February 26, 2008
Singing His Praises
Arizona Republic (AZ):
The Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale have risen to the top tier of choral music under Charles Bruffy, the quietly intense, mildly eccentric conductor who was unknown when he was named artistic director in Kansas City in 1988. He took a 5-year-old choir that billed itself as "classy sassy" - mixing Brahms with Top 40 - and gave it new ambition and a unique voice. In 1999, Bruffy was hired to work that magic in Phoenix, creating a "mixed family," as he puts it, that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Bruffy, now 49, had no designs on claiming the title of "Robert Shaw's heir" in 1982. A talented tenor, he was starting a master's program in voice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Later he began studying conducting and hired on at the chorale to lead rehearsals. "When you go to school in conducting, what you do is read about it, do it to recordings and occasionally conduct your class for one song," he says.
Whether they're giving a new composition a world premiere or breathing life into the tried-and-true repertoire, Bruffy's two choirs are known not just for technical precision, but for an emotional resonance that accumulates in the nuances of close detail. "Refinement is one word," says Blanton Alspaugh, who was nominated for classical producer of the year at the Grammys, in part for a pair of recordings with the joint ensemble."It starts with Charles. As any conductor does, or any composer, Charles has an ideal sound in his head. He gets that sound, holds that ideal before himself, and then holds it before the choirs."
Indeed, Bruffy sometimes seems like he is living in two worlds at once. He has an ethereal air, as if he is constantly being distracted by sounds only he can hear. Yet he also has an impish sense of humor that might get him into trouble if choirs had human-resource departments.
In rehearsal, he is both a jokester and a notorious stickler. The demand for perfection is plain on his face, even under a three-day growth of beard. He leads his singers to his "ideal sound" through a mix of the prosaic and the poetic, says singer Josh Hillmann, who has been a member of the Bach Choir for three years and sang for a year in Kansas City. Sometimes, "he will simply say, 'Sopranos, you are too loud,' or, 'Tenors, make your schwas as prominent as Joel's,' " he says.
At other times, Bruffy relies on metaphor. For example, the Phoenix choir's concert next weekend will include the American folk song Oh Shenandoah. "One of the things he mentioned to the background singers singing 'oo' was that the stress was on the fourth beat, and related the resulting sound to the way the wind rustles over fields of wheat," Hillmann says. "Having something visual to think about while you are singing seems so simple, but the way it changes the sound you hear is breathtaking.
"Another way he gets the choirs to sing the sounds he hears in his head is the unique way he conducts. Everything he does with his hands and body has meaning, and those of us who have sung with him many times know exactly what he wants just by the way he summons it with his hand gestures. "Rarely will you find him conducting all the beats. The responsibility of counting is pretty much delegated to the singers, leaving him free to 'finger paint,' as it were. . . . To see Charles conduct is to watch an artist in action. He is constantly reaching for the untouchable."
Such chemistry between conductor and choir only comes with time. It certainly wasn't there when he started, Bruffy says. "I would wave my arms and occasionally get that 'What the hell was that?' expression."
Having grown accustomed to an intimate connection with his small ensemble (currently 25 singers in Missouri), he faced a different challenge when he came to Arizona 11 years later. Unlike the chorale, the Phoenix Bach Choir had a decades-long tradition. The singers had a high level of technical polish but didn't understand their new leader's unique conducting vocabulary.
In fact, although the two choirs are the same size, Bruffy says, "when I came here, the singers didn't even know each other's names." "The way I work is all about relationships - my relationship with the singers, the singers' relationships with each other, our relationship with the audience, and our relationship to the culture of the music we're singing. "When I arrived, the ensemble did not have the flexibility I was used to," he adds, then stops himself and amends: "I did not know how to evoke the flexibility in them."
Bruffy takes care not to sound critical because he knows his intensity can be intimidating. "Charles has a reputation of being tough on his singers, but for musical reasons," Hillmann says. "Four years ago I was genuinely scared to sing a wrong note in the Kansas City Chorale, and not because I would be creating an ununified sound, but because of what Charles' response would be. I think we were all afraid to sing anything that wasn't absolutely perfect.
