March 27, 2009
Tallis Scholars' music allows crowds to "space out"
Seattle Times (WA):
Ask Peter Phillips, founder and longtime director of the Tallis Scholars — renowned specialists in a cappella sacred music from the Renaissance — about the global appeal of the group's sound, and his unexpected answer could just as easily explain the attraction of Pink Floyd to teenage basement-dwellers in the 1970s.
"People can space out to it," Phillips says by phone from London. "It's subtle, otherworldly. It takes people out of rushing around, worrying over money." While some critics can expertly describe the aesthetics, dynamics and history of the Scholars' music, its rapturous draw, says Phillips, is best explained as an inherent quality.
"There are no instruments involved," says Phillips. "It's 10 singers performing music written for the church, by composers from all over Europe, in the 16th and 17th centuries. It's quite complicated music, sung in Latin, so it's not the words that attract people. Yet we play it in Japan, we play it all over world. It's how the music sounds that affects people."
Phillips created the Tallis Scholars in 1973. "I started this when I was very young," he says. "I was an organ scholar at Oxford, and decided I wanted to do this music. There was hardly anyone doing it then. I found fellow students who agreed to do concerts with me."
Those students were mostly choral scholars drawn from chapel choirs at Oxford and Cambridge. In time, the ensemble developed a reputation as one of the greatest interpreters of Renaissance sacred choral repertoire.
As Ted Libbey describes it in "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music," the Scholars' "fame [rests] on a distinctive purity of tone that unfailingly illuminates the complex, interweaving lines of early polyphony." (Polyphony, in this case, is two or more voices, each singing an independent melody, yet harmonizing.)
Despite the odds against the Scholars' long-term success, Phillips has kept the group profitable while constantly reaching out to new fans. In 1981, the Scholars started a record label, Gimell, releasing more than 50 critically acclaimed albums.
"Interest has gone up slowly in our music," says Phillips. "Whole concerts of Renaissance sacred choral music were not normal at the time we started. Now there are more. My ambition is to make it mainstream, like a Beethoven symphony. I'm still working on it."
March 26, 2009
An interview with Richard "Bob" Greene
Northern Light (AK):
They might have one of the more unusual names for a music group, but The Bobs are promising good, unpredictable fun at their upcoming musical performance. And who doesn't love songs about monkeys attacking dogs? The Bobs are quirky, comical and one of the more successful a cappella groups around, having been nominated for a Grammy for one of their cover songs on The Beatles.
The Northern Light interviewed Richard Bob Greene, the group's bass singer.
Q: What do you try to capture with your songs?
A: They are humor, well, most of them. We are an a cappella group and about a third of what we do are covers of other people's classics. You know, like rock and roll classics and the like. We try to take them new places. Now two thirds of the things we write are original and are about perhaps not your most normal subjects for songs.
Q: What is one of your more interesting songs?
A: Well, we have a fairly new album out called "Get Your Monkey Off My Dog."
Q: How did you come up with that album name?
A: You know, I wrote that particular song and I was out in the park one day in Brooklyn with my dog and someone else had their monkey there, and their monkey actually attacked someone else's dog. So I went, well, you know, not everybody writes a song about that, why not? Our motto is you can write a song about anything.
March 23, 2009
Choir for the deaf
Hat tip to our friends at the Choral Blog for bringing our attention to the inspirational clip of the Expressions of Silence choir from the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind, shown above performing in American Sign Language with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
March 20, 2009
New York Voices have kept their harmony for 21 years
Kansas City Star (MO):
For the New York Voices, one of the most admired vocal groups in jazz, it’s all about finding the right blend. It’s about making four voices a seamless whole, yet finding room for individual creativity. It’s about old songs and new ones, and old values and new ideas. That’s what they’ll offer up on Saturday at the Gem Theater.
“Conceptually, it’s always been about the vocal blend, obviously,” says one of the group’s founders, Darmon Meader. “But there’s a heavy emphasis on instrumental-jazz inflection and repertoire and style.”
Though their shows are great entertainment, Meader and his cohorts take the art of ensemble jazz singing very seriously. Three charter members of the New York Voices — Meader, Peter Eldridge and Kim Nazarian — have been singing together since they were students at Ithaca College in the early 1980s. Latecomer Lauren Kinhan has been with them a mere 17 years.
The condensed history of the group goes like this, Meador says: In the summer of 1986, after they’d graduated, their teacher put together a six-voice alumni group for a European tour. Meader, Eldridge and Nazarian were on board. “Peter and I took on the task of being musical directors and writers to give it our own stamp,” Meader says. “We had a great time, and the audiences gave us a good response, and we decided it would be something we could try to do professionally.”
