December 24, 2007
Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1864)
December 21, 2007
Another win for a cappella!
Nick Lachey unveils his secret weapon - a cappella - and proceeds to steal the show with "Flight of the Bumble Bee." Big congratulations to Steve Zegree for the arrangement and surely a nod to the King's Singers for one of their signature pieces
The Cincinnati Post (OH):
Nick Lachey's Cincinnati choral group was dubbed "America's ultimate choir" Thursday night at the end of the NBC four-night reality competition "Clash of the Choirs." The vocal group, formed just six weeks ago, beat out the other two finalists - Patti LaBelle's Philadelphia choir and Blake Shelton's Oklahoma City group.
After the Cincinnati choir performed a sweetly understated version of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," Lachey teared up on the show when praising the group. "These people have blown my mind," he said. "To be so fearless and so courageous in front of millions of people watching on TV ... it's incredible. I've done this 10 years and I'm petrified. These people have taught me so much."
The choir's victory means a $250,000 donation for Cincinnati Children's Hospital. In a surprise, it was also announced that each of the four other choirs would receive $50,000 for a charitable project in their hometowns. Kelly Rowland 's Houston choir departed on Tuesday, followed by Michael Bolton's New Haven, Conn., group on Wednesday.
The Cincinnati group also performed an uplifting version of Earth Wind and Fire's "Sing a Song" on the show. But the Thursday performances were just for show, as the winner apparently was determined from viewer voting after Wednesday's edition. That night the Cincinnati choir performed a show stopping a cappella version of "Flight of the Bumblebee." It was a risk- taking, tremendously experimental number and a challenging production for a recently formed amateur group. It was in sharp contrast to LaBelle's more traditional, yet powerful, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the other strong Wednesday night performance.
LaBelle was not exactly a gracious loser. Some quotes from today's Philadelphia Inquirer, "It was a ripoff - somebody stole it from me" ... "I'm still a winner, you know what I mean? I'm not taking anything away from Nick Lachey" ... "I'm 63, he's about 2". ... "It's called 'Clash of the Choirs,' not 'Clash of the Popularity.'"
Perhaps the unseen and unsung hero for the Cincinnati group was Steve Zegree, a Western Michigan University jazz professor, who came up with the arrangements and coached the choir. His work creatively stretched the traditional definition of a choral group. Indeed, his scat-singing "Bumblebee" owed more to a Bobby McFerrin-style jazz ensemble than a choral group.
NBC extended the Thursday finale to two hours after strong ratings for the previous three shows. Nationally, the show averaged 7.9 million viewers. Cincinnati's reputation as a strong reality show market likely helped in the viewer voting. In this market, the show had been No. 1 all week in its time slot, pulling in an 11.7 rating Wednesday on WLWT-TV (Channel 5). That translates to about 103,000 tri-state households watching.
The 20-member choir, selected from about 350 people who showed up to audition at Walnut Hills High School in November, was a diverse group ranging from professionals to college students. There were choir directors, teachers, a nurse, fast-food workers and salesmen.
The show provided the area with possibly its best positive publicity in years. In fact, one of the last national honors for the area also involved music as Esquire magazine named Cincinnati one of "Ten Cities That Rock" in a 2004 piece.
The show also helped Lachey, raised in College Hill and a graduate of the School For Creative and Performing Arts, endear himself to his hometown. The former 98 Degrees member came across as a caring, down-to-earth guy after he and ex-wife Jessica Simpson had been tabloid fodder for months during their divorce. "America thanks you. Cincinnati thanks you," Lachey said to his choir at the close of the show, as they celebrated on stage hugging, dancing and pumping their fists in the air.
Tonic Sol-fa annual holiday show
Sioux City Journal (IA):
Plastic Santa? Check. Greg in tights? Check. Improvisational humor? Check.
For the men of Tonic Sol-fa, Christmas means crafting a show that will please the faithful but entice newcomers. It's a balancing act, says Jared Dove, the group's bass. "It can't be so different they don't recognize who we are." Still, says lead singer Shaun Johnson, "our goal is to make every year completely different. We're four guys singing a cappella who are from the Midwest. How different can that be?"
In the past, the four have used huge video screens, flown through the air, dropped snow from the ceiling and, oh, yeah, introduced Plastic Santa -- a cheap Christmas decoration that talks (or plays ventriloquist dummy for Greg Bannwarth). The goofy bit started years ago in Durand, Wisc., and just stuck. Fans loved seeing Plastic Santa so much he has since become the quartet's conduit for charity. In the past, miniature versions were auctioned to help local organizations. Now, says Bannwarth, it's almost a given he's along for the ride. Ditto a bit in which Bannwarth wears tights.
"I don't even remember how that got started," Bannwarth says. "We saw something and thought it would be funny if I wore tights." It was and ever since fans have come up to the singer and said, "What, no tights tonight?" "It's another thing you throw in that, hopefully, people really laugh at," he says. "It's the same with Plastic Santa. They'll ask you about it, whether they like it or not."
For this year's show (which has been on the road since Thanksgiving and comes to the Orpheum Theatre Saturday), they'll offer plenty of songs from their latest holiday CD, "On Top of the World." A companion to their PBS special, it features two original songs and a whole bunch of Tonic Sol-fa covers. "So many people said they wanted to hear the songs live," says Johnson. "So we decided to build the show around it."
That special -- which first aired last year -- has become such a hit it will be broadcast for the next three years. Additionally, it'll be seen in international markets, introducing Tonic Sol-fa to yet another audience.