"There has been a change in the last few years, however. Charles is not the same taskmaster that he used to be, and to his credit, the choirs are better able to respond to his conducting in a more musical and uninhibited way. I think he has grown as a conductor and is more understanding of human nature."
Rehearsals with the Bach Choir can be downright jovial. The conductor points out mistakes with a wisecrack ("Do you have it marked? And can you read your handwriting?"), but the singers give as good as they get. "Over time I guess my own quirkiness has affected both of the choirs," Bruffy says. "Both of them are very fun-loving. Sometimes I remind them that our definition of fun is singing well."
And there it is: The seriousness of purpose that is always present and has elevated a pair of choirs from "flyover states" to the ranks of the musical elite. In addition to the Grammy-winning Passion Week, Bruffy has won praise for a number of recordings by his two ensembles, together and separate.
"Everyone would know I'm lying if I said I'm completely selfless about it, egotistical pig that I am," he says. "But I really feel that being conductor of both choirs comes with great responsibility, to our supporters, to the singers and in fact to the art form. That is one reason I think it is important for us to record - because the music deserves to have our voice."
February 25, 2008
Naturally 7 winning new fans
Florida Times-Union (FL):
Let’s talk about Naturally 7. Usually opening acts are relegated to the bottom of the review, pretty much as an afterthought. But the seven-man a cappella group was simply superb.
When the first member of the group came out, in his sleeveless undershirt and doo-rag, and started laying down some vocal sound effects, some of crowd had to wonder if they’d mistakenly wandered into a hip-hop concert.
And, with plenty of the crowd over the age of 60, that’s probably not what they were looking for.
One by one, the rest of the group came out, adding the sound of drums, bass and guitar, all with their voices. And that was fun. Warren Thomas did about as fine a drum solo as you’re going to hear, considering he didn’t have any drums.
But what really made the group stand out were their harmonies, so smooth and creative. They did a variety of songs, even a unexpected Simon and Garfunkel medley before finishing with a big version of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight. They turned that normally bland song into something special.
They sang for 40 minutes, could have gone on for twice that long, but ended to a standing ovation from most of the crowd.
After a highly successful tour across Canada the group now begins a US tour as the opening act for Michael Buble. The group has been getting great notices which have not only been praising them but reviewers are often mentioning how impressed they are with a cappella. Many mainstreeam press are still unaware of the more modern a cappella sounds and Naturally 7 are great ambassadors and this tour might well be what propels them to the same level of success as they enjoy in Germany and other parts of Europe.
February 19, 2008
Chapter 6 member makes American Idol finals
Once again we a cappella fans have somebody to root for in this season's American Idol. 2004 Harmony Sweepstakes National Champion's Chapter 6 member Luke Menard has been announced as one of the 24 finalists in the contest. See his web page here.
February 14, 2008
Cantus debut with heartfelt interpretations
Houston Chronicle (TX):
All aspiring American male vocal ensembles live under the shadow of San Francisco's Chanticleer and its distinctive sound and artistic profile. But Cantus, a Minneapolis-St. Paul ensemble with a more traditional character, has made a very nice career for itself since its founding in 1995 at Minnesota's St. Olaf College (a hotbed of choral singing).
The reasons are ample, as the nine members showed Tuesday at Rice University in their debut on the Houston Friends of Music chamber series. Impeccable singing, an engaging stage personality and heartfelt interpretations added up to a pleasurable evening that, at the end, had even white-haired ladies clapping along to the group's version of Curtis Mayfield's It's Alright.
The sound was traditional male, forgoing the countertenors and male sopranos that give Chanticleer its unusual timbre. The Cantus sound had elements of the King's Singers style but was more robust and a little less pure than the English ensemble. Cantus astutely organized what otherwise would be a typical potpourri program. The first half, Into Temptation, contained multiple looks at the tension between good and evil.