By the fall of 1987, they were in New York and working as a vocal quintet, three women and two men, and also doing studio and jingle work. Word of their excellence spread, and they were signed to the then-popular GRP record label.
The blend changed in 1994 when one of the women left the group. They decided to carry on as a four-voice unit. “It was weird,” Meader says. “It was about six months before it felt kind of normal. And eventually it felt even stronger. We have a little more independence this way, and we like the balance of male and female sounds.”
Just as there’s a blend of voices, there’s a blend in the group’s material. “We’re very interested in the traditional repertoire of singers, and we cross over into the instrumental world — Ellington and Coltrane,” Meader said. “We grew up on pop music too, so we can go from Coltrane to Stevie Wonder. And we like to throw in some originals too.”
They’ve found the right blend of personalities in this long-running quartet, Meader says. “What are we most proud of? That we’ve managed to stay together. … We’ve managed to grow up together and survive the challenges of being young and stupid.
“Twenty-one years, and we’re not tired of it.”
March 19, 2009
Naturally 7 on Leno
Congratulations once again to Naturally 7 who last night performed perhaps one of the most coveted gigs in show biz as the music guest artist on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Jay first saw them when they opened for him in Las Vegas (which the Alley Cats continue to do regularly) and invited them on the show. They performed their now famous Wall of Sound which you can watch on this clip.
The Sixteen at Queen Elizabeth Hall
The Times (UK):
The Sixteen are celebrating their 30th birthday year by setting out on their ninth Choral Pilgrimage to churches, cathedrals and festivals throughout the land. Two pilgrimages, to be exact: one in honour of Handel’s 250th anniversary and the other, which has just stopped off in London, to pay homage to Purcell’s 350th birthday and James MacMillan’s 50th.
Age doth not weary them: indeed, with all these multiple celebrations, the Sixteen and Harry Christophers are on buoyant form. Their Purcell and MacMillan programme, called Bright Orb of Harmony and already available on disc, is sombre Lenten entertainment, but it lifts the heart rather than oppressing the spirit. This is partly because Purcell’s music is so minutely — and still startlingly — attuned to the words of pain and penitence it expresses. And partly because Christophers has moulded the voices of his singers so sensitively to the innermost inflections of the language.
Nowhere does this hit harder than in the Engish settings. In Let mine eyes run down with tears from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the ease and freedom with which soloists and choir shared their lines, within a chromatic complexity that touched every nerve, made for an intensity that was neither contrived nor driven. Read more.
March 17, 2009
Whispered Prayers Recall a Disaster in the Baltic Sea
New York Times:
Orchestral and choral conductors often use noticeably different gestures. When Charles Bruffy led the Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Chorale in an enjoyable a cappella concert at Alice Tully Hall on Monday evening, he seemed to be sculpturing in air: carefully molding each finely hued note he coaxed from his choristers.
The highlight of the concert was “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae” by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi. This harmonically rich work is a requiem for the more than 800 passengers who died when the luxury ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994. It incorporates the Latin text used in a report of the disaster by “Nuntii Latini” (“News in Latin,” a news broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company) and the Psalm text “They that go down to the sea in ships.”
The work, composed in 1997, began with the choirs whispering a prayer from the Mass for the Dead as the soprano Kira Z. Rugen, standing in a balcony at the side of the hall, sang a gentle solo, her voice soaring above the chorus. After a somber delivery of the news section, the intensity increased in the Psalm reading. “Canticum” concluded with the whispered prayers of the opening verse.
The choirs’ refined sound and elegant phrasing were further displayed in the “Drei Geistliche Gesänge” (“Three Sacred Songs”) by the 19th-century composer Josef Rheinberger. The first half of the program also included excerpts from the Passion Week cycle by Alexander Gretchaninoff. He belonged to a circle of composers (including Rachmaninoff) who wrote unaccompanied sacred choral music and were sometimes referred to as the New Russian Choral School.
While not as breathtakingly beautiful as Rachmaninoff’s liturgical works, Gretchaninoff’s setting is imbued with dramatic flair and harmonic interest. The choruses sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silent” (the last verse) with vivid intensity, their full sound in the final “Hallelujahs” slowly ebbing to silence.
