February 28, 2005
A cappella at the Oscars
Uruguayan Jorge Drexler received his own Academy Award statuette from musician Prince for "Al Otro Lado del Rio" (On the Other Side of the River). It was the first time a Spanish-language musical number - the theme for "The Motorcycle Diaries" - had been nominated for best original song. Drexler put the audience in his pocket when, instead of giving traditional thank-you remarks, he simply sang - a cappella - the first couple of verses of the number.
In this way, Drexler - who wrote and sang "Al Otro Lado del Rio" in the movie but had not been invited to perform it at Sunday night's ceremony because the event's organizers had not considered him famous enough - got back to some degree at the Academy for their snub.
The Academy had selected the very well-known Spanish actor Antonio Banderas to perform the song and Mexican-American Carlos Santana to accompany him on the electric guitar, and the pair presented a rendition that Drexler - who lives outside Madrid - said left him happy and "filled with emotion."
But in any case, the singing of Banderas - dressed in a white shirt and wearing his hair long - did not move people as much as Drexler's own version of the number when he took the microphone to sing two verses and fulfill his wish at last. "I wanted to sing, and at each break (in the televised ceremony) I practiced the song," said Drexler, who had also calculated where in the lyrics he could get to in the approximately 22 seconds available to Oscar winners to deliver their thank-you remarks.
February 26, 2005
French choirboys are too rude for Oscar
Daily Telegraph (UK):
It is enough to confirm the deepest of Gallic conspiracy theories about the English-speaking world. At a time when France is, politically at least, back on speaking terms with the United States and Britain the delicate rapprochement is under threat from a spat over a film. The ensuing clash of cultures has left the French baffled and dismayed at the treatment being handed out to Les Choristes (The Chorus), the country's most successful film since Amélie. The film, which is up for awards in tonight's Césars ceremony in Paris and tomorrow's Oscars, where it is in contention for best foreign film and for best song, is a clichéd but life-enhancing story of how reform school louts are transformed into a choir by a gifted teacher played by Gérard Jugnot.
But its heart-warming theme has failed to sway Anglophone classification bureaucrats. Should the younger members of the cast want to see their own film in the English-speaking world they might be in for a surprise. To the dismay of the French government and film industry, America's Motion Picture Association (MPAA) has slapped a PG-13 certificate on the film, meaning that parents are "strongly cautioned" that some material may be inappropriate for under-13s. The choice in the US is left to parents. In Britain, where Les Choristes comes out on March 11, an even stricter rating has been imposed. Children under 12 can see it only if accompanied by an adult.
French critics believe the classifications will unjustly hamper the chances of Christophe Barratier's low-budget film making an impact on Anglo-Saxon audiences to match its huge success at home, where it was passed for universal viewing. The ministry of culture in Paris insists that it is for "each country to make its own decision on classification – our government doesn't make films". However, The Telegraph understands that high-level representations have been made about the PG-13 certificate in America which could lead to a review by a ratings appeal board.
In France, 8.6 million people have seen Les Choristes and 1.3 million have bought the music. Children sing along to the soundtrack while choral societies have seen a surge in membership since its release. To French audiences, who have marvelled at the story of disadvantaged children being given hope to triumph over a bleak start in life, the classifications seem perverse. They are based chiefly on the sub-titled lyrics of two songs, one a playground chant mocking the headmaster with the help of a swear word and the other a rude reference to masturbation sung by the class's most incorrigible lout before being told to shut up. The assessors may also have taken account of a suggestion that a PT teacher was a child molester and a brief scene of corporal punishment.
In America, the MPAA decision refers to "some language/sexual references and violence", while the British Board of Film Classification mentions only "moderate sex references".
"It comes down to some boys singing a vulgar song," said Thierry Maunier, whose son, Jean-Baptiste, 14, has been turned into a superstar by his angelic singing and blue-eyed good looks. "The decision is unbelievable." His son, who until recently sang in Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, a children's choir in his native Lyons, agrees. "It is so unjust," he said yesterday. "Our film shows boys from deprived backgrounds at a hard school in 1949 talking like such boys would. But children see plenty of American films with bad words and violent special effects."
The importance to French cinema of gaining an international audience is illustrated by Amélie, which enjoyed similar success as Les Choristes in France but has now been seen by 23 million people worldwide. French cinema-goers remain perplexed. One Parisian mother whose nine-year-old daughter knows the film's choral recitals by heart, said: "My children titter a bit at the swear words but it really is the most innocent film. For them, and especially my daughter, it's about the music and the boy star."
"It's nonsense," said Camille Le Gall, who runs a Francophone web blog, La Gazette New-Yorkaise, in America. "Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby has bad language and some really fierce scenes by comparison with Les Choristes and also got a PG-13 language. "But the industry is wrong if it thinks the film's chances in the States will be affected because of the rating. The reason American kids won't see it is that they don't want to confront a film with sub-titles."
Yale singing groups get the royal treatment
Yale Daily News:
For all its prettiness, Woolsey is an acoustical nightmare of a concert hall, and unless you count the drunken hooting during the Halloween YSO show, no sound ever manages to fill up all that cavernous space. The upcoming joint concert of the Yale Glee Club, Yale Camerata and Yale Schola Cantorum may be the one exception to this general rule. When all three choirs take the stage together for the grand finale and belt out the opening notes to Handel's "Zadok the Priest" to the accompaniment of an orchestra, the ensuing wall of sound knocks you to the back of your seat.
The occasion for this joint venture is a celebration of a living legend, "the dean of British choral music," Sir David Willcocks. Born in 1919, he became an organist, then a conductor and eventually the director of music at King's College, Cambridge, and musical director of the world's premiere amateur choir, the Bach Choir. Willcocks's career has earned him a veritable menagerie of awards, from a host of honorary degrees to his knighthood, which he received in 1977 in the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Yale intends to add yet another title to the list on Sunday by awarding Willcocks the Sanford Medal, the School of Music's most prestigious award.
Regardless of how you may feel about choral music or Handel, from the moment the choir begins until your ears cease ringing a few seconds after the singing stops, one cannot help but listen in mute fascination to the song that has been played at every British coronation ceremony since 1727. It's enough to make the most patriotic American wonder if things would have been better if we'd lost that little war 230 some years ago. At the very least, it is difficult not to go home whistling "God save the king."
On Sunday, before joining together for "Zadok," each of the three choirs will have the chance to perform its own pieces under Willcock's baton. The Schola Cantorum will present Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecilia" and Henry Purcell's "Rejoice in the Lord Always"; the Camerata will sing Handel's "Dixit Dominus"; and the Glee Club will perform Willcocks's own "Magnificat" and "Nunc Dimittis," in addition to Hubert Parry's "I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me," which, according to Sir David, was a particular favorite of the late Queen Mother's. While "Zadok" may be the high point of the evening, other pieces are likewise worthy of praise.
The Glee Club acquits itself well in the "Magnificat," and since Willcocks' conducting style eschews a romantic, free-flowing approach in favor of rhythmic precision, the more bombastic passages are particularly excellent. The Camerata's rendition of "Dixit Dominus" is also quite strong, and the soloists, despite lack of practice, are impressive, particularly soprano soloists Laura Chester and Mellissa Hughes MUS '06, who blend beautifully in a duet, and alto soloist Ian Howell MUS '06, who achieves admirable purity of tone during crescendos on his highest notes. Slight problems persist throughout the program, some of them due to Woolsey Hall itself. Consonants, for example, are swallowed up by the space. In all the choirs, cutoffs need to be sharper than they are now, and despite Willcocks's best efforts, there are still rhythmic irregularities among both singers and the orchestra.
In "Zadok," which has so many people onstage singing at once, even the smallest rhythmic or pitch discrepancies can make entire passages sound muddy, and the quintessentially Handelian rhythmic "ha"s have a definite tendency toward inaccuracy, especially among the basses. By Sunday, hopefully, continued rehearsal will have ironed out many of these difficulties. Even as it stands, this concert is well worth seeing, especially given that it's absolutely free. It is certainly a rare opportunity to see a legend in action, and to hear Woolsey Hall come alive with the sound of over 150 voices.
February 25, 2005
Harry Simeone, 94, Holiday Chorale Conductor, Dies
New York Times (NY):
Harry M. Simeone, a conductor and arranger whose choral singers helped popularize Christmas evergreens like "The Little Drummer Boy," died on Tuesday at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 94 and lived on the Upper East Side. The death was announced by his family.
Mr. Simeone, who spent a career working for and with headliners like Fred Waring and Bing Crosby, became known on his own in the late 1950's with the Harry Simeone Chorale. Its recordings of Christmas songs sold in the hundreds of thousands and were ubiquitous in homes and public places. The most successful was his group's rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy," adapted from a Czech carol. Translated into English in 1941, it was first recorded in 1957 by the Jack Halloran Singers. According to Songfacts, a professional database, , a disagreement over the release of that record brought the song and the singers to Mr. Simeone for a redo.
Originally titled "Sing We Now of Christmas," the album on the Holiday label that included "Drummer Boy," turned into an instant holiday classic when it appeared in 1958, and made the Top 40 charts in the United States until 1962. Since then "The Little Drummer Boy" has been recorded by artists from Bing Crosby, paired with the rocker David Bowie, to the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Guards.
