April 30, 2005
Boys Choir gets silent treatment
"Mime is probably the very first art form, because we know from those cave paintings that people seem to be imitating animals," Dan Kamin says, in defense of his admittedly out-of-favor vocation. "Of course, there's also a theory that that is why early man became extinct, because even then people hated mimes."
But seriously, folks . . . Kamin is more than a mime. Inspired by the classic silent films of Charlie Chaplin, he's a physical comedian who coached Robert Downey Jr. to star in Chaplin and Johnny Depp in Benny & Joon. In recent years, he has also made a specialty of teaming with classical-music presenters to entertain people who don't yet know they're supposed to hate mimes: children. He's in town this week for a series of appearances, ending next weekend with two performances with the Phoenix Boys Choir.
"Symphonies want to do concerts for children, and the old Leonard Bernstein model, where you have somebody simply speaking in an educational way about the music, doesn't work that well for today's audiences," Kamin says. "Symphony orchestras started calling me because, basically, they were desperate and they were broke and they were cheap."
Next weekend will be Kamin's first appearance with a choral group, but it's a variation on the shtick he has developed with symphonies. In "A Chorus Mime," he'll pose as a guest artist who tries to "take over the choir" - and ultimately succeeds, by turning the singers into mimes. Playing straight man will be the eminent Georg Stangelberger, who took over the baton for Phoenix Boys Choir in 1999 after serving 13 years with the Vienna Boys Choir. "It's going to be a lot of fun. It's pushing me to my limits, because I am not an actor," Stangelberger says. "He can't talk as a mime, so I have do all the talking. It's going to be a challenge, but I hope I'm up for it."
Kamin calls these performances "comedy concertos." "It is a concerto," he says, "except instead of playing a musical instrument, I'm playing the buffoon." "A Chorus Mime," a pops concert that will mix show tunes with classic choral repertoire by Mozart and other composers, will be the choir's final performance of the season. Unlike Kamin's other comedy concertos, it's aimed at children in more than one way. "With our pops concerts, we want to attract future choir boys, first of all," Stangelberger says, noting that the choir is holding auditions through May for the upcoming season.
April 29, 2005
The last Silhouette passes
Rick Lewis, a member of the doo-wop group the Silhouettes whose song "Get A Job" soared to the top of the charts in 1958 has died. He was 71. Lewis died of multiple organ failure at Albert Einstein Medical Center.
Lewis wrote "Get a Job", the group's one big hit. It sold nearly two million copies and led to tours and appearances on Philadelphia's American Bandstand. Years later, the group Sha Na Na took its name from the spirited refrain of the Silhouettes' signature song. After serving with the U.S. army in Korea, Lewis joined the Gospel Tornadoes. The quartet - Lewis, Bill Horton, Earl Beal and Raymond Edwards - changed its name to the Silhouettes in 1957. The group signed with Junior Records and recorded a 45 with Get a Job on the B side. Lewis was the last surviving member of the original lineup.
April 28, 2005
Rockapella does it with style
LaCrosse Tribune (WI):
A few people yelled out, "Do it Rockapella," and boy, did Rockapella do it Tuesday night. The popular a cappella quintet, known as the house band for the hit PBS game show, "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" rocked the Viterbo University Fine Arts Center Main Theatre.
Rockapella's party antics and sweet, rich and vibrant harmonies captivated a sellout crowd of 1,100 to close Viterbo's 2004-05 NexStar Season. It was obvious Rockapella performs for the pure joy of singing. The ensemble turned the stage into a three-ring vocal Olympics. Early on, the group sang favorites "Dancin' in the Street," "Stand By Me" and "Under the Boardwalk." Lead singer and arranger Scott Leonard poked fun at the feral cat issue in La Crosse, but then beat it to death as the night continued.
Rockapella sang a beautiful rendition of the Mills Brothers' "Up a Lazy River," which included a smooth vocal instrumentation segment. After intermission, the group came out singing Disney's "It's A Small World" with a slight attitude, and sang its famous Folgers' coffee commercial and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" to the delight of many.
A Winona State University student was serenaded on stage, and George Baldi's gigantic bass voice was featured in "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." In a phenomenal section, Jeff Thacher showed off his professional mouth drumming in a percussion solo. The show ended with the uplifting "Shambala" and an encore, "Up on the Roof," sung without microphones, which capped off an exquisite night of entertainment. The only disappointment: There wasn't enough time for more favorites.
April 26, 2005
Feminine mystique, in masculine harmony
New York Newsday:
In Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," the henpecked cock Chauntecleer talks out of both sides of his beak, declaring that woman is man's ruin and also his "joy" and "bliss." His namesake, San Francisco's 12-man choral ensemble Chanticleer, pulled off a similar feat of conceptual legerdemain Friday in "Women, Saintly and Otherwise," their Metropolitan Museum of Art program exploring the ever-shifting images and voices of humanity's feminine half.
The concert opened with works honoring the Virgin Mary. To "Gaude virgo, mater Christi," a motet by 15th century composer Josquin Desprez, Chanticleer brought a lean but multilayered sound and a spry rhythm befitting a song of praise and joy. The group's 12 voices sounded miraculously as one in an austere plainsong version of "Ave Maria," then blossomed with the radiant colors of a rose window in Tomás Luis de Victoria's ecstatic setting of the same prayer. Chanticleer's basses mustered a respectable Slavic buzz in an Eastertide hymn by 17th century Russian Vassily Titov.
Profane concerns dominated the next set. Chanticleer's normally crisp enunciation was muddied by the Temple of Dendur's vast dimensions in Thomas Weelkes' "As Vesta Was," a tribute to Britain's Elizabeth I. Maurice Ravel's "Nicolette" showcased the group's enormous range: scampering cadences, chromatic slides, a page's fey allure and a fetid old man's pecuniary charms. Chanticleer lavished expressive clarity upon the tortured dissonances and dense imagery of four sestinas by Claudio Monteverdi: chilly tones for the "cold earth" covering a dead lass, cries of anguish and whispers of resignation for the closing prayer at her tomb. Robert Lucas Pearsall's "Lay a Garland," a 19th century evocation of Renaissance polyphony, featured lushly beautiful harmonies and a gorgeous bloom of sound that swelled and tapered to a single, vibrant point.
The group stopped time in John Tavener's "Song for Athene," commingling words from "Hamlet" and the Orthodox vigil service. Chanticleer created the illusion of a single, prolonged drone, over which they wove plaintive, questioning phrases punctuated by alleluias. Their tones faded imperceptibly into nothingness, winning a roar of gratitude from listeners loath to leave the meditative space that Chanticleer so magically had wrought.
Contemporary works, including Cary John Franklin's gnomic "The Uncertainty of the Poet" and a voluptuous Byron setting by Eric William Barnum, rounded out the program. "Purple Syllables," a world premiere collection of Emily Dickinson settings by Augusta Read Thomas, honored Chanticleer's avian ancestry with poems evoking the "lonesome glee" of nature's songsters. The ensemble responded with purrs and trills, glassy whistles and shimmering harmonies, ideally responsive to Thomas and Dickinson's ingratiating but severe muse.
Arrangements by Jeeyoung Kim of traditional Korean works - a lilting lullaby and a raucous love song full of guttural chants and raspy flights into falsetto - brought the official program to an end. The world's suavest and sexiest version of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" and other choice encores left the audience in joyous anticipation of Chanticleer's December return to New York.
Noble, 82, says it's still about music, students
Weston Noble laughed softly when he told the story, understanding it might seem absurd to a first-time visitor to his office. He was talking about a day in 1945, when he drove his tank into Berlin as the war ended. The American soldiers were finding souvenirs to bring home - guns, swords and Nazi flags, that sort of thing. "I brought back this," he said, pointing to a piece of marble on the shelf in his Luther College office. "It's an interesting souvenir." Noble came away with German Field Marshal Hermann Goering' s marble bust of Ludwig van Beethoven. Not surprising, because when you get to know this remarkable man, you realize it's always been about the music.
Born on a farm near Riceville, he was educated in a one-room school, then earned a Luther bachelor's degree, then a master's from University of Michigan, then served as a tank commander in World War II before becoming possibly the best-known and most-respected choir director in American higher education. Now, unimaginably, the 82-year-old Noble is retiring. It's unimaginable, because after 57 years, it's almost impossible to imagine Luther College without him.
