Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An Appreciation - Helen Pedersen

Helen Pedersen just died at the age of 98. From her obituary:
Helen Hunter Pedersen, ninety-eight, born in Miles City, Montana passed away December 9, 2008. She was a graduate of West Seattle High School and the University of Washington, class of 1934, and taught primary and secondary school Music and English in Wrangell, Alaska and Ann Arbor, Michigan before returning to Seattle. She was a devoted partner to her husband of 68 years, Willard S. Pedersen, who preceded her in death. They spent many of their wedding anniversaries at Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park which they treasured. She especially valued her small-town upbringing in Miles City, Montana which included daily horseback riding and summer camping trips to Yellowstone National Park, but also special nights for reading everything from children's books to classics with her parents. Her special interest became music which led to piano lessons, opportunities as an accompanist, and ultimately a life-long passion for teaching and choral conducting. She participated in, formed, and directed many community choral groups in north Seattle including a well-regarded women's chorus in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Haller Lake Methodist Church High School Choir which grew to more than 60 members during her twenty-year tenure. While good musicianship was always important to her, she was also interested in exposing both singers and listeners to fine sacred and secular music. Music appreciation made for a richer life.

I sang in Helen's High School Choir at Haller Lake Methodist church. During the time I was there (from 8th grade through senior year) the choir sang every Sunday morning at the early service during the year, doing a variety of anthems, introits, etc. Because the church was close to Ingraham HS, which had an outstanding choral program under the direction of Wallace Goleeke and later Jerome Semrau, there were some wonderful singers in the choir, which numbered 50-60 during my time.

Helen ran a disciplined rehearsal and we covered a lot of repertoire. I have no idea what we really sounded like (and have no recordings), but it must have been fairly impressive at the time. Certainly I learned a lot from Helen and also took a few piano lessons with her before entering the University of Washington.

We kept in touch from time to time and she never seemed to change. I think the last time I saw her was about five or six years ago when she came to a Christmas concert with Choral Arts at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood, north of Seattle.

She was always proud of her former singers who went on to a career in music--and I'm certainly proud to have worked with and learned from her. She had a rich life.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Should you conduct secco recitative?

This is a brief, but connected, detour from my posts on conducting Orfeo. It’s brought about because of a review of Rinaldo Alessandrini’s guest conducting stint with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

The review is on the on-line music review site, the San Francisco Classical Voice, which by the way, is a terrific site. It should be copied everywhere since newspapers are giving less and less space to classical music (and it seems that SFCV soon be expanding the kinds of things they do--see the chair's letter this week).

Alessandrini is the very well known leader of Concerto Italiano, an ensemble specializing in 17th and 18th century music (I’ll have something to say about their recent recording of Orfeo later).

As the reviewer notes:

It was a bit unfortunate, though, that Alessandrini insisted on conducting the recitatives. With a continuo group as accomplished as Philharmonia Baroque’s (including David Tayler on theorbo, Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord, and cellist [Tanya] Tomkins), and a singer as fine as [Marta] Almajano, I did not see the purpose. In some cases, the result was a bit confusing, as the singer sometimes seemed to desire more time than Alessandrini gave her. The continuo dutifully followed the conductor, who was not always together with Almajano.

In works with secco recitative, it’s long been my practice not to conduct those recitatives, but to conduct the beginning and the end (into the recitative from the previous movement and out into the next one), so I can control the overall pacing of the performance.

Of course, I’m involved with coaching the recitatives and helping shape the internal performance of the recitatives, too. In the case of Bach’s Johannespassion, for example, this means working with the singers for the Evangelist and Jesus roles, the organist and continuo cellist (and other continuo players if you have them). This then becomes the kind of collaborative process I’ll speak more about with Orfeo: we have to decide about what kind of freedom the singer will take and how they will shape the drama and narrative, whether continuo notes will be long or short, connected or not, what kind of realization the organist does, etc.

We know, for example, that even given long written note values in the continuo, that the notes were usually played short. But how short? With what kind of dynamics? Should some of the notes be connected and not separated?

So all of these things come through a collaborative process and the performance begins to take shape. Do I dictate how all of this should go? No. I come into the rehearsals with very definite ideas, of course, but given talented and experienced singers and continuo players, I want (and need) to take their ideas into account as well. Each singer will feel the music in a different way and, unless I absolutely disagree with their approach, I want them to be expressive, and that comes from their own inner conception of the music. Do I make suggestions? Of course! I may have an idea they haven’t considered or, given two possibilities, may have one that fits much better with my conception of the whole.

So why the question of whether to conduct or not? First, let me say that I certainly think you should have the technique to conduct recitative well—you’ll have to in any accompanied recitative—and I talk about learning this for myself in another post.

