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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Programming IV

This ended up being a LONG one--sorry!

The concert of which I speak below was recorded by CBC for later broadcast, so when we know a broadcast date, I'll be sure to announce it. Even if you aren't in Canada, you can listen via the internet.

Having said I don't as often do programs around a theme, here IS one: my recent concert with Pro Coro Canada on 24 February, One Earth Many Voices.

The theme came about because we were experimenting with a larger set of concerts called, "The Lighter Side of Pro Coro." Originally, our associate conductor, Trent Worthington, did a couple programs with that title (Trent's a talented composer and arranger himself), and the thought this year was to have a full season of six programs, three "Pro Coro Classical," and three "Pro Coro Light." Since I do four programs each season with the choir, and we had a guest conductor (Len Ratzlaff) doing a "classical" program, that meant that in addition to the Christmas program (which can count for the light side), I'd do one other concert that had to fit the "lighter" concept.

I should say, in passing, that from a marketing perspective, the concept didn't really work. We offered full subscriptions (six concerts) or audience members could subscribe to either the "classical" or "light" series of three concerts. Most of our subscribers did either the full subscription or the "classic" series, few opted for the "light" series. At least with our audience, the "light" label by itself wasn't a big attraction. Next season (with seven programs), we go back to either a full season package or a "mini-pack" that subscribers can choose themselves.

I chose to do a program based around folk music, to which we gave the above title (I actually liked, "One World, Many Voices" better, but there you go!).

Now to get more to my programming style, as exemplified by this particular program, anyway.

With most of my programs, I start with a work or works I really want to do, then start building around it. For me, it's all about how the pieces chosen work together: they can contrast nicely, or several works can complement each other. In that sense, I want the audience to either feel the connections I've made or, in going from one set to another, to move to something that feels very fresh. For that reason, once I come up with a work or two that will "anchor" the program, then it's often a matter of figuring out what else will work well with it (I've already spoken of the other things that go into programming--see earlier posts).

Because I didn't want all the arrangements to be traditional (harmonic language, style), I chose to begin each half with something quite different. The first half opened with Jan Sandström's Biegga Luothe, which is based on a Sami "Yoik," or improvised chant. The Sami are the ethnic people in Lapland in the north of Sweden, who for centuries have herded reindeer. Sandström grew up in northern Sweden and for some time has taught composition in Piteå, which has the furthest northern School of Music. A friend, Erik Westberg, has also taught there for a long time and also has his own, professional vocal ensemble. Erik's worked closely with Jan and this piece was premiered by his vocal ensemble. The Yoik is by Johan Märak, a Sami who's been a logger, reindeer herder, and is also ordained in the Swedish church. Since hearing about the piece from Erik in 2002 at the IFCM conference in Minneapolis, I'd gotten a score and it was "on my list" of pieces to do someday. Sandström's piece is challenging for the choir, uses a baritone solo for the Yoik, along with ceremonial drum, and includes barking dogs (the choir singing clusters on the text, "Zagga" in fast mixed meters), and the sounds of the ptarmigan (made by the choir as well). For those interested in the music, it's published by Gehrmans.

To make the opening even a little more dramatic, after I verbally introduced the concert in general and the piece specifically, we played a cut from Erik's CD, Across the Bridge of Hope, found here, which has Johan Märak singing the chant himself and playing the drum, while the choir walked on stage. It's a wonderful piece, well worth doing, if you have a choir that can sing it.

For the opening of the second half, I chose Sarah Hopkins' Past Life Melodies, which many of you may know (if not, check here). It's inspired by aboriginal music and sounds, in three large sections, the first with a broad melody that's first hummed, then sung on ah, then on "yeah." The second has an aboriginal chant that begins while the final chord is held, and gradually adds voices to the chant on each repetition, while the chord gradually becomes a drone on b. The final section has members of the choir doing overtone singing above the drone. Again, for more drama, we spread the singers out in the formation that Hopkins herself recommends, but in the large choir loft above the stage. If you're interested in doing the piece, Hopkins' website offers a recording of her teaching the piece to a choir, including overtone singing, as well as a complete performance.

So, after I'd chosen these two "anchors" to open each half, I had to find the right pieces to accompany them. In many ways, this was a difficult program to do: there are lots of possibilities, I don't like doing programs with lots of "little pieces," etc. I knew I wanted to do some Canadian works and I knew I wanted a set of spirituals (hey, I love them!). I looked at LOTS of Canadian works. Early on I decided I wanted to do a set of French Canadian works as well, so knew I'd end with Robert Sund's (yes, I know he's a Swede!) delightful arrangement of Alouette. So, after asking friends (Pat Abbott, Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors, who's well-versed in French Canadian repertoire, and some of my Francophone singers), I decided on a set of three: Donald Patriquin's Ah! si mon moine voulait danser (which uses the traditional French Canadian folk instrument of spoons for percussion along with piano), Dégénérations (more in a minute), and Alouette.

As a passing note, I most often have done sets of three pieces that are otherwise unrelated (Christmas pieces, motets, etc.). It allows for a set that feels connected and organic, but enough variation (in key, mood, etc.) that there is variety. There's no magic number here, but it allows me to do smaller works as a set (and I usually try to get the audience not to applaud in between each one).