Noble began high school at the age of 12 and was a Luther freshman at 16. He was at LuVerne High School a couple of years, teaching American literature, economics, sociology and, of course, music. Luther called in 1948, asking if he'd direct the choral and band programs until the college could find a permanent director. He never left. Not that he didn't have plenty of chances. Bigger and arguably more prestigious colleges and universities kept asking, and Noble politely turned them down. Still, the phone kept ringing. Maybe it was his "no" to job offers from the Juilliard School of Music and Yale that convinced the music world he truly was devoted to Luther.
So why pass up the Ivy League to spend a life at a small college in northeast Iowa? "It's the students," he told me in 1998, when the college was celebrating his 50th anniversary there. "The students are what keep me here." Interesting, because he's the reason so many music students choose Luther. It's impossible to know how many young Iowans traveled to the Decorah campus to participate in the Dorian Music Festivals over the years. Those events bring the best high school music students from eight states to Decorah for a weekend each January.
Noble originated and ran the festivals and uses the opportunity to recruit the best of the best to Luther. This is because he makes them understand, in just a couple of days, how good they truly can become. Maybe that's the most important thing an educator can give to a student. Noble's own words about music make you understand what has drawn so many young people to Luther over the decades. "There is an element of mystery," he said. "A part of the music touches our spirit and the spirit inspires the soul and the soul rules the body." When Luther students are committed to vocal music, they join one of the seven choirs on campus. The ultimate is to be chosen as one of 72 members of the Nordic Choir he directs. You've missed something special if you've never seen a Nordic Choir performance.
There's an almost military-like precision as they enter the hall for a performance. Each student is in step, perfectly spaced, absolutely silent. But that precision comes with a beautiful elegance and grace. The music they make is magnificent, almost holy in its purity. You'd think a former tank commander would have a certain toughness, a snarl that might intimidate young singers into the perfection he demands. No, Noble said. He couldn't think of a single time he'd been tough or angry. It simply wasn't necessary.
"The power of the music takes over," he told me. "I don't have to stand there and demand anything of (the students). They demand it of themselves. I was thinking . . . that the biggest danger was making sure all this didn't become routine for me. That wouldn't be fair to anybody. Then I saw that spark again in the singers and that totally obliterated the possibility." There aren't many college professors, anywhere, who have had such an impact on their profession. According to Luther College, Noble has been guest conductor at 900 music festivals around the world and in all 50 states. In 1989, the National Federation of State High School Associations began giving an award to the person it considered to be the top music educator in the country. Noble was its first recipient.
The Nordic Choir has performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, in Norway, England, Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Baltics, Mexico and the Caribbean. "I don't have the words in my vocabulary to describe what Weston has meant to this institution," said Luther President Richard Torgerson. "I just know I've been told by people who have traveled the world the response they get when they say they're from Iowa. People nod. They say Luther College and they ask you if you know Weston Noble." We referred earlier to Weston's retirement. That's mostly true. It means he's giving up his full-time job as director of the Nordic Choir, but he'll still be around as a college ambassador of sorts and, of course, recruiting the top students to enroll at Luther. And always it will be about the music.
Going Out In Style
Chicago Tribune (IL):
For a small classical music organization in Chicago, 22 years could be considered a respectable lifespan. Even so, it seems unthinkable to be saying goodbye so soon to Bella Voce, one of the area's premier vocal ensembles. Last month the group announced it will disband following its spring concerts this weekend and next. Thus Bella Voce's valedictory program, directed by Anne Heider on Friday night at St. James Cathedral, was a bittersweet occasion, full of reminders of past musical glories.
Faced with Heider's imminent retirement, dwindling attendance and diminished funding, Bella Voce's board elected to call it quits. I don't agree with their decision but I can understand why it was made. Chicago is bursting with a lot more choral activity than when the group began in 1982, as His Majestie's Clerkes. Once Heider leaves, she will take much of the choir's support base with her.
For her swan song, Heider highlighted an important aspect of the 20-voice a cappella ensemble's artistic mission: its commitment to living American composers. Focal work of the program was the premiere of "Mar" (2005), commissioned from the Minnesota-based composer Janika Vandervelde. It shared the bill with earlier commissions by Chicagoans Gustavo Leone and Frank Ferko. A Garcia Lorca setting, "Mar" is an arresting, highly effective piece that crams a lot of nature-evocation in only 10 minutes of music. Working within diatonic tonal harmony, Vandervelde freshly imagines chords as open as the sky and as surging as the sea of Lorca's poem.
The high women's voices and low men's voices mirror each other as the ocean mirrors the heavens. Key poetic phrases are repeated as rhythmic ostinatos throughout the ensemble. The women's radiant calls of "Paradiso" ("paradise") are darkened by the male voices' dissonant "Perdido" ("lost"), which leaves the final cadence unresolved and ambiguous. The choral textures of Leone's "Art of Birds" (2000), based on poetry of Pablo Neruda, are ingeniously varied and colorful, replete with antiphonal birdcall-effects and interwoven speech, song and chant. Excerpts from Ferko's "Hildegard Motets" (1993) use a late 20th-Century harmonic idiom somewhere between Poulenc and Messiaen to conjure the radiant spirituality of the 12th-Century abbess-composer Hildegard of Bingen. This exquisitely crafted music reminds us there is plenty of good recent American choral music that is worthwhile to sing and accessible to audiences.
The rest of the program included Spanish Renaissance motets and other short pieces drawn from Bella Voce's eclectic repertory. The singing was very fine throughout. Polyphonic lines interlocked smoothly; pitches were carefully matched; each section blended securely within itself as well as within the ensemble. Heider and her charges drew a heartfelt reception from the small but attentive audience. Bella Voce--beautiful voices indeed--will be sorely missed.
April 23, 2005
One show is never like the next
Quad-City Times (IA):
SoVoSó, the visiting artist performing through Quad-City Arts this week and next, owes its beginnings to jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin. But for Sunshine Becker, the youngest member of the group, there’s some Grateful Dead involved as well. SoVoSó — somewhat of an acronym of “From the Soul to the Voice to the Song” — is primarily an a capella band that combines jazz with world music, gospel and R&B. Two of its founding members were part of Voicestra, a group started by McFerrin.
When McFerrin decided to focus his energy on being a symphony conductor in his native Twin Cities, Voicestra members David Worm and Joey Blake spun off into the San Francisco Bay area-based SoVoSó in 1994, keeping McFerrin’s style alive in new surroundings. Its improvisational style was a draw for Becker, but McFerrin wasn’t her only influence. “To me, being able to improvise is why I saw over 60 Dead shows,” Becker said. “Every time I would see the Grateful Dead, I would never see the same show, and I was delivered the same exact musical message that I was supposed to get that night.”
Just like her jam-band idols, the 32-year-old Becker and the other four members of SoVoSó play it by ear. The set list is different for every show, and conceived shortly before the quintet walks out on stage. Although its repertoire includes familiar songs such as “People Get Ready” and “Stand By Me,” much of it is improvisation.
For Becker and the rest of the group, it’s like walking a musical tightrope. “It’s sort of a blessing and a curse to be an improviser,” she said. “You get to experience the magic when really good and amazing musical things happen, and at the same time you take a risk not knowing what’s going to happen next. “We’ve had to built up a tremendous amount of trust to improvise this well. That’s one thing I can tell you for sure about improvising: I know my band will stick with me and an idea no matter what happens. If I need to be rescued, they will rescue me. If I need to be supported, they’ll do that, and vice versa.”
SoVoSó has recorded four albums, and a fifth is being recorded while they’re spending two weeks in the Quad-Cities. An album, tentatively called “Then and Now,” is rerecordings of past SoVoSó songs, as well as newly written pieces by the fivesome. It’s being recorded in one of the members’ hotel room while in the Quad-Cities, Becker said. One of SoVoSó’s trademarks is its “circle songs,” where any number of performers stand in a ring and begin the background of a song, vocal part by part. Someone moves to the center of the circle and improvises a lead part. Becker said the technique has been successful with everyone from grade schoolers to college students. “We get to make music together on the spot,” she said. “It’s a constant morphing, if you will, of songs.”
In its two-week residency with Quad-City Arts, SoVoSó is performing before an estimated 10,000 students, from grade school through college, as well as several varied groups of adults. Becker said she and the rest of the group enjoyed the young audience. “To touch that many people, especially young people — who can decide for themselves whether they’re going to do something positive or something negative with their mouths — that is a huge gift to me, and the rest of the band,” she said. “That is why we do this.” But she did apologize to the moms and dads of the young audience members, who may be overinspired during a SoVoSó show. “I’m sure there are a bunch of kids in the Quad-Cities driving their parents crazy this week, singing bass and snare drums,” she said with a laugh.