Think of it from the player’s perspective (continuo cellist, organist—or chittarone player in Orfeo): they have to watch their music (and the line for the singer as well), and listen carefully to the singer so they can place each note precisely where it should be rhythmically. Sometimes they will watch visual cues (the bow of the cellist, a nod from the organist, the singer’s breath). They listen for the singer’s breath, too. Frankly, watching a conductor as well just makes things more complicated. In that sense, you, dear conductor, are simply in the way and can lead to a stilted, rhythmically square performance.

This assumes one of two situations: experienced players with enough rehearsal time (not as much as you might think) to get comfortable with what the singer is going to do; or with inexperienced players, lots of rehearsal time to coach how they do all of this.

I’ve worked in both situations, but in either, I’d prefer to get to the point where the players are working by listening intently, know the shape of the performance, what they’re going to do in terms of lengths of notes (which they can write in their parts), dynamics, etc.—and without me conducting them.

As I’ve said, it’s my responsibility in the coaching/rehearsal sessions to make sure all fits within my overall concept and I conduct into and out of every recitative to control pacing of the drama (or in some cases, somewhere in the middle, too). If you work with students or players/singers with no experience in this style, then it might take lots of rehearsal and coaching to make this work—but isn’t that what they’re there for? To learn?

The only exception might be where you have little or no rehearsal time, something I wouldn’t recommend! But if I had to, I’d probably conduct and say, “follow me no matter what—if we’re wrong, we’re wrong together.” But how expensive is it to have a few extra rehearsals with a couple players? Not much. The biggest problem might be the availability of your vocal soloists if they're flying in from out of town at the last minute. But I'd try to avoid that, too—it simply doesn't lead to the best performance.

If you haven’t tried leaving most of the secco recitatives up to your continuo team, consider it the next time you have the opportunity to do a Bach passion or cantata. It’s a lovely, freeing, and empowering experience for your players and soloists.

And, as is noted in the review, it can often be even more flexible and beautiful than with you conducting!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How in the world did I end up conducting a production of Orfeo?

My blog writing has been slowed mightily by my administrative responsibilities with Pro Coro—it seems that most writing energy is used up by writing far too many memos and emails about this, that, and the other. But . . . here’s the next installment on conducting Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

How did this all begin?

Miki Andrejevic was Executive Director of Pro Coro from 2000-2004, and I would say we had as perfect a relationship as one can have between the chief artistic and administrative people in an arts organization. In all ways we thought similarly about important issues and had similar goals for the organization. It was truly a collaborative effort. We quickly became friends as much as colleagues and have remained friends ever since.

After Miki left Pro Coro, he did some consulting for a period, organized LitFest in Edmonton, and was then hired to be Executive Director for a part of the University of Alberta’s centenary celebration, Festival of Ideas.

Miki has never been known to think small! If you look at the link to the Festival, you’ll get an idea of the breadth of activities and presentations, opening with a talk by Salman Rushdie.

So Miki approached me with an idea. He’d noted that Orfeo had lots of performances in 2007, the 400th anniversary of its premiere, but not in Edmonton, watched a DVD of a performance and was fascinated by the opera. He also knew there wasn’t a lot of activity in Edmonton with period instruments. Here was the first opera that has stayed in the active repertoire and it’d never been done here. So he asked me if I thought we could put together a production of Orfeo for the festival.

It didn’t take me long to say I thought we should try, but that the first thing was to bring Ray Nurse into the picture. Ray is a fixture in the Vancouver early music scene—I’d known about him for some time and he then put together the orchestra when I did the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers in 2001 (our Orfeo, Colin Balzer, sang the 2nd tenor solos in that performance, just before he was moving to Germany). To put it simply, Ray knows an amazing amount about an amazing number of things. For example, we knew that Ray had connections with instrumentalists and singers in the early music world, but didn’t know that he had a long history in opera as well. I knew he’d been a member of the Vancouver Chamber Choir for 10 years or so, but didn’t know he’d done a lot of singing small roles with various companies, including Edmonton’s, at a particular point in time. This meant he had enormous experience with the backstage and production aspects of staging an opera. And he’d been heavily involved in the Festival Vancouver production of Orfeo in 2001 (directed by Stephen Stubbs).

So Ray was brought in as Music Production Coordinator, but in fact he did much more than that (he spent an enormous amount of time early on, for example, in making budgets). We began discussions of what kinds of things and people we’d need. One of the first, of course, was a stage director. Ray recommended Ellen Hargis, with whom he’d worked for a good period of time in the Baroque Vocal Programme as part of the Vancouver Early Music summer workshops. Ellen has a fantastic career as singer, but had also done a little directing and has been assistant director for a number of productions at the Boston Early Music Festival—and she was interested in doing more. This was her first big production as full stage director and she was an inspired choice.

