March 31, 2006
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO):
The look is a serious-music take on Charlie's Angels - one blonde, one redhead, one brunette - but all with the same short, slightly punkish haircut. The sound is incredible: Whether they're singing in unison or in intricate harmony, Trio Mediaeval's blend is flawless.
They brought a splendid combination of vocalism, scholarship, musicianship and stage presence to the Sheldon Concert Hall on Tuesday evening. Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Torunn Ostrem Ossum and Anna Maria Friman sang a cappella and stayed in tune throughout.
The program was a nicely considered mix of medieval music from England and Italy, traditional Norwegian songs and contemporary works written specifically for Trio Medieval. The new pieces were very much in the spirit of the 13th century works with which they were mixed. With slightly spikier harmonies, the contemporary pieces were recognizably a part of the same sonic world.
Particularly notable were Gavin Bryars' gorgeous "Ave Regina Gloriosa" and selections from Piers Hellawell's "The Hilliard Songbook.""Hilliard's" Early Modern English texts dealt with gems and their colors, set to early 21st century music that memorably brought out those texts and their subtler meanings.
A group of three traditional Norwegian hymns proved moving and heartfelt. "Eg veit I himmerik ei borg" sounded like a Norsk "Wayfaring Stranger." The first half's closer, "Juoigam," was a purely joyous exposition on just two words: The printed notes gave the text as "Lailahelo lailalo, etc."
Harvard Glee Club shows musical mettle
Birmingham News (AL):
Harvard University opened when America was still a collection of colonies, just 16 years after the Pilgrims arrived on the Massachusetts shore. So it's not surprising that the oldest university glee club in America, a 60-strong all-male assemblage, resides there. That alone doesn't assure great singing from the 148-year-old Harvard Glee Club, but under Jameson Marvin, its leader for the past 28 years, it proved Tuesday that it can hold its own among the finest professional choruses.
Its wide-ranging program at Indian Springs School, part of a five-city Southeast tour, reached as far back as the Renaissance and as late as 2005, but was peppered with American and British standards. Two Latin works set the pace for the two-hour concert. Mendelssohn's "Beati mortui" unfolded with bold dynamic shapes and crisp diction. A fervent rendering of Ferrabosco's "Vocem meam audisti" spotlighted its vocal range, from angelic falsetto countertenors to booming basses.
Bradley Ellingboe's "Innisfree," set to Yeats' inward-looking text, combined intensity and passion with technical discipline. Among the more narrative offerings, Benjamin Britten's "The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" told a poignant tale of marital infidelity and its tragic consequences in riveting detail.
Less comfortable for the choristers was Hindemith's "Der Tod," which suffered from a muddy blend and timid approach to its dissonant harmonies. Michael Praetorius' "Lo, how a rose e'er blooming" blended too well, its lovely melody often getting lost in the harmony.
The choir's lighter side surfaced in a lively rendition of "Riders in the Sky," the finger-snapping, doo-wop "Good Old A Cappella" and Leonard Cohen's soulful "Hallelujah."Harvard alums in the crowd may have been thrilled with the medley of football songs that closed the concert, but nothing in this concert could top "Suo Gan," the Welsh lullaby made famous in the 1987 film "Empire of the Sun." The Lance Wiliford arrangement showed off the best of this choir - its balance, precision and sharp sonic outlines tied to heartfelt emotion.
March 30, 2006
A cappella dance band bring 'Taste of Africa'
Berwick Today (UK):
Tweedmouth West First School pupils were given a special taste of Africa on Tuesday when they were visited by a flamboyant Zimbabwean dance band. Five-piece dance and a cappella group Black Umfolosi, who are from Bulawayo, delivered an energetic display of gumboot dancing, which originated in the South African mining communities and is crafted around percussive stamping and slapping of the boots.
Brendan Malkin, head teacher of Tweedmouth West First School, said: "It was a wonderful opportunity for the pupils to have first hand experience of live music, theatre and dancing, especially from another culture. They had been learning how to clog dance and couldn't wait to get on their Wellingtons and try gumboot dancing." Black Umfolosi have been touring Northumberland schools teaching young people and their teachers about the fascinating cultural history of their African heritage.
The event was organised by Creative Partnerships Northumberland, one of 36 partnerships created around the country aimed at putting creativity at the heart of the curriculum. Carol Alevroyianni, creative director of Creative Partnerships Northumberland, said: "This tour is all about broadening horizons, demystifying other cultures building confidence and having fun.
"A visit from Black Umfolosi is a fantastic way for a school to start thinking more creatively about teaching the curriculum. It's also a great way for students and teaching staff to learn something new together. "Meeting and working with creative people from their own and other cultures is very important for young people. It gives them an opportunity to see beyond the stereotypes. They are meeting real people and instead of just seeing artists 'perform', they are able to talk with them and get to know a little bit about life outside their own town or village."
Last year, Black Umfolosi provided the singing for the primetime hit television series - BBC's 'Africa Lives' - Celebrity Come Dancing special. They proudly perform songs and dances that are paramount to promoting their country's cultural heritage. The group speak five languages including Zulu and their native tongue Ndebele. Black Umfolosi realise the importance of teaching young people about the origins of different cultures, as their current goal is to build a young people's arts centre back in Bulawayo that promotes the arts and encourages co-operation between communities and different cultures.
March 25, 2006
Take 6 takes matters into their own hands
Nashville City Paper (TN):
No vocal group in gospel, pop, rock, soul or jazz has earned more awards nor enjoyed as much recognition over the past two decades as Take 6. Not only have they earned 10 Grammy and 10 Dove awards, but also a Soul Train Award plus 18 Grammy nominations and two more NAACP Image award nominations.