Mr. Simeone and his singers had another Christmas hit with "Do You Hear What I Hear?," written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne in 1962; its lyrics retold the Nativity story through the eyes of young shepherd who had seen the star rise. It appeared on a Holiday album called "Little Drummer Boy/Harry Simeone Chorale." His choruses, chosen for the spiritual qualities of their voices, were assembled for recordings as the occasion arose; there were usually 25 members, 16 boys and 9 girls. He made the recordings in an old theater in Greenwich Village where the aged timbers were acoustically suited to his sound.
Harry Moses Simeone was born in Newark and was drawn to music as a boy listening to stars performing at the Metropolitan Opera. He attended the Juilliard School of Music, planning to become a concert pianist, but left after three years to work at CBS. He was an accompanist and arranger for a singing group, but soon moved into orchestral and choral music. He was an arranger and musical director for Fred Waring and in 1939 moved to Hollywood to work on Bing Crosby movies and other films, also collaborating with the composer Victor Young. He rejoined Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians in 1945 and then was a conductor and choral arranger for "The Firestone Hour" on television from 1952 to 1959. Mr. Simeone's wife, Margaret McCravy Simeone, died in 2001. He is survived by a son, Harry Jr., of Garden City, N.Y.; a daughter, Margaret Stevenson of Rockville Centre, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.
Puppets plan adult theatre
West Liberty Index (IA):
Owl Glass Puppetry Center in West Liberty will host Puppets and Pastries Dessert Theatre for Adults on March 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. The event features the Eulenspiegel Puppets of West Liberty and Drabbletails Fancy, a women's a cappella singing group. Chef Mickey's Catering Shoppe provides the desserts.
Just had to post this, the headline is theirs - Editor
February 22, 2005
Slavery's Unchained Melodies
Washington Post (DC):
Tucked inside a rectangular folder, hidden in the deep recesses of the Library of Congress, rest a few crumbling pages of paper. Librarian Samuel Perryman sets the sheets on a table. "This is a first edition and I don't know if it was reprinted," he says. "When this one evaporates, that may be it." The yellowed rectangles of paper are one of the few remaining editions of 1872's "Jubilee Songs," one of the nation's first printings of slave songs, also known as Negro spirituals -- what folklorists call one of the most unique and enduring bodies of work in American music.
The weathered songbook was published by Nashville's Fisk University for its Jubilee Singers, most of whom were freed slaves. Today, it has little or no binding left. Many of the few dozen pages are not attached to the rest, hence the folder. But if the original publications of spirituals have become 19th-century artifacts, songs such as "Wade in the Water" and "Elijah Rock" have left the plantations of the Deep South and emerged as modern cultural and religious gems that are now everything from operatic art to daily church music. Dismissed by many blacks in the early 20th century as unwanted relics of slavery, the "sorrow songs" have since rebounded to inspire artists as diverse as William Faulkner, Romare Bearden, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and opera divas Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price. When Martin Luther King Jr. summed up his "I Have a Dream" speech, he reached back to a spiritual for the electrifying "free at last, free at last" summation.
"They're as much a part of me as my fingers and toes," says Rufus Daniels, a retired D.C. labor economist who grew up in rural Alabama, the grandson of a slave. "They were created, in part, by my very family. I can remember my grandmother telling me about the conditions they lived in, and singing these songs in church as a child. . . . They express what might be called the soul of a people."
This afternoon, Daniels will sing baritone as the 75-voice Heritage Signature Chorale and the 87-voice Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Choir present a concert of the spirituals in the complex modern arrangements of Moses Hogan. The chorale is one of many predominantly black choruses across the country that devote a large part of their classical repertoire to the spirituals, keeping them alive in ways their creators never imagined. While the original spirituals were sung in unison in church meetings or as call-and-response work songs, they have evolved into Hogan's spectacular productions, with sopranos hitting notes a full octave above the fabled high "C" and with sections of the chorus coming in as rapidly as every one-sixteenth note.
"It's hard now to match the inflections of the original songs," says Stanley Thurston, the D.C.-based composer and conductor who directs the Signature Chorale. " 'Join' becomes 'jine,' 'the' becomes 'de,' 'I' becomes 'Ah.' You want to do it as a tribute to how it originally sounded, but with people from all over the country, many of whom have classically trained voices working in highly stylized compositions, it's work. These are mostly a cappella, and there's no music to hide behind." The concert is scheduled for 4 p.m. in the Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington, a familiar setting for religious music, but no one is pretending the songs were just Christian hymns.
They sprang up in the oral tradition of an enslaved people kept illiterate by the force of law, and there are no known authors, composers or arrangers of any of the thousands of spirituals that came about during slavery. Instead, the slaves found redemption in the Old Testament stories of the enslaved Hebrews in Biblical Egypt. Seeing themselves as a similar people, they packed double meanings of escape from slavery and religious salvation into many of the songs -- messages lost on white overseers.
"A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,' something more than a hope of reaching heaven," wrote Frederick Douglass in his narratives of being enslaved in Maryland. "We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan." Classic songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Steal Away to Jesus" were not-so-veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and "Wade in the Water" is a textbook example of the style:
Who's that young girl dressed in red
Wade in the water
Must be the children that Moses led
God's gonna trouble the water
For any slave from Mississippi to Maryland, "wade in the water" was a reference to escaping slaves using shallow streams to throw off pursuing bloodhounds, "children" meant the slaves themselves, and "Moses" was Harriet Tubman, the famed leader of the Underground Railroad. "White folks would hear them sing that and not think anything other than the Old Testament about it, because they just didn't think black folks had the sense," says Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown University history professor who often lectures on slavery in America and wrote the Grammy-nominated liner notes for the Hank Jones/Charlie Haden compact disc, "Steal Away."
Frances Brooks, a soprano in the Chorale who frequently solos on her own, is perhaps best known in local churches for her knockout rendition of the hymn "I Need Thee Every Hour." But, she said Friday night, as the group was going through final rehearsals, even that song does not touch her in the way spirituals do. "There's a deeper connection with the spirituals, as a black woman, because of the slave passages that birthed them," she said. "It's different than hymns because of the gratitude I feel to those people who went before."
That said, the songs' secular references to freedom on Earth does not diminish their spiritual power -- at least not for Bernard Richardson, dean of Howard University's Rankin Memorial Chapel. Singing the songs since childhood, he now sees the power of sustained faith in the lives of slaves who found, despite overwhelming obstacles, one way to leave a message to the rest of the world. "The songs give a sense of the relationship that the slaves had with God, that God was close and personal to them, that God cared for their sorrows and their joys," he said. "Regardless of what humanity said about them, they received their identity from a higher source. The only way we know what was in their hearts is through these songs. That's what makes them endure, what touches us still."
Submerging the Vocal Ego
Among the many improbable trends of the classical recording industry in the last couple of decades, a particularly happy one revolves around the head-spinning success of the female a cappella quartet known as Anonymous 4. Their first recording ( An English Ladymass) soon established a pattern of bestselling releases beautifully produced and packaged by the ensemble's label, Harmonia Mundi. But that was hardly to be expected, especially given how much of the repertoire explored on their programs involves a time travel into areas that seem completely exotic to modern-day ears. Anonymous 4 has also faced hotly contested issues within musicological circles about how to be "historically informed" when it comes to interpreting and presenting early music.
The foursome--Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jaqueline Horner (who replaced Ruth Cunningham in 1998), and Johanna Maria Rose--nevertheless went on to set their own patterns of success with thoughtfully researched programs inspired by varying aspects of the medieval world and presented with a rich sense of context. They've also explored some contemporary composers whose music reverberates with the spiritual focus of ages past, including Richard Einhorn and John Tavener.
With its 18th release, The Origin of Fire, the group presents its official swan song, having made their farewell tour in 2004. As Marsha Genensky recalls, there have been many adventures since a fledgling Anonymous 4 gave its first concert in 1986 to a tiny audience in a Manhattan church. Ironically, the ensemble at first avoided the music of Hildegard of Bingen for fear of being pigeonholed as a "female group." But on their swan song CD, the performance feels like a homecoming--and a summation of everything that distinguishes Anonymous 4. Fans will have a difficult time coming to terms with what is the early-music equivalent of the breakup of the Beatles. Genensky shared her reflections with Amazon.com senior editor Thomas May on Anonymous 4's origins, the technical and emotional challenges of Hildegard's music, how it relates to the group's own identity, and what comes next as each member goes solo. Read the interview here but buy the CD here.
Fit for a king?
Kansas City Star (KS):
The King's Singers clown around like six overgrown cherubs, sing like only slightly fallen angels and put on a show that has something for everyone. Their Harriman program Saturday at the Folly Theater was a variety show, with arid wit, song-and-dance, a mini-drama and introductions that included enough quirky pronunciations (“a central figgah of the Ruh-NAY-sahnce”) to remind us where these singers were from.
They are two countertenors, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. The concert was great fun, if a tad familiar. It was worth it to hear the peerless renderings of English Renaissance pieces that opened the program, sung with impressive polish and balance by singers raised in the direct tradition. Their sonority in Byrd's “Haec dies” was pristine and radiant, with a final chord that rang like a pipe organ and elicited audible exclamations from those around me.