It began with a subtly modern treatment of a Gregorian chant setting of The Lord's Prayer (swelling to tense moments at the plea for help when facing temptation). Bob Chilcott's 5 Ways to Kill a Man and the American folk song On the Banks of the Ohio dealt with the darkness of murder. Formal English choral music, borrowings from other American folk music and so on added musical and philosophical variety.
The end of the half had a distinct feminist slant. In The 23rd Psalm, a work dedicated to his mother, Bobby McFerrin made the nurturing God into a female, a twist of unorthodox thinking that undoubtedly would delight radical Christian feminists. Franz Biebl's familiar Ave Maria, popularized by Chanticleer, was an invocation to the Virgin Mary.
The post-intermission half reached its peak fairly early with Last Letter Home, an elegant, haunting setting of a letter from a soldier who died in Iraq. Leo Hoiby treated the straightforward, emotionally secure prose of Army Pfc. Jesse A. Givens with respect and a carefully intensifying patina of dissonance when needed. In Givens' simple honoring of his family members lay a provocative charge to stop and think. The rest of the half ranged from arrangements of world music, a spiritual, an Appalachian song and so forth.
The Cantus members conveyed every text with diction that was a triumphant assertion that it is possible to sing in English and have the audience understand the words. It seemed like they poured their musical hearts into every work they performed, even if that meant they occasionally pressed a little too hard in reaching out to the audience. At the end, I almost was consumed by an urge to run out to the lobby to buy those CDs that, a bass humorously noted, the members would be happy to sign afterwards.
February 13, 2008
Los Angeles Master Chorale gets into a Latin groove
Los Angeles Times:
The heat from Sunday afternoon's performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 was still in the air when the Los Angeles Master Chorale arrived at Walt Disney Concert Hall that evening. But the Master Chorale cooled the hall down fast with what seemed like sounds from another planet -- 38 a cappella voices richly and calmly intoning the Officium Defunctorum (Requiem) by Tomás Luis de Victoria.
Despite the usual fire-and-brimstone Requiem texts, Victoria's oddly sweet plainchant and polyphony had a soothing, even consoling effect after Mahler's hyper-emotional cries of hope and despair.
Perhaps some early-music purists would have preferred an even cooler, more neutral -- and all-male -- set of voices. Perhaps this music from 1603 would have been more at home in the far more reverberant ambience of a cathedral. Yet whether or not conductor Grant Gershon realized it, he created a powerful juxtaposition for anyone who spent the day at Disney Hall.
The intended point, as it turned out, was to contrast the relatively austere music of the Spanish Renaissance with the less-inhibited goings-on in the Western Hemisphere in mid-millennium.
Groups such as Chanticleer and the Harp Consort have been carefully mining what has been tagged as the "Mexican Baroque" over the last decade or so. But this remains an uncharted field for most concertgoers -- and with a boost from a gently churning four-piece Hispanic/Baroque "rhythm section," the Master Chorale offered a tantalizing sampler.
The crucial element that defined most of the New World music on the program was rhythm -- the use of influences picked up from native cultures.
In the fascinating prologue from what is apparently the first opera written in the Americas - "La Púrpura de la Rosa" by Tomás de Torrejón Velasco -- the basic style isn't far from that of Baroque opera. Yet it was the Latin rhythms and the syncopation in the choral lines that gave this music its flavor, plus a vitality that exceeds that of most of its European models.
Sometimes the rhythmic ingredient was less obvious -- as in Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla's more European-leaning motet, "Mirabilia testimonia tua." Yet by the time the Master Chorale swung into Juan García de Zéspedes' guaracha-based "Convidando está la noche," the concert was beginning to spill over into world music territory. Acuña's hand drum solo over a vamp from the trio of Baroque string players wouldn't have been out of place in a 20th century Afro-Cuban band.
In other words, it grooved. Delightfully.
February 11, 2008
It all got started during a winter day walk of Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen in Helsinki. Perhaps it was due to the coldness of the day that they ended up discussing the possibility of transforming the huge energy people put into complaining into something else. Perhaps not directly into heat – but into something powerful anyway.