The four of us met in Vancouver in August of 2007 to begin discussions of what we’d need to do, production issues and needs, scheduling, possible performance venues (primarily Miki’s and my responsibility to vet, since we were in Edmonton), casting, etc.

We had a great meeting and tasks were set. Finding the right venue took a lot of time and held us up for quite a while. Many options were discussed and we finally ended up at the Citadel Theatre (Edmonton’s equity theatre) in their McLab Theatre—a thrust stage with no pit—more about that when I discuss rehearsals!

We’d made preliminary contact with a number of cast members at our meeting, since Colin Balzer and Suzie LeBlanc, among others, were at the festival singing, but most contacts were made later. Ray and Ellen, given their experience, know most of the people in the early music vocal world, and their knowledge was invaluable, as in so many other ways. I have to say that we were lucky to ultimately get our first choices in terms of casting—it was a terrific cast.

We’d considered rehearsing in Banff and doing a performance at the arts centre there, but it proved too expensive for the budget and it would have been difficult to commit my local singers to the chorus. So, attractive an idea as that seemed initially, it was dropped.

We’d originally planned to do a fully costumed version, renting the costumes that were created for the Vancouver production (now residing in Toronto). They are gorgeous, but for many reasons that idea was dropped for some relatively simple, modern dress variations. We also thought we might have to do a semi-staged version with the chorus in one place, but that idea was (thankfully!) dropped in favor of a staged production with all music memorized (my chorus members were worried about this!), but with minimal props and no real set. Ultimately it worked incredibly well—more about this later.

Gradually elements and people were set in place, including finding a local person with the skills and knowledge to set up all the elements necessary on-site: James Robert Boudreau, or Jim Bob, who took care of an enormous number of details, from finding a lighting director, stage manager, assistant, working with the Citadel (which doesn’t normally have guest productions), and dealing with moving instruments into the church where we first rehearsed, into McLab, and then out.

All principal singers were gradually cast (with some anxious moments as we thought we’d lose one or another due to schedule conflicts) and Ray put together a fantastic group of instrumentalists. I did some vetting of instruments available locally (organ, two harpsichords), but we also had long discussions of the possible need to rent a truck and haul instruments from Vancouver. I auditioned a 15-voice chorus.

I don’t know how many emails went back and forth between us, but I know that I had hundreds in my Orfeo file, even after deleting many shorter or less substantive ones.

Ray, Ellen, Jim Bob, and I all got together again in Vancouver this past August to discuss in person as many of the remaining details that we could. Ellen had thought she’d get out to Edmonton to see the stage and talk with the lighting designer, but that proved impossible. Jim Bob prepared video of the stage and we had lots of discussions about exactly where/how the orchestra would be placed, where singers could make entrances, etc., but Ellen was still quite nervous about the thrust stage and how it would work, dramatically and acoustically (we were, too)—it’s one thing to look at video and diagrams, but quite another to know how such a space will work in reality.

Finally, everyone gathered in Edmonton on Friday, November 7, 8 days before the opening performance, to begin work together—amazing!

As I noted in my first post, opera is the most collaborative of arts. Certainly this couldn’t have happened (or gone so beautifully) without the incredible talent, skill, and knowledge of all those involved. As a conductor, I was the beneficiary of all of that.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conducting Orfeo—Collaborations

I had the opportunity to conduct Monteverdi’s Orfeo Nov. 15 and 16 in Edmonton—a rare experience to collaborate in such a way with an extraordinarily talented cast, wonderful stage director, and fabulous period-instrument band (as well as a 15 member chorus I handpicked, primarily Pro Coro members or former members). Orfeo is truly a masterwork and it was a privilege to be a part of those performances.

I use the word “collaborate” because in such a situation I’m part of a team in a way that can’t happen when I conduct a chorus or orchestra as I do most of the time. Of course, with my choirs (or while guest conducting) or working with very talented instrumentalists (as I do when working with members of the Edmonton Symphony and Pro Coro on major works), I want to create a situation where each musician brings the best of their talent and musical ideas to the rehearsals and performances.

But with limited rehearsal time and the need to bring a large number of individuals into one corporate vision of the music to be performed, I take control of most aspects of the performance: tempi, dynamics, phrasing, etc. Much of this has to be dictated to the musicians, whether through gesture (best, if I can do it), demonstration, or talking to them in rehearsal.

Yes, I’m open to ideas (best to get suggestions at breaks and not during rehearsal) and always willing to listen to the talented people I get to work with, but primarily, it has to be my vision of the music which is communicated.