Song lyrics spark protest
Charlotte Observer (NC):
Ten members of the Bessemer City High School chorus briefly walked off stage Thursday to protest performing the title song from the 1970s musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." And nearly a dozen students and parents stepped out of the auditorium during "Superstar." The song was part of the spring choral concert honoring 100 years of Broadway musicals.
At issue were the lyrics: "Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Who are you? What have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you're what they say you are?" "I just don't understand why they had picked this song out of all the Broadway songs," said Catherine Duncan, whose daughter Amber, a freshman, was one of the students who opted out of that part of the concert.
Duncan said she felt the song was anti-religion and inappropriate. She was pleased to see others join the protest. Earlier in the day, Principal Ted Saunders said he knew some students might opt out of the song because they found the lyrics objectionable. Saunders said Catherine Duncan called Wednesday to object. Saunders said he told her the song was meant to teach the history of music and not meant to be anti-religion.
"If you take away all of the historical religious music, from Gregorian chant all the way through the present ... you will reduce the exposure of children to our history and our music," Saunders said. Saunders said the school regularly works with those who might object to teaching materials or lessons. Parent Kathy Gamble said that, while she respects decisions not to participate, she wouldn't mind her son, a former chorus member, taking part. "We need for our children to be able to sing Christian songs in our school."
This has to be about the silliest thing I have read in awhile - Editor
Smokey salutes The Tops
Rolling Stone (NY):
By Smokey Robinson:
The Four Tops are a one-in-a-million singing group. They were the best in my neighborhood in Detroit when I was growing up. When I was eleven or so, my first group was an early version of what would become the Miracles. Back then the Four Tops were called the Four Aims. We all used to sing on the corners, at school functions and at house parties. Sometimes we'd have talent competitions. But all the groups in the neighborhood knew that if the Four Aims were going to be there, you were going to be singing for second place at best.
They were the first group from the neighborhood that sang modern harmony: They could sing like a gospel group but then do R&B like no one else. I love singers whom you can identify the first second they open their mouth, and Levi Stubbs is one of those; he's one of the greatest of all time. He has that distinctive voice, and his range is staggering. The combination of Levi, Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton was truly awesome.
When they came to Motown and teamed up with Holland-Dozier-Holland, there was no looking back. They performed some of the most dramatic records ever written: "Standing in the Shadows of Love," "Bernadette," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" and "Baby I Need Your Loving." Later, when Holland-Dozier-Holland left, I co-wrote "Still Water (Love)" with Frank Wilson for the Four Tops.
They were always great singers and great guys. When the Four Tops first came to Motown, the Miracles and I were the mainstays of the label, and the Temptations had just gotten there. But all the guys were very, very close. You'd come back to town from a fifty-one-night tour, and the first thing you did was shower and head back to Hitsville. We'd be there playing cards and shooting pool together into the early hours.
Levi is sick and he can't perform right now, but the Four Tops are still great. Obie -- who co-wrote "What's Going On" for Marvin Gaye -- and Duke are still there, and you've got some great new guys with them. So if you see the Four Tops now, you are still going to be mightily entertained. The Four Tops will always be one of the biggest and the best groups ever. Their music is forever.
April 21, 2005
Cheryl Bentyne goes Uptown
Some listeners will be completely satisfied with transparent pop vocalists like Mariah Carey. Others can only be satisfied with densely difficult jazz vocalists, like Lisa Sokolov or Betty Carter. But, as in politics, there also exists an enormous moderate middle ground, a population which craves musical excellence but may not crave the experimental edge. Cheryl Bentyne’s new recording is perfect for the latter group. Let Me Off Uptown, Bentyne’s tribute to one of the most talented and difficult jazz vocalists, Anita O’Day, offers jazz vocals done to textbook perfection. On hand for the party is Jack Sheldon, actor and jazz Renaissance man. The two stars couple on O’Day’s Swing-era signature “Let Me Off Uptown” to introduce the disc. Sheldon blows a spirit chorus and talks some spirited trash with Bentyne.
One quarter of the Manhattan Transfer, Cheryl Bentyne has pursued a very successful solo career in addition to her group duties as scat master. Her previous recording, Talk of the Town, was well received and marked her first release on Telarc Jazz. Bentyne is not a stranger to homage discs; Something Cool (Columbia, 1992) honored June Christy, with the backing of trumpeter Mark Isham. On the present recording, Bentyne grounds her efforts in the capable rhythm section of pianist Corey Allen, bassist Kevin Axt, and drummer Dave Tull. This fundamental unit is augmented with guitarists Larry Koonse and Grant Geissman. Jack Sheldon shows up to lend a bit of the West Coast to the festivities, playing a pretty bright trumpet here and there.
The songbook is strictly O’Day. While Bentyne did not attempt to take on the incendiary “Sweet Georgia Brown” (with which O’Day burned down the house at Newport in Jazz on a Summer’s Day), she does swing through “Tea for Two” at light speed. Bentyne prepared for this recording by listening to all of O’Day’s extant releases. That fact shows. She does not try to imitate O’Day. Bentyne understands the phrasing proclivities perfectly and executes them in her own voice. The result is a fabulous recital of big band tunes (“Let Me Off Uptown,” “Let’s Face the Music,” and “Boogie Blues”) and small group ballads (a stunning “Skylark” and “Little Girl Blue”). Let Me Off Uptown is a super introduction to both Cheryl Bentyne and Anita O’Day. The band is bright, a characteristic sharpened by the superb sonics that grace all of Telarc’s recordings. This is a treat that should not be denied.
Covering the Basses
Metro Active (CA):
Here's a little known fact about the tune "Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye. The second time through, the chord change in the bass line is not played by the electric bass, but is actually carried by a human voice. It's a subtle change, but it really kicks the tune off on the right foot. It's yet another example of the remarkable similarity between the sounds of the contrabass and the vocal output of a large gentleman. Whether it's the aforementioned soul groove or Pimen in Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov, vocal chords can give wood and strings a good run for the money most nights.
Last Saturday night the Cayuga Vault featured not one, but two outstanding human bassists: Clockwork's Steven Saxon and The Idea Of North's Andrew Piper. Both were able to conjure up the sweet sonorities of the bull fiddle while also propelling their a cappella ensembles through the chord changes. Saxon is especially tasteful in his rhythmic phrasing. Whether the group was doing bebop or soul, his lines were both stylistically in the pocket and impressive as all hell.
It's a shame that a cappella has been so maligned in the commercial music world. No offense to the members of Manhattan Transfer, but it's too bad their reworked jazz standards are more well-known than the awesome albums put out by groups like Miriam Makeba's first group, The Manhattan Brothers. It's also a shame that Clockwork's outstanding arrangement of Radiohead's tune Creep was met with absolutely no recognition from the crowd. As tenor Eric Freeman beautifully rendered the chorus, people thought it was a joke. At least they recognized the new arrangement of Fields of Gold. I hope that Clockwork's next record will feature "Exit Music for a Film." It's pretty hard to laugh at that chorus.
Bobby looses luggage in Mexico
Bobby McFerrin had to take a dose of his own medicine when he arrived in Mexico for a series of concerts, but his luggage didn't. "Why does the world need to be happy right now? Imagine, I just lost my luggage," McFerrin, paraphrasing his 1988 hit single, told reporters jokingly during interviews Monday to discuss performances in Mexico City this week. "I'm trying to find my luggage; forget the world."
The bags apparently were misplaced either on McFerrin's flight or between the Mexico City airport and his hotel. The good thing, McFerrin said, is that "music is a therapeutic activity, as well as a mystical one." The artist's performances will include a concert in the capital and an appearance as guest conductor of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra.
April 20, 2005
Joint choirs were ready for Rachmaninov
The Register-Guard (OR):
Sergey Rachmaninov's Vespers is an exquisite choral masterpiece. Its layers of rich, harmonic colors, its tingling dissonances and tempo changes, and its demanding a cappella intonation are a challenge to any choir. The unique union of two choirs - a professional Ukrainian choir, Cantus, and the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble - met this challenge Saturday with ethereal, lush and roof-raising sounds. The two choirs were prepared individually by Diane Retallack, director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble, and Emil Sokach, director of Cantus. They then joined as one under Sokach.