The quartet realized its impact when fans flooded their Website, ordering CDs, last year. "It was insane," Johnson says. "They told us we'd get an average of 12 phone calls after each airing. We got so many all of us had to go in and fill orders for a week. We had fulltime people working almost two months filling orders and answering calls." "We still have orders coming from places we've never been," Dove says. "And that's just from our site. We don't know who's ordering from Amazon or iTunes."
As a result, those new fans are flocking to the group's stage shows. "They probably didn't come out to catch the show initially," Dove says. "After they see the TV show," says Mark McGowan, the fourth member of the team, "they want to see us live."
That impact has pushed Tonic Sol-fa to another level. Now, says Bannwarth, "we're meeting with movie production houses and TV production houses trying to figure a way to get our music wherever we can. We've been able to use the PBS special and its success to get in the door with other people." That results in tie-ins (with Wells' Blue Bunny and Tastefully Simple among them), corporate appearances and sponsorships. Major League Baseball is a likely partner; satellite radio is, too.
Before they even began the 20-city tour for this year's holiday show, the Tonic Sol-fa four recorded two tracks for a new album. "We're going to take it a little piece at a time," Dove says. "We want to make sure it's done correctly."
That's one of the benefits of being an independent music act. The four (ranging in age from 31 to 36) are able to set their own ground rules and goals. "What we do is just so flexible," McGowan says. "It balances so well." "It comes from pushing ourselves," Johnson adds. "If we were still doing 300 shows a year, we would have hung it up a long time ago."
Thanks to the special's exposure, they can work less, but cover more territory. Already, they've got the division of work down to a science. Dove handles the Website and the group's on-line presence; McGowan is the financial guru; Bannwarth is the production expert. "And I just sit around," Johnson says with a laugh.
"No," Dove corrects. "He's very good at looking ahead and setting goals." "We haven't had this 'American Idol' overnight success," Bannwarth says. "We wouldn't know what that would be like. But we have had goals and every time we achieve one, we're so excited. At the same time, we're looking at the next thing we can push. If we ever get to the point where we don't grow, we'll quit."
Now, though, they're too busy with the holiday show. After a few days off during Christmas, they go back on the road and start all over again. "It has always been fun," Bannwarth says. "As much as we like touring the rest of the year, it's never quite like the Christmas show. There, we get huge crowds, we get to step it up a few notches in terms of cost and, hopefully, we get a show that's tight enough we can really rock it."
December 20, 2007
The Singing Christmas tree
I have never actually seen a singing Christmas tree and there's something about the concept I find rather - how shall we say - charming. So every Christmas now I post a photo of a different tree and here is the Central Pentecostal Tabernacle of Edmonton, Canada. The tree stands 35 feet high, is illuminated with 4,785 lights and thousands of pieces of tinsel and fits a choir of 125.
I'm curious about the best way to place the different voice parts when the choir members are vertical rather than at the usual same level. Do the singers at the top of the tree have to direct their voices downward? Anybody out there ever sung in a tree?
December 19, 2007
LA Times review of Clash of the Choirs
Los Angeles Times (CA):
'CHOIRS,' FEEL-GOOD HOLIDAY FARE
By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Produced by BBC Worldwide, which also brought you "Dancing With the Stars," "Choirs" has been based on a "format" created by the Swedish company Friday TV. ("Our goal is to be Scandinavia's market leading supplier of TV-formats," it says on its website.) Celebrity singers Michael Bolton, Patti LaBelle, Nick Lachey, Kelly Rowland and Blake Shelton returned to their hometowns (New Haven, Conn.; Philadelphia; Cincinnati; Houston; and Oklahoma City, respectively) to organize "amateur" choirs from the ordinary citizenry and in short order turn total strangers into well-oiled, professional-quality performing units.
Positioned as a kind of extended Christmas special (with "songs guaranteed to put you in the holiday mood"), the show is thick with inspirational uplift and regional spirit. Its arms are stretched wide enough to hold "the troops," God and Hurricane Katrina and the whole nation. "Living in America / Got to have a celebration," the massed choirs, 100 strong, sang to open the show. The winner gets to donate $250,000 to a favorite local charity.
Although the participants have been obviously chosen for their ability -- this is a competition, after all -- they have not necessarily been chosen for ability alone. There is plenty of bite-sized back story, here, the kind of just-add-tears instant "narrative" the viewer fleshes out himself. Here are a father and daughter, whose mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Here's a lady who's 77. (She has been dubbed the "Silver Fox.") This man thought he was out but at the last minute he was in. This woman got her first kiss from Nick Lachey when they were kids. ("Aaah-haaah, haah, heh," said Nick when she introduced herself.) These two guys are in the Army. One woman just lost 140 pounds, another was a victim of domestic abuse. This one survived Katrina. "Feel good" always feels a little better when there's a little bad in the mix.
Apart from the usual audition footage of hopefuls who have no sense at all of their limitations and are therefore fair game for our derision, the show is a love fest. (Popular audition songs: "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the biggest hit of whatever star the applicant was singing for.) In place of the tribunal of doom that chairs most such competitions, "Choirs" oddly asks the choirmasters themselves to comment on the performances of the other teams, with the not-unexpected result that nothing is offered but praise. "I feel if I don't say something positive, somebody's going to throw something at my head," said Rowland, possibly only half-joking.
It would be easy enough to mock the thing -- for its relentless "Up With People" positivity, its manipulative streak and most especially its position at the leading edge of the new writer-less TV universe. (Though it was surely coincidence, I couldn't help but notice the timely lines in Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," sung by "Team Bolton," about Tommy, whose "union's been on strike," keeping him idle.) The performances, highly choreographed with hip thrusts and shoulder rolls and theatrically outstretched hands, do not prize subtlety; there is no lack of the punishing melisma that today has become musical code for "feeling it" -- never sing one note where six will do.