The disembodied quality of the sound served Tallis' quiet “If Ye Love Me,” and their sophisticated knowledge of the style brought out the subtle tonal surprises of that composer's “Salvator mundi.” Also in a serious vein were Three Estonian Psalms by Cyrillus Kreek, a tonalist who flourished in the mid-20th century. Their textures plumbed the unexpected, like the florid melody of the first psalm, over a drone of gentle chords.
The second psalm reveled in low voices, with that roaring bass that we associate with Eastern church traditions. A third injected enough bluesy harmonies as to sound downright soulful. The lighter side of the Renaissance showed up in three Spanish pieces, from the profane “La Tricotea” (sung with a nasal buzz) to a tender, forgettable lament. The mini drama “La Bomba” was in the genre called “ensalada” (salad), in which the singers all mimed and acted out roles as they sang a parable about repentant sailors rescued at sea.
Humor came especially naturally to the impish Stephen Connolly, who kept reminding me of the British TV character Mr. Bean, and seemed to relish the resemblance. But all six have a good sense of comic timing, and they clearly enjoy making people laugh — which they did with broadly farcical shtick that might not seem as funny if it were not coming from such a “serious” bunch of lads.
Paul Patterson's “Time Piece” included plenty of unconventional elements, from clock sounds to guitar strumming and imitations of Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Especially ingenious were the hollow, Ligeti-like sounds of the opening, meant to depict the creation of the world. (“If you cough during this, you might miss a day or two,” one singer warned us.)
The final set included Whiffenpoof-like arrangements of “Penny Lane,” “The Turtledove,” the spiritual “Let's Go Down to the River to Pray” (popularized in the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”). The most dazzling novelty was the rendition of Duke Ellington's “Creole Love Call,” with wordless imitations of saxophones, trombones and especially trumpets (with or without mute). A racing “William Tell” Overture was perhaps too subtle for its own good, almost getting lost in the laughs. Libby Larsen's “A Lover's Journey: Four Valentines” rounded out the program — American music for an American audience.
The four pieces contained enough rhythmic dynamism and text-illustration to keep the mind occupied. Larsen used rapid-fire repetition to represent Petruccio's insistence on marrying Kate (in the third valentine, set to words from “The Taming of the Shrew”). The singers' precision and commitment here was admirable, though the music generally struck me as inconsequential, except for the luscious setting of the bard's “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?” As encores we were served a Greek version of “Old MacDonald” (yes, there were funny farm-animal sounds) and “A Groovy Kind of Love.” It was, for me, an ignoble ending to a program that had begun so loftily.
February 19, 2005
Take 6 attuned to 'most incredible instrument'
Tallahassee Democrat (FL):
The heavenly harmonies of a cappella singing group Take 6 seem to lock into place like musical puzzle pieces. It sounds as if the sextet's members have a mind meld that allows them to blend voices effortlessly. That mind meld exists, but it's bolstered by tight, impeccable arrangements, according to Take 6 founder Claude McKnight III. "It's all very scripted," McKnight said in a phone interview. "I'd dare say it's so well-scripted that it appears seamless, which is exactly what you want. We make sure our arrangements are very planned out. In case we take a left turn in concert, we have a road map to follow."
Take 6's tuneful trail leads to Ruby Diamond Auditorium on Saturday for a concert presented by Seven Days of Opening Nights. McKnight, the older brother of popular R&B performer Brian McKnight, said the program will feature a mix of new material and hits from the group's two-decade, award-studded career.
Take 6 started as a quartet called The Gentlemen's Estate at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. McÂKnight, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved with his family to Orlando when he was a sophomore in high school, never thought it would blossom into a career. "I started the group as a hobby," he said. "I was a music major, but I was also an incredibly shy person, and I never thought I'd be up on stage performing for an audience."
Music was a family affair for McKnight. "There was a lot of music in our house when I was a kid," he said. "From the time I was walking I can remember being at choir rehearsal with my mom. My ear was trained at an early age." The trained ear is essential in a cappella singing, McKnight said. "When the ears are trained, the voices will follow," McKnight said.
The group's uplifting sound has earned it seven Grammy Awards, as well as a shelf full of other honors, and prompted noted producer Quincy Jones to proclaim Take 6 "the greatest vocal ensemble on the planet." Its appeal has spread worldwide, and the group just recently returned from a tour of Japan. "We've gone there every year since 1989," McKnight said. "We have rabid fans in Japan. It seems like Japanese culture is very hungry for Western music, particularly black American music and gospel."
Take 6's mix of gospel, jazz and pop exploits the universal allure of unaccompanied singing. "Even with all the technology we have - and I'm a big fan of technology - the human voice is still the most incredible instrument there is," McKnight said. "That's the draw of Take 6, in a sense, because we're a very avant garde, very showy kind of a cappella group, but on one level everyone can identify with what we do because we all have voices."
Many voices, one goal, in competition
Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)
The singers layered their voices over the lonely lyric, pushing it to the walls and ceiling of their rehearsal room and down the high school hallway, where it rose above even the slapping echo of practicing sprinters' feet. Sending out an S.O.S. I'm sending out an S.O.S. "Stop!" yelled Central Bucks West choir director Joseph Ohrt. Silence.
The 20-member a cappella choir had been leaning on Ohrt's beat-keeping hand claps and a few reminder notes from his piano Wednesday afternoon - crutches they could not use at tomorrow's state-level championship, a step toward the first National Championship of High School A Cappella."Do you hear the internal beat in your head?" Ohrt asked. "It's not rhythmically together, and it's very disturbing." No one even smirked when Ohrt asked them to repeat parts "Message in a Bottle" by the Police over and over. The choir, called Legacy, wanted to master this song as it had the other two it will perform in the contest at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill.
"I'm incredibly stimulated by competition," senior Meredith Beck said during a break. If Legacy's voices please the judges, the group could advance to the Mid-Atlantic Division Championship in April, which could lead to May's inaugural national competition in an art form gaining popularity in the nation's high schools. The surge began about 10 years ago and has picked up in the last five, said Ardene R. Shafer, assistant executive director at the National Association for Music Education, an organization of music teachers.
A cappella has existed as long as people have sung, from the chants of monks to barbershop quartets to Rockapella singing the "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" theme. In Italian, a cappella literally means in the manner of the chapel, but the term has come to mean any singing without instruments. "Most chapels 1,500 years ago didn't have instruments," said Mark Surprenant, executive director of the National Championship of High School A Cappella competition.
The style catching on in high schools is called contemporary a cappella. As the name implies, modern songs are sung. "It's where the kids' interest is right now," Shafer said. Even students who are not usually interested in choir music have responded enthusiastically to Legacy, Beck said. She believes that's because everyone, choir member or not, has sung most of Legacy's songs when they have come on the radio. This is Legacy's first year. Senior and choir president David Butterworth said inspiration came from a visiting a cappella choir.
A cappella singing is challenging because there is no piano to camouflage a missed note, and no percussionists to keep time. But there is sophomore Rob Brinkmann, who makes remarkably drumlike sounds with his mouth and turns his swinging body into a time-marking metronome. "That is a lot of pressure, and it takes a lot of practice, but it is so much fun," said Brinkmann, 15. The National Championship of High School A Cappella was created by Maestro Consulting, a for-profit Michigan company that holds clinics for college and high school singers.
For this first year, choirs across the country sent audition tapes to be chosen for state-level competitions. About 200 choirs responded, and 80 groups, representing 31 states, were chosen for state-level competition. West faces choirs from three other schools tomorrow, and only one is from Pennsylvania, the Notables from the Haverford School. Two of the four will advance to the next round. At Wednesday's rehearsal, Legacy eventually nailed the Police song and ran through its entire show: "Galileo," a song about the astronomer by the Indigo Girls; Sicut cervus, a sacred work written by Palestrina, a contemporary of Galileo's; and "Message in a Bottle." The students chose these songs because all are about everyone having a message to convey. As the last notes faded from Room 62, even Ohrt was satisfied
February 18, 2005
Chanticleer to premiere new music theater work
The vocal ensemble Chanticleer will give the world premiere in June of a new music theater work about the 12th-century abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard: A Measure of Joy will premiere at the Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco on June 3 before moving to San Jose, Berkeley, and Sacramento. Prominent opera director Francesca Zambello will direct; the libretto is by playwright Donna DiVovelli. The score will include works by Hildegard and her contemporaries, as well as new music by Régis Camp and Steven Stucky.
A writer, encyclopedist, healer, and the founder of two monasteries, Hildegard composed a great deal of plainchant liturgical music, including antiphons, responsories, sequences, and hymns. Recordings of her work have topped the Billboard charts several times over the last two decades and helped to spark a craze for music of the period. The new work depicts a meeting of twelve cardinals considering whether Hildegard should be canonized.
February 17, 2005
Worst Songbird Rehearsals Precede Best Debut Performances
According to a study published this week in Nature (February 17), sleep helps young birds master the art of song, and it does so in a surprising way. The study reveals that when zebra finches first wake up, they are actually dramatically worse singers than they were the day before. Moreover, individual birds that initially perform the worst during their "morning rehearsals" eventually become the best singers of all.