And yes, I absolutely want my musicians to bring everything they have to the table—our performance won’t get very far if they don’t use every bit of their talent, experience, and knowledge in the music we perform. That’s the joy of working with talented, experienced musicians: I can expect that they will begin to play or sing from the first rehearsal with their own ideas of what the sound should be, how to phrase, how to interpret. But I still have to shape those ideas into a performance that has unity of vision.

When I work with soloists, vocal or instrumental (and having conducted lots of major works, I’ve had that opportunity regularly, as well as conducting a number of instrumental concertos) it’s absolutely collaboration—and the better the soloist, the more I need (and want) to listen to what they bring to the party. Their ideas, their knowledge of the music (which they may have performed many times), and their knowledge of what works for them, technically and musically, means I listen carefully to what they’re doing. In this sense, I want to become the perfect accompanist, supporting their interpretation (it’s a different experience working with students, since their experience is much less, and there has to be much more coaching of all aspects of their performance).

Of course, it’s possible to have differing ideas and that can become a fruitful interchange. It’s rare for me to have a soloist with a truly different concept of the music, but it happens occasionally. I’ve never had the experience that Leonard Bernstein did conducting the Brahms D Minor piano concerto with Glenn Gould—in that famous performance, Bernstein spoke to the audience beforehand with his “disclaimer” that the interpretation was distinctly not his (here as transcribed from a bootleg recording of the performance):

Don't be frightened, Mr.Gould is here. (audience laughter) He will appear in a moment. I'm not- um- as you know in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception and this raises the interesting question: "What am I doing conducting it?" (mild laughter from the audience) I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.

But the age old question still remains: "In a concerto, who is the boss (audience laughter) the soloist or the conductor?" (Audience laughter grows louder) The answer is, of course, sometimes the one and sometimes the other depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats (audience laughs) to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life, had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. (audience laughs loudly) But, but THIS time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer. Then why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why I do I not make a minor scandal -- get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct? Because I am FASCINATED, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much played work; Because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can ALL learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a THINKING performer, and finally because there IS in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the SPORTIVE element" (mild audience laughter) that FACTOR of curiosity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it HAS been an adventure this week (audience laughter) collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto and it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you.

An amazing moment!

At any rate, Orfeo is the perfect example of a different kind of collaboration, since each principal cast member brought their own experience, talent, and extensive study to their roles; and each instrumentalist brought not only that experience, but a deep knowledge of period style and performance practices. Add to that the necessary (and fun) collaboration with staging and drama, plus the fact that there is a huge amount in the score that isn’t specified, and you have a situation where I can’t (nor would I want to) simply dictate many of the decisions that have to be made.

On to specifics in the next post.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Eric Ericson birthday tribute

Sorry it has been so long since I've posted. Lots I could say, but little time to say it!

I was asked by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet to write a piece for their essay page (Under strecket) to be published on Eric's birthday (tomorrow--Sunday--he's 90!). They wanted a piece that evaluated Eric's contributions to choral music, both in Sweden and abroad, but from a strictly journalistic perspective . . . in other words, even though it is published on his birthday, they didn't want a piece that was only laudatory, but with a critical perspective. Given the length, it was difficult to do (my original draft was about a third longer and too personal), but here it is. They have translated into Swedish for the edition of the newspaper, of course.

Eric Ericson’s Impact on the World of Choral Music

The noted choral conductor, Eric Ericson, turns 90 today. What has been his impact on choral music in Sweden, the Nordic countries, Europe and the world? How has the choral world changed because of his work? How and why did this happen? Why Sweden?

These are questions I first asked myself some time ago—as a choral conductor, I learned of Ericson’s work through his recordings, then hearing the Swedish Radio Choir on tour in the United States in 1983.

My curiosity didn’t end with those early experiences.

This interest in Swedish music led me to write a doctoral dissertation on the topic: Swedish a cappella music since 1945. The question of “why” became a secondary focus of the dissertation and book which followed: The Swedish Choral Miracle: Swedish A Cappella Music Since 1945.

In many ways, it is a tale of the right person being in the right place at the right time.

One has to begin with an individual with enormous talent and skill, which Ericson has had in abundance. He grew up the son of a Free Church preacher, so became involved with music from an early age, studying piano and organ, and directing a choir from his early teens. When he reached the conservatory he excelled.

It isn’t enough, of course, to have talent—one must also have character, drive, ambition and (especially for a conductor) the ability to inspire others.

Even with those qualities, the impact one makes is dependent on outside circumstances, and in this Ericson was fortunate.