But why cavil? Everyone here is likable, the celebrities (even the slightly odd ones) and the ordinary folk, who come in a wider variety of shapes and sizes and ages than these shows usually allow. Its silliness does not make it any less grand. There is something irresistible in that massed vocal sound, something primal in such a big, cooperative human noise that transcends both the material and the commercial occasion. As Labelle said after her choir got through with "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" (the night's most obvious selection and best arrangement), "I feel all good."
December 15, 2007
A dose of Chanticleer cheer
San Jose Mercury News (CA):
We come each year, the comfort seekers, back to Chanticleer for a dose of the group's Christmas-time vibe. For inoculation against all the bad news in the world and the darkness of the season: Tell us it's OK, Chanticleer! Tell us!
Which the 12-man chorus does, each and every time, with "A Chanticleer Christmas," its annual holiday program, which rolled into Stanford University's Memorial Church on Tuesday and continues on through the Bay Area in the coming days. It is a warm sonic bath, a healing message of hope and, best of all, a show.
Tuesday's remarkable concert, presented by Stanford Lively Arts, began with the great sacred space darkened, the chorus processing toward the altar, intoning Gregorian chant, each member holding a candle. Simple symbolism: Twelve lights in the darkness, these singers, just as there were 12 tribes, 12 apostles. Our baptism by sound was about to begin.
It was a march through the centuries and across the continents, a dozen or more ways to sing about the Christmas story: Perotin (song as free ornamentation) and Josquin des Pres (song as tapestry), as well as a 17th century Mexican guaracha by Juan Garcia de Zéspedes (a song of the streets, vivacious). That was followed by ravishing Bruckner ("Virga Jesse") and a 20th century carol by Jan Sandström, a Swede, whose rarefied harmonies seemed to spin and drift inside some faraway, spiraling chamber.
That was the concert's first half: a progression toward the spectacular. And it got me thinking: How does Chanticleer do it? Concert after concert, season after season, even when it undergoes extensive personnel changes in the off-season, this chorus maintains an amazing consistency of sound, blend, polish and soul. It can be so good, as it was Tuesday, as to be shocking.
The wizard behind the curtain, as most Chanticleer fans know, is Joseph Jennings, who joined the chorus in 1983 as a countertenor (a male singer who sails up into falsetto range) and has been its music director for most of the time since. He isn't seen by the public all that much, except, sometimes, at the end of concerts, when, dapperly dressed and toting a fancy cane, he joins his singers on stage and takes a bow.
He didn't do that Tuesday, but his hand was all over the group sound and the choice of repertory. After intermission, that included a 20th century setting, by English composer Kenneth Leighton, of "The Coventry Carol," which dates to the 16th century. It tells the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, in which Herod orders the killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem.
Gruesome, right? Not as sung by Jennings' 12 apostles, who created an almost crazily beautiful group effect. Do you know the Beach Boy's "Pet Sounds"? Triple the ethereal impact of Brian Wilson's masterpiece, and you've got an idea of what happened Tuesday. I suppose some people might object to the way in which sound trumps text in some (not all) Chanticleer performances, but you won't hear that criticism from me.
The concert ended with a dozen Christmas songs, most of them arranged, appropriately, by Jennings, whose setting of "O come, All Ye Faithful" went spinning through one modulation after the next, with the hippest voice leading and chords. You could imagine Jennings in his studio, pen in hand, laughing, figuring out what to do here and here, drawing on all the music he loves: doo-wop, black gospel, Broadway, jazz, madrigals and more.
It wasn't a mishmash. It was one big fabulously blended tonic of Christmas cheer, served up by Chanticleer. They did it again.
British government launches national singing program
The Daily Telegraph (UK):
Like Christmas pudding, singing out loud is something many of us indulge in just once a year, at carol concerts. And even then we don't exactly throw ourselves into it. For while those who won school singing cups are giving it all they've got in the final chorus of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, the rest of us recall the pained look on our music teachers' faces and emit a suitably sotto voce sound, for fear of offending our fellow congregation members' ears.
For us, then, the damage has been done and, in true Hunchback of Notre Dame fashion, we are condemned to dwell forever in the singing shadows, hiding our misshapen vocal efforts from the world. But while it may be too late for us, there's a chance that today's generation of schoolchildren may be spared the same fate.
A new Government initiative entitled Sing Up! is putting £40 million into the promotion of singing in primary schools over the next four years. This will pay for the instruction of non-musically-trained teachers, the creation of 24 region-wide singing programmes and choral initiatives, plus a national online songbook which will play selected tunes and provide accompanying classroom exercises.
Time was, of course, when all these tasks would have been carried out by the school's full-time music teacher - usually a formidable female with a distinctly percussive way with the piano keys. But not any more.
"The days of the permanent primary school music teacher are long gone," says Caroline Sindall of the charity Voices Foundation. "For many years now, music has been the poor cousin compared to other subjects, and that has meant generations of children have missed out on the beneficial effects of music generally and of singing in particular."
Singing also appeals to cash-strapped schools because it involves large numbers of pupils all at once. Whereas learning the violin takes time, money and individual tuition, belting out Morning Has Broken can involve several hundred pupils at one go. Furthermore, as well as being a mass participation event, singing offers stacks of spin-off benefits for the individuals involved.
"Singing in class is something I got a great deal from," says pop star Jamelia, who attended Kingshurst City Technology College in Birmingham. "It really helped to build my confidence and taught me how to express myself better."
And don't forget the academic benefits, either. "Singing can be used to improve motor skills and language development, as well as cognitive abilities in maths," says celebrated composer Howard Goodall (ex-Stowe and Oxford). "The skills needed for singing - among them listening and co-ordination - also help develop the brain. Singing also builds a child's self-esteem, promotes teamwork irrespective of age, gender and background, celebrates diversity, facilitates self-expression - and is just plain fun."