In the Finnish vocabulary there is an expression "Valituskuoro". It means "Complaints Choir" and it is used to describe situations where a lot of people are complaining simultaneously. Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen thought: "Wouldn´t it be fantastic to take this expression literally and organise a real Complaints Choir!"
As complaining is a universal phenomenon the project could be organised in any city around the world. Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen offered the concept to different events where they were invited as artists – but it was only after Springhill Institute in Birmingham got excited about the idea that the First Complaints Choir became a reality.
After the Complaints Choir of Birmingham became a surprise success Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen have been invited to initiate complaints choirs all around the globe. They initiated the Complaints Choir of Helsinki, the Complaints Choir of St. Petersburg and the Complaints Choir of Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg. Meanwhile several Complaints Choirs have been initiated by other people around the world.
In the news today is an article about the government of Singapore banning the Singapore Complaints Choir:-
In Singapore there is no such thing as putting on a stage show and hoping people turn up. It's a drawn out and often painful process. All of the acts need permission from the government, transcripts of lyrics and plays must be submitted for approval and even the type of food on offer is subject to scrutiny.
Approvals in recent years have been easier to come by as the government attempts to build a metropolis with a diverse arts scene to entertain the growing number of expatriate workers in residence. But every now and then there is a reminder of the complicated web of rules that hangs uncomfortably over this seemingly modern city.
The Complaints Choir of Singapore was given such a reminder two weeks ago when the government banned it from performing unless six of its members - foreigners - quit the group. The government was not happy with foreigners publicly criticising Singapore, even though some of the lyrics were as trivial as "people put on fake accents to sound posh and queue up three hours for doughnuts".
The choir, one of a worldwide movement of singing groups set up to give voice to local gripes, was told that it was inappropriate because the lyrics touched on "domestic affairs" and "any public discourse in such matters should be reserved for Singaporeans only".
Perhaps the government was troubled by the refrain "My, oh my, Singapore. What exactly are we voting for? What's not expressly permitted is prohibited." But its objections did not stop the lyrics being heard. The choir, which refused to perform in public without all of its members, gave a private performance instead and broadcast it on YouTube. It has had over 15,000 hits.
February 9, 2008
A cappella group right at home in Marin
Marin Independent Journal (CA):
So popular is the women's a capella group Solstice that when they sing in Marin, it's standing-room-only. This year there's even more reason to hear them when they perform Saturday at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. Since its last concert at SGVCC more than a year ago, the group has taken first place at the 2007 San Francisco Regional Harmony Sweepstakes and placed in the top three in the a capella national competition - an indication not only of the form's increasing popularity but also of its musical growth. Solstice fans are not surprised. "Our audiences have been enthralled by Solstice," says Hannah Doress, SGVCC's event coordinator.
Solstice is just as thrilled to be performing in Marin, says Emily Bender, a Fairfax resident who has been singing with the group since 2004.
"It's one of our favorite venues," she says. "San Geronimo is the most fantastic audience, so we want to bring them something great. We're trying to do as many new songs as we can that we haven't sung there before."
And that's one reason the group is so popular, because of the wide range of music they offer - everything from classical to folk, jive to pop. For example, Bender will be the soloist in an arrangement of the Edith Piaf song "La Vie en Rose." At the other end of the spectrum, the group will perform a piece by the 16th century Roman Catholic composer Giovanni Palestrini, who wrote hundreds of pieces and changed the history of music with his style of polyphony.
Between Palestrina and Piaf, there will be bluegrass, a song by eclectic pop star Bjork, Bulgarian folksongs. Solstice member Becca Burrington won top honors at the Regional Harmony Sweepstakes for her arrangement of "Blue," a Joni Mitchell song. It is one of Bender's favorites.
"When I sing that song, it almost transports me to another place," Bender says of the Solstice version of "Blue." "The chords are so rich; it's like eating something really delicious." Another of her favorites, one the group will also perform on Saturday, is a song by the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. "If you sing it right, it's like a warm bath," she says.