Now with their new release Feels Good, which hit the streets March 21, they’ve taken the next step in their artistic evolution. They’ve used the occasion to launch their own Take 6 label, and they also served as session producers for the first time.
“We just felt that it was time for us to take full control of our music,” Claude McKnight said. “The funny thing about this is that we’ve really been acting as de facto producers for a long time on our projects, but we finally decided as a group to organize and arrange things so that now we were fully responsible for everything. Rather than getting into situations where we would be answering to other people for things, we’re now the ones who are responsible for everything, including the business aspects.”
Feels Good continues the sextet’s tradition of amazingly multi-faceted works. It is predominantly a Capella material, with the various voices in perfect pitch and harmony accord on material ranging from spiritual/gospel items like “Family of God” and “Lamb of God” to a splendid, jazz-tinged cover of “Just In Time” and the Brazilian-flavored “Set U Free.”
McKnight says there’s one main factor that influences the group’s choices of songs to record.
“The first thing is that lyrically whatever we sing must be something that doesn’t compromise our ideals or our faith, and has some type of positive message. Then we look for things with some element of swing, be it uptempo or lighter and more implied.”
Besides McKnight, one of the founding members, the other Take 6 vocalists include Alvin Chea, Cedric Dent, David Thomas, Joel Kibble and Mark Kibble.
While several other vocal ensembles have faltered or disbanded during Take 6’s tenure, they’ve maintained a steady track record of excellence and had only one personnel change in 20 years.
“There have been times when we’ve had problems and even periods when we thought maybe we should call it a day,” McKnight acknowledged. “But we’ve always been able to get through those times, and now we’re really enjoying each other and are very encouraged about the new direction.”
March 24, 2006
Pomerium blends sacred and profane
The Tribune (IN):
Under the direction of Alexander Blachly, the New York City-based Pomerium gave a superb performance of a cappella Renaissance choral works on Tuesday night at the University of Notre Dame's DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts in a program titled "Masters of the Renaissance: Du Fay, Ockeghem, Josquin, Monteverdi, Gesualdo."
The highlight of the first half of the program, which consisted of works by early Renaissance masters, was "Mass on L'homme armé," by Johannes Ockeghem (d. 1497). The melodic material for the Mass, which was taken from the most famous melody of Renaissance Europe, "L'homme armé" (it also was used as thematic material for other pieces on the program), is woven into the fabric of all five movements. In this performance, a portion of the ensemble sang the French "L'homme armé" text beneath the Latin text, and both texts were clear and audible. The singers navigated through the composition's musical architecture with complete ease and abandon.
The second half of the program, which featured music from the late Renaissance, consisted of four madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1567--1643) and six motets and responsories by Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1561--1613). The Monteverdi pieces are of particular interest: Conceived as love songs set to Italian poetry, they were later adapted to sacred texts in Latin; Pomerium sang the Latin texts.
Gesualdo's works, like those of Monteverdi, point toward a new sophistication, especially in his use of chromaticism. The singers were able to adjust their sound to the heavier, fuller lines of Monteverdi and Gesualdo, always maintaining a precise, clear tone that allowed them to sing perfect chromatic harmonies.
A professor of music at Notre Dame, Blachly, the founder and director of Pomerium, knows the Renaissance repertoire intimately and has an innate understanding of voices and how they work. As such, Pomerium performs not so much as a choral group but as an ensemble of solo singers who know how to work together without overshadowing one another. Because their voices are of a high caliber, the singers in Pomerium brought something to this performance that is often lacking in other ensembles' performances of this repertoire: color and timbre.
March 23, 2006
The Sweeps so far
The first half of the 2006 Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival has been a rousing success and four regional winners have been selected. They are:-
Bay Area - Clockwork (Mixed vocal jazz)
Denver - Curious Gage (Mixed contemporary)
New York - 'Round Midnight (Barbershop)
Pacific Northwest - Tongue Tied A Cappella (Male contemporary)
Boston and Chicago are coming up this weekend (March 25) with Los Angeles following on April 1 and finally Washington DC on April 8. Chicago is almost sold out but tickets are still available for the remaining events. Always a great evening of vocal harmony singing we hope you can join us at one of our remaining shows. Complete information and results at our web site.
Casting call for singers
We often get notices of auditions for singers and although not strictly about a cappella we know that many of our readers are singers themselves so we will now start posting here anything that looks like fun opportunity for vocalists.
ABC Music Project - ABC has announced that they are now casting for a new Reality TV Music Show. (Deadline April 30, 2006). More info here.
March 22, 2006
New Take 6 "Feels Good" released today
Formed at Alabama's Oakwood College in the early 1980s, Mark and Joey Kibble, Cedric Dent, Alvin Chea, David Thomas and Claude McKnight were signed by Reprise and released "Take 6" nationally in 1988. That year they blew away the '88 Grammy show audience with "Spread Love," and incredibly won Grammies for both best Jazz and best Gospel group. On their way to "Feels Good," their 12th CD, the versatile sextet has broken down barriers between the musical genres of Jazz, Gospel and Soul and built a massive, broad-based group of devoted fans. An accompanied album, "Join the Band" and 1997's "Brothers" both won Grammies. After 20 years with Warner Bros., their final release was "Beautiful World," an album of accompanied re-interpreted pop/soul classics. But in 2006 the group returned to their a cappella and gospel (at least in subject matter) roots with the release of "Feels Good," forming their own label, "Take 6 Records," in the process. The group is poised, tight and energized, breezing through their strongest set, of mostly original material, since their first head-turning releases in 1988 and 1990. Thomas's joyous "Come On" sets the tone, and Mark Kibble's title tune, Dent and Kibble's "Family of Love," the powerful, profound "Lamb of God," the smooth, rhythmic "More Than Ever," the surprising, re-invented cover of "Just In Time," and McKnight's R&B/Pop gem "Set U Free" keeps the party going. The usual perfect harmonies, strong group songwriting (and outside song selection) and arrangements, and Take 6's return to that good old a cappella all left us with a big smile on our face, like we got when we first heard "Spread Love" back in '88. Welcome back, guys, and bless you!