But it's not simply a matter of teachers switching on the Sing Up! computer songbook and putting their feet up for the rest of the lesson. "Almost invariably, the best school choirs or choral societies have an energetic and charismatic teacher at their head," says Bette Gray-Fow, an experienced schools director of music and former lecturer in education at the Open University.
"People talk about the importance of inclusive teaching, but one of the very hardest challenges is to persuade boys to get involved in singing. While reluctant to sing in mixed choirs - because of girls teasing them or embarrassment over breaking voices - many teenage boys enjoy singing in all-male environments, such as barbershop quartets, which are quite disciplined and involve lots of camaraderie.
"The important thing for both sexes, though, is for teachers to emphasise that singing is a skill and not a gift," she says. "You need to show pupils the proper way to stand and breathe; they need to be taught how to sing up rather than out. And to sing in a register that suits their voice, rather than straining it. Help children acquire the techniques of singing and you're giving them a hobby for life."
Not to mention a glimpse of the divine, says Alun Jones, head teacher of St Gabriel's School in Newbury, Berks, a private school for 500 girls (aged three-18). "The beauty of music lies in the fact that it is a universal language of harmony that people of all ages and ethnicity can connect with on any level," he declares. "Even girls who remain somewhat sceptical about religion can derive much more from music than they initially thought possible. I believe that where words fail, music speaks - and feeds our soul on a daily basis."
As it's so close to Christmas I will allow myself to imagine a world where all the governments spent such large sums of money on helping kids to sing. Imagine how societies would benefit if just some of the money spent on the military was used instead for our children wellbeing. Kudos to the British taxpayers for spending their money so wisely. Our President meanwhile just vetoed a bill that would help provide health insurance for kids…
Minimum Wage Closes Off-Broadway
Minimum Wage, the Off-Broadway beat-box a cappella musical featuring the songs of Sean Altman and the LaGreca Brothers, concludes its run Dec. 15. Minimum Wage began previews Sept. 28 and officially opened Oct. 20 at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street. The production played a total of 13 previews and 30 regular performances. The Off-Broadway run was produced by the LaGreca brothers and Minimum Wage LLC.
The musical features Jeff LaGreca, Charlie LaGreca, Tony Daussat, Elena M. Schloss and Bill Caleo, who are not only the actors, but also serve as their own beat-box instruments. The award-winning group has performed on Nickelodeon, the Food Network, the Fox Network and Comedy Central.
Minimum Wage is described as "an a cappella musical in which five hapless staffers of a Big Brother-type fast food chain attempt to initiate new trainees (the audience) into the wonders of Hamburgerology. Working their way from the bottom all the way to the middle, these underachieving fast-food employees spend their days experiencing psychopathic French fry hallucinations and the occasional sci-fi spatula battle. [Song titles include] 'Kooky The Happy Burger Klown' (an upbeat hypochondriac circus tune), 'G-R-I Double-L' (a boy-meets-GRILL pop, serenade) and 'Balls' (a melodic motto about taking life by the…oh you know)."
December 14, 2007
Clash of the Choirs promo video
Here’s a promo for the upcoming Clash of the Choirs TV show. I'm not quite sure what to make of this program and I'm sure there are some who will brush it off as inconsequential but anything that helps promote group singing is fine by me. There may not be any great art being created but hopefully it will be entertaining and encourage younger folks that singing in a choir can be cool.
December 13, 2007
Reasons To Sing the Changes
The Sun (UK):
We wish you a vocal Christmas – because it should help ensure a happy New Year. According to researchers at Western Ontario University, Canada, singing can help lift depression. And closer to home, as we report above, a choir is proving to be a canny cure for people with asthma and other serious breathing problems.
Here Christopher Browning explains why there are lots of good reasons to sing out.
Because singing tones muscles at the back of the throat, it has been shown to give the long-suffering partners of snorers a silent night. Alise Ojay, who headed a study into its benefits at the University of Exeter, says: “Surgical interventions to treat snoring include removing tissue from the upper throat or toughening it by creating scar tissue. “Singing offers a harmless, healthy, noninvasive, inexpensive, even enjoyable way to restore the throat’s tone.”
For more information, see singingforsnorers.com
Every parent knows that singing a lullaby can calm a grumpy child, but a study at the University of Western Sydney found that it can also soothe desperately ill infants.Researchers discovered songs help babies in intensive care cope with their life-saving treatment. They say songs help tots maintain normal behavioural development. They are less irritable, upset and tearful. Dr Stephen Malloch says: “It’s likely the babies who received music therapy used up less energy when compared with the babies who did not receive the therapy. “If a baby is less irritable and cries less, this has implications for rate of healing and weight gain – two significant factors which contribute to the length of a hospital stay.”
Songs from our childhoods appear to break through the barriers of dementia. Canadian scientists found that patients with severe Alzheimer’s, who did not respond to other stimulus, were able to recognise songs from their youth and join in. If nurses played a tune incorrectly one would screw up her face and complain, going some way to proveing that the areas of the brain which retain musical memories are not affected by the condition. Boffins hope the discovery will lead to music therapies to help patients with dementia.
Companies use songs to help build teamwork and loyalty. Computer giant IBM has rehashed an American military tune while cash till manufacturer NCR has created its own version of The Beatles’ Back In The USSR to encourage employees to sing from the same hymn sheet. Advocates of business-bop claim that upbeat company songs are designed to stress youthful energy and a can-do attitude. They are widely used in the US and Japan. But, and this won’t surprise you, Warwick University discovered many British workers found company songs an embarrassment.