During his time at the Conservatory, he made friends with a talented and diverse group of people who gained the name The Monday Group, because beginning in 1944 and continuing until the end of the decade, they met on Monday afternoons in the apartment of composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl to discuss and study music. They were dissatisfied with what they perceived as too conservative training at the school. The group also included composers Sven-Erik Bäck, Sven-Eric Johanson, and Ingvar Lidholm, a number other musicians, and the musicologist Bo Wallner. Bäck and Lidholm would remain among Ericson’s closest friends.

The Monday Group became important, because as Lidholm would later say, “We sat on the floor at Karl-Birger’s Drottninggatan 106 and saw ourselves, in all simplicity, taking over all the institutions.”

They did just that. Sweden was a conservative country musically, but the members of the Monday Group ultimately took over and remade the main musical institutions: Blomdahl was Professor of Composition at the Conservatory from 1960-65 and head of music at Swedish Radio from 1965-68; Lidholm was head of chamber music at the Radio from 1956-65, edited the Radio’s Nutida Musik (literally, “New Music,” the title of a radio series and the journal that originally accompanied it) from its beginnings in 1954 to 1957, then Professor of Composition after Blomdahl in 1965; and Bo Wallner would become an influential musicologist at the Conservatory and edited Nutida Musik beginning in 1957.

And of course, Eric Ericson began teaching choral conducting at the Conservatory in 1951, became conductor of Orphei Drängar in the same year, and conductor of the Radio Choir (RK) in 1952.

Of course, when one person holds in his hand the major institutions in a country for so many years, one can expect that there are some negatives to go along with the positive. This was true in the following way: given Ericson’s dominance in Stockholm and the resources at his command, some very talented conductors had nowhere to go. The most prominent example of this is Karl-Eric Andersson, an immensely talented conductor, about five years younger than Ericson , who led the Bel Canto Choir. By all accounts both an extraordinarily talented conductor and teacher, his career could only go so far and this sadly affected his personal life.

Similarly, composers who were more conservative in style, such as members of the "Samtida Musik" circle ("samtida" is another word for "contemporary," so the name was chosen in opposition to "nutida musik")--Erland von Koch, Hans Eklund, Jan Carlstedt, and others--found it difficult to get performances. Von Koch later wrote about this in his memoirs with a chapter titled “The Monday Group—Mafia and Opinion Dictatorship,” and noted that RK never performed any of his works.

This is as much a function of Sweden’s relatively small size and centralization in Stockholm during this period, as of Ericson’s having those positions. At the Conservatory, for example, composition and choral conducting were a “one channel” system—one person was in charge of those programs and for much of that time, Stockholm was the only place one could study those subjects. Yet it made life more difficult for some.

Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War was also a contributing factor. Since Sweden didn’t suffer the loss of a generation of talented people and the extraordinary damage of infrastructure that was seen in most of Europe, this allowed for the quick rebuilding of its economy.

Because of this, most of the The Monday Group traveled abroad after the war, Ericson making an important trip to Basel, spending a whole year there, studying early music and observing the Basel Kammerorchester, which commissioned important works by Honegger, Hindemith, and Stravinsky.

Eric Ericson began the Chamber Choir (or KK) in 1945 with a group of 16 friends (who included the composer Lars Edlund and the important conductor/teacher Bror Samuelsson) primarily to sing the madrigals and other music from the renaissance that they’d read about, but not heard. Ericson has always readily admitted his important predecessors and teachers, including David Åhlen with whom he’d studied and sung with at the Conservatory, Johannes Norrby (and his ensemble Voces Intimae), and Mogens Wöldike (who’d come from Denmark at the beginning of the war and was known as an early music expert—he did a number of productions with RK at this time and helped stimulate Ericson’s interest in early music).

It was, however, a new piece, written for KK by Ingvar Lidholm in 1946 and premiered in 1947—Laudi—that called for new resources and led Ericson and the choir in new directions. On the technical side, it demanded skill with new and difficult intervals—Ericson said, “I think we went on for six months to try to nail down that difficult sixth measure in the first movement. I remember how we sighed over the difficult intervals.” Laudi also called for a more dramatic style, Lidholm asking for extremes of dynamics not seen in the madrigal literature: “full voice, as loud as possible without forcing.”

There followed other new and difficult works by Bäck, Schoenberg, Bartók, Hindemith, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and then Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé (the performance also included prominent Swedish singers Nicolai Gedda, Elisabeth Söderstöm, Erik Saedén, and Kerstin Meyer), which took nearly a year of preparation.

In 1952 Ericson was asked to take over and reorganize RK, with most of the members replaced by members of KK, expanded to 32 singers, and began rehearsing three times a week (KK continued with one rehearsal a week).