On an evening when two other Russian musical events tempted Eugene classical music lovers, the Vespers drew an enthusiastic and overflow crowd to Central Lutheran Church. No one was disappointed. Written in 1915, Rachmaninov's Vespers consists of 15 settings of prayers and psalms from the Russian Orthodox Church's All-Night Vigil. The service includes not only vespers or evening prayers, but also matins, the traditional prayers at midnight. The late-Romantic Period lushness of this music must be met by a full-blooded choral sound. The white-bread, vibratoless sound that is often associated with church music in the West simply will not do. The Western church has idealized the music of the English church choir with its boy trebles, and it is that ideal that many of us recently heard during the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Instead, Russian liturgical music is noted for its round, ample sound and its operatic depth.
When we think of Russian music, we first think of bass voices, and on Saturday, the basses of this joint choir were the stars. Rather than simply grounding the chorus in various harmonic structures, they were its soloists. When, at the end of songs, the basses descended to the lowest notes humanly possible, we felt the solidity of a spiritual foundation. When they joined with the rich-sounding altos in the repeated phrase, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes," we felt the assuredness of faith. Both the basses and the altos of this chorus provided sonorous power.
The sopranos and tenors were no less effective, but they did not have the luxuriant sound of the other two sections. However, they particularly triumphed in ethereal passages, such as the refrain that periodically interrupts the Magnificat. The two soloists, tenor Volodymyr Fedas and alto Nataliya Kozachuk, sang beautifully. Kozachuk has a honeyed voice, although she was not able to sustain the necessary legato in her one song. Fedas' light, yet resonant tenor seemed to come from afar in his several solo outings.
When the chorus came together, they could produce ear-shattering reverberations as well as soft whispers, at times in the same song. Strong dynamic contrast is one of the keys to the interpretation of this music, and it infuses the different sections with variety. The most successful song along these lines was the third piece; its repeated "alleluia" became mesmerizing. Apart from dynamics, legato singing is the most crucial element in singing the Vespers. In some pieces, it must seem as if the chorus sings the entire piece on one breath. One of the hymns to the Virgin Mary was sung beautifully on a seamless ribbon of sound until the final, effective break before the last three words. A similar long line was maintained in the last piece, a joyful tribute to Theotokos, the Mother of God.
Inevitably, when two different choral groups are joined to sing as one, there are glitches. Not all the musical entrances were exact, and some of the final notes did not end together. With no instruments to guide them, the choir at one point found itself singing an unintended dissonance, and Sokach had to begin again. But these are minor miscues in an evening of profound and moving music-making. An immediate and prolonged standing ovation greeted these choirs and their directors at the end of the evening.
April 19, 2005
Trio makes pristine harmony seem easy
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
Singing doesn't get more unnervingly beautiful than the exquisite display mounted in Herbst Theatre on Thursday night by Trio Mediaeval. With its cool, unerringly precise blend of voices, the group made a local debut that has to count among the musical highlights of the year. This superb Norwegian ensemble consists of three Scandinavian sopranos (Anna Maria Friman of Sweden and Norway's Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Ostrem Ossum) who sing without accompaniment, mixing their clear, vibrato-free tones in a vocal tapestry of extraordinary splendor.
To hear the group's note-perfect counterpoint -- as pristine and inviting as clean, white linens -- is to be astonished at what the human voice is capable of. The name is not inaccurate, but it only hints at the group's range. In addition to the songs and polyphony of the Middle Ages, Trio Mediaeval also cultivates a body of recent music -- most of it commissioned by the group -- that evokes older work by dabbling in chant, religious texts and pure consonances (the combination of old and new can be heard to wondrous effect on the trio's recent ECM recording, "Soir, Dit-Elle"). Thursday's debut, presented by San Francisco Performances before a disappointingly small audience, skipped the Middle Ages entirely, concentrating instead on a mixture of contemporary music and traditional Norwegian folk songs.
From a theatrical standpoint, the event was understated in the extreme. The three singers, performing entirely from memory, took the stage in plain black pantsuits and delivered the music in fastidious deadpan; the only object onstage was a side table with a flowerpot. To start the second half, the singers delivered a short vocalise by Norwegian composer Bjorn Kruse, based on a traditional Lapland chant, from the three sides of the balcony, and Paul Robinson's "Triadic Riddles of Water" called for some light hand-clapping. Otherwise, there was nothing on offer but the sounds of the three voices.
And what sounds they were! The medieval music that lies at the heart of their style is built on the most basic consonant intervals -- octaves, perfect fourths and fifths and so on -- which can be tuned with relative ease. But the members of Trio Mediaeval sing the most dissonant music with astonishing precision and seemingly without effort. In Kruse's setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 8 ("Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly") and in three neo-medieval motets by the English-Norwegian composer Andrew Smith, the group pulled off repeated feats of aural illusion, singing complex parallel chords and close-knit dissonances as though they were the easiest intervals in the world. Excerpts from Piers Hellawell's "Hilliard Songbook" found them shaping more angular melodies with utter fluidity.
There was abundant magic in the folk-song arrangements, done by Fuglseth and Tone Krohn; even without knowing the originals or understanding the Norwegian words, the underlying spirit came through clearly. And Peter Erskine's vivacious, rhythmically off-kilter English song about an emotionally confused orchard was an absolute charmer. The only complaint to be made about the program was that it was all over too soon -- just 90 minutes of singing and not so much as an encore. Trio Mediaeval will have to return, and soon.
Directing a 1,000 voices as one
Minneapolis Star Tribune (MN):
Philip Brunelle, the unofficial choir director of Minnesota, is seeking 1,000 volunteers to participate in a choir at the big July 4th State Capitol Centennial. There are all sorts of very difficult jobs in our perilous times. But bringing together 1,000 amateur singers, representing each of the state's 87 counties and making them sound good for one dramatic performance may be impossible. "No problem," Brunelle said. "No problem."
Deep down, Brunelle, 61, surely realizes he's full of false optimism. I know from experience that a few off-key voices can destroy an entire choir. Many years ago, in a church far away, I was one of three tenors in a choir. And among our choral duties was to sing the "Sevenfold Amen" (by Sir John Stainer) at the conclusion of each service. The concept was good. The choir was to send the congregants home in a reverent mood. It seldom worked that way.
Typically, with each "amen" two of us tenors would fall flatter and flatter on this lovely piece of music done without accompaniment. By "amen" No. 2, the slippage would begin. By "amen" No. 3, the director was wincing at me and my fellow flat singer. By "amen" No. 4, our peers in the choir were blushing. By "amen" No. 6, congregants were trying to stifle giggles. By No. 7, everyone was just relieved to be getting out of the building. No matter how hard we tried, we could not help ourselves. Week after week, we'd fall flat. "It's not as lovely of piece of music when it goes flat," Brunelle admitted. "And it doesn't take many to pull the whole choir down."
So how does he propose to keep a 1,000-member choir in tune? "We're going to stay positive," he said. "We surely don't want a flat Fourth of July. The first thing you want with a choir is rhythm. You really want everybody doing the same thing at the same time. The second thing you want is pitch. You do want everyone in tune." Again, though, easier said than done.
Brunelle, the artistic director of VocalEssence, the organist/choir director at Plymouth Congregational Church, guest conductor of choirs and orchestras around the state, has a vision for what will happen on the Fourth. He wants to hear a sound as big and bold and wonderful as the building we're celebrating. The choral performance will kick off a day of parades and other festivities.
A thousand enthusiastic singers from across the state will arrive at the Capitol on the morning of the Fourth for one massive rehearsal of the patriotic songs that will be performed. (For an application, choir groups or individuals may contact www.ourhouse100.com or call 952-893-1111.) Brunelle said he expects that all who come to the rehearsal will know the words and their parts to the songs on the program. The rehearsal, in his view, merely will be fine-tuning for what the Capitol Centennial Commission is calling "one of the largest choirs in Minnesota history."
Brunelle said he hopes this group will include 300 sopranos, 300 altos, 200 basses and 200 tenors. Think about it: 200 amateur tenors in one choir. How many tenors would it take to undermine the efforts of a 1,000-member choir? "It's hard to come up with an exact number," he said. "It would depend on the volume of the singers. I suppose you could have one or two falling flat, then, dragging down others and then ... let's just not think about it."
We all know of songs that have notes that are particularly dangerous. Take, for example, the National Anthem. Most of us are incapable of hitting the high note that comes with the word "free" on the phrase "the land of the free." "An 'F'," said Brunelle of the note that has tripped up even professional anthem singers. "You've got that same ol' 'F' in 'Minnesota, Hail to Thee,' which we also will be singing."