American health campaigners are using song to help smokers stub out. Neighbourhood choirs have been formed to promote the benefits of quitting and to encourage a buddy system where on-song choir members help each other beat their nicotine addiction. A two-year pilot project cut smoking rates from 34 to 27 per cent across three mainly African-American neighbourhoods, while smoking rates in comparable areas fell by just one per cent over the same period. A key feature in this initiative was a Gospelfest, where each choir included an antismoking song in its repertoire.
Listening to a choir could help you shake off coughs and colds. Researchers at Frankfurt University, Germany, asked volunteers to listen to choral music and used saliva tests to measure hormone levels before and after the performance. Levels of cortisol, a hormone known to suppress immune system response, was much lower after the show. Cortisol undermines the body’s ability to produce T cells which fight infection. High levels of cortisol are also linked to blood pressure and blood sugar problems.
The same researchers found joining in a singsong lowers stress. Some studies have shown that singing releases the love hormone oxytocin, which is released by both sexes during orgasm – and researchers at Canterbury Christ Church University found choir members feel more upbeat after singing.
It's always fun for me to once and awhile read the British tabloids and The Sun is one of the biggest. Nobody does tabloids like the English! I do know somebody who could benefit from the Singing For Snorers CDs... And fun to to see some old favourite words that are not used here in the US like in the above use of "boffins". Such a lovely word.
December 12, 2007
One more Grammy nomination
I missed a recent a cappella Grammy nomination. Sweet Honey In The Rock has been nominated for Best Musical Album For Children for their latest release "Experience 101". Somewhat surprisingly they have not yet won a previous Grammy award.
Steve Zegree involved with Clash of the Choirs
Our friend Dr Steve Zegree, the highly-regarded chairperson of Jazz Studies and Professor of Music at Western Michigan University, has been involved in the preparation and rehearsal of one of the choirs that will be competing on NBC’s "Clash of the Choirs". He arranged most of the music for and rehearsed the ensemble from Cincinnati that will represent (pop singer) Nick Lachey. We wish him good luck.
The other directors working with the choirs are Gary Eckert, Kim Burse, John Stanley and
December 11, 2007
Review - King's Singers Christmas
New York Sun:
Within the space of a week, New York heard the two most renowned a cappella groups in the world: Chanticleer and the King's Singers. The former is a 12-man ensemble from San Francisco; the latter is a six-man ensemble from England (King's College, Cambridge). They both sang Christmas programs, Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum, and the King's Singers at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, not too far from the museum.
The King's Singers appeared on Saturday night, under the auspices of Great Performers at Lincoln Center. When they walked out from the wings, they were greeted by huge and sustained applause — the kind of applause usually reserved for opera stars or virtuosos. (And the King's Singers are, in a way, virtuosos.) They were founded in 1968, and their personnel keeps changing. But their essential character remains the same.
I remember when the lead countertenor, David Hurley, and the bass, Stephen Connolly, were new. Now they're veterans. And they make splendid bookends for the group. Each owns a beautiful voice, and each sings with exceptional smarts and pleasure.
According to the booklet in our hands, the King's Singers were giving a "Holiday Program." But these words fooled no one. And the singers, in their remarks to the audience, freely said "Christmas program" and "Christmas concert." One of them even said that, in this hectic season, the group intended to give us a "Christmas vocal massage."
They began with a piece long associated with them, "Totus Tuus" by Henryk Górecki, written for a visit by Pope John Paul II to Poland. This is a piece of extraordinary beauty, craftsmanship, purity, joy, and devotion. From the King's Singers, the opening cry of "Maria!" was arresting. And, as they continued, they gave the piece its due. They sang with unity, balance, taste — an awareness both musical and spiritual. They gauged the reverberation of the church surely.
And I should mention a significant fact: The King's Singers are famous maintainers of pitch. Throughout this concert, they did very little sagging, or sharping, for that matter. This makes a big difference in a choral performance (and others).
For the remainder of the concert's first half, the group alternated between movements of Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli" and sacred songs by Max Reger. Palestrina wrote his mass in 1567, in order to prove to skeptical authorities that polyphony — this increasingly complex style — did not obscure words. He proved this brilliantly. Reger was born three and a half centuries after Palestrina, but he revered early music, and wrote with a timeless religious sensibility.
So, the King's Singers bounced back and forth: between Palestrina's polyphony and Reger's homophony, between Latin words and German. The group projected a holiness without being precious or overawed. They sang reverently, but did not treat the music as fragile. Underneath the church — or very near — you could hear the subway rumble. Even this didn't spoil the atmosphere. In fact, the rumbling was almost comforting. Would it be heresy to suggest that this Palestrina-Reger stretch — for all its exquisiteness, for all its undoubted excellence — was a little — just a wee bit — dull? If so, I am guilty.
After intermission, the King's Singers sang Christmas songs and carols, old and new. First came "Veni, Veni Emmanuel," which was straightforward, rather masculine — direct. Later, the "Coventry Carol" was both haunting and a little startling. That is still a somewhat freaky piece, all these centuries on.
Bo Holten is a Danish composer, born 1948, and his "Nowell sing we now" is a worthy item. It uses English and Latin, and neatly incorporates the "Coventry Carol." The great Estonian Arvo Pärt was represented, by his "Bogoróditsye Dyévo" ("Virgin Mother of God") from 1990. This piece is quick, lithe, joyous. I would very much like to hear it again; it went by so fast.
The singers closed their printed program with a piece by Ariel Ramírez, an Argentine in his late 80s: "La Peregrinaçion," from "Navidad nuestra." Here, the men were almost swinging, jazz-like, and they enjoyed themselves immensely — as they usually do. As they enjoy what they're doing, so do you, in the audience.