March 21, 2006
Folkish Sounds of Estonia, With a Dash of Rachmaninoff
New York Times (NY):
The program was devoted largely to music of Arvo Pärt, and on the strength of it, you might have wished for more. On the other hand, the mere four numbers from Rachmaninoff's glorious Vespers whetted the appetite for the whole work. You might even have wished for more music by Cyrillus Kreek on the basis of his "Five Religious Folk Songs."
It was that kind of concert, by Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Sunday afternoon. The selections and the performances were so fine that they left you feeling like an ingrate, greedily hungry for more.
Happily, more is available on CD's from Harmonia Mundi France, or will be. Several of the Pärt pieces performed on Sunday here and others are to be released in September. Mr. Hillier's recording of the complete Rachmaninoff Vespers appeared last year.
What is always striking about Mr. Pärt's music is its originality, and that was especially apparent here in "Dopo la Vittoria" ("After the Complete Victory," 1997), to a text from Archbishop Philaret's "History of Church Singers and Chants," of 1902, which tells of the creation of hymns by St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Straight, mundane historical narrative is presented in a joyous, jogging storytelling mode, and the quotations from the hymns themselves soar to transcendent heights.
Remarkably, Rachmaninoff's Vespers, scarcely known in the West a few decades ago, has become almost standard repertory. Dennis Keene and the Voices of Ascension gave a superbly polished account of substantial excerpts at the Church of the Ascension less than a month ago, and the next night Stefan Parkman and the Academy Chamber Choir of Uppsala, Sweden, presented a grippingly theatrical performance of the whole work, also at St. Ignatius.
Mr. Hillier's excerpts were just what you might expect from one of the finest choral conductors of the day with so wondrously talented a group of singers (27 strong). Whatever voices were heard individually were of soloist caliber, and Iris Oja, a mezzo-soprano, was superb in her extended solo, rendered with earth-motherly warmth. The folkish vein of Kreek's Estonian songs carried into an encore by Mart Saar, another Estonian: "Why Are You Weeping, Oak Tree?"
March 18, 2006
Ancient art of throat singing
New Times (CT):
It's a basso croak that becomes a roar, while carrying a tune. It's an otherworldly sound that combines a hum, a whistle, a flute, and the buzzy overtones of electronic music. Since antiquity, the people of Central Asia have taught themselves to sing simultaneous tones at once – a skill known variously as throat singing, harmonic singing, and overtone singing. To hear it is to be amazed, then captivated by sounds far removed from the Western vocalizing we know.
Today, the people of Tuva – a small, autonomous Russian republic in southern Siberia on the border of Mongolia – are not only keeping this ancient art alive, but spreading it on records, in concerts and in the 1999 documentary, "Genghis Blues.''
One group of young masters – Alash – has brought it to Connecticut. The group, brought to the United States by the Library of Congress' Open World Cultural program, was busy Thursday recording a CD at the Enchanted Garden Conservatory of the Arts in Ridgefield. It will perform there tonight; the show is sold out. "We'll have a living room concert,'' said Judith Cook Tucker, director of the Connecticut Folklife Center in Danbury, who helped bring Alash to the area.
Throat singers are able to sing more than one pitch at the same time – sometimes two, sometimes three or four. "It's not a strain on your vocal chords,'' said Sean Quirk, a Milwaukee native who is the manager of, and interpreter for Alash and a budding throat singer. "But it's learning to use muscles in your throat you don't normally use. It's like learning to wiggle your ears.''
While a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn, Quirk heard a CD of the Tuvinian ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu. "I couldn't stop listening,'' he said. "I decided I was going to learn how to do it.'' Quirk became proficient enough to get a Fulbright grant in 2003 to go to Tuva to study its music. He's lived there ever since. When the Library of Congress began looking for a Tuvinian group to come to the United States, it found Alash and brought four of its five members, and Quirk, to Dartmouth College and to Wesleyan University in Middletown. "We decided to stay a bit longer and play other concerts,'' Quirk said.
Also accompanying the group is Kongar-Ool Ondar. He has been the great world ambassador of the music and culture of Tuva. Ondar is one of the stars of "Genghis Blues.'' On Thursday, while Alash recorded, Ondar sang along quietly, smiling, his eyes closed. When the group got one verse of one song wrong, he corrected them. They recorded it anew. "He is their elder and spiritual leader,'' Quirk said. The members of Alash are young, with its members in their early 20s.
Quirk said they group is now taking traditional Tuvinian music in a new direction. Trained in that tradition from childhood, they also know and love western music. They add guitars and accordion to their Tuvinian folk instruments. They love American rock and roll.
"I can guarantee this,'' Quirk said. "One of the members of the group today is wearing Jimi Hendrix boxer shorts.'' Ondar, speaking through Quirk, said Alash can enrich Tuvinian music through its members greater exposure to world music. "It's a success, but they need to continue to learn,'' Ondar said.
For Judith Cook Tucker, watching the young musicians of Alash take their throat-singing traditions and expand them what folk music is all about. "It's a living tradition,'' she said. "You can totally assimilate in a culture and lose what you have,'' Quirk said. "Or you can totally hold onto what you have and never let in grow. The best way is to continue, to listen to all the music around you but keep your own traditions. That way, the tradition never dies. It lives on.''