Vocal learning in songbirds bears similarities to human speech development: Novice birds go through a period of "screeching" before learning to imitate songs accurately, much as babies babble before grasping words. Therefore, the new research points to the need for a quantitative study of the effects of sleep on learning in human infants, says Partha Mitra, a theoretical neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who participated in the research (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The study examined the effect of sleep on song learning in young zebra finches. Individuals of this species are active in the daytime, do not sing in darkness, and develop their song during a critical window of "brain plasticity" between one and three months after hatching. In order to learn to sing, it's known that young birds must hear an adult song, and through practice, develop their own version of the tune by comparing their vocalizations to a memory template of the song that they "hear in their heads."
Interestingly, researchers have previously found that zebra finch brain neurons involved in vocal learning display patterns of activity while the birds are asleep that are similar to the patterns observed while awake birds are singing. Until now, however, there has been no direct evidence that sleep affects song learning, and if so, how.
To collect the data used in the study, City College New York behavioral neuroscientists Ofer Tchernichovski and Sebastien Deregnaucourt (email@example.com) recorded every vocalization--approximately a million syllables per bird--made by 12 young male zebra finches over several months as the birds learned to imitate and perfect their own renditions of recorded adult male zebra finch songs.
To assess the musical progress or lack thereof of the young birds, Tchernichovski worked with Mitra to develop algorithms that became the basis of powerful software for analyzing the structure and patterns of animal vocalizations (Sound Analysis Pro). Surprisingly, instead of showing gradual improvement in which they might wake up each day and "pick up where they left off" in their vocal abilities, many of the birds displayed dramatic degradation in the quality of their songs relative to how well they performed at the end of the previous day. However, the quality of these birds' songs improved after intense morning rehearsal to the point where by the end of each new day, their singing was indeed better than the day before.
The study yielded another counterintuitive result, namely, that birds which ultimately learn to sing better than others-- at the end of their three months of rehearsal--actually awaken from sleep each day as poorer singers than their ultimately less tuneful counterparts (i.e. they have "stronger post-sleep deterioration" of song development). "We have more work to do to explain this 'one step back, two steps forward' effect of sleep on the brain circuits that govern vocal learning. But a useful analogy for now is the tempering of steel, in which to gain its ultimate structure and strength, it is first weakened," says Mitra.
Well if birds do indeed sing therefore when they do so together they must be singing a cappella. There's no mention of species in the definition of a cappella... Also I don't think birds are the only ones to have "post-sleep deterioration of song development"!
February 16, 2005
Brunelle and singers dig for diversity within diversity
City Pulse (MI):
It takes guts for a foreigner to peddle sausages in the heart of Germany. When gentleman vocalist Roland Hayes, deemed by many scholars to be the first black concert artist, went to Vienna in the 1920s, he did something even braver. He sang Schubert and Beethoven songs to audiences that expected him to rear back, mop his brow and belt out Negro spirituals. “When he began singing, there was murmuring in the crowd,” says choral conductor Philip Brunelle, who is bringing an unusual re-creation of Hayes’ life and work to the Wharton Center stage on Saturday. “But by the time he finished the first number, he had convinced them.”
Brunelle, director of the hundred-strong choral group VocalEssence, has good reason to be fascinated by the long-forgotten Hayes. He’s pulling a similar stunt himself with his 15-year-old “Witness” series, bringing the work of unsung and undersung black composers to the concert stage. Brunelle is among the most honored and accomplished choral conductors on Earth, but he must have encountered misunderstanding and resistance… “Because I’m white?” asks Brunelle, obviously well acquainted with the question. “Absolutely not. My goal is to open people’s eyes to a much wider diversity of music within the African-American tradition. I’ve had a wonderful, warm response from audiences of all colors.” He’s also proud of the thanks he’s gotten from the black composers whose work he’s showcased over the years, many of whom were unknown even to each other. “Last year we had five major African-American women composers. None of them had even met each other,” he says. “That was an amazing situation.”
Saturday night’s concert will consist of two parts. First, the Ensemble Singers, whom Brunelle calls “a phenomenal group of 32 professionals,” will perform a wide variety of music by several black composers, many of them still living. These pieces include some of the many commissions the Witness program has made over the years. The second half of the evening will be devoted to the unique multi-media Hayes biography, a combination of theater and music. A variety of compositions associated with Hayes — classical and traditional — will be performed by the full choral ensemble. Two actors playing Hayes and his brother will read a selection of the letters they wrote to one another. Scenes from their lives and times will be projected behind them as they perform.
There is plenty of drama in Hayes’ life for the performers to dig into. Gifted with a magnificent voice, he made his way up to Boston, eventually singing with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Stubborn prejudice gave him a hard time in the United States, but when Hayes was invited to sing with the King and Queen of England, doors were suddenly flung open back home. He was invited to sing with the Boston Symphony and performed at Carnegie Hall.
Brunelle says that even in the 1920s, Hayes insisted his recitals be open to both blacks and whites. “People always talked about his gentle nature, how kind he was to other people,” Brunelle says, adding that Hayes mentored African-American giants of the stage such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. “He was very successful, and later on he went and bought the plantation his parents had been slaves on. It’s a great story.” A great life, yes, but so dignified it wouldn’t throw so much as a morsel to today’s tabloid dogs. “Part of the reason he was not well known is that he wasn’t a showman in the Pavarotti school,” Brunelle explains. “He was a very quiet man. I’ve talked to people who heard him live, and they said he had a way of drawing focus and attention while remaining quiet. No histrionics, he just sang.”
February 15, 2005
A cappella wins a GRAMMY
President Thabo Mbeki congratulated Monday South Africa's most famous a cappella ensemble on their Grammy win, which he said made him proud to be South African. Ladysmith Black Mambazo picked up the award for Best Traditional World Music album for Raise Your Spirit Higher at Sunday's 47th Annual Grammy Awards. "This is the ultimate reward for a group that has entertained our country and millions abroad for more than four decades," Mbeki said in a statement released in the capital, Pretoria. "The people and government of South Africa salute this remarkable group of musicians on their achievement and look forward to being entertained by them for many more years to come."
Vocal group's lineup may change, but music remains the same
Daily Sun (FL):
With the vocal group Three Hits and a Miss, the hits may change, but the miss remains the same. One of the hits, Dennis Curley, is quite new - he joined the group in December. "It's been great," Curley said. "I love singing with these guys. I like the way the voices blend together. Very smooth." The three hits - Curley, David Anderson, and Drew Jansen - and the miss - Jody Briskey - created perfect harmony during two performances both Thursday and Friday night at Savannah Center. "The sound is wonderful with this group," Briskey said. "Creamy, rich vocals. A great group of people to work with."
The quartet from Minneapolis covered a variety of tunes from the 1940s through the 1960s, putting their stamp on such classics as "Glow Little Glow Worm," "Sentimental Journey," "Nowhere Man," "California Dreamin'," "Mambo Italiano," and an a cappella version of "This Land Is Your Land." The four also took solo turns on stage, with Anderson performing "If I Can't Love Her" from the Broadway hit "Beauty and the Beast," and Curley taking the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody." Jansen, one of the newer hits, had the audience laughing with a country song he wrote called "Five Years or 50,000 Lies." He took various car model names and terminology to explain a man's love for a woman. "So before we have a head-on collision, let's reach an Accord," Jansen sang. "I'll love you for five years or 50,000 lies, whichever comes first."
While Curley has officially been with the group for a couple of months, he wasn't completely foreign to the group. In fact, he wasn't nervous during his first performance in December. "We've known each other forever," Curley said. "I was perfectly at home." He had always been considered an alternate should one of the other singers not be able to make it, but his schedule never quite meshed until now. Curley's introduction to music came through his mother, who was a singer, and his family had a piano in their home. His main gig now is with a wedding band in Minneapolis. As for his favorite tune from the concert, he picked "Goody, Goody" because "I like the title. Seriously."
Rob Dorn came up with the concept of this Three Hits and a Miss in Chicago, but it disbanded. Not willing to admit defeat, Dorn tried again in Minneapolis, and he found three vocalists in 1995. "Everyone has had a love for this [sound]," Briskey said. While some songs get put away for a rest, Briskey said that "Sun Valley" has managed to stay in the set list from the group's inception. "That song has our sound in it," Briskey said, "bright, clear harmony. We never get tired of that one." Briskey, who has been in the musical theater world for 25 years, enjoys it when she is able to make the audience feel the same way she feels about a song she is performing. "I can't do music I can't relate to, that I can't feel in my gut," Briskey said. "It's easy to get lost in a song".
McFerrin includes young audience in jazz experience
Kalamazoo Gazette (MI):
The concert did not involve classical music, but the children who attended vocalist Bobby McFerrin's Friday morning show at Western Michigan University's Miller Auditorium got a heavy dose of sophistication anyway. The sophistication came from the syncopated rhythms and complex note lines of the jazz music that McFerrin and WMU vocal jazz group Gold Company presented. Miller was filled with a frenzy of activity before the show. Kids switched seats, made faces, wiped runny noses and teased each other. But when McFerrin opened his mouth, the kids closed theirs, except when asked to sing along. Kids got to clap to the beat of the music, applaud when they felt like it, even yell when McFerrin pointed at them to do so as part of a song.