This is a smooth, smooth group, in their matching outfits. (On Saturday night, they wore a Christmassy red tie.) Yet "smooth" may imply a glibness of which the King's Singers are not guilty. They sang a single encore, a mixture of "Take Five" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" (really). Very smooth, and very cool, and very King's Singers.
December 10, 2007
Harmony in puberty
Baltimore Sun (MD):
The day Brian Oakey's voice broke, so did his heart. The 12-year-old was in the midst of a recital; his solo was Mozart's Laudate Dominum. During the long instrumental opening, he breathed deeply, then braced himself to unleash that first soaring soprano note.
"Instead, all I heard was ahhhhhhrgh" - a rasping sound, as though he were gargling air. "It was like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together."
Somehow he choked his way through the rest of the song, but his child's voice - which had made old ladies gasp, and won him star status in the Maryland State Boychoir - never fully came back to him. Brian, who lives in Roland Park, spent much of the next several months sobbing on other choristers' shoulders, oblivious to his mother's promise that one day he might develop into a strong tenor.
"I had something beautiful, and then it was gone," said Brian, who is now 14. "It's just hard to get over that."
Lucky for him, the Maryland Boychoir is one of a small but growing number of the traditional singing groups that sees young performers through the trauma of voice change, and all the pubescent discord that comes with it. The group has even formed a separate Changed Voice Choir, where the repertoire includes barbershop and glee club numbers meant for mature male singers. There, croaking adolescents can get their confidence back.
Boy choirs - which focus on classical church music - generally ask their members to leave when their voices start to falter and crack, or else transfer them into another singing group for adults. The transitioning male voice is so unpredictable that it is nearly impossible to train; in the past, some choir directors have recommended that boys give up entirely and just go play the handbells for a while, until the worst is over. But "we couldn't abandon them just when they needed us most," said Frank Cimino, artistic director of the Maryland State Boychoir, which has been retaining older singers for 15 years, almost since the group began.
Selected from across the region through competitive auditions, many of the choristers join up as third- and fourth-graders; by their teenage years, they've been involved for half their lives, attending rehearsals twice a week, going to choir camp, touring the country and the world. Taking away this musical camaraderie at a time when so many other changes are happening simply seemed cruel to Cimino, who was asked to leave his own cathedral boy choir at the tender age of 14.
Now he doesn't mind that his older kids stick out at boy choir festivals, nor does he yell when they occasionally quaver or squeak. Members of his elite tour group - about 35 boys - range from earnest little kids with chubby cheeks and honest-to-goodness cowlicks to towering teenagers with carefully tousled rock star hair, who swill Gatorade and wear T-shirts that say "Do I look like I care?"
Classical musicians have long cherished the voices of young boys for their laser-like intensity and smooth, rounded tone, which female contemporaries can't match. Also, there is something compelling about the vehicle: a gang of imps whose hygienic habits are hinted at by the Maryland Boychoir's handbook, which emphasizes the importance of brushing teeth. Somehow all of their grubbiness disappears in song. A chorus of young boys can evoke a host of angels.
But what really makes a boy's voice "a miracle," Cimino says, is the fact that "it doesn't last." It is beautiful because it is ephemeral: Third-graders who begin as sopranos in his choir will be baritones and basses soon enough. In adolescence, the boy's angelic voice descends into something merely human, and in a sense the sinking of the male range parallels the fall of man. After the hormonal flood that deepens his voice - by lengthening and thickening the vocal folds - a boy is no longer innocent in other ways. Showboating cherubs are suddenly brooding teenagers.
"With the little guys, their biggest problem is having a history test tomorrow," Cimino says. "The older guys, they really have problems." Fitting in at school. Fighting with parents. Girls. It's fitting that the larynx, the organ where all the vocal growth and change is taking place, is also known as the Adam's apple - the place where the forbidden fruit supposedly lodged in Adam's throat.
Centuries ago, promising young male singers were castrated in order to preserve their voices; the mere mention of these "castrati" sends the members of the choir into fits of giggles. But even the manliest among them admit to fighting hard to keep their high notes, by mouthing the loftiest parts, or developing a falsetto. Those whose voices changed late counted their blessings.
"I was 6-foot-5 and still singing soprano," said 27-year-old Stephen Holmes, a Maryland Boychoir alumnus who also helps to direct. "I thought that was pretty great." But, eventually, his voice went, too. Though the change is inevitable, it is also unpredictable. Some boys slide easily into a lower register, but others develop temporary holes in the middle of their range, or can only hit a handful of notes. "Some voices shatter like a piece of pottery," Cimino says.
Egos shatter, too. It is bewildering to lose control, for months or even years, of a talent that has been cultivated since childhood, and there is no guarantee that a boy's voice will still be supple and lustrous in maturity. At the very least, the older boys must give up the melody in most songs, singing in the background instead.
Choir directors have made a study of the mystery of voice change, with little success. Henry Leck, the founder of the Indianapolis Children's Choir, even persuaded several choristers to let doctors stick strobe cameras down their noses so he could watch their vocal folds in action. He published an instructional video, The Boy's Changing Voice: Take the High Road, and now advocates that choir directors avoid negative words like crack and break to describe the process of voice change. Leck's preferred verb? Mutate.
Cimino tries to be as gentle as possible when he takes boys aside to say it's time to leave the soprano section. Some boys take the news in stride; others, like Brian Oakey, experience something like grief.