How will Brunelle get each choir member to deal with his or her limitations when it comes to hitting that high "F"? "Let's say that we have a Doug Grow or two in the choir," Brunelle said. "I would say to him, 'Mr. Grow, when we come to that 'F' I want your mouth open. I want it to look as if you're singing the word 'free' with total conviction. But let's not have a sound coming out of your mouth." Lip synching? "Yes," said Brunelle. "And afterward, when your friends come up with you and say, 'You sounded great. You hit that high note just perfectly,' I want you to simply say 'Thank you.' "
April 16, 2005
Two choirs in one church sound out opposing qualities
Kansas City Star:
Not long into Wednesday's joint concert of the Kansas City Chorale and the British choir the Sixteen, a third “character” emerged in the drama. Visitation Church is not just Kansas City's most elegantly designed new church, but it's also gaining a reputation as a fascinating acoustic space. The luscious Spanish-colonial structure has a “personality” that affords each new concert here both felicities and frustrations. Thus Wednesday's trans-Atlantic “battle of the choirs” was played out on a field filled with perils and pleasures. Despite reservations, it was one of the classiest programs I've heard this season.
The choirs sang numbers together and separately. The Chorale's Charles Bruffy took turns with the Sixteen's Harry Christophers on the podium. Bruffy introduced the program by announcing we were about to hear a blend of the brilliantine British choral sound with the 25-voice Chorale's “more cushioned American sound.” Bruffy was absolutely correct. This capital combination was best displayed interestingly enough in a piece with both British and American elements.
Michael Tippett's sophisticated arrangements of gospel tunes like “Deep River” and “Nobody Knows” (part of his oratorio “A Child of Our Time”) had a complex choral texture with fine balances and amazing pianissimos, even from sopranos in high range. The Sixteen sang six works of Thomas Tallis, including the supple “In ieiunio et fletu” and the painfully beautiful “Loquebantur variis linguis.” Their sound was diamond-clear and top-heavy, with piercing sopranos that lent to a sense of conviction, despite a coolness of approach overall.
The church's low ceiling and hard surfaces made for a lush but immediate sound. James MacMillan's magnificent “O Bone Jesu” had a mind-blowing clarity that confirmed my belief that this work is a modern masterpiece. But the mild curves of the ceiling's vault often pitched sounds into weird places. In “Salvator Mundi,” the Sixteen's sopranos seemed to come from another part of the room than the low voices. After all this brilliance, the Chorale's velvety sonority came as a relief despite Bruffy's lugubrious tempi in arrangements of “Shenandoah” and “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.”
A problem with the combined choirs was that each had its own sense of fortissimo (“ff” or “real strong”), and they failed to scale back from the resulting juggernaut of sound. This was less of an issue in John Tavener's murky but impressive “Song for Athene.” And it was averted altogether in the tour de force finale, Tallis' “Spem in Alium,” a motet with 40 separate voices sung by both choirs placed in groups of five around the perimeter of the church's upper galleries. The effect was thrilling, with Christophers in the center conducting 360 degrees of sound. The elated audience took to its feet immediately
April 15, 2005
Passionate theme a success
San Antonio Express (TX):
Conspirare, the superb professional chorus based in Austin, visited Trinity University's Parker Chapel on Saturday with a well-matched set of three contemporary works on the general theme of loss. The program's centerpiece was the world premiere of Austin composer Donald Grantham's setting of Pablo Neruda's poem of failed love, "La canción desesperada," in W.S. Merwin's English translation. The closer was Chicago composer Frank Ferko's setting of the "Stabat Mater," interwoven with several ancient and modern texts.
Both composers work in a highly flexible tonal idiom, given to dense, richly colored chordings and mobile harmonies. Both draw from historical styles. Beyond these similarities, the works differ markedly in musical character. Grantham's melodic lines are more angular, relating more closely to the emotional turmoil underlying the text than to the language itself. He was asked to write solo parts for the specific strengths of bass Glenn Miller, whose oceanic low register shook the chapel walls; soprano Jennie Olson, whose silver high register reached the stratosphere; and Stephen Redfield, an agile and expressive musician. Grantham complied nicely. The solo lines well conveyed the contradictory passion and coolness, sensuality and toughness, in the text. The choral writing was less distinctive, sometimes falling into a modal idiom that sounded a little too much like Ralph Vaughan Williams.
For the "Stabat Mater," a medieval hymn recalling the emotions of Mary upon witnessing the crucifixion of her son, Ferko made each three-line stanza into a distinct movement. He used medieval chant as a touchstone, but seamlessly expanded into the modern harmonic and rhythmic world to give each stanza its own highly individual, textually appropriate character, though nearly always with a fluidity that fit the swing of the text.
At the work's apex, the chorus piled dissonance on dissonance to build a long, excruciating, constantly shifting tone cluster on the words "Crucifixo condolere" — "sharing the pain of the crucified." Soprano Nancy Curtis was the powerful soloist in the interpolated texts, which ranged from the lament of Andromache in Euripides' "The Trojan Women" to sharp-witted excerpts from Charlotte Mayerson's "Death Cycle Machine" of 1995. In these sections Ferko ditched the plainchant allusions in favor of a consistently modern and textually astute tonal idiom.
Artistic director Craig Hella Johnson had his troupe open with his own deeply affecting arrangement of the African American spiritual "Motherless Child." Mezzo-soprano soloist Stephanie Prewitt projected her organlike low register and stirring top from the front of the chapel while the chorus lined the two side aisles. Even in that perilous formation, the chapel's lavish resonance held no terrors for this extraordinary troupe, probably the nation's best chorus. Its crisp diction, taut teamwork and accurate intonation kept everything cleanly in focus.
April 13, 2005
Harmony Sweeps National Finals
After the last regional event this past weekend the line up for the Harmony Sweepstakes National Finals is now complete. We are so pleased to report that all eight regional events were resounding successes with large audiences enjoying top knotch performances at every event. Now in it's 21st year this event has become the place for new and rising groups to display their talents and the National Finals are a major highlight in the a cappella world.
The regional champs are:-
BOSTON - Firedrill!
CHICAGO - Fiveplay
ROCKY MOUNTAIN - Face
LOS ANGELES - Undivided
MID-ATLANTIC - Cartoon Johnny
NEW YORK - Traces
PACIFIC NORTH WEST - Groove For Thought
SAN FRANCISCO - MoodSwing
Hosted by 2004 National Champs - CHAPTER 6
For further information on the event and the participating groups click here.
HARMONY SWEEPSTAKES A CAPPELLA FESTIVAL NATIONAL FINALS
Saturday May 7, 8 PM
Marin Veteran's Auditorium, San Rafael, California
(Just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco)
Singers fall silent after 33 year run
Pioneer Press (MN):
According to the adage, the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Unfortunately, both will come this week to the Dale Warland Singers, which will officially close its books after three decades of noteworthy music making. Never heard of the group? You're not alone. This 40-member choral ensemble toiled in a genre that in what passes for today's culture doesn't merit an MTV music video or a reality TV show.
That's a shame, because the group was one of the premier vocal ensembles in the country and in no small way is responsible for St. Paul's reputation as a place that supports the arts. "They were one of the major artistic forces," said Barry Kempton, general manager of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which often collaborated with the group. "They had a genuine national reputation, perhaps best known for their huge contribution to the body of new choral works, particularly by Minnesota composers."
Warland founded the group in 1972 with simple goals: form a professional chorus that would set a high standard, and encourage and perform works by new composers. More than three decades later, it's fair to say he succeeded. "The Dale Warland Singers helped to set the bar of artistic excellence for choruses in the Twin Cities very high indeed," said Ann Meier Baker, president of Chorus America.
The choir has worked with 150 composers and commissioned 270 works; performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Opera, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet; traveled to Frankfurt for Bach's 300th birthday, toured Norway and Sweden, and appeared at every major choral festival in the U.S. "They are one of the primary reasons why Minnesota is known as a strong state in terms of choral singing, support and commissioning of contemporary music, and classical music making," said SPCO's Kempton.
The group has won nearly every award available for the genre, and in 2003 received a Grammy nomination for "Walden Pond," a collection of original works by American composer Dominick Argento. Ironically, there was some initial dissent in the group over the work. "It was not a popular project," said Gayle Ober, the group's executive director. "It took a long time to make and it was an expensive project that required us to raise nearly $70,000 outside the general operating fund to complete it." The project was even turned down by the Aaron Copland Foundation, which encourages original American works. But Warland persevered and, as a result, the group got its first and only Grammy nomination.