Dégénérations is an unusual piece, not really choral, and more of a pop/folk song, originated by the group Mes aïeux, who characterize their style as "funklore." Arranged by Suzanne Lainesse, the song expresses the desire of Québécois to connect with their roots. It deplores the loss of family, speaking of the "great-great-grandmother who had 14 children, the great-grandmother with almost as many, the grandmother with three, your mother, who had you as a mistake, and you, who get rid of the child you conceive. The piece "went viral," so to speak, with huge public demand forcing radio stations to add it to their playlists more than two years after the song came out. We did it with the addition of spoons, a broom, drum, and hockey stick (all as percussion--we had to add a piece of sandpaper to the floor to make the broom sound!) I chose this not because it was great music or great choral music, but because within the context of the program it showed that the "folk" are still creating music. You can find its original in a music video with English subtitles here.

So, for the first half, I have an opening and closing set. I chose to follow Biegga Luothe with a big contrast, two of Astor Piazzolla's tangos, in vocal arrangements by Oscar Escalada: Verano Porteño and Primavera Porteña. Both are published by Kjos. Connected with an earlier post about learning new styles, I got recordings of these pieces (in several versions) as played by Piazzolla himself with his quintet, partly for my own edification, but also played examples for the choir at one rehearsal.

To follow the Piazzolla, we went to Indonesia by way of Canadian R. Murray Schafer with his Gamelan, quite a fun piece imitating bell sounds using Balinese solfege syllables (dong, deng, dung, dang, ding) for their scale (C, D, F, G, Bb).

Quite a trip on the first half from Lapland to Argentina to Bali to French Canada!

As I said, I'd also early on decided I wanted to do a set of spirituals, and I also had in mind doing a set of folksongs from the British Isles. So that's how I followed Past Life Melodies on the 2nd half.

From the British Isles, I chose three classics: Vaughn Williams' arrangements of Just as the Tide Was Flowing and The Turtle Dove, plus Gustav Holst's I Love My Love (and in that order). I'd wanted to do Canadian Jonathan Quick's clever arrangement of Loch Lomand for some time, so that became the end of the set. I also had the idea to do one or more of Michael McGlynn's (find him here or here) beautiful pieces or arrangements for his group Anuna. I listened to a lot of his music and found one, My Lagan Love, which was a perfect solo match for one of my tenors (Caleb Nelson). Unfortunately, it wasn't listed on McGlynn's site for sale, so I wrote him through his MySpace site and he quickly replied. Michael was nice enough to send me the arrangement in a pdf file, saying just buy any arrangement on his website to compensate him. Thanks, Michael! Notice this breaks my usual pattern of groups of three pieces--just to show you that I'm never totally consistent!

For my set of spirituals (here I did choose three), the last group on the program, I chose three favorites: Warren Martin's arrangement of Great Day, Norman Luboff's Deep River, and William L. Dawson's Ezekiel Saw de Wheel. I don't know how it happened (since I've always liked the arrangement), but I've never conducted Ezekiel, but what a great arrangement! This made for a very strong, fun end to the program.

However, I also did one encore. I'd originally planned for a set of Canadian folksongs in English, including Harry Somers' well-known Feller from Fortune, but decided the program was a bit too long. One of my singers suggested we use it as an encore (thanks, Janet!) and (being smart enough to recognize good advice), I said yes.

Choosing this program was a slow process. I had a folder and piano music stand that got filled with possibilities (gradually smaller as pieces went back to my files after I eliminated them). I had sticky notes with the groupings written on them (Biegga, Piazzolla, Spirituals, etc.), which I switched around in different potential orders. For a long time I had two Canadian groupings, so when I finally dropped one, that meant other groupings changed positions and even what half of the program they were on. It's a matter of trial and error, seeing how a particular group works with another, seeing how a particular piece works in each group. Music I love had to be put away because it didn't fit as well as another piece. But bit by bit, the program came together.

One final note: when I was at PLU and the choir was on tour (primarily in churches) I almost always gave verbal program notes. This is a great way to "connect" with the audience and with some works (especially contemporary pieces) offered a way for the listeners into the emotional world of a piece in an unfamiliar musical language.

While I do this occasionally with Pro Coro, it's not something I do often or with major works (although I probably will for our upcoming Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil on Good Friday), for this kind of program it's a great idea. So here I asked members of the choir to volunteer to give the intros (making even better connections with the audience, since they get to experience the singers' personalities). My singers did a terrific job (well, I've got a talented and creative bunch!) and the response was great. One of my singers, Gillian Brinston-Kurschat, is originally from Newfoundland, where Feller from Fortune originates. She not only helped the choir and me with proper "Newfie" pronunciation ("Feller from Fahrchun"), but she and her husband Michael came up with a brilliant introduction: she spoke "Newfie" and our British, proper, soft-spoken accompanist Jeremy Spurgeon, "translated." Brilliant and fun.

I'll have more posts on programming, but this is just one account of the sometimes messy, slow job of building a program.

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