After rehearsal once a week, the older boys stay behind after the little ones leave, and the old church basement where practices are held is filled with rumbling voices. A shaggy-haired boy fingers a few notes of Elton John's Tiny Dancer on the piano. No one tries to trip or pinch each other, the way the younger boys do. These guys are very cool - so cool, in fact, that every now and then a pint-sized soprano will pretend he can't nail the high notes anymore in the hopes of joining them.
This is the Changed Voice Choir, and their sound is beautiful - in addition to performing with the younger kids, they have separate concerts in which they sample everything from Celtic mouth music and Gregorian chants to spirituals and standards from Broadway shows.
They didn't always sound this good. When Cimino debuted the group, "Sometimes I wanted to put a bag over my head." It takes patience to tame the adolescent voice, in all its creaky peculiarity, and to cope with the adolescent personality - to tolerate their moods, recognize their vulnerability and convince them he'd be there if they ever needed help. It's worth it to keep the teenagers singing. Once boys join the Changed Voice Choir they hardly ever quit, making time, in between rugby practice and homework, to commute to practice.
Across the country, more and more boy choirs are offering similar programs, as the onset of adolescence gets earlier, and as boy choirs - faced with competition from an ever-increasing number of extracurricular activities for children - confront dwindling membership. But there are still plenty of traditionalists who cite practical reasons for bidding adieu to the older boys - keeping them on delays certain necessities, like learning to sing with girls in mixed choirs.
For their part, the gentlemen of the Changed Voice Choir would rather sing to girls. They're not a bit shy about serenading outside of movie theaters and elsewhere. "That's how I got my girlfriend," 16-year-old Sean Northcraft, a baritone from Anne Arundel County, revealed.
The boys still miss their old voices, especially at Christmas time, when they can no longer manage the floating melodies of the hymns and carols honoring the most perfect of boys. But this lingering sorrow, and all the rest of the joy and terror and strangeness of adolescence, helps bring about another, quieter transformation. The boys begin to experience the transporting emotions that propel art. And so they are no longer mere instruments to be arranged in song. They are musicians.
December 8, 2007
2008 GRAMMY a cappella nominations
Once again a cappella is represented in the Grammys with several nominations. Congratulations to Charles Bruffy and his two choirs, The Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Bach Choir, whose recording of Grechaninov has been nominated for five Grammys including Best Classical Album, Best Choral Performance, Best Surround Sound Album, Best Engineered Album, Classical and ‘Producer of the Year, Classical.’ The Mormon Tabernacle Choir have received two Grammy nominations for their newest release, "Spirit of The Season." The album was nominated for Best Classical Crossover Album as well as Best Engineered Classical Album. The Soweto Gospel Choir was nominated for African Spirit in the Best Traditional World Music Album.
December 7, 2007
Sing the Season
A cappella means “from the chapel,” and often connotes a reverent approach to singing, even if the songs themselves are not. Barbershop quartets and other such groups often aspire to an aural blend in which the vowel sounds are perfectly matched among the singers, who also breathe in unison.
The Bobs, an instruments-free quartet who performed at Caffé Lena last Saturday, have no such blend. And there’s no doubt, after the program they presented, that they’d be kicked out of the chapel. But their four very distinctive voices go together the way an orchestra blends, making a virtue out of the contrasting sounds.
Bass Richard Greene has a molasses quality to his voice: sweet but persistent, and he sings with a jazzy edge. Amy Engelhardt’s voice can be brassy or gentle or even quasi-operatic, as in “Disappointment Pants,” an original Bobs song about, as they put it, “an imaginary spaghetti western.” She hits impressive high notes, while Dan Schumacher often cranks into a falsetto that goes higher still—when he’s not backing a song with astonishing percussion effects. So it was only natural that he was given the lead vocal in Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “But I Was Cool,” which has at the heart of its refrain a hip kind of keening.
Then there’s Matthew Stull, a Bobs co-founder (with Greene) who has an excellent vocal presence when singing lead, yet switches easily into backup when needed. He was particularly effective in “The Tight Pants Tango,” an ode to ringing-cellphone retrieval that’s featured on the group’s new CD, Get Your Monkey Off My Dog.
The Christmas program started brilliantly—literally, with “Fifty Kilowatt Tree,” a Greene-penned celebration of decorative excess. Other holiday songs peppered the show, some of them—“Christmas in L.A.,” “Yuleman vs. the Anti-Claus” among them—from their Too Many Santas CD. Awaiting recording are their rewrite of “Eight Days a Week,” an unexpectedly hilarious tribute to the flaming hanukiah, and a not-for-the-uptight speculation about the Virgin Mary’s reaction to an unexpected pregnancy (“How Did This Thing Get in Me?”)
Between-the-songs banter can be a highlight of a Bobs show, and this one was no exception. There’s usually some microphone choreography, as the singers reconfigure positions to accommodate the lead and backup requirements of the next number, along with a joke-laden introduction. What’s charming is how much they amuse one another, which can even overtake the song itself, as when the intro to “Christmas in Jail” sent the group into such paroxysms that they had to restart twice.
The Bobs have crafted songs about bumper stickers (“Kill Your Television”), cats (“Fluffy’s Master Plan for World Domination”) and even farting (“Vapor Carioca”), and it’s a treat to hear the catalogue grow. But it’s also fun to revisit the covers that they’ve made their own, starting with one of their first-ever recordings, “Helter Skelter,” enthusiastically re-created for the Caffé audience, and including a straightforward version of Kurt Weill’s “Moon of Alabama,” a madrigal styling, if you can believe it, of the Doors’s “Light My Fire,” and a high-spirited “White Room” with lead vocal by Schumacher, gentle refrains by Stull, and a holiday-themed voice-guitar solo by Engelhardt.