Indeed, for all the group's accolades, nearly everyone agrees that Warland was the one with the vision and drive to bring it all together. Warland, who turns 73 this week, is reluctant to talk about his success. When pressed, he says he hopes "people will remember our inspiring performances." They can, through 27 recordings. Two more have been recorded but not yet released. In May the group will release "Harvest Home," a disc of American folk song hymns. A second untitled work of cathedral music is also in the can. It is tentatively titled "Cathedral Classics II" — 1994's "Cathedral Classics I" sold 26,000 copies, almost unheard of for this genre. Some of the cuts got wide play on public radio and ended up in movie scores.
There's also the group's library, which has been donated to the University of Cincinnati, perhaps Warland's only regret. "I was hoping to leave it in Minnesota, but Cincinnati had an outstanding proposal," he said. Otherwise, he doesn't seem the least bit melancholy that the curtain is dropping on what's arguably his signature life work. "There's nothing wrong with starting something good and eventually stopping it," said Warland. Indeed, there's a lesson there for us all. Rather than be glum about the demise of the Dale Warland Singers, Minnesotans should be proud that they had them at all. And take a moment this week to reflect on this remarkable homegrown group.
April 12, 2005
Rescuing Harmonies Lost to Time
New York Times (NY):
The Tallis Scholars, a British vocal ensemble that specializes in Renaissance music, performs so regularly in New York that it almost seems like a local group. That is not cause for complaint: the group's director, Peter Phillips, has not only created a supremely polished choir, but has also kept its repertory fluid and captivating by reviving obscure but worthy works to offset familiar staples. Given that even the best-known composers of the era remain only partly known to most listeners, Mr. Phillips has plenty to choose from in this regard, and it was mostly unfamiliar works by familiar composers that made up his program on Saturday evening, when he conducted the Tallis Scholars at Riverside Church. The performance was the final concert of the Miller Theater's early-music series this season.
The star of the program was Josquin Desprez, whose "Malheur me bat" Mass accounted for the first half of the program, with a magnificently serene motet, "Tu solus qui facis mirabilia," among the shorter works on the second half. In both works, Josquin borrowed a thematic kernel from a popular song and transformed it into a richly harmonized structure. In the Mass, that structure grows increasingly complex as the work progresses. The harmony in the Kyrie, for example, is beautiful but comparatively spare and compact, but by the end of the Credo, Josquin's text setting is more expansive and the interaction between the accented notes in each vocal line yields arresting rhythmic patterns. The motet, shorter and more sharply focused, was striking for its intensity.
The Tallis Scholars produced the impeccable blend and smooth flow that Josquin's music demands. They also gave seductively phrased accounts of a Magnificat by Nicolas Gombert, in which plainsong verses alternated with polyphonic settings, and William Byrd's short but rich "Tribulatio proxima est." The program also included motets by Loyset Compčre, Philippe de Monteand Orlande de Lassus.
Zulu Songs, Modern Message
New York Newsday (NY):
After more than 40 years of performing and worldwide acclaim, the secret to Ladysmith Black Mambazo's harmonious sound remains unchanged: practice, practice, practice. "When you're doing music, you never get tired _ you get energized," said Albert Mazibuko, 57, a senior member of the all-male South African a capella troupe introduced to western audiences by Paul Simon's 1986 "Graceland" album.
That energy _ which rouses audiences in New York and around the world _ springs from the stirring mix of bass, alto and tenor vocals that propelled Mambazo from small competitions in poor South African townships to major showcases: the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Nelson Mandela's 1994 inauguration, the 1996 Summer Olympics, Queen Elizabeth II's 50th anniversary celebration. Mambazo's act is also remarkable for its simplicity. The members are dressed in shirts with traditional southern African patterns, black pants and white shoes. They are arranged in a single row, side by side, with leader and founder Joseph Shabalala in front of them. Instead of cellos, pianos or drums, the group's collective voice creates an almost hypnotic rhythm, leaving audiences enchanted.
With more than 40 albums to its credit, Mambazo has sold more than 6 million records worldwide, earned a 2004 Grammy Award and appeared with the Muppets on "Sesame Street." The success never distracts the 10 singers from their social mission. On their North American tour, which runs through April 23, they spread the word that apartheid's abolition didn't cure South Africa's economic woes or its struggle against AIDS. "The toughest thing to deal with is AIDS," said Mazibuko. "When we're home, we don't even take a vacation because we are working in schools and homes and we talk to people. Even if we have a second we spread the message because it's a killer disease."
Mixing message and music is nothing new. In 1992, Mambazo lent its voice to "The Song of Jacob Zulu," a play about apartheid that eventually earned six Tony nominations. Mambazo's current tour features old favorites like the signature "Homeless" and a couple from its latest release, "No Boundaries," a crossover collaboration with London's English Chamber Orchestra. "For us, it was a first time experience, and I think it was for them, too, because they don't read music or scores," said Ralf Gothoni, the orchestra's principal conductor. "Everything is by heart. But I think we found each other very easily."
Mambazo's musical style, called Isicathamiya, was developed by mineworkers who sang into the wee hours following a hard, six-day week and long periods away from their families. They called themselves "Cothoza Mfana" or "tiptoe guys" because of the choreographed steps they used to avoid disturbing security guards. Part of Mambazo's act includes the tiptoe-dancing _ ranging from a subtle, quiet tapping to a high-kicking and jumping march. On Sunday night, a Manhattan audience clapped in time to the music, chanted in Zulu with instruction from Shabalala, and gave a cheering, albeit polite, standing ovation. "Often in South Africa people are standing up and screaming," said Thomas Channell, 25, a Columbia University student and former Capetown, South Africa resident who attended the Town Hall concert.
Mazibuko credits Shabalala for its continuing success. "I can say it's a gift and a strength for us," Mazibuko said by phone recently from Florida. "He doesn't write the music; he's got the music in his head." Shabalala and his family assembled Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the early 1960s in rural Ladysmith, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. "Black" in its name refers to the strong black oxen. "Mambazo" is Zulu for "ax." "An ax is a very valued tool for people who grew up on a farm," said Mazibuko. "Your life is impossible if you don't have one, whether you want to chop trees or make tools. An ax is a symbol of success in our culture."
Mambazo soon came to symbolize the culture of South Africa, with songs of hope for people suffering under the iron fist of apartheid. "We were lucky we sang in our own language," said Mazibuko. "The oppressors did not know what we were saying, but the people did." The group's fame spread in 1985 when Simon came to Johannesburg and recorded with South African musicians, including Mambazo, for his "Graceland" album. Two years later, Mambazo released its album "Shaka Zulu" before going on to work with Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Dolly Parton and many others.
Healing is a key goal for Mambazo, which is still working through the unsolved killings of Shabalala's wife, Nellie, in 2001, and his brother, Ben, last year. "Many people were coming to see the situation and people got involved in our struggle," said Mazibuko. "I believe people understand our music as we understand it _ as a healing music. It heals us and does the same for our people." Mambazo has four new members: Shabalala's sons, who replaced retired members. Mazibuko said the young singers are giving the group a new vibrancy and bringing Zulu singing to a new generation. "The young guys have ideas and energy," he said. "But we older people have the wisdom."
Just what the soul ordered
Chicago Sun Times (IL)
Tavener turned 60 last year, but his consuming focus on a cappella religious music makes his haunting, slow-moving chants all-but-required repertoire for British choral groups. With its Gothic arches and relatively small scale, Fourth Presbyterian Church at Delaware and Michigan is an attractive concert venue for choral music. Vocal lines have space to bloom, but not so much space that they melt into aural mush. The Sixteen displayed a lovely blend of discipline and freedom that combined a clear purity of tone with deep expressiveness. The women's voices were a consistently bright thread throughout the evening, but their tone was always rounded and dulcet, never turning harsh in even the highest soprano registers.
These British singers worked miracles with Tippett's settings of five American spirituals from the oratorio "A Child of Our Time." From "Deep River'' to "Go down, Moses,'' they had the smoky languor and yearning syncopations of the Deep South down cold. Even with its dashes of unexpected dissonance, Tallis' "Sancte Deus" unfolded with gentle serenity. In the final work, the seamless, rough-hewn drone of The Sixteen's basses gave Tavener's "Song for Athene" a sense of moving inexorably, and ultimately with joy, to the very throne of God.
