 2005
The Shout shines
The Times (UK):
The traditional Advent service of nine lessons and carols is not for the Shout. This a cappella singing group — choir seems far too stuffy a word — gave us 13 lessons and 25 carols last week, wrapped in a show called A Day in the Life. Well, carols of a kind. Is Rodgers and Hart’s Blue Moon a carol? Or the Pet Shop Boys’ S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G? The lessons derived from the Christmas thoughts of Jean Cocteau, an Auschwitz diarist, or Francis Kilvert are not the orthodox religious ones, either. A journalist asks Cocteau what he would hang on his Christmas tree. “Journalists,” replies Cocteau.
Yet with society’s make-up the way it is, hijacking the Advent service format for a thoughtful but largely secular knees-up makes a good deal of sense. Experienced across music’s wide range, from rock and jazz to the singing of Congolese pygmies, the 15 core voices of the Shout sailed through the show with delicious exuberance, precision of attack (look, no conductor!), and a richly varied tapestry of vocal effects.
The group did most of their own arrangements, led by their director, Orlando Gough. Not every traditional carol suited the cross-cultural approach: the plainsong-derived flow of O Come, O Come Emmanuel cannot be bent with impunity. But the bulk of the repertoire chosen delivered the goods handsomely. Gough’s reharmonised edition of In the Bleak Midwinter made winter impressively bleaker, while the minaret calls sculpted into the dynamic version of The Three Ships created a sound picture far more vivid than anything painted in King’s College Chapel.
The show’s best moments, though, occurred when traditional repertoire was either abandoned or subverted close to death. Melanie Pappenheim took See Amid the Winter Snow and sang it backwards, words and all, once in solo, once in duet: brilliant music theatre, this.
Louise Sofield’s arrangement of the wordless Conference of the Birds skilfully built into a blazing dawn chorus from the gentlest murmurs. Gough’s Christmas Pudding — an ingredients list set to music, emulsifier, E numbers and all — proved a good brief joke, unlike the mundane, updated, sing-along Twelve Days of Christmas. Eleven mini-fridges, six furry parkas? Give me a partridge in a pear tree any day. But this was such a friendly show that even banalities didn’t much matter. Garnished occasionally by Giles Perring’s off-beat percussion, the Shout always sang out with humanity and joy. Just what 2005 needs.
Israel confirms new State Choir
Jerusalem Post (Israel):
They range in age from 18 to 81. Some are native-born Israelis; others come from as far afield as Scandinavia and Latin America. Some have been in Israel for less than three years. Their occupations are diverse, and they have no central place of residence. But together, they form the 180-member Philharmonia Singers, a group that on Monday, January 3, will be confirmed as Israel's new State Choir, representing the nation at choral events at home and abroad. The confirmation will take place at a festive ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the presence of President Moshe Katsav and Education Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat.
"The Philharmonia Singers represent an important aspect of Israeli culture," says Katsav. "Israeli society is multi-cultural and a professional choir such as the Philharmonia Singers, whose members come from many cultural backgrounds is representative of the nation as a whole." Katsav is certain that there is a vast audience waiting to hear these voices which have come together in harmony. It is important, he says, that people not only hear the voices but see the singers and their interaction with each other.
"Music is a bridge between worlds, a bridge between people, a bridge between hearts. Hopefuly this bridge will unite us all and spur us to greater appreciation of each other and respect for each other." The choir was founded by Eyal Levy in 1997 as a not-for-profit organization. That doesn't mean no-one gets paid. What is does mean is that there are no regular salaries and singers are paid according to projects. More
January 3, 2005
Let yourself fall under Wales' harmonic spell
Los Angeles Times (CA):
Never let it be said that Welsh men don't know how to express emotion. Just listen to them sing out loud and strong, harmonies oozing together, sending sinners to hell and putting the righteous on the path to heaven. Then their voices get soft and sweet and you fall in love with them. Choral music has long been a major component of church and school in this small country next door to England. But no other nation I know has fostered male choral music like Wales, where the tradition has grown out of industrialization, harsh economics, nonconformist religion, rugby and a bittersweet love of country.
There are more than 100 male choirs scattered from Newport near the English border to the Isle of Anglesey on the Irish Sea. Some groups are world-renowned, such as the Treorchy and Morriston Orpheus choirs. Others are collections of local guys -- basses, baritones, first and second tenors -- who get together to rehearse twice a week so they don't have to wash the dinner dishes. They may be accountants or real estate agents who never get dirt under their fingernails, but when they practice or perform, you hear the voices of their grandfathers. Up in the valleys north of Cardiff, they're still digging for coal and singing to scare away ghosts from dark mines.
I came to Wales in late November to hear the choirs sing in rehearsals, which are free and open to the public in one town or another almost every night of the week. It seemed a good chance to get to know Welsh male choral music in its shirt sleeves and to begin preparing my soul for the holidays. The male choir tradition is a story of quiet, well-ordered, rural life interrupted by the Industrial Revolution; of 14-hour days in the mines, martyred union organizers, horrendous accidents underground; of once-bucolic valleys defiled; of a hard-working, churchgoing, persistently hopeful people.
Morriston Orpheus Choir has made 28 CDs in 25 years and sung in such venues as Australia's Sydney Opera House and New York's Carnegie Hall. Its 120 members meet in the low-ceilinged canteen of the Morganite Carbon plant outside Swansea, where they socialize briefly before taking seats in a semicircle around Humphreys and the piano.
"Come on baritones, settle down," said Humphreys the night I was there and he launched the men on a stately rendition of the Welsh hymn "Cwm Rhondda," with its once-heard, never-forgotten chorus: "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven/Feed me now and evermore." Then the choir demonstrated the range of its repertoire, singing the old Everly Brothers tune "Let It Be Me" and Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel's "If We Only Have Love."
Like many Welsh male voice choirs, Morriston Orpheus is a charitable organization that sings to raise money for good causes and doesn't pay its members, except in satisfaction. Humphreys, a trim, energetic man about to retire, says achieving a homogenous sound is more important than nurturing soloists -- though hard-to-find tenors tend to be prima donnas -- and that almost no one in the choir reads music. So it was fascinating to watch Humphreys teach four-part harmonies by rote and then put them together. More