The concert included a touch of instruction. McFerrin and Gold Company director Steve Zegree tried to explain the difference between people who swing -- feel the swing beat of jazz music -- and people who don't. "People who really swing are so cool you often don't see them swinging," McFerrin joked, and the crowd roared with laughter. About 2,500 students from area elementary, junior high and high schools attended the one-hour show, a shortened version of shows to be performed at 2 and 8 p.m. today at Miller Auditorium. It was Miller Auditorium's one big outreach children's show for the year, partly sponsored by the countywide Education for the Arts program.
McFerrin rarely does shows for children. He agreed to do it, in part, because of his close relationship with Zegree. Their friendship dates back to the early 1980s at Foot Hill College in Los Altos, Calif., where a mutual friend was teaching. That was way before McFerrin's big hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," and before McFerrin got the idea of singing a capella as a career. McFerrin performs shows for kids off and on, he said, and when he does, it is usually with an orchestra that provides an outreach program for kids. McFerrin is a great believer in exposing children to live, professionally performed music. He took his son Taylor, 23, to a concert when Taylor was 3 months old, he said in an interview following the Miller show. McFerrin also has fond memories of the first show he attended as a 6-year-old boy, a performance of "Rigoletto" by the Metropolitan Opera in 1956. His father, Robert McFerrin Sr., was a singer in the show.
"I remember it was big, overwhelming, great staging," McFerrin said. "There was this storm scene. I can still see the darkness, feel the night, feel the wind from the wind machines. It freaked me out because it was so realistic." On Friday, McFerrin's scat singing was perfect for young minds -- what kid doesn't get a kick out of hearing gibberish? "Say, 'Did del la,'" McFerrin said, pointing his microphone toward the audience. "Now, 'Bid dee da.' Now do it fast. That's all there is." That interaction followed a song that McFerrin, Gold Company and the group's band composed on the spot. McFerrin asked the bass player to play a line, directed the drummer to keep time, then scatted with Gold Company and the audience in a call-and-response pattern.
He later explained that improvisation is the main ingredient in jazz. "It comes from the whole idea that we create as we go," McFerrin said in a nasal voice to great laughter, mocking the stereotype of a college professor. McFerrin and Gold Company performed "Stomping at the Savoy," "In a Mellow Tone," "Melancholy Baby," the student composition "Groove With Me," and two McFerrin compositions, "Jubilee" and "All I Want Is You." The vocal arrangement for "All I Want Is You" had never been performed before.
February 12, 2005
Serenade of noble voice
Arizona Sun-Times (AZ):
Their name, Voci Nobili, means noble voices, and Flagstaff will have a chance to experience the lushness of their music when this 25-woman choral group sings tonight at Ardrey Auditorium. Led by conductor Maria Gamborg Helbekkmo, they will sing in the second half of a host concert with two NAU choral groups, Chamber Singers and Shrine of the Ages. The sold-out concert is the centerpiece of the university's 2005 Jazz/Madrigal Festival. About 1,000 of the 1,450 seats will be filled by choral students who are here for the festival.
The Voci Nobili singers are a long way from their home at the Bergen University College in Norway. They arrived by bus, via Las Vegas, after performing at the National Convention of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in Los Angeles. "They were just delightful; they were so stylistic with such great intonation and phrasing," said Edith Copley, director of choral studies at NAU, who heard the group in Los Angeles. "The conductor is just a joy to watch. I'm just really excited about this. This is the first time we've had an international choir sing at the Jazz/Madrigal Festival."
Helbekkmo, who will be 63 on Feb. 18, is an associate professor at Bergen University College, where she teaches choir conducting, piano and solo voice. She conducts two choirs at Bergen University College, Jentekoret and Voci Nobili, and is artistic director of Bergen Philharmonic Choir. "We will perform a variety of pieces, but many Norwegian pieces," she said at a gathering Thursday night in the Radisson lobby. "We will sing Norwegian folk music and two, maybe three, Grieg pieces. We are also singing pieces by two of our most important choral composers, Knut Nystedt and Egil Hovland."
Edvard Grieg, born in Bergen in 1843, and is one of Norway's best-known composers. The incidental music he composed for "Peer Gynt" is probably his most beloved work. The choir has gained wide recognition as an exceptionally fine vocal ensemble, and has won a number of national and international choral competitions. "They were in Great Britain in competition and won three of the four first-place prizes," Copley said. "You hear more mixed choruses than women's choirs at festivals and conventions. They all dress in Norwegian traditional dress."
Helbekkmo started the group in 1989 and members are selected by audition. None of the members are professionals, but all have spent an average of 500 hours a year rehearsing, performing and competing with the choir. The performers range in age from 18 to 36. "We're looking forward to seeing Flagstaff; the only impression we have is it looks like Norway, in the middle of the woods," said Maike Flick, 23, who has studied and performed with Helbekkmo since she was 8 years old. As rain started to fall after they arrived, the group felt more at home. "If it's raining here tonight, it will be more like Bergen because it rains a lot in Bergen," said Wibeke Wetas, 25. "But when there's sun in Bergen, it's worth all the rain."
Voci Nobili will perform about 15 works, and some of them will showcase pianist Geir Botnen and soloist Anne Catherine Eiken, both from the lovely Hardanger area by the fjords. The mountains here will also be familiar because Bergen is called the City of Seven Mountains. "It's a beautiful city and the climate is warmer than people usually think," said Eirik Fluge, group tour manager. "Bergen was the capital approximately 150 years ago. It was a European cultural city, and it was very active. It has a strong music tradition."
The Jazz/Madrigal Festival, part of the Winterfest celebration, starts today and runs through Saturday. The festival features 110 choirs, including 70 from high schools. A new choir will sing every half-hour at three classical and two jazz sites in the city . "It's probably the biggest festival of its size in the Southwest," said Gary Weidenaar, associate director of choral activities at NAU and coordinator of the festival. "This festival is of such a magnitude. We've got choirs from all the western states including California, Nevada and a lot of Arizona choirs." The idea to invite Voci Nobili came up when he and his colleagues found out the group would be appearing at the ACDA conference. "We thought, maybe we could tap into one of the international groups that come over to perform," he said.
This choir was quite the hit at the ACDA convention and created quite a stir. What a wonderful tradition of choral excellence there is in Scandinavia!
Filmmaker digs for the emotion of history
The State (SC):
The temperature hovered at 8 degrees outside the Brooklyn brownstone offices of filmmaker Stanley Nelson, but inside, he felt the heat. Nelson had only a few days left to put the finishing touches on his latest documentary, “Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice,” before its premiere this past weekend at the Miami International Film Festival. The film and filmmaker are due in Columbia next week for the Nickelodeon’s 4th Annual African-American International Film Festival, which starts tonight .
“Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice” is the latest documentary from the acclaimed filmmaker, who has won an Emmy Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant.” “We’re just doing some sound remixing. There’s lots of music, including from two different concerts,” Nelson said of his documentary, about the Grammy Award-winning a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
When Nelson, who also teaches film production classes at Brooklyn College, saw the all-female group perform, he experienced not only joyful singing but also heard history in their voices. And history told with emotional resonance is what stokes Nelson’s creative fire.
Team spirit shines through
The Age (Australia):
According to Chinese astrology, wood roosters are natural philosophers who thrive as part of a team, set high standards for themselves and are often devoted to social issues. So it was entirely apt that, on Wednesday night, fortyfivedownstairs ushered in the year of the rooster with a concert by Akasa. These four singers - Diana Clark, Andrea Watson, Heidi Bradburn and Vicki King - are passionately authentic women who relish each other's company, and who are creatively pro-active in their social and political convictions.
At the concert, there were songs inspired by global economic inequity, Australia's harsh immigration policies, and the unfortunate (and sometimes absurd) consequences of public liability insurance. But while these singers are not afraid to voice their protest against social injustice, there is nothing militant or aggressive about the way they present their music. On the contrary, Akasa's songs are infused with such warmth and humanity that no aggression is needed.
And while the message may be potent - and pointed - the music always comes first. On Wednesday night, World Citizen became an intricate dance of percussive syllables, while Run Away ingeniously tied the singers' phrases to the ringing overtones of a small brass bell. There was humour, too: Council Coconuts sashayed to a lazy calypso sway as it poked fun at the small-mindedness of local governments. And there were songs that made no statement at all, other than to evoke the beauty and complexity of everyday life - often with the simplest of musical tools. Akasa is an a cappella group, after all, and while its members use the occasional drum or caxixi (shaker), it is the purity of their voices that speaks most powerfully when they perform.