Cavalier Daily (VA):
With the influx of a cappella spring concerts, each group with its own unique features, some students may be wondering about one group's idiosyncrasy in particular -- the Hullabahoos' multicolored, multi-patterned robes. When the Hullabahoos were formed in 1988, the only other male a capella group on Grounds was the Virginia Gentlemen. According to second-year College student Morgan Sword, the group wanted to sport something different from the traditional jacket and bowtie. Once they had the idea to wear robes, one of the group members' moms started to make them.
Currently, the Hullabahoos have their robes made at Mr. Hank's Fabric Store, located on Preston Ave. Once a new member is inducted, they go to the store to pick out a pattern from the hundreds of fabric options. "Mine has penguins on roller-skates with martini glasses on it," Sword said. "Sometimes people pick it to reflect their personality -- I just thought mine looked funny." Brandon Martin, a recent graduate who now works at the University Hospital but still sings with the Hullabahoos, recalled the moment he picked out the colorful polka-dot fabric for his robe. "When I was going through the fabrics to pick out my robe, I was like, 'That's the one I'm getting' -- immediately," Martin said.
With so many pattern options, ranging from bubbles to cowboy hats, everyone finds something to suit his wishes. "The coolest robe now, I think, is one of our new guys got fake snakeskin," said Carson Oliver, a third-year Commerce student and the Hullabahoos' music director. Though the robes have become one of the most recognizable characteristics of the Hullabahoos, lately there has been talk of revamping the traditional design. "Whenever we sing at gigs and people get a question to ask us, the first one is 'Why are you wearing such an ugly piece of clothing?'" Sword said. "We are thinking about maybe changing the shape of them a little bit, starting next year -- making them a little more fitted."
While outsiders may form their own opinions on the robes, the Hullabahoos themselves find the garments to be a distinctive facet of their group. Oliver mentioned he liked the "unique vibe" of them, and Martin pointed out another potential advantage to the robes. "Sometimes when the song's going badly, it's like you have a security blanket wrapped around you," Martin said, laughing. The robes have come to be one of the most distinguishing factors of the group -- one that will continue to adorn the Hullabahoos for years to come. "You get to like it, and you feel comfortable singing in it," Sword said. "I couldn't really imagine [performing] without it now."
April 9, 2005
A cappella prominent at Pope's funeral
As an important element of catholic liturgical music a cappella singing was an integral part of the requiem mass at the Pope's funeral. The 2ť-hour Mass began with the Vatican's Sistine Choir singing the Gregorian chant, "Grant Him Eternal Rest, O Lord.“ The choir sung Palestrina's mass, as earlier generations of choristers had done at other papal funerals for centuries; the mournful, repetitious incantation of the Litany of the Saints asking "All the saints, patriarchs, and prophets," and "Saint Mary comfort of the Roman people". The Eastern tradition of the catholic liturgical music was represented by the Greek Choir who sang "Christ Is Risen From The Dead".
The Mass ended with cardinals, dignitaries and pilgrims standing and singing: "May the angels accompany you into heaven, may the martyrs welcome you when you arrive, and lead you to Holy Jerusalem.“ Then the 150-member Mater Ecclesiae choir sang the Magnificat as the coffin was borne away from the altar towards the crypt inside St Peter's.
April 8, 2005
Choir's recording added to Library Of Congress registry
Deseret Morning News (UT):
A 1959 Mormon Tabernacle Choir album is among 50 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" recordings to be placed in the National Recording Registry, the Library of Congress announced this week. Recordings, which must be at least 10 years old to be included in the registry, are chosen to represent a broad spectrum of aural experience, from music and radio broadcasts to speeches and even environmental sounds, said Karen Fishman, reference librarian in the recorded sound section of the Library of Congress. "We have everything from Handel to hip-hop. We try to make sure each genre is represented," she said in a phone interview.
The class of 2004 was announced Tuesday in Washington, D.C.,and includes what Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called a "rich variety" celebrating the "importance of sound recording in our lives." Included on the list is the 1959 Mormon Tabernacle Choir/Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of Handel's "Messiah," Eugene Ormandy, conductor; Richard Condie, choir director. Other honorees this year include Eugene Cowles' 1898 "Gypsy Love Song," Nirvana's 1991 "Nevermind," Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' 1949 "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," John Williams' "Star Wars" soundtrack (1977), remarks from Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's broadcast from the moon in 1969 and Woodrow Wilson's Armistice Day broadcast (1923).
The Library of Congress established a National Recording Registry, under the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000. For the past three years, the library has annually chosen 50 recordings that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" for inclusion in the registry. Being on the list is "a significant honor, absolutely," said Fishman, not only because of the limited numbers, but also because it helps "capture what was significant in the country at that time. It's not a Top Ten list, it's a sound portrait of America. It's a wonderful way to document history." As formats change, as technologies change, it is important that this audio history be preserved, she said.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir/Philadelphia Orchestra's recording was a best-selling album of its day, noted Fishman. "The choir had a long history of association with the Philadelphia Orchestra, going back to 1936. This recording was made during a concert tour the choir did in 1958." The choir's collaboration with Eugene Ormandy "was a match made in heaven," according to Craig Jessop, current music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. "In some ways, that was a golden era, reflecting Condie's passion, drive and love of music. He was the right man at the right time." Condie was named director of the choir in 1957 and led the organization for 17 years. It was the time, said Jessop, when the choir really stepped onto the national stage, doing recordings and tours. "Their 'Messiah' was one of the first truly successful classical recording stories of its time. It was a benchmark; it set a standard for classical musical recordings that is unparalleled. The fact that it is still available nearly 50 years later says a lot."
At the time, music critics commented on the choir's "great romantic choral tone, deep with feeling that is able to communicate the inner meaning of the world's great choral music." Paul Hume, music critic for the Washington Post, wrote that "this sound of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been a special beacon for those who love the world's great choral music." Ormandy himself credited the choir's sound to Condie's background as a opera singer. "Any conductor reflects the instrument he played," he said.
Being included in the National Recording Registry "is a tremendous honor, a tremendous recognition," said Jessop. "It's a recognition of the long-standing tradition of the choir." It is because of the foundation laid by such early choir directors that "the choir still has a continuing presence in the recording industry today," he said. (The choir's latest release, "Chose Something Like A Star", is No. 4 on Billboard's classical music charts.) And, said Jessop, the legacy lives on "with the wonderful choir we have now. It's alive and strong and vital."
Looking at the complete list of included titles there is an all a cappella recording - The Tuskegee Institute Choir Sings Spirituals. Directed by William L. Dawson. (1955) This recording is significant not only for its powerful performances, but because it presents William L. Dawson’s arrangements of spirituals, which are still widely used by choirs today. Booker T. Washington founded The Tuskegee Institute Choir in 1887. Through tours, recordings and broadcasting, it reached international fame under the direction of Dawson, who led the choir from 1931 to 1955. See the complete list here
April 7, 2005
Crossing cultures in song and poetry
Charming Hostess sounds like somebody who might be catering a tea at the Roland Park Woman's Club. But, no, it's a singing group, three women, engaged in what they call "eerie harmony, hot rhythm and radical smarts." They say their genre is "best described as nerdy, sexy, commie, girlie." Charming Hostess appears tonight at Red Emma's, "Baltimore's only combined radical bookstore and fair-trade coffee house," a workers collective that one might say is the polar opposite of a high society tea party.
Charming Hostess is essentially an a cappella trio - sometimes with lots of instruments - that sounds a bit like an eccentric Sweet Honey in the Rock, exploring the frontiers of sound from North Africa to Bulgaria to Bosnia and beyond. They are Jewlia Eisenberg, the founding Hostess, Marika Hughes and Cynthia Taylor. They all live in San Francisco. "We're drawn from the amazing African-American tradition, pop culture traditions, doo-wop, work songs, spirituals," Eisenberg says during a phone interview from San Francisco. "We're also drawn from the Jewish and East European tradition, and also from avant-garde stuff. I mean, our stuff is weird.
"We're big giant fans of Baltimore," she says. The group sang here in August at the True Vine record shop on 36th Street in Hampden. "Like everybody else, we're constantly looking for John Waters." The singers went to the Club Charles to look for him. "We didn't find him," she says. "We think he would really love us." Why? "Because he really likes weird [stuff]," she says. "We're not that weird. But three voluptuous ladies singing Bosnian poetry about nationalism and genocide and war resistance - I think he'd be amused. Many people are, you know."