March 17, 2006
Choirs awarded large grants
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has authorized $67,639,587 in new grants to a total of 175 organizations. The Performing Arts Program awarded grants to Ragazzi, the Peninsula Boys' Chorus ($90,000) and Piedmont Choirs ($90,000), two choral training and performance organizations for Bay Area children, and Schola Cantorum ($51,000), one of the largest adult community choruses in the region.
March 15, 2006
Take 6 records with Aaron Neville
Ten time Grammy winning sextet Take 6 have partnered with legendary song stylist Aaron Neville to record the 1946 Louis Armstrong classic, "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans."
For 60 days beginning March 7, the song will only be available through the online digital download site, iTunes, and the artists' share of the proceeds from the sale of the song will benefit Neville's favorite charity, New Orleans area Habitat for Humanity. Following its run on iTunes, the song will be available on all major digital download sites. A native of New Orleans, Neville's home was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the singer currently resides in Nashville.
"What a thrill to be able to do a song that is so appropriate for victims of Katrina," said Take 6 member Mark Kibble. "Aaron brought the passion that only one who lived in the city - and knew it for everything that it was and is - can bring. He's the classic best and it is an honor to have him help us aid those who are still in need of relief."
In commenting on the project, New Orleans area Habitat for Humanity Development Coordinator Gina Stilp said, "Thanks to generous partners like Take 6 and Aaron Neville, Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village will help keep the rich musical traditions of New Orleans alive. The Musician's Village will provide home ownership opportunities for dozens of musicians and their families that have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina."
March 14, 2006
Cantus keeps fallen soldier's spirit alive
St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN):
He was one soldier in a war where more than 2,000 American lives have been lost, but the words from the final letter Pfc. Jesse Givens of Fort Carson, Colo., sent to his wife reverberated around the nation. It appeared in the New York Times and on "Oprah." His wife, Melissa, who gave birth to the couple's son, Carson, less than one month after her husband died in Iraq in 2003, read his loving farewell to his family for the HBO documentary "Last Letters Home: Voices of the American Troops From the Battlefields of Iraq."
On Friday, Cantus will unveil a newly commissioned work, "Private First Class Jesse Givens," based on that letter, during the first of two concerts celebrating the vocal group's 10th anniversary. "It's been this emotional ride for commissioning this piece," said Erick Lichte, who formed Cantus with three classmates while attending St. Olaf College in Northfield in 1995. "This is really dealing with living people and has just been much bigger than anything else we've done to date."
It began when Cantus, a full-time men's choral group that has given more than 300 concerts across North America and Europe during the past decade, wanted to collaborate with American composer Lee Hoiby on a piece. "Lee was very interested in working together, but we didn't have a direction for the piece," Lichte said. "And the challenge in composing for a choir is having to pick a text, because that determines the whole direction of where things will go."
Lichte and Hoiby, best known for his work in operas, initially talked during the summer of 2004. "A few months later, Lee called me. He had read this article in the New York Times about Jesse Givens," Lichte recalled. "He read to me this poignant and wonderful letter, and he starts crying, and I start crying over the phone, and we realized this letter, put into men's voices singing … we thought would be a very powerful thing."
Lichte spent the next several weeks tracking down Melissa Givens, eventually sending her a letter and some of Cantus' seven studio CDs while asking for her blessing to create the song. "Jesse was a big music lover," Melissa Givens said in a telephone interview. "I ran this idea by his mom, because I wasn't really sure, and she was so thrilled that somebody wanted to honor him like this given his love for music. Looking at it from her perspective, there was no way I could say no." Along with performing "Private First Class Jesse Givens" at their anniversary shows this weekend, Cantus will do a special performance for Melissa Givens in person at the Intercollegiate Male Choir Convention in Eau Claire, Wis., on March 18.
March 13, 2006
Award for a cappella movie
The audience award at the prestigious 12th annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, held in Aspen, CO, this past weekend went to "Shut Up and Sing", a film about a group of guys who sang a cappella in college and reunite 15 years later to sing at a friend‘s wedding. The movie stars Molly Shannon, formerly of Saturday Night Live.
March 10, 2006
A cappella gets creepy
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia):
I admit it. I have a near-psychopathic hatred of a cappella, tormented by smug, smiling singers who, too mean to pay for real musicians to accompany them, commit diabolical acts on unsuspecting songs. There are exceptions: usually people who are not all teeth, hair, cocktail dresses and Burt Bacharach songs. The Spooky Men's Chorale are nothing like that. There is no chintz, no bling and no kitsch in their routine. Instead this rugby team-size choir of boofy blokes settles for a healthy blend of eccentricity, scariness and laughs.
As with many good ideas, the name came first. Founder Steven Taberner had been listening to men's choirs from Georgia - the one in the former Soviet Union, not the one in the gun belt - and found the bass-heavy swell of masculine voices rather spooky. Armed with the name, he just needed the singers and the music.
Taberner, who has proved himself a high-quality singer and songwriter on his solo CD Burning Slow, initially assembled some blokes just as a novelty act for a gig at Paddington's Eastside Church in 2001. The response was so overwhelming the project immediately had a life of its own and the Spooky Men started to haunt the wider world.
Beneath the zaniness of both lyrics and presentation there is a level of deadly seriousness: only good singers are capable of fulfilling Taberner's nightmare, and they also have to look a bit spooky and be blessed with the right sense of humour.
"Spookiness is really important and some people are lucky," he says. "They just look spooky."
There was one guy who Taberner held up as an example to all the others at a rehearsal as striking just the right look of beaten-down desperation while singing their idiosyncratic version of Not Pretty Enough. "I said, 'Do it like Richard does,' " he says. "Subsequently I realised that he actually sang every song like that. That was his natural demeanour."