Wednesday's repertoire was peppered with vibrant African and Brazilian rhythms, creating irresistible feels that coaxed the audience to its feet. But perhaps the most affecting tunes were those that were stripped to the bare essentials: four women, four voices, one simply lit stage. Andrea Watson's Lullaby and the late Melanie Shanahan's Walk With Me radiated a serene, hymn-like quality that made them especially poignant. Shanahan was one of the founding members of Akasa, and Walk With Me served not only as a heartfelt conclusion to the concert, but a fitting tribute to a woman who embodied so many of the qualities that still resonate in the group's music
February 11, 2005
Swingle Singers' lovely sound still intact
San Antonio Express (TX):
The last time the Swingle Singers were in town — for a 1979 performance of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia with the San Antonio Symphony under Francois Huybrechts — none of the eight current members was long out of (or maybe yet into) swaddling clothes. The Swingle DNA was still very much in evidence, however, in the troupe's return, Monday night in the recital hall of the UTSA suburban campus. The singers also are booked to perform at the Texas Music Educators Association convention.
Long based in England, the Swingle Singers was formed on a lark in 1962 by freelance session singers in Paris. Thee troupe gained huge success in the U.S. with its first recording, “Bach's Greatest Hits,” a collection of keyboard music in founder Ward Swingle's jazzy doo-wah vocal arrangements — with string bass and drumset also emulatred by voice. Eventually, the troupe got around to singing actual words, but nearly always with the trademark “instrumental” accompaniments.
With Swingle in semiretirement, the current artistic director is tenor Tom Bullard, who joined the group in 2001, fresh out of King's College, Cambridge. The senior member, bass (and uncannily convincing drum set) Jeremy Sadler has been with the group since 1998.
Monday's concert included several of Swingle's old arrangements, which still sounded fresh and wonderful — among them, the Bach Fugue in G Minor and “Badinerie,” and Stephen Sondheim's “Send In the Clowns,” with beautiful “chime” arpeggios under the lyrics. Swingle's harmonies were gorgeously iridescent in Michel Legrand's “Summer of '42,” and dense but tautly controlled in Hammerstein and Kern's lovely “All the Things You Are.” There were many other wonders. In an arrangement by J. Forbes, Chopin's sad Etude in E Minor took on a somewhat Brazilian rhythmic lilt. A quick, jazzed-up section made the return to Chopin's original for the last few measures doubly poignant.
Bullard's contributions included a superb arrangement of “Pretty Lady,” from Sondheim's “Pacific Overtures.” Showmanship brightened the concert without seeming obtrusive. The troupe danced a quite decent twist while singing Quincy Jones' “Soul Bossa Nova,” arranged by B. Parry. The troupe further honored its ‘60s origins with effective arrangements of the Lennon-McCartney “Because/You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Blackbird/I Will” and Procul Harum's “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” whose lyrics made, um, just as much sense on Monday as they did in 1967.
February 10, 2005
The new Bob
Here posted is an official announcement from Richard "Bob" Greene
"It's been pointed out to me that there is some confusion about who is now in the Bobs. (Not surprising - the Bobs have always been advocates of the art form of confusion and chaos.) So here's the (semi) official statement. The sublimely talented Dan Bob Schumacher is now officially a Bob and will be performing all upcoming shows. We will be appearing as a quartet. We even taught Dan the secret handshake and gave him his harmonic decoder ring. ( We did ask that he stop wearing his six inch tall platform shoes .....)
The equally sublimely talented Joe Bob Finetti has taken an extended leave of absence for financial reasons. He often appears with the 50's revival group - the Diamonds. While we miss doing shows with Joe, Dan brings an exciting new spin to the group. He becomes more integrated into the blend with every gig. It's gratifying to see the group evolve, respecting our own musical tradition, yet gradually allowing the input of each new member to blossom and shape the group. We plan to record a new CD this year."
DAN BOB SCHUMACHER (extremely tall mid-range driver) was born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming (the other square state) to a highly unorthodox, very artistic family. When presented with her children's practical career choices, his mother was known to say things like, "That's fine if you want to be an architect, honey, but it would be a shame to waste such a beautiful voice." After winning the Vocal Jazz Soloist award in the Big-N-Tall weight class (more tall than big) at a University of Northern Colorado Jazz Festival and studying vocal jazz at Northwest College, enablers kept telling him, "You should do this for a living," to which he replied, "Okay!” Dan’s alter ego then studied vocal performance and operatic technique at Indiana University in Bloomington while his inner jazzbo founded the vocal band Monkey Puzzle. Dan Bob lives in Seattle, where he previously wrote, arranged and performed with funktastic, techno-groove-oriented vocal band Kickshaw. Dan is now exploring the dimensions of his long, tall, schizophrenic personality with the Bobs, where both of him fit well, except in most rental cars.
Quartet delivers singing surprises
Daytona Beach News (FL):
Out in the countryside on a cold dreary day, four men in white tuxedos and red bow ties huddled in a circle. One by one, their voices came together in a soft, seamless harmony amid the loud mechanical growl of a nearby industrial truck. It was the last few minutes before the big surprise, when this dapper barbershop quartet would approach some lucky lady and sing classic love songs a cappella. For these singing Valentines that call themselves the Surftones, no job is ever the same. Every couple is different, and every surprise, unique. Still for them, the whole process is always rewarding. "We have so much fun doing this," said Jack Newcomer, who sings baritone.
The Surftones barbershop quartet is part of the Surfside Chorus, Daytona Beach Metro Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, a nonprofit organization that has been sending out quartets throughout Flagler and Volusia counties since 1950. This quartet, which started about five years ago, is busy volunteering their voices throughout the year with a long list of venues from the Volusia County Fair to the Daytona International Speedway to local churches. Typically, their $35 fee covers a box of chocolates and the gas it takes to get to the location. Whatever is left over is given away to a worthy cause, says Dotty Newcomer, Jack Newcomer's wife and the Surftones' manager. So far, they've sponsored local young music talents in competitions and donated money to the Master Gardeners Program in Flagler County and Harmony College, an educational program put on by the Barbershop Harmony Society based in Wisconsin.
February, of course, is a busy time for these singing cupids. On this recent afternoon, their mission was to surprise Pam Tucker, a request from her husband of 28 years, Elbert Tucker. Waiting for the OK outside Tucker Insurance, both Elbert and Pam's workplace, the four men patted down their white tuxedo jackets and tightened up the shoelaces on their signature black and white patent leather "penguin shoes," as they call them. After the quartet's manager handed Pam a heart-shaped box of chocolates, out came the quartet and the sweet tune: "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Elbert rushed over with a giant card that read "Be My Valentine. Love, Elbert." "I've surprised her before -- not like this," Elbert said with a chuckle. In this case, Pam never had a clue. Usually, Newcomer says, the clever quartet pulls off the surprise without a hitch. And that's where careful planning and thinking on your feet becomes key, says his wife and manager of the quartet, Dotty Newcomer.
The customer's initial phone call to request a singing valentine is just the first step, Dotty Newcomer says. As the date comes closer, the quartet and the customer continue updating each other on possible changes. So whenever Dotty or Jack Newcomer calls the customer requesting the singing valentine, they start the conversation knowing the special someone might be in the room. They simply have to gauge it depending on the person's tone of voice over the telephone, Jack Newcomer says. And when it all comes together, these singers say, there's nothing like watching the face of a flabbergasted boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife -- even ex-wife -- listen to them sing.
They've sung for a woman working at a sewage plant, a guy lifting weights at the gym, and a woman in a mobile home park whose admirer ordered the singing valentine all the way from Michigan. They go anywhere to find the person they're looking for and catch them when they least expect it. And the more public, the better.
They agree their favorite targets are unsuspecting male construction workers whose sweethearts have chosen to surprise them on the job. "You got four big guys singing to a guy 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart,' " Jack Newcomer says. And as the stunned construction workers listen to the song, bass singer Christopher Baker says, "We know they're squirming."
But more than the surprise, these lighthearted singers say they love making memories for couples in love."We're emotionally involved," said Jack Newcomer, who, along with the rest of the quartet, admits he gets choked up watching a woman's eyes begin to water. Halfway through a song, Baker says, the women usually start crying. The men, on the other hand, might give an awkward smile. These four bright-eyed men admit they're hopeless romantics who love barbershop music. "The songs never get tired for us," Jack Newcomer said. Lead singer Bob Cochrane agreed. "You don't sing the song," he said, "you be the song."
February 9, 2005
No 'Sweetheart' deal for this legend
New York Daily News (NY):
You don't have to collect early rhythm & blues to know "Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight". You probably even know the record, which starts with the late Gerald Gregory's five-note bass riff "Do-do-do-do-doooh," then goes into "Goodnite sweetheart, well, it's time to go. …" It's another song that proves a catchy tune is a catchy tune. It was covered by the McGuire Sisters in 1954, later recorded by dozens of other artists and picked up for the soundtracks of movies including "American Graffiti" and TV shows, not to mention a Dodge TV ad.
So you'd assume that if the world were fair, or the music business were fair, whoever wrote the song and sang its most enduring version would be doing well, and deservedly so. That would be Thornton James (Pookie) Hudson, lead singer of the Spaniels. If he got a fraction of a penny every time his song has been played or sung over the years, he'd be just fine. But the world isn't fair, and neither is the music business. Pookie Hudson has never gotten much of anything for co-writing and singing the song, which is why today, in the early stages of a battle against cancer, he's living from one grocery bill and rent check to the next. Now, Hudson has never been a money manager. As he says in Richard G. Carter's fascinating Spaniels biography, "Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight," he partied much of it away.