The program ended with the Mass for Double Choir, a colorful, youthful work by the Swiss composer Frank Martin, which the choirs performed with a buoyant pulse and energetic finesse. The mood lightened with the encores: two Irish songs, including “Johnny Is the Fairest One,” performed in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
March 16, 2009
Bikaraoke steps up to the fitness mike
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
The expectation of Bikaraoke, an unholy mix of stationary biking and karaoke at In-Shape Health Clubs, was perhaps best summed up by Antioch resident Judy Donohue as she adjusted the seat on her bike. "Do I do karaoke normally? Not unless I'm intoxicated," said Donohue. A row of women at the weekly 5:30 p.m. class chuckled and bobbed their heads in agreement.
But there's definitely an allure to belting it out while biking, as the packed classes have proven. "This is absolutely the highlight of my week," said Suzanne Evoniuk of Antioch. "I've never done a cycling class before this one, but the whole singing thing really makes the time fly by."
Class instructor Michelle Sargent said that even she has been surprised by the Bikaraoke experience, calling it the "most fun thing I've taught in 20 years."
In-Shape Health Clubs, a Bay Area fitness chain, introduced Bikaraoke in January and plans to start classes at other In-Shape locations around the Bay Area and Southern California. Sargent said that from the first session on, classes have been packed. "There were 25 people in the first class," she says, "And the next class was just as big, but with a different crowd."
Sargent goes to great lengths to make the class comfortable for those like Donohue who don't sing outside karaoke bars. A microphone sits next to Sargent, on a dais in the center of the room, but the emphasis is on group singing. Two screens display song lyrics while Sargent talks her way through the class on a microphone headset. Bike instructions ("Race me! Faster!") are mixed with exhortations to sing louder.
For this class before Valentine's Day, Sargent chose a "love" theme: Madonna's "Like a Virgin." "I do not hear you," she told the class. "You burn more calories when you sing!"
The class, tentative at first, picked up both the pace and volume by the second repetition of the chorus. The second song, "Every Breath You Take," by the Police, brought out more voices, but it wasn't until the third tune, Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," that the room really came alive. Sargent went out on a limb with the next one, Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again," which had people giggling as they panted their way through increased resistance.
As the class went on, it was clear that Bikaraoke was a hit. But it was also clear, as Sargent prodded and praised and cajoled the class into singing and pedaling hard, that a great instructor is what makes a great class. "San Francisco and L.A. have nothing on Antioch," Sargent bellowed, as the opening bars of "Addicted to Love" came on. "Now, anybody want the mike?"
March 14, 2009
Chanticleer celebrates its 30th year with works by 30-ish composers
San Jose Mercury News (CA):
In the life of an artist, the early 30s is an age of promise. For an ensemble, surpassing a third decade speaks to creative accomplishment. Last year, multi-Grammy-winning Chanticleer decided to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a program of newly commissioned works by three young composers, born around the same year the choir was launched.
"It's a new generation of composers," says Christine Bullin, president and general director of the San Francisco a cappella ensemble. "We have composers we've worked with over the years who are wonderful, but we wanted to forge ties with some of the brilliant young composers who grew up at the same time as Chanticleer."
As part of its birthday celebration, the chorus performs the three world premieres in the program "Composers/Our Age" Wednesday at Mission Santa Clara. (The program also is being presented Tuesday at Berkeley's First Congregational Church and Friday through March 22 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.) It features the politically charged "Garden of Paradise" by New York City-based Shawn Crouch, "No Matter" by London-born Tarik O'Regan and "Sirens" by Berkeley-based Mason Bates.
O'Regan's piece is a setting for Samuel Beckett's poetry, and Crouch's composition intersperses verse by the Persian Sufi mystic Rumi with a poem by an American veteran of the war in Iraq. With "Sirens," Bates delivers an ambitious choral song cycle that begins and ends with text from Homer's "Odyssey"; the poetry in between is in German, Italian and English.
"I didn't want to write one monolithic piece," says Bates, 32, one of the highest-profile young composers in the region. "I wanted to create something that could be an excerptable song cycle but that also had some unity ..., to explore different kinds of beautiful and alluring and magnetic music. I started researching different siren texts. I wasn't interested in a literary exploration of the concept of sirens, more the human side of what it means, the beautiful and dangerous." Read more.
March 9, 2009
Vocalists return to their reverent roots
Pioneer Press (MN):
Over the course of its 13-year history, Twin Cities-based choir the Rose Ensemble has lent its voices to a variety of styles: Mexican baroque, traditional Hawaiian, Shaker hymns. But this weekend, some visitors from England are helping bring them back to the sound upon which they were founded: European music of the 16th century and earlier.
In collaboration with the English vocal octet Voces8, the Rose Ensemble is presenting a program of Renaissance polyphony, hearkening back to the layered, interweaving harmonies that echoed off the walls of European cathedrals shortly after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door.