As Ericson has said, “The music department of the Radio had many competent people who really jumped on impulses and picked up on all the big personalities of the 1950s. I sat there with my choirmaster position and was ordered, here comes Stravinsky, here comes Hindemith, and they want to guest conduct their pieces with the Radio Choir, etc.—and I had to be able to study all that. But of course it also meant incredibly inspiring contacts and demanding jobs—‘Here you go—study this Dallapiccola . . .’—that was horrendously difficult at that time! So we stood there with our assignments, and it was exciting for us to jump into all this modern music.”

Ericson has always maintained that the repertoire developed the choir: “You asked how technique and proficiency developed, and I can almost mention certain pieces which were ‘rungs on the ladder,’ because that’s how I feel so strongly when we’ve learned a difficult and very good piece. I’m thinking of KK with Laudi from 1947, then the big pieces of Stravinsky and Nono. Dallapiccola, perhaps most of all, is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956—Canto 81], that we struggled with for half a year. I have a certain sense that, when you ‘come out on the other side’ after having done a piece like Lidholm’s Canto, you are a better musician, a better conductor, a better chorister.” Additionally, Ericson’s emphasis on a cappella music (his stated desire was always to have his ensembles perform 80% a cappella music) has inherently demanded higher attention to the skills of intonation, blend, and ensemble.

The German recording company EMI recognized the extraordinary quality of Ericson’s choirs, and commissioned a four-LP set called Europäische Chormusik aus fünf Jahrhundert, first issued in 1971. This gave Ericson the reason to tour and then record, with both KK and RK, many of the great works for a cappella choir. This was an enormous success, winning several prizes, and led to a second four-LP set, Virtuose Chormusik, in 1978 (both are still available on CD). These recordings helped disseminate knowledge of Ericson’s work around the world, and the high standards set by these recordings had a major influence on other choral conductors and choirs.

Teaching has also been an important part of Ericson’s career, which spanned four decades at the Conservatory. In the ‘50s and ‘60s he taught both church musicians and choral conducting students—40-50 students each year. As Lennart Reimers notes, in 1933 Sveriges Körförbund (the Swedish Choral Society) had 503 members, 40 of whom had a degree from the Conservatory—and during his time there, Ericson taught more than 1500 choral conductors. Consequently, he had an enormous influence on conductors in Sweden.

As Ericson’s singers and students went on to lead their own choirs, they began performing much of the repertoire first done by KK or RK. This raised the level of many choirs, which is in part responsible for the high standards of choral singing in Sweden today. That influence has not only been in Sweden, since many conductors from other countries have also come to Sweden to work with Ericson, whether formally or informally. And since retiring from the Swedish Radio in 1983, he increasingly traveled abroad to teach master classes and guest conduct. Foreign choirs have also inspired by Ericson’s model, for example, the outstanding French choir, Accentus with its conductor Laurence Equilbey.

Ericson has long fought for new repertoire for the a cappella choir and this was an important part of his work. Certainly, the great works by Ingvar Lidholm would likely not have been written were it not for their friendship. There is a long list of works premiered by him or dedicated to him. This has been an important legacy. Many of Ericson’s students have also been active in commissioning new works—prime examples in the last fifteen years or so being Robert Sund, Erik Westberg and Gary Graden. In his travels, master classes, and guest conducting, he’s also been an ambassador for Swedish music and composers throughout the world.

Overall, Eric’s career has been extraordinary. He built ensembles (now nearly 65 years with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir) with a technical quality unmatched by others in their era, made recordings that still hold up as models many years later, stimulated numerous composers to write for the a cappella idiom, taught four decades worth of choral conductors in Sweden and many abroad, and has inspired choral conductors throughout the world.

Monday, September 8, 2008

more on Maestro

The Guardian has another report on Maestro as it moves towards the finals.

Interesting point about Goldie--I've often thought of conducting as an extreme case of multi-tasking!

Effortlessly proving the point is Goldie, who, excepting an awkward altercation with Mozart last week, has cruised up through the ranks of Maestro. Hardly surprising. He is a music producer and DJ. He juggles rhythms for a living. And he does it live, interweaving tunes seamlessly to work a club crowd into a frenzy. He is already a conductor, which is why he will probably win the competition.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sorry it's been awhile!

Since July, I've take on a huge administrative load with Pro Coro Canada, where I've been Artistic Director for nine years (about to begin my 10th season). This has taken a lot of time and, of course, I'm also getting ready for the beginning of the season, so blog posts might be a bit infrequent for awhile. I've got ideas, but my writing time seems to be spent writing email memos!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Historical authenticity

Kenneth Woods has made a couple of great posts about vibrato (here, here, and here), coming off of the controversy over Roger Norrington's recent pronouncements about doing Elgar without vibrato (read the NY Times take here). John Brough recently followed up with a thoughtful post about the pursuit of historical authenticity and its value.