Bender attributes the group's growth from regional to national award-winning level to two things. One is the extra effort the members had to put in to prepare for the national a cappella competition. "We did an enormous amount of work on presentation, sound, costumes, everything," Bender says, noting that the work really paid off.
The other factor has been the process of making its first recording, which Bender explains has given the singers a whole different way of relating to the music and to performing. different way," she says. With the concentration in the studio on music instead of performance, the singers are freer to focus on their cohesiveness, the musical interactions among parts and emotional expression. This practice translates to the stage where the musicians, knowing their technique is solid, can then focus on the interactive experience with the audience.
"When you're on the stage, you have this holistic experence," Bender says, noting that listeners' reaction is part of that. "You see people, you feel this vibrant emotion, the intention and feelings behind the music." Making music with others is an experience that's hard to describe to those who don't. But Solstice comes close to giving that experience. As Bender says, "We love singing together, we sing music we love, and we love singing for the audience. We really enjoy what we're doing."
Certainly one of our favorite Bay Area groups and as current regional champs they will be hosting the Bay Area Harmony Sweeps on March 8
February 7, 2008
Toxic Audio opens in Las Vegas
The always busy Toxins have opened their show in Las Vegas at the V Theater located in the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. I love those Vegas showrooms and I'm sure the group is happy to have all the wiz bang technical effects these rooms usually have. With such a theatrical bent to their show this is a great place to check out the 2000 Harmony Sweepstakes National Champs.
February 6, 2008
Zegree feeling celebratory as WMU's Gold Company turns 30
Kalamazoo Gazette (MI):
Three decades of cultural change and many teams of Gold Companies have come and gone. “How did that happen?'' Steve Zegree said. “Time flies when you're having fun, doesn't it?''
The question is, how much fun will Western Michigan University's award-wining jazz/pop choral group have romping from the vinyl to the MP3 age in its 30th-anniversary show Saturday at Miller Auditorium? Probably a lot.
Zegree hinted at a look at disco and possibly a live-action version of Michael Jackson's “Thriller'' video or maybe a close look at reality-show musical contests. “We're not going to leave many stones unturned when paying tribute to some of the music of the past, good, or, you know,'' the Gold Company director and Bobby McFerrin Professor of Jazz said. “When I say tribute, sometimes you can make fun and `tribute' something at the same time.''
Zegree said the students in Gold Company are always part of the creative process in forming shows and get into the details of costuming, dance and song selection. Look for laugh-out-loud moments, a variety of music (jazz standards, contemporary pop, movie hits, show tunes) from the past 30 years of Gold Company shows and the added talents of more than 70 alums.
“There may be one or two surprises, too, associated with a TV show I was working on in December,'' he said. Zegree was the coach of Nick Lachey's Cincinnati choir for NBC's “Clash of the Choirs.'' The choir won the reality-show competition Dec. 20.
Gold Company alums from New Hampshire to Australia will arrive to rehearse the Friday before the show. Zegree said he's “feeling celebratory.'' He's looking forward to seeing his former team members. He sees the Gold Company as a team he's coached through the decades. “And even though we don't `compete' per se, we certainly don't mind when other people refer to Gold Company as Western's winningest team,'' he said.
In 1978, Zegree became director of the Varsity Vagabonds, the School of Music's vocal-pop group. He changed the name and focused on vocal jazz. Though instrumental jazz had just barely managed to earn respect in academic circles in the '70s, Zegree saw a movement happening in the study of vocal jazz.
For his vision of Gold Company, “I really kind of combined the best of all worlds (jazz and pop), and my vision was to do this music, to make the music be sophisticated and make it challenging, and yet to put it in a way that it would be entertaining to all audiences.'' Since then, the group has toured the world, won more than 45 DownBeat awards and performed with pros including McFerrin, Rosemary Clooney and the Manhattan Transfer.