Not that these blokes work too hard on looking odd - it seems natural for most of them. Add songs including the classic Spooky Theme, Don't Stand Between Man and his Tool and Vote the Bastards Out and demand has soared.
They are regulars at the Woodford and National folk festivals, have played Melbourne three times, and in August all 15 of them fly to Britain to do dates including London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Not bad for a bunch of amateur singers from the Blue Mountains. There is a sound engineer and a few casual singer-songwriters among them, but ostensibly this is just a regular gaggle of dads and teachers, carpenters and architects. Except they just happen to be a bit spooky.
March 9, 2006
Keep Bulgaria singing
San Jose Mercury News (CA):
Director Dora Hristova
Though the Cold War had started to thaw, many of the countries locked behind the Iron Curtain were still mysterious to the West in the late 1980s, when the unspeakably beautiful music of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares became a world music sensation.
Officially known by an unromantic communist appellation, the Bulgarian National Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, the ensemble had gained attention outside Bulgaria through a series of recordings made by Swiss producer Marcel Cellier, albums released in the United States on Nonesuch under the name Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. As part of the choir's first U.S. tour in more than a decade, Voix Bulgares performs tonight in Santa Cruz at a concert produced by Zookbeat. The group returns to Northern California on March 17, kicking off the SFJAZZ Spring Season with a concert at Grace Cathedral.
Drawing on regional vocal styles from throughout Bulgaria and a repertoire of folk songs arranged by the country's greatest composers, Voix Bulgares brings a contemporary sensibility to a refined tradition dating to the ancient Thracians. Marked by modal scales, irregular rhythms, bell-like timbres and dissonant harmonies, the choir's ravishing music was featured on numerous network TV shows and greeted with sellout audiences on the ensemble's first U.S. tour in 1988. But hard times in the post-communist era have made it very difficult for the 22-member group to return to North America.
"In the late 1980s and early '90s, they were superstars in the world-music scene, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Gipsy Kings,'' says Shira Cion, the artistic director of the Bay Area-based female Balkan vocal ensemble Kitka, the only U.S. group invited to perform at Voix Bulgares' 50th anniversary celebration in Sofia in 2002. "Their Bay Area debut at the Berkeley Community Theatre not only sold out; they turned away 6,000 people from that concert.
"The sound was completely unlike anything anyone had heard before,'' Cion says. "They took the best of choral composition and merged it with the sound of Bulgarian folk singers from villages, a sound that was so complex and intense. But tastes change. Cuban music became the popular thing, and the choir is a little nervous coming back here: `Will people remember us, remember our glory?' ''
Maintaining the choir's glorious sound has been the most difficult challenge for the ensemble's longtime director, Dora Hristova. During the communist era, the government supported the group's international tours and broadcast its performances regularly. The choir became a beloved national symbol. But as in much of the developing world, young people in post-communist Bulgaria have embraced Western pop music to the extent that some say there is more traditional Bulgarian folk music in the United States than in its homeland.
"Now, we're not supported by the television, radio or the state,'' Hristova says in a telephone interview from Sofia. "We earn our living ourselves. It's difficult to survive, and we depend on our concerts abroad, not in the country. We have survived because of our professional qualities and very hard work. We're still at a very high artistic level.''
The Balkans, including Bulgaria, were subject to numerous cultural currents, often brought by conquerors who swept in from the east, such as the Tatars of Central Asia and the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the region for centuries. The Asian influence is readily apparent in Voix Bulgares' clear, vibrato-free, almost metallic timbres. What sets Voix Bulgares apart from Bulgaria's numerous exceptional female vocal groups is that it performs material from Dobrudzha and Sofia, Rodopi, Thrace and the northwestern Danube shore, regions with distinctive vocal traditions. The songs stem from holidays such as Christmas, New Year's Day and the Feasts of Saints Lazarus, Konstantin and Elena. But instead of offering raw folk material, Voix Bulgares presents arrangements by leading composers, creating a captivating avant folk sound.
"Nobody knows how old these songs are,'' Hristova says. "They are ancient melodies. The composers do research, find folkloric melodies and traditional songs, and they arrange them for this choir, creating something new.'
Name of the week
Nine Inch Males, an a cappella group of nine UA students under the direction of Stephen Rotz, a UA graduate assistant in choral conducting, will open for Chapter 6 this week. The group is sometimes known as Nine Inch Males, but the members are looking for a new name. More information about the group, can be found on its Facebook group.
Are they bragging or do they want to change their name as they can't meet expectations...
March 8, 2006
Esoterics ably voice challenging Finnish work
Seattle Post-Intelligenser (WA):
Several times a year, we hear music of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches in performances from Cappella Romana. For two weekends, The Esoterics are offering the chance to hear liturgy from the Orthodox Church of Finland, the "Vigilia" of Einojuhani Rautavaara. The sonorous richness of the Greek and Russian styles, largely sung by men, gave way to full choir sounds and the cool, crystal timbres of Scandinavian choral tradition.
Written in 1971 on commission from the Helsinki Festival and the Orthodox Church of Finland, Rautavaara later adapted his "Vigilia" for concert performance, and it was this that was heard Sunday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina.
The Esoterics are an ideal group to sing this difficult, lengthy, unaccompanied work (more than 80 minutes with intermission). "Vigilia" requires extraordinary pitch sense, particularly when singing in microtones as in the solo liturgical recitations. The 50-member chorus never seemed thrown by this. Rautavaara also uses moments of ghostly whispers, others of almost speech, and glissading tones that mirror the sense of the words. The tonal range was extreme, down to what sounded like impossibly low notes, and strainingly high for the soprano solos, especially hard since much of the singing was quiet.