That's why it would have been nice if, 50 years ago, he'd had someone looking out for him. That's why things like pensions and royalties, which provide incremental money, are good. But Hudson isn't getting much of that, even though half the faces in America still smile when they hear his mostfamous song.
In fact, the Spaniels created a whole catalogue of wonderful music. The gospel-style "You Gave Me Peace of Mind" is breathtaking. "Play It Cool" and "Bounce" are hilarious. "Everyone's Laughing" is a great song, and their lovely ballads could go on all day: "Let's Make Up," "Dear Heart," "(You) Painted Pictures," "I Know." Hudson's bluesy lead, Gregory's bass and the group's unique vocal blend added a touch of what would later be called "doo-wop" to classic R&B harmony, and they make Spaniels records distinctive from everyone else's. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is incomplete without them.
Hudson sang until last fall, when his cancer was diagnosed. He hopes that after chemotherapy and other treatment, he'll be able to sing again. For now, fans can remember and thank him by writing to his home, 6939 Aqua Marine Court, Capitol Heights, MD 20743. The R&B group United In Group Harmony Association, at P.O. Box 185, Clifton, NJ, 07015, is also collecting donations. No one likes that this needs to be done. But with Pookie Hudson, as with others, it ain't charity. It's a small payback.
Naturally 7: What is it? Fun
Manhattan Mercury (KS):
"What Is It?" asked the poster. "What Is It?" asked the program and the T-shirts. "What Is It?' was the title of the second record album by New York a capella group Naturally 7. And also the title of the most effective of several original songs they performed last Thursday night on K-State's McCain Auditorium stage. Group leader Roger Thomas even asked the fair-sized and enthusiastic crowd the question. "What Is It?" What he meant was, what genre is the music this experienced and dynamic unit performed?
Whatever one thought it was, the songs were certainly likable. They tended to be medium tempo pieces with passages of inverted emphasis and of references to other, recognizable sources. They were long enough so that a baker's dozen of them filled the two one-hour sets. They were arranged to allow luxurious but brief harmony passages, harmony richer than do-wop harmony and with more power and snap than glee club harmony. The singers usually worked from hand mics, and the sound of these was frequently altered, for example, with echo. Every member of the group took at least one solo, and generally the solos were quite brief.
And then there is the question of accompaniment. Naturally 7's bass, Marcus Davis, usually sang as if he were a plucked or slapped bass fiddle. And Warren Andrew Thomas, younger brother of Roger, spent much of the evening imitating the sounds of a drum kit. Actually, as we heard in his extended solo during the last moments of the show, he sounded a little more like a drum machine than like a trap set. But he understood the conventional patterns very well and managed to suggest different sounds for the different drums and cymbals. The crowd loved his turn.
Every one of the seven had his own claim to notice, though. If there were standouts, among them was long tall Jamal Mackram Reed (listed as "4th Tenor"), who used his range to great effect. And Dwight M. Stewart had all the vocal R&B moves, plenty of vocal power, and good articulation. The show clipped along winningly with Roger Thomas as M.C. The group worked extremely hard all the while, and much of the time they were performing choreography while they were singing.
The subjects of the songs did not provide an answer to the question "What Is It?" Several were about religion or addressed to God, and yet the music itself was a long way from what I think of as "gospel." A medley of three Simon and Garfunkle songs had Naturally 7 working in the English Folk Music tradition. A little passage of "Wonderful World," which included a Louis Armstrong imitation which reminded me of an early 1990s athletic department TV commercial, was followed immediately by a taste of Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." But the show wasn't "jazz," and it wasn't late "soul." There was some spoken word work, but one certainly wouldn't have called what Naturally 7 does "rap." Actually I think the real truth is that the music was mostly pop. Pop in interesting arrangements. Pop which allowed good singers to show off their voices. Pop that kept us diverted. What it was was a polished show of light music performed with vigor. Whatever you decide to call it, what Naturally 7 does is fun to watch and hear.
Solo Siegel no less a force
The Pantagraph (IL):
When Janis Siegel last appeared in Bloomington-Normal, she was just one of four. Or, more specifically, she was just one quarter of the Manhattan Transfer, the multiple-Grammy-winning, ultra-chic close harmony group. Well, more than just a quarter -- to put it mildly. Janis Siegel was, and remains, the lead vocalist on some of the Transfer's signature hits, including "Operator," "Twilight Zone," "The Boy From New York City" and "Birdland." In that capacity, her sagging mantel shelf holds a whopping nine Grammy Awards. On her resume, we see an overall tally of 17 Grammy nominations earned over a 30-year stretch (some of those nominations/awards, by the way, were for her role as the group's vocal arranger and songwriter, as well as for her own solo work).
The last time Twin Citians heard Siegel taking the Transfer lead was 14 years ago, in a Christmas show at Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium. For her long-overdue return engagement, she'll open solo for old musical crony David "Fathead" Newman as part of WGLT radio's annual Jazz Masters Concert at 8 p.m. Saturday in the ISU Performing Arts Center Concert Hall. This part-time defection from Manhattan Transfer is nothing new for Siegel, 52, who first began doing solo gigs just two years after the group's classic self-titled 1975 debut album. "They've always been an adjunct to the group," the Brooklyn native says of the solo gigs. "I love singing harmony. That's my deepest love. I like to be part of a bigger thing. I love being part of a chord. And as a harmony singer, you need the special skill to sing a part as if it were the melody, and with the same emotion."
With the Manhattan Transfer, Siegel has the perfect forum for doing just that. Indeed, "to have a group like that is unimaginably gratifying." What's more, "I've always been part of a group -- my earliest musical forays were with a group." The latter occurred at the ripe old age of 12, when she was one-third of an all-girl trio called The Younger Generation. By the time the YG hit high school, they'd actually released two major-label singles, "The Hideaway" and "It's Not Gonna Take Too Long Now." Later, the YG morphed into another group, Laurel Canyon, which thrived into the early '70s. "I've always liked that interaction, the back-and-forth of ideas, that goes on in a group. At its best, it's really kind of a microcosm of the way you wished the world would be," Siegel says. So why the itch to go solo? "As a solo artist," she says, "you get to exercise a whole bunch of other skills, and you also get to collaborate with other artists. And that helps me with the Transfer, because I'm exposed to new ideas and I can cull the best of what I gain from those collaborations and bring them back to the group -- fertilize it with this rich mix of new ideas."
Manhattan Transfer came along for Siegel via the age-old ploy of a chance encounter. Tim Hauser, a taxi driver and aspiring singer, was flagged for a ride by Laurel Canyon's conga player, who then invited the lucky cabbie to a party, where, yes, Siegel was in attendance. Hauser asked her to sing on some demos he'd been working on -- swing-inflected demos that seemed a million miles away from Siegel's origins in the '70s pop-folkie orbit. Then came the invitation for Siegel to join forces with Hauser and two singing partners, Alan Paul and Laurel Masse, and the rest is sophisticated, urbane, flamboyantly attired close-harmony history. "I don't think, in the beginning, it was deemed necessary," notes Siegel of her early itch to go solo, which occurred in 1977, just two year's after the Transfer's smash breakthrough. "For me, though, it was a creative necessity. Playing a certain role in a group can be limiting -- each of us is so much more than what we are as the Transfer."
For a while, Siegel was the only one of the four defecting to solo performances. "It took awhile to assuage the fears that the group would break up as a result," she confesses. "Now, everyone does a fair amount of solo work." Right now, Siegel estimates her performance schedule breaks about evenly between her solo work and the Transfer. Her first-ever European solo tour is in the offing this spring, and a new configuration of the Transfer sound is due in late October via what she calls, "for lack of a better term, an unplugged tour." Siegel defines the latter as "a new kind of representation of the Transfer sound -- we're rearranging and down-scaling things to a cello, piano and percussion (accompaniment), and rearranging our tunes that people like." Because of that alteration, the quartet -- famous for its flashy attire, choreography and production flash -- will be able to play smaller, more intimate venues. "Yes, we were very, very much into the visual aspect of clothing and fashions, and there were three or four different costume changes per show," Siegel says. "But we're too old for that (expletive deleted) now." For her ISU solo performance, things will be even more intimate, if no less musically stimulating, featuring selections from the entire gamut of her eight-album solo catalog (including 1987's Grammy-nominated "At Home"). But, please, expect no Transfer tunes, which live or die by their unique harmony. "No," she agrees, "that wouldn't be very sporting, would it?"
February 8, 2005
Choral Gems Surviving The Centuries And a Storm
New York Times:
Saturday night's concert by the Vox Vocal Ensemble in the rotunda of the Low Memorial Library at Columbia University had long been sold out. Then came the snowstorm, which prevented about a third of the audience from attending, as well as one singer from the 18-member chorus, who was stuck in Pennsylvania. But George Steel, the ensemble's director, and the rest of his intrepid choristers showed up for a program of sacred choral works by the English Renaissance master Thomas Tallis, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth. Or so we think. The best evidence suggests that Tallis was born in 1505.