Another of Zegree's goals is to give students the real-world experience of stage work, touring and recording. The results show in the many Gold Company alums, Zegree said. “I'm very proud of what our alums are doing in the real world. Many of them are on music faculties in major universities, they're in the recording studio, touring the world. We don't have anybody of Britney Spears' fame, but we're kind of proud of that, too.'' Something that is amazing, Zegree said, is, “I'm getting kids of people who sang in Gold Company.''
The decades have flown by, but that just gives the group more music to mine. At the show Saturday, expect what the Gold Company has always offered: musical variety. “We're not sure that everybody in the audience will like everything that we do, but we want to make sure that everybody in the audience at least likes something that we do,'' Zegree said. It's not easy to please a wide age range with music from Big Band to Kanye West all in one show, he said, “but we love the challenge.''
February 5, 2008
Send an a cappella valentine
Love and the sounds of sweet harmony will be in the air on Valentine’s
Day all across the country as barbershop quartets from the Barbershop Harmony Society will once again deliver the unique gift of Singing Valentines to unsuspecting sweethearts. The quartets will deliver a rose and a love song to the surprised recipients at their workplace, homes, restaurants, etc.
“A singing Valentine is a unique and very unusual way of expressing love,” says Ed Watson, CEO of the Barbershop Harmony Society in Nashville, Tenn., which coordinates Singing Valentines each year with quartets in its 800 membership chapters across the United States and Canada. “Being serenaded touches some primal emotion because music has long been the language of love. And barbershop quartets are the modern-day troubadours.”
The Singing Valentine program is an annual fundraising activity which is sponsored by the local chorus in each city. A significant portion of the proceeds benefits music education programs in their local communities. Like most barbershop singers, the quartet singers have full time jobs and responsibilities outside the quartet. Still, through out the year they find time to perform regularly at churches, community centers and barbershop singing events and contests.
“This is one of the most enjoyable activities we engage in each year, “says Singing Valentine Coordinator Paul Touchton. “It is really neat to go somewhere and watch and hear the reactions of the recipient and those who stop everything they are doing to hear a quartet serenade a surprised sweetheart.”
The basic rate for a Singing Valentine varies depending on geographic location and time frame required to deliver the Valentine. More info here.
February 2, 2008
India Catholics set world record for 40 hour singing marathon
Catholic News Agency
Catholics in southwestern India have set a new world record by singing non-stop for 40 hours, UCA News reports. Priests, religious, and laypeople started singing on January 27, managing to eclipse the previous 36-hour record set by a Brazilian Christian group in 2004.
The record-setters sang in the Konkani language, currently spoken by about 5 million people. The language is largely associated with Catholics on the southwestern coast of India.
Eric Ozario, founder of the Konkani cultural organization Mandd Sobhann, told UCA News that the aim of the project was to instill a sense of unity and solidarity among Kokani-speaking people. “We are a small community and Westernization is eating away our culture,” he said. The Konkani community could grow "only when it is united, culturally rooted and proud of its culture." Ozario said some Konkani-speaking Catholics have turned to an “English culture, forgetting their rich cultural roots.”
"Konkani language and our Catholic faith are linked to each other, and we cannot separate one from the other," Sister Juliet Lobo, a Queen of Apostles nun who helped conduct the performance, told UCA News.
Sister Lobo said about 1,700 singers in 44 groups sang continuously, with less than ten seconds between songs and between singing groups. While the singers mostly came from Catholic parishes in the Indian states of Goa, Maharashtra, and Kerala, some Konaki-speaking Catholics from Persian Gulf countries were also included.
They sang over 600 Christian hymns or faith-related songs. No song was repeated and no singer appeared more than once.
Keith Pullin, an official from Guinness World Records, monitored the performance. He told UCA News he was "amazed by the discipline of the groups, their performance and the professionalism" of the event.
Father Ramesh Naik, a Mumbai parish priest who was the event’s chief patron, said the Konkani culture had played a major role in shaping faith and culture. “It has to be preserved,” he said to UCA News.