The music is tonal, sometimes hymnlike in an even, running rhythm rather than in a typical chant style; and much of the work is antiphonal or with solo opening phrases, as one would expect in a service. Of the soloists, bass Will Thayer-Daugherty stood out for the beauty of his voice, its depth and the emotional quality he brought to the music; also conductor Eric Banks, who sang the tenor solos and sounded comfortably familiar with the style.
The fine, well-trained choir singing unusual, absorbing music, however, did lack any sense of devotional fervor, essential to such a work to bring it alive. It seemed that the choir was still needing to attend first and foremost to notes, Finnish words and dynamics, and not yet ready to give it that extra dimension. Only Thayer-Daugherty put this across.
The program, apart from the notes that required a magnifying glass to read with ease, laudably gave all the words of "Vigilia" in Finnish, and under each line its translation into English, an excellent way of making it possible to understand and keep one's place.
March 7, 2006
Old style, new sounds
Contra Costa Times (CA):
First, college campuses. Tomorrow, the world. A cappella, the instrument-free music form popularized by barbershop quartets and glee clubs at the turn of the 20th century, has exploded on the college music scene. It even stars in a new indie documentary. But if you're thinking "Sweet Adeline" or a little shoop shoop, doo-wop, think again.
Modern a cappella is a little Coldplay, a little Boyz II Men and 20,000 college-age singers whose voices can soar -- or sound like a drum set. "They're using voices as instruments, textures, vocal percussion," said Deke Sharon, founder of the Bay Area-based Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. "They've gone from singing Simon and Garfunkel to U2. All of a sudden, everyone's a rock star on campus."
Twenty years ago, a cappella was still a niche choral art practiced by about a hundred amateur and professional groups nationwide. But that was before Bobby McFerrin, Boyz II Men and Rockapella redefined the form. The discovery that you could make music with your body, emulate drums and cymbals with your mouth -- that you didn't have to have a rock band to sound like one -- changed everything. Today, there are more than a thousand collegiate a cappella groups, a five-fold increase in a single decade. And Sharon expects tens of thousands of high schools to follow suit. Many are already there, he said, or on the verge, with a foundation laid by their thriving choral and instrumental music programs.
Nearly everyone who sings a cappella with the groups who perform at UC Berkeley's Sather Gate, for example, had musical training in high school. They may not have sung doo-wop, but they did concert choir or, like former sax man Miguel De Leon, played in the band. De Leon's a vocal percussionist now, providing snares and cymbal sounds for Cal's Artists in Resonance every Monday at noon. "You listen to records and try to make it as real as possible," said De Leon, who graduated in December but still sings with the group. "Everyone's got notes and chords to learn, and you fool around. It's fun." And it's wildly popular with both singers and fans. Cornell University has 18 student-run a cappella groups. Cal has five. And they just keep coming, accompanied by a certain irrepressible wit that plays out in lyrics, choreography and truly inspired names. Yale Law has its Habeas Chorus. Brandeis boasts the Shirley Tempos. And a sense of sheer fun wafts from every stage.
But there's musical integrity, as well as laughs. When USC junior Elissa Weinzimmer, a Campolindo High graduate, dons a black hat and goes into a Michael Jackson moonwalk, the crowd goes nuts. But USC's award-winning a cappella group, Reverse Osmosis, also won the a cappella world's equivalent of a Grammy, the CARA, in 2003. A documentary, about the group, "Rock and R.O.," hits the indie film festival circuit next week. Moviegoers at Florida's inaugural Delray Beach Film Festival will see not only the documentary, directed by USC graduate and Reverse Osmosis groupie Heather Kennedy, but the singers, too. The festival is flying the 17-member troupe out for the debut. And the group -- whose roster also includes Danville's Grace Jackson -- swept the quarterfinals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella last month. The singers are bound for the semifinals at Stanford, where they'll go head-to-head with the UC Berkeley Men's Octet.
Behind all the crowd-pleasing showmanship is music theory, voice training and hours and hours of practice. Members of Cal's Artists in Resonance practice six to 10 hours a week. They use software programs such as Sibelius to arrange scores, said Orinda native Rafi Syed, and share files so they can practice more at home. There's a specific skill set you need for a cappella, said Gene Peterson, who directs choral music at Moraga's Campolindo High, and practice is key. It's not just a matter of channeling Seal or the Eurythmics. The group has to create textures, blend harmonies and create the whole sound, sans drummer and band.
Peterson brought in a cappella expert Mark Stover to help his new a cappella groups learn the art of beatboxing and vocal percussion this winter. "I think of a cappella as the acrobatic form of the vocal arts," said Stover. "You almost have to become a vocal chameleon to make 20 radically different sounds with your mouth. Bobby McFerrin was a key influence in discovering the dynamic possibilities of the body, the subharmonics, the tones you create in the microphone with buzzing."
It's even harder than it sounds, but some people, including Campolindo senior Joe Howard, are naturals. When they do a soft, rhythmic "kshhh" into the microphone, it sounds like a brush hitting a cymbal. A deep, muffled "dbuh" mimics the sound of a kick drum. And those gales of giggles? That would be the sound of the entire Campolindo student body attempting the same feat at an assembly. It's an acquired skill. But the results are contagious.
Estonian Chamber Choir presents original works
The Grand Rapids Press (MI):
Mention contemporary music to many and watch them make the kind of face you'd see if you served them a plate of Brussels sprouts. But in some corners of the world, contemporary composers such as Estonia's Arvo Part are writing contemporary music that sounds new and original but also remarkably familiar, too. "They're writing very original, very fresh sounding music," said conductor Paul Hillier. "It is, to put it bluntly, very rooted in traditional tonality. They've found new ways to use it."