I won't follow up too directly on the vibrato controversy (lots of interesting things in those posts), but try to go through my own thinking process on historical authenticity. John says some interesting things:

For a while now, the recordings of Bach which claim to be "Historically Accurate" have bothered me for some reason. I'm always left asking myself if it was worth it. To go through all that trouble to try to recreate a sound which no one can claim to be 100% accurate. In some cases the recordings to me come out calculated, and bland. There are some exceptions, but I won't go naming these recordings as that isn't the point of this exercise, but instead offer the following argument.

Is there a difference between "Historically Accurate" and "Historically Informed"? for example, can a choir of two hundred singers and an equally mammoth orchestra perform Handel's Messiah and call it "Historically Informed" considering they've taken the time to prepare the score with a sense of Baroque style, articulation, and nuance even though the performing forces are too large, and the instruments too "new"?

The question of vibrato, I think, is answered so well in Kenneth Woods' post:
"I can’t help but feel that in all music the “non-vibrato sempre” method is a weak-minded cop-out, an easy way to avoid thinking about whether, when, why and how to vibrate, a process which demands an awareness of harmony, instrumentation, color and taste. It stops the process of thinking, listening, responding and contemplating sound dead in its tracks."

How can we expect modern players to remove vibrato without removing the soul of their performance? I'm not saying we should be adding "Bel Canto" vibrato or rubato into the music of Bach, but we should not be afraid to let the instruments sing.

There is also evidence that early keyboard players did not use their thumbs! Why don't we ask our organists and harpsichordists to do the same? Because it would probably take away from the musical ability of the performer - which to me is like removing the left-hand vibrato motion of the string player.

I've been interested in baroque music and performance practice for a long time, beginning when I was an undergraduate, listening to recordings of music by Schütz, Bach and others, and I started a group called The Bach Ensemble in Seattle when I was 23 years old. This instrumental/vocal ensemble performed Bach cantatas once a month--everyone got the music in advance, I usually worked with smaller combinations (soloists, continuo, solo instruments) in advance, but the basic schedule was a choral rehearsal Saturday morning, overlap with the instrumentalists' rehearsal to run through the chorus(es), rehearse orchestra (and soloists), then on Sunday, do a dress rehearsal in the late afternoon, take a short break, then do the concert. We quickly added other baroque repertoire to the program, sometimes chamber works, solo vocal works with continuo and a few instruments, and occasionally orchestral or choral works. One season we did works by Schütz on every program.

This was a fabulous learning experience, as most of these works were not recorded, so I had to learn the music from the scores alone and make decisions about dynamics, articulations, tempi, bowings, etc. from the internal evidence in the music, plus whatever I could figure out from reading about baroque performance practice and listening to various recordings of baroque music.

We were, of course, using modern instruments (gambas and recorders for works such as Cantata 106), but I was beginning to think in terms of period instruments and this was when, for example, the big Bach cantata project with Leonhardt and Harnoncourt began. I'd done Cantata 4 (Christ lag in Todesbanden) with my church choir earlier and was looking forward to Harnoncourt's recording of the cantata to answer a performance question for myself: in one of the movements the bass line plays dotted eighth-sixteenth notes throughout, the soloists sing "Alleluia" with a series of triplets, followed by two eighths--so a question is: do you adapt the dotted rhythm to the triplets? Do the soloists adapt the duple rhythm of the two eighths to the triplet? I remember thinking, "In this recording I'll find out the right way to do this!" As I remember, when I finally heard the recording, the continuo adapted to the triplet, one of the soloists sang the eighths straight, and the other adapted to the triplet! So much for definitive answers!

However, the series had excellent liner notes, including details about problems in the original parts or score (this is always interesting: not just for baroque music--see Norman Del Mar's Orchestral Variations--Confusion and Error in the Orchestral Repertoire (unfortunately long out of print), Del Mar's other books on Conducting Beethoven, Conducting Brahms, etc., and the many articles in the Journal of the Conductor's Guild on errata. Harnoncourt, especially, wrote about articulation and whether slurs, dots or other markings in one part of a movement would translate to others.

During this time there was also a considerable debate in the Choral Journal about "authenticity," with statements by Rilling, for example, on how, even if one could hear a performance by Bach himself, given our ears (conditioned by listening to Beethoven, Wagner, and 20th century music), we wouldn't hear as an audience would have in the 18th century. This is true, but to me, not the point. Rilling, of course, has changed his performance practice considerably (even though he uses modern instruments)--I sang in a performance of the Mass in B Minor in 1972 with him (more about that one day--it was a transformative experience) and, for example, he added the violas to the violins in the Agnus Dei for a richer string sound (very romantic sound, lush, full vibrato). I just heard a performance of the Mass by him in Eugene last month and it's not even close to the same performance--a very different articulation in the opening Kyrie fugue, for example).