So Friday night's concert in the old-world setting of St. Paul's Church of St. Bernard felt like a sacred homecoming for the Rose Ensemble. But, above all, it was a wonderful showcase for the talents of Voces8, which stepped away from the larger combined chorus for a set of five works from disparate religious traditions and eras, delivering a reminder to choir-crazed locals that there's something uniquely satisfying about experiencing an outstanding small vocal ensemble.
That's not to say the collaborative portion of the concert wasn't also very enjoyable. Performing excerpts from a groundbreaking Renaissance work, English composer William Byrd's "The Great Service," the massed choir sounded as if it had been singing together considerably longer than a week, especially on a fluid and florid "Ave Maria" by Robert Parsons that was slipped in amid the Byrd.
But the most memorable moments of Friday's concert came when Voces8 performed alone. Romantic Robert Pearsall's "Lay a Garland" was an elegy with just the right mix of grief and transcendence. And their lone venture into the 20th century, Gustav Holst's "Nunc Dimittis," was a fine display for their basses' clear thunder and their sopranos' soaring leads.
If this was Voces8's first collaboration with another group, they found the right partners in the Rose Ensemble. This came through on one of those rich Renaissance works by Giovanni Gabrieli, the kind more often heard from horns, rather than human voices. On this night, the two groups sounded reverently powerful and as resonant as the best brass.
The Mirinesse Women's Choir exalts in the joy of choral music
Seattle Times (WA):
Their sound is pristine, strong, utterly secure. Their close harmonies and agile rhythmic play make smooth and lucid work of intricate choral pieces. Their repertoire is eclectic, ranging from vintage classical selections (Brahms, Mendelssohn, Debussy) to contemporary works to spirituals, folk melodies and old Shaker tunes.
In short, Mirinesse Women's Choir, now entering its third year, is a welcome addition to the Seattle music scene. You can catch them at two different locations this weekend — repeating a program they performed last Sunday at Seattle's Trinity Episcopal Church — before they go to Oklahoma City next week to take part in the national convention of the American Choral Directors Association.
The convention is "a big deal" for the choir, co-director Rebecca Rottsolk says. There, Mirinesse (taken from the Old English word for "joyful women") will perform for literally thousands of choir directors gathered from all around the country.
Sunday's concert, enhanced by the rich acoustics in Trinity Episcopal Church, showed off the choir to fine effect. It opened on a dramatic note, with a soloist at the back of the church launching into an early Shaker hymn, soon joined by 60-odd singers lined up on either side of the nave.
After that intro, the concert concentrated on classical repertoire: "Exultate, justi, in Domino," a tripping, tricky piece by 17th-century Dutch composer Herman Hollanders, along with two takes on "Ave Maria," one by Brahms, the other by contemporary American composer Guy Forbes which featured striking, cascading-bell effects among the chorus in its middle section.
Seattle composer John Muehleisen's setting of Sara Teasdale's poem, "Spring Night," was another highlight. A line from its hushed opening — "The veils are drawn about the world" — made a perfect match of text and music, as ethereal voices created "scrims" of polyphony on the word "world." Muehleisin was in attendance.
Beguiling contemporary work from Canada's Stephen Hatfield, American composer Z. Randall Stroope and another Seattleite, Valerie Shields, also found a fine home here.
Certain song selections were more comforting than challenging. But even among the more straightforward numbers, there was a touch of the unexpected: a spare Finnish folk song, an Indian-raga-influenced tune that had real pulse and swing to it.
Mirinesse is on less certain ground when flirting with a Latin beat ("Duerme Negrito" by Argentinian songwriter Atahualpa Yupanqi), and they could bring more grit to their handling of spirituals. Another quibble: their program notes should go into more detail, especially on lesser-known contemporary composers whose work they perform.
But these are minor gripes about an ensemble that, helmed by co-conductors Rottsolk (former artistic director of Northwest Girlchoir) and Beth Ann Bonnecroy (still with Northwest Girlchoir), delivers solid, soaring goods with a venturesome repertoire.
March 2, 2009
Off to the ACDA
I'm leaving today for Oklahoma City to exhibit at the American Choral Directors Association convention. Held every two years this is quite a large convention with choirs and directors attending from all over the world. A cappella is, of course, well represented with performances by top ensembles such as Conspirare, Phil Mattson Singers, Almire, Chor Leoni, The Nordic Choir and The Vocal Majority. It will be a very busy week for me so I'm not sure if I'll have a chance to post to the blog but certainly will do so as soon as I'm back in the office.
If you are attending the convention please do come by the booth and say hi. It's always nice to meet the readers in person plus I'll be sure to give you a discount if you purchase anything.