Charming Hostess' latest recording is Sarajevo Blues, with two Jewish songs from Tunisia and Bulgaria, a Balkan revolutionary tune, an "Open Dialogue" and 12 poems by Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic set to music by Eisenberg. Mehmedinovic lives in Alexandria, Va., now, and he may appear with the Hostesses at Red Emma's. He read his poems at their last appearance here. But he's been ill. "It kind of depends on him," Eisenberg says. She met him in a bar in Berkeley, Calif. His translator, Ammiel Alcalay, brought them together. Alcalay is a Bosnian Jew. "He's a very interesting writer about a shared culture between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East." Eisenberg and Mehmedinovic liked each other right away. Mehmedinovic had lived thorough the most intense shelling of Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. His poems speak of that time. "I read his poetry," she says. "I thought it was amazing. It really spoke to a lot of issues I was interested in. ... All sorts of big issues - like freedom and fear and nationalism and how artists live in hard times."
The Hostesses sing the songs in Bosnian, as well as English. "Supposedly our Bosnian is OK," Eisenberg says. "Sem says it's all good. He sent her a tape of himself reading the poems in Bosnian. "So I like to think I captured the cadence of [his] voice," she says. "His poetic voice." His poetic voice, she says, is cool and detached. "He was there. But our voices - the women's voices - they're kind of drenched with emotion, sexuality, sensuality, spirituality. It's not at all like the poetic voice. Because of that we sound more like Sarajevo than he does." You've infused it with humanity, so to speak? "I'd say we infused it with femininity," she says.
They haven't been to Sarajevo yet, but they'll sing at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival in the fall. Eisenberg has spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, finding and learning the music. She wanted to draw on the musical traditions of Sarajevo for the CD. "There's some good ones," she says. "They have a long Sufi tradition there, from Sufi Muslims. It's a big center for Sephardic Jews. And then Franciscan monks. So they have really interesting musical traditions. When I was writing, I tried to keep those things in mind."
And finally, she says, Charming Hostess is by no means an ironic name. "It's mostly that we really want people to feel engaged and welcome when they come to see us sing. We get a lot of refugees that come to the shows as a rule, different kinds of refugees. People are there. They witness, they yell out, they laugh, they make comments, they discuss things. It's a very engaged crowd. We love it. We court it. We want people to feel at home. And they do." Why not? They're charming hostesses.
April 2, 2005
Independent Lens: A Lion's Trail
Hollywood Reporter (CA):
Don't be misled by the title of this exceptional edition of the PBS "Independent Lens" series. It doesn't have much to do directly with wildlife, at least not the kind that roams the African plains. Instead, it's a story of showbiz greed and those who suffer for their lack of savvy. In this case, it's about how the classic song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" made a lot of people a lot of money -- but the original writer of the Zulu-inspired tune wasn't one of them.
His name was Solomon Linda. He composed a tune called "Mbube" in the 1920s and first recorded it at South Africa's Gallo Records in 1939. But when the song was Americanized -- first as "Wimoweh" by folk singer Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and then by the Tokens as "Lion Sleeps Tonight" in 1961 -- Linda was cheated out of any credit, royalty or financial stake whatsoever.
The fact this was dreadfully unfair and even criminal goes without saying. It becomes tragic upon realizing that the poverty-stricken Linda died penniless shortly after the Tokens released their monster hit version of the simple four-chord tune that became one of the most popular and profitable songs of the 20th century. Filmmaker Francois Verster constructs a commendably balanced overview that details how a situation so grossly inequitable could have taken root, talking to Seeger and Tokens lead singer Jay Siegel (innocent parties in the equation) about the magic of the song and the injustice that surrounds the creator's lack of compensation.
Verster catches up with Linda's three daughters, who continue to live in squalor in Soweto, South Africa, and for years couldn't even afford to buy a headstone for their father's grave. There also is an interview with a South African journalist named Rian Malan, who is fighting to win Linda posthumous rights to his composition and rightful money for his heirs. But beyond detailing the moral and legal issues surrounding the song, "A Lion's Trail" serves as a joyous celebration of African music itself, with performances by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, among others. This has the effect of spotlighting the value and richness of a musical style whose practitioners are too often underappreciated and, in at least one case, appallingly undercompensated.
The acclaimed PBS "Independent Lens" film series will be showing this movie starting the week of April 3. See a clip, read the complete history of the song and find the schedule for your area here.
Controversial singing group allowed back
Daily Pennsylvanian (PA):
Known for putting audience members outside of their comfort zones with raunchy lyrics, the all-male a cappella group Pennsylvania Six-5000 was readmitted into the Performing Arts Council after its expulsion a year ago. Penn Six, which performs parodies about getting drunk and having sex, was kicked out of the organization last year for missing three PAC meetings. As part of the deal for readmittance, the group may have to tone down some of its shows. "This year ... if they feel that something is inappropriate for the venue, they won't do it," said College junior and PAC member Joshua Lannik.
Tuesday night was the group's fourth attempt at reclaiming its PAC membership. This was the group's final opportunity to be readmitted before the council institutes a new amendment that would prevent groups from applying more than twice. One of the main concerns expressed at the PAC meeting was the appropriateness of Penn Six's content and its reflection on the PAC community. "We don't lie about what we do. We don't claim to have a G-rated show," Penn Six President Arthur Gradstein said, asking that council members recognize the group's right to present content that may be controversial.
Freedom of expression outweighed concerns about content, as PAC voted 30-3 in an open ballot to reinstate the group. One representative from each PAC-recognized group was eligible to vote. "We want a group who does give back to the community to be a part of us," said College freshman and PAC member Shane Wagman in recognition of Penn Six's performance at the Martin Luther King multi-cultural coffee house and the Sigma Chi fraternity's tsunami fundraiser. Council members also cited the group's professionalism and organizational change as reasons for its reinstatement.
Since its dismissal from PAC, Penn Six has self-produced several performances, including three shows at the Rotunda -- two of which were oversold. However, a renewed membership with PAC will make it easier for the group to schedule shows and find rehearsal space, Gradstein, a Wharton senior, said. The group lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the University after being kicked out, he added. Being a member of PAC also has financial benefits.
Since the group was kicked out of PAC, Penn Six's funding from the Student Activities Council has been frozen. Without financial assistance from SAC, Penn Six members contributed money from their own wallets to produce the fall show. The group is using the proceeds from last semester's performance to finance its spring show. Penn Six is currently waiting for PAC to determine its budget for the upcoming year.
April 1, 2005
Swingle Singers in UK top 10!
The Swingle Singers are in the UK top 10 singles charts. Well sort of.. Singer/songwriter Jem, from Cardiff, Wales, just had her debut album released in the UK and the lead single "They" is based almost entirely on a sample from "Prelude in F Minor" from the Swingle's 60's release "Jazz Sebastian Bach Vol II". The single entered the UK Charts at number 6 for the week of 20 March and is currently at number 11 .
Jem, 29, explained: "I used to go to charity shops and buy vinyl for 50p, anything with a weird cover. I was always looking out for weird samples because I have loved hip hop for years. That's how it started, because I knew I was going to make a record. The sample on "They" came from one of my dad's records, though. So I stole it from him. The sound of the Swingle Singers doing that beautiful classical music is amazing."
The talented singer-songwriter has already appeared on The O.C singing the Paul McCartney classic "Maybe I'm Amazed". She also collaborated on the song "Nothing Fails" with songwriter Guy Sigsworth which ended up on Madonna's "American Life" album. She also has DJ'd for Robert Redford at the Sundance film festival. Listen to a clip here.
Comic look at a cappella
The Age (Australia):
An amusing look at the 'cut-throat world' of a cappella singing, Gerard McCulloch's show is rich in anecdotes, accents and bad puns. Tracing a sonic history from his days in the 'burbs' where, as a starry-eyed teenager, he harboured ambitions of being the in the best a cappella outfit known to man, the Rove writer recounts his foray into the world of song and the various incarnations of his instrument-free super group.
Along the way, there's a deconstruction of the pop song, showing how easy it is to start at Smashing Pumpkins' Disarm and finish at Coldplay's In My Place (via the Cranberries' Zombie). A very funny dig at Coldplay’s expense is a welcome bonus.
There’s also a chance encounter with seminal New York a cappella outfit The Persuasions, in St Kilda, which leads to an impromptu gig with their heroes. Better still, he manages an impressive stab at a black Brooklyn accent, with a basso profundo you wouldn’t rightly expect from such a wisp of a man. Too old to be cute, too young to be avuncular, McCulloch projects a likeable, easy-going manner on stage, where the laughs are easy and plentiful.