Hillier will lead the celebrated Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in a program of music by Part, Cyrillus Kreek and other more familiar composers on Tuesday in Fountain Street Church. The award-winning professional choir from the capital city of Tallinn is on a 10-city U.S. tour. Its local concert is the group's only appearance in the upper Midwest.
Though the ensemble is just 25 years old, the choir springs from the rich Estonian heritage of choral singing. "There's quite a tradition of massed choir singing, which is remarkably good, musically speaking," said Hillier, an Englishman who has conducted the choir since 2001. "The very fact that this tradition exists explains the willingness of contemporary composers to write for choirs," he said. "In many places, they don't really bother." The 26-voice choir also will perform such pieces as Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecilia" and Francis Poulenc's Mass in G. North American Choral Company's top chamber choir, Caritas, will join the guests to sing a setting of "Locus Iste" by Anton Bruckner.
Though the Estonian Chamber Choir hasn't appeared here previously, the choral company from Grand Rapids first heard the group rehearsing while on tour two years ago in Eastern Europe. "It was such an opportunity," said NACC executive director Jayne Schuitema. "I've been a very big fan of theirs for many years." The Estonian Chamber Choir's recordings have won many awards in Europe, plus four Grammy Award nominations in the United States, though no actual award yet. "That would be nice, too," Hillier said.
Hillier's career is equally eminent. In 1973, he co-founded the Hilliard Ensemble, an internationally regarded chamber music ensemble. In 1992, he founded Theatre of Voices to explore a wide range of vocal music from Renaissance to rural American shape-note singing. Hillier has enjoyed a long collaboration with Part and with contemporary American composer Steve Reich and has written books about both. Though he spends a great deal of time in Estonia, he doesn't speak the language, which like Finnish and Hungarian, is unrelated to nearly all of Europe's languages. "I know words and phrases," he said.
March 4, 2006
Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV):
Ben Schatz is firmly convinced he would bomb as a stand-up comedian. "No one would sit still for it. They would walk out," he says dismissively. But put him in a wig and a gown and call him Rachel? Then Schatz becomes a character he knows as well as the writers of "Will & Grace" must understand Jack and Karen. "Rachel is not a role I'm playing. Rachel is someone I know," he says. When people come to see "Dragapella," they're seeing "80 minutes in the lives of people who have been living for years."
Schatz is co-founder of the Kinsey Sicks, the singing, ultra-fabulous quartet behind "Dragapella," which opens today in the Las Vegas Hilton's Shimmer Cabaret, taking its place in rotation with "Menopause The Musical." "The drag that we do, one of the ways we use it is sort of giving us an ability to say all sorts of (stuff) and get away with it," co-founder Irwin Keller says. "Some of it is biting political satire and some of it is cheap raunch. And some of it is deeply touching, serious stuff. "And people are willing to take that whole journey with us, in part because we present ourselves in a way that's ridiculous and allows people to just go along."
At least the "cheap raunch" part gives hope for a revue that marks a bold departure from anything the tourist corridor has seen in a drag show. Not only do the performers do their own singing, but they manage to name-check James Joyce, Marcel Proust and the '60s cult movie "Barbarella" in the very first song. "We're less fluffy than people sometimes think of as a Vegas show and I think that's good," Schatz says. "I don't think there's a better place for us to be now than Las Vegas. People come from all over looking for something interesting and entertaining." "That would be us," Keller chimes in.
Schatz and Keller had a previous life as attorneys and AIDS activists before their alter egos, Rachel and Winnie, took control of their lives. The group started as a lark when four friends attended a 1993 Bette Midler concert dressed as the Andrews Sisters. Since then, the two have steered a comic idea into a full-time enterprise. The lineup has changed slightly -- Chris Dilley joined in 1998 and Jeff Manabat in 2004 -- but the focus remained on distinctly drawn characters offering elaborate vocal harmonies.
"I think the thing that has to be clear is these guys can sing. The comedy is great; the harmony, fantastic," says director Glenn Casale, who has worked with the group for several years, independent from his current job in the theater department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "People here, they think drag guys can't sing."
"I don't think there's a linear progression from lip-syncing to other things," Keller says of the departure from Vegas shows such as "An Evening at La Cage," in which a comedic host introduces lip-syncing celebrity impersonations. "I don't think you have an opera singer onstage and say, 'Why isn't she tap dancing?' These are different forms."
"Dragapella" has tested Las Vegas several times since 2004, coming in for weekend engagements. Nevada-based producers Paul Reder and Rich Super -- who also backed "Forbidden Vegas" at the Westin Casuarina -- have helped the San Francisco-based troupe achieve its goal of a sit-down run in Las Vegas. "Artistically, it has always been very important to us to go into a place where the real estate market is out of control," Schatz quips.
The four are so committed to Las Vegas, Schatz says they "put a considerable amount of thought and planning" into a new revue, then crowd-tested it in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. They resurrected an old tune about Celine Dion and added a new one about buffets into their mix of song parodies and original tunes. "In writing all these jokes about Vegas we learned even more about our characters," Dilley says.
To get all four Kinseys around a table together is like trying to interview the Marx Brothers -- Marx Sisters? -- as they crack each other up by pondering such things as a double date with "Forever Plaid" ("Forever plowed!" one exclaims) or the idea of a high school version of "Dragapella." "I think part of the chemistry people see in the show is about the fact that we have such fun backstage," Keller says. Though it's not easy for the marketing department to convey on a cab top, Schatz likes the fact that "Dragapella" defies a quick description. "We're not a knock-off of anything," he says. "We're not trying to be like anyone else, and we're not trying to be original. We're just being authentic."