Tallis, who mostly provided music for services in royal chapels, lived through the reigns of four British monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I) and had to make stylistic adjustments as theological agendas changed. In Tallis's day as now, his a cappella choral music was hailed for the ingenuity of its contrapuntal writing. Yet Tallis never lets you get distracted by his musical intellect. You are too beguiled by the austere beauty of the calmly intertwining vocal lines and the sonorous richness of his harmonies, impishly tweaked with dissonance.
Mr. Steel, the executive director of the Miller Theater at Columbia, which presented this concert, is best known as an impresario who brings the most cutting of cutting-edge contemporary fare to his theater. But his other passion is Renaissance choral music. That passion came through in his expert and sensitive direction of these admirable choristers. Highlights were the confident account of two sections from the ingenious Mass ''Puer Natus Es Nobis'' and two tenderly lyrical Edwardian anthems in English. The rotunda, with its domed ceiling and reverberant acoustics, was an ideal place to hear Tallis's polyphonic lines mingle and linger. It was somehow a tribute to the power of Tallis and to urban life that when concertgoers who had forgotten the blustery winds and driving snow for a while emerged from the rotunda after the concert, they came upon a gleeful group of students sliding down the library's snow-covered steps on dining-hall lunch trays.
The Bobs keep their performances fresh
The Herald (WA):
There's a beauty to a cappella music, said Matthew Stull: "No instruments to lug around, no equipment to lug around. If the sound system breaks down, the show doesn't stop. We can sing in the dark." Odds are that The Bobs will be singing in the light Saturday in Shoreline. The contemporary a cappella group has earned a Grammy nomination for an arrangement of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" and spent time in the spotlight at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
"Most a cappella groups were men way back to the Inkspots and the Persuasions, even most of the Motown vocal groups were men (and) after Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Supremes, they were all men again," saidStull, who co-founded The Bobs with Richard Green in 1981. "We made the conscious effort that we had to have a woman for her perspective for songs." The female voice adds vocal range to The Bobs. Soprano Amy Engelhardt has been a Bob for six years. "She has a big huge voice in the high places that men can't sing, yet she has a thee-octave range and can sing pretty low as well. There's a quality to women's voices that men's voices don't have. It's a sweeter, rounder and more melodic quality," Stull said.
The Bobs are an ever-evolving group. "We keep it fresh because we all get bored easily, especially Richard and I. We find that putting in new stuff and trying things out is really the only way to keep involved," Stull said. "We've had changes in the group and each new person brings something to it, a new energy and a new way of looking at a piece of music that we had never thought about before."
The Bobs' first arrangement of "Prisoner of Funk" was written by Stull when he was still a short-order cook. "We hadn't done that song in 20 years. But Dan (Schumacher) joined last year and came across it and said, "This is a great song, let's do it like this!' It was a great idea." The Bobs continue to pull the same "bizarre demographic," Stull said: "The very old to newborn, people who bring their children. ... After so many years, people come up and say to us, 'My parents used to make me listen to you all the time.' "
Consistency has been the key to their success. "We've been consistent for 25 years, and we have a funny sense of humor. We see funny in a lot of day-to-day stuff. "We still don't plan our shows. We come there and look at our list of songs, and someone says, 'Hey, I'd like to do this song ...' And we play off the audience. An audience can change the show entirely for us. "Our goal is to make everybody stop in laughter at some point, to make their faces hurt from smiling. That does it for me. That's great."
Blind Liberians Sang to Survive
Voice of America (DC):
Audiences in the American Northwest are jumping to their feet and swaying to the rhythms of six blind Liberian refugees. The men escaped war and poverty in their homeland by singing. Now they are making music to help their homeland, after receiving political asylum from the United States and settling in Vancouver, Washington. The ensemble makes about 100 performances a year, touring churches, schools and festivals mainly in the states of Washington and Oregon. At one recent appearance, the singers - in their 20s and 30s - are wearing sunglasses, African shirts and matching black pants as they perform their a cappella version of "Praise God, Hallelujah" at a Lutheran Church. Their infectious rhythms propel the usually reserved minister to dance in front of her congregation.
The members of the group met as boys in the choir at Liberia's only school for the blind. When civil war broke out in 1989, the boarding school was ransacked. The students scattered into the countryside to avoid death squads. "I had to change my name from Nitanyu to Morris," says member Morris Kermon. "That is why you see Morris today because they were trying to kill people from that tribe." Lasana Kanneh recalls pleading for his life at rebel gunpoint. "I was threatened to be killed, he says. "I had to get on my knees and beg." The school friends eventually drifted back to the capital, Monrovia. They sang on street corners and in churches to survive. Then they came to a realization, says Mr. Kanneh. "We said, 'Now we're all here…we need to form a group. We don't want to just sit around."
Their first gospel choir was called "Echoes of the Blind." One original song they performed was written in response to the violence and looting that were tearing Liberia apart. "We were trying to get a message to the fighters and people in the military," says lead vocalist Lasana Kanneh, who composed the song, "[that] no matter what you have done, if you repent you can be forgiven." The song, "Zacheous," is based on a Bible story about a corrupt tax collector who repents. As the lyrics put it, "You see, Zacheous got his salvation. You can do the same." In 1998, an evangelical Christian group brought six of the men to the United States for a singing tour. After a performance in Washington State, they met Karalie Pehlke, who had adopted four Liberian orphans. "Every time they came through the Northwest, I would meet up with them, because my son lived with them in Liberia," she recalls. "When that tour ended they said, 'Hey, can we move out here?' I said, 'Okay.' So we all moved into my mobile home." She laughs. "We had 12 people living there for a year." Ms. Pehlke helped the six men apply for and receive political asylum. Now she books their concerts, drives their bus, engineers the sound, and manages the finances.
As they did in Liberia, the friends still sing to support themselves. They're also sending money back home. Some of the funds pay for food at their old school. Some goes toward building a job training center for the disabled -- a facility that's especially needed, they say, in a country where there are few services, opportunities or respect for anyone with a disability. Karalie Pehlke says the men cannot return to their homeland. "They have political asylum," she says. "They can't go back…but there's no reason to. They can do more for the disabled doing exactly what they're doing here." The a cappella group sings in English and several Liberian dialects. Group members say their musical harmonies are getting more sophisticated the longer they stay in the United States and are exposed to different musical traditions. Those new sounds can be heard on two CDs scheduled for release this year.
'Sweet Honey' singer wants food that satisfies body, soul
Miami Herald (FL)
It's almost two in the morning and bitterly cold in Silver Spring, MD. At this moment, only carbs will do. Aisha Kahlil is about to put a piece of corn bread in the toaster oven. True to her word, Kahlil takes a reporter's phone call after arriving home in the wee hours from a rush-rush weekend in Santa Barbara, Calif. There, as part of Sweet Honey in the Rock, she has summoned the angels of black church music, looked the scourge of injustice in the eye and extolled the power of love. The concert was part of a 30th-anniversary tour that will bring the Grammy Award-winning ensemble of seven African-American women to South Florida this weekend for the Miami International Film Festival, which features a documentary about the acclaimed a cappella group known for its soaring harmonies.
It seems like a natural to talk food with a member of a group that takes its name from a Bible story about a land so rich and fertile that its rocks give forth honey when cracked open. As it happens, the subject is very much on Kahlil's mind. Discussing their tour, she says, "The road is so stressful that food becomes a major thing. It's got to be filling and satisfying.'' That's easier said than eaten. On tour, the women navigate airline schedules, travel delays, long bus rides, rehearsals, sound checks, makeup sessions and wardrobe changes. Before a performance, one or another member might light a candle in the dressing room to refocus them on the inner light and restore a sense of shared calm.
Kahlil is not only a vocalist of dazzling range and agility but a dancer, choreographer and composer who is represented on the soundtracks of the PBS series Africans in America and the Maya Angelou film Down in the Delta. She grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where family meals echoed the familiar experiences of generations. ''My mom usually fixed a nice dinner for us on Sunday -- fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese,'' she says. " Sometimes my dad would fix dinner, things that we didn't like -- liver, and lima beans that seemed so dry. But he made things really spicy. That's where I learned how to make really spicy foods.''
Her most tantalizing food memories were formed in Senegal, on visits to her sister, who years ago lived in Dakar. "I remember . . . sitting around and eating out of one big bowl, rolling the food up in your hands -- eating with your right hand only. The rice would go in the bowl first, and the fish and the sauce would be poured on top.'' Kahlil is describing thiebou dienn sous verre, a stew that's the national dish of Senegal. It's a meal for special occasions and plenty of guests, chock-full of calabaza, sweet cassava, turnips, potatoes and yams. Which brings Kahlil back to Maryland's freezing temperatures and that toasty piece of corn bread. "When it's cold like this and I get stressed I want to eat a lot of potatoes and bread.'' To which we can only add, "Amen.''
Nancy Ancrum writes biweekly about the African diaspora's culinary legacy.
February 1, 2005
There will be no postings on the blog for the rest of the week as we will be exhibiting at the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) convention. Held every two years this time it's at the Los Angeles Convention Center with performances at the new Disney Concert Hall, which we are looking forward to. Performers include the St Olaf Choir, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Albert Mcneil Jubilee Singers, Los Angeles Master Chorale, The BYU Singers and many, many others.