Sure, their stuff is virtuosic and funny and ingeniously arranged, but can they ever just settle down and sing? Sure: They gave us, as an encore, Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” and it would have been the envy of the Hi-Lo’s or the Persuasions.
The Bobs just keep getting better with age, somewhat like a piece of camembert cheese.. Their latest CD "Get Your Monkey Off My Dog" is one of their finest ever and we recommend it wholeheartedly.
December 4, 2007
British conductor's 'Messiah' is revelation at Handel & Haydn
Conductor Harry Christophers discusses his upcoming performances of Handel's Messiah with the Handel and Haydn Society. (Video courtesy of the Handel & Haydn Society)
Boston Globe (MA)
Handel's "Messiah" is inexhaustible, and so apparently is the pipeline of British conductors with fresh ideas about it. Harry Christophers, the leader of the early music vocal ensemble The Sixteen, was this year's guest conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society's annual performances at Symphony Hall. This was the society's 154th consecutive season of "Messiah," a number that must be impressive even to Britons. Christophers's reading was a revelation, no more so than last year's by harpsichordist Laurence Cummings, but in a different direction.
Christophers pays less attention than many early music specialists to the sound of the orchestra, to exploring textual theories, or to devising new ornamentation. His focus was on the beauty and drama of the vocal line, which he gave breath and breadth. He conducted from memory, and his gestures, fluid and mostly horizontal, were generally directed at the 33-voice chorus. They responded with enthusiasm, solid tone, and dramatic fervor. They made a really nasty crowd in "He Trusted in God," for example, as they "laughed Him to scorn." And the final "Amen" was glorious, a great sonic tapestry that Christophers seemed to weave in the air. If he held onto the last note until it brought on applause, there's nothing wrong with that. No one knew better than Handel that "Messiah" is part show business.
For his first appearance with H&H in Symphony Hall, Christophers brought along four soloists from Great Britain. Soprano Cyndia Sieden sang easily but lacked angelic sweetness, and managed a bit stiffly the florid parts of "Rejoice greatly." Mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers did not impress particularly until "He was despised," which became a transporting moment, thanks to her varied dynamics, sincere delivery of the text, and sheer presence.
Tenor Tom Randle's singing of "Thou shalt break them" was dramatic, but the opening and middle tenor numbers call for a lighter, purer sound, and Randle's tone was often spread. When he wasn't singing, furthermore, he had an annoying habit of mouthing the words to the choruses and other solos. Christopher Purves was solid in the bass solos, with thrilling interpolated high notes. Generally, ornamentation was rare and lacked originality.
If anything could improve the H&H "Messiah", it would be for the chorus to sing from memory. The blend and responsiveness would improve, and the few micro-glitches in difficult runs - "His yoke is easy" never sounds easy - would disappear. It intensifies an audience's involvement to see the chorus without a thicket of scores. Besides, they must know this music by now.
December 3, 2007
The International Day of Choral Singing
The International Day of Choral Singing will be held this Sunday, Dec 9th. This annual event is an initiative of Alberto Grau from the Latin American Vice-Presidency of the International Federation for Choral Music. With the motto of “Tolerance through Choral Singing” this event has been growing every year.
Throughout the first nine years, on the second Sunday of December, more than 450,000 singers, from 12,857 choirs, joined to sing together and celebrate this World Day, distributed in 39 countries such as: Mexico, Brasil, Argentina, Venezuela, Spain, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic ,Chile, Armenia, Martinique, Perú, Germany, Ecuador, Costa Rica, France, Hungary, South Africa, United States, China, Australia, Greece, Sweden, Canada, Guatemala, Poland, Lithuania, India, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Finland, Bulgaria, Panamá, Curazao, Uruguay, and Ghana. In 2005, more than 1,000,000 voices sang together.
The event’s web site states:- "The world is living through severe and continuous crisis of self destruction. There are no possible reasons that can justify these actions. The majority of the human race wants to live in peace with dignity. It is time to show, with more power and strength, that our choral family contributes, through music to break down the artificial barriers product of politics, different ideologies, religious differences, and racial hatred that separate human beings. We must be able to show that MUSIC, the divine art, is more than the mere search of formal perfection and interpretative beauty, music should serve to extol the values of solidarity, peace, and understanding . We cannot work isolated, we have to make all possible efforts to have our voices heard and to let music work its own paths of communication." More info.
December 1, 2007
Carolers Get Busted By Cops
Several members of a choral group singing Christmas carols for shoppers in a mall in Llandudno (Wales) almost ended up being jailed after mall authorities summoned the help of local police in trying to stop them - from singing.
According to reports, the choral group composed of 29 children with ages ranging from six to 11, were at first asked by to stop by a security guard of the shopping center after receiving complaints from shoppers the children were singing a bit loud.
However, the group led by head teacher Ian Jones of Sant Sior School in Llandudno, refused forcing mall authorities to seek the help of local police instead in asking the carolers to leave.
"They were singing beautifully and everyone was having a good time," Jones said. "After a short while a security guard told us we were only meant to be singing for one hour and could we please stop."
"I said no because I knew we were allowed to sing between 11am and 3pm," he stressed. "The security man said he had received complaints from shop tenants that we were too loud."
"In the end he threatened us with the police - and sure enough a support officer turned up."
One of the mothers of the children also protested the incident lashing at the shoppers instead.
"How miserly can the shopkeepers get?" the mother of a 10-year old member of the choir said. "They're lovely singers and everyone enjoys them, particularly old people out shopping."
While the manager of the Victoria Centre, Sue Nash admitted calling the police a mistake, she promised to make amends by allowing the kids to return to the mall next weekend.
"It was a misunderstanding but it has all been sorted now," Nash said. "It was just a mistake on the day, but it could have been handled better."