I'm not saying we shouldn't change our minds, of course! I hope I learn something between successive performances of the same piece! But in a very real sense, our ears change, too, as we adapt to hearing new and different ideas of performance style.

Of course, there are no definitive answers to some of these questions and absolutely there is an element of fashion here. Once something catches on (an articulation, "swells" on long notes, etc.), others pick it up and it becomes a part of "style," whether or not it is correct.

But just because you can't ever get to an historical "truth" isn't reason enough to fail to pursue it. The "truth" in a performance also has to include the psychological and emotional truth in the music--that's sometimes harder to get. In that sense, I agree totally with John that if you pursue authenticity that results in blandness of expression, you've lost what the music was about in the first place.

However, I don't think the pursuit of authenticity has to mean bland performances. And it shouldn't!

During the time I was conducting The Bach Ensemble, Stanley Ritchie moved to Seattle as first violinist of the Philadelphia String Quartet (in residence at the University of Washington). Stanley also had a significant background as a baroque violinist and was in a duo with harpsichordist Elisabeth Wright. (Stanley has now for some time been in charge of the baroque orchestral program at Indiana University). He was also concertmaster of the New York City Opera and assistant concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera, so he's clearly an outstanding violinist in any style.

I worked with Stanley for a period of time to learn about baroque violin techniques and (at that time) how to adapt those techniques to the modern instrument and player. Here's where questions of period instruments really can begin to inform. For example, the baroque violinist didn't use a chin rest or shoulder rest. Without being able to hold the instrument between shoulder and chin, the left hand has to support the instrument more. That doesn't make vibrato impossible, but you can't vibrate all the time and with the same intensity that one can with a chin and shoulder rest. It also changes some fingerings, since the violinist has to "crawl" between positions part of the time.

Gut strings also make a difference in sound and how much one can dig into the string (at a certain level of pressure the string simply doesn't speak well). The bow itself, shorter and lighter at the tip, doesn't allow for as much pressure as one can make with a modern bow. That means that dynamics are created more by bow speed than pressure (Ken Woods makes the excellent point that in Elgar's time, playing into the string is a part of the style of the time).

These are just a few things that learning about period instruments tells us.

Briefly back to vibrato: in the opening movement of the Bach Johannespassion, the flutes and oboes play a series of suspensions. When I do it, I ask the winds to play senza vibrato, since that heightens the dissonance--and therefore, the expressivity of those passages. I think that "authenticity" doesn't have to mean bland--it's in how you approach it.

John mentioned earlier keyboard practices of playing without using thumbs. While this doesn't have to mean that a modern player can't use their thumbs, it does teach something about articulation and how notes would/could be grouped. I think the major point is to take this knowledge and use it to learn more about how the music was done and what it expressed (and how it expressed it).

The element of how audiences perceive what we do (through their own preconceptions) is also interesting. For example, for quite a while I've done a "middle-European" pronunciation of Latin in works where I think it's appropriate (Haydn, Beethoven, and Bruckner masses, for example). One does run the risk that the audience will focus more on the "weird" Latin than on the music. Any time we hear something that doesn't meet our expectations, it has the potential to take us out of the moment. This has often been mentioned with nudity in film--do you continue to be involved in the story and characters, or think, "Wow, that's so-and-so with her top off"?

We can't help those reactions and must take them into account in our choices. Are the gains in a German pronunciation of "Kyrie" or "Agnus" worth the potential losses as some audience members think about Latin pronunciation rather than the music? You've got to at least ask the question, I think. And it will be the more "educated" in the audience who will notice it! I remember doing the Rheinberger Cantus Missae with my PLU choir on tour one year and we were using Germanic pronunciation. I got almost no reaction to it (other than people liking the beautiful mass) until we did a performance in Tucson, where my predecessor at PLU, Maurice Skones, was the head of the choral program at the U of Arizona. Afterwards he asked me, "What do you think all the grad students will be talking about tomorrow after hearing your performance?" Of course, it was the pronunciation of the Latin!

This post has gotten too long and is definitely too rambling, but these are important and intriguing questions! So, enough already.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Another sign of the apocalypse

Another reality television show, this time for conductors.

I'd earlier mentioned a British television series on conducting with various "personalities" competing. Here a report from The Scotsman.

The author notes:
In each episode of the six-week series, the eight celebrities – drum and bass star Goldie, actress Jane Asher, comedian Sue Perkins, actor Bradley Walsh, newsreader Katie Derham, TV presenter Peter Snow, actor David Soul