March 2, 2006
Jarreau makes detour to honor Hendricks
Al Jarreau made a long detour to the Big Apple while returning home to Los Angeles from a benefit concert in Columbia, S.C., just to pay tribute to the jazz singer he considers his main mentor - Jon Hendricks. "I wouldn't miss this for anything in the world .... I'd go to the moon for a chance to bow in Jon's direction," Jarreau said backstage after presenting Hendricks with a Beacon Award at a gala benefit Monday night for the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music at The Pierre hotel. Jarreau, 65, who holds a place in Grammy history by winning awards as a jazz, pop and R&B vocalist and is best known for his theme song to the hit TV show "Moonlighting," marked the occasion by singing lyrics he wrote to saxophonist Eddie Harris' funky up-tempo tune "Cold Duck Time."
Hendricks is widely credited with being the father of vocalese, the art of setting lyrics to jazz instrumental standards and then having voices sing the instruments' parts. "I never knew that you could combine such spirit, vitality, intelligence and a gift of gab," said Jarreau, in presenting the award to Hendricks. "I'm still trying to get the beat like Jon. ... He's an amazing vocalist, composer, lyricist, poet, educator, mentor and friend."
Hendricks, 84, who Time Magazine once dubbed the "James Joyce of Jive," said he's "always been a poet" ever since childhood when he helped his father, a Baptist minister, find texts for his sermons. Calling Jarreau "my spiritual son," Hendricks recalled how the younger singer would come almost every night to hear him perform at the Trident club in Sausalito, Calif., and ask lots of questions.
Al "asked me ... what are the rules of scatting and how exactly do you scat? I've answered this question to many singers, but they're not hip enough to really ascertain the answer, but Al took it and ran. ... What I said was: `Well you know the melody, sing the chords, it's that simple?" Hendricks then reprised his performance from last September's "Higher Ground" hurricane relief concert organized by Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, performing the ballad "This Love of Mine" and his protest song "Tell Me the Truth," whose lyrics written in the early '70s still sound relevant today.
The gala also included performances by faculty members and students and a monologue by comedian Bill Cosby. Other Beacon Awards, recognizing jazz musicians who "have uniquely enriched the nation's musical heritage," were given to drummer Roy Haynes, who has performed with jazz stars from Charlie Parker to Chick Corea, and bebop pianist Barry Harris, who has been involved in jazz education around the world. CBS newsman Ed Bradley, who is marking his 25th anniversary as a "60 Minutes" correspondent, received a Beacon Award for his jazz advocacy work.
Harris, in accepting his award, sounded a bittersweet note about jazz getting less respect at home than abroad, taking a swipe at the Recording Academy for holding a separate Grammy Salute to Jazz on Feb. 3 in a small Hollywood theater, several days before the main Grammy awards ceremony. At the salute, pianists Harris, Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson were presented the academy's President's Merit Award.
"It's not right for an artist as recognized as Oscar Peterson ... (who) came in a wheelchair, and they have to go to this little jive theater," said Harris. "It's disgraceful. They didn't mention us on the big Grammys and let us inside. ... They shunted us to the side."
Vianna Boys disappoint
Wichtita Eagle (KS):
An appreciative audience heard a wide-ranging program of short classics, pop songs and folk songs Tuesday from the Vienna Choir Boys. The Choir Boys displayed all those traits that make them so beloved -- pure, angelic boy-soprano voices singing rich but gentle harmonies, a good technique honed at the choir's music school, and a disarming stage presence that included song introductions announced by several boys, and their trademark sailor shirts with black neckerchiefs, black slacks and shiny black shoes.
Perhaps because of the rigors of the road, the performance -- as charming as it tried to be -- often sounded rote. The choristers generated little excitement with their music making, and the pieces -- many just a couple minutes long -- did little to hold our attention. The evening failed to live up to one of the world's grandest traditions of choral singing.
The Vienna Choir Boys was founded in 1498, when the Austrian emperor Maximilian decreed that six boys should be among his coterie of court musicians. For over 400 years the choir boys sang exclusively for the court -- at balls and state functions, at Mass and in private concerts for the emperor. But in the 1920s they began giving public concerts and started touring around the world.
The choir is today a brand name -- famous for recordings and television specials, its singers familiar for their cherubic smiles and cute sailor suits. It is still based in Vienna, but now boasts about young choristers, ages 10 to 14, who are divided into four smaller touring choirs. An ensemble of 26 boys sang at Newman. The sold-out performance was one of a number the group gave around Kansas as part of an eight-week-long U.S. tour.
Some of the songs Tuesday seemed to inspire the young singers more than others -- the "Ave Verum Corpus" by Mozart vibrated with feeling, and Schubert's "Das Grosse Halleluja" was vibrant and dramatic. But whenever the music got a bit complicated -- in the tongue-tying German phrases in the folk song "Der Floh" ("The Flea"), or while navigating the contrapuntal lines in Mozart's "On the Death of a Nightingale," the sound was not as pristine, nor the technique as solid.
Some portions of the concert worked well -- a set of Austrian folk songs were presented with feeling (and with a hopping, clapping, stamping dance by six youngsters who changed into lederhosen). In a couple of novelty songs the boys mimicked monkeys and birds with uncanny accuracy.
But a version of Queen's "Hungarian Rhapsody," though well-sung, was downright strange -- it is, after all, an over-the-top rock anthem. Even the waltzes and polkas that ended the show lacked vigor. I wish some of the program had shed more light on the choir's history -- more Schubert, maybe -- or had let the boys delve into music with real feeling -- a longer a cappella motet or Mass, say -- instead of making them work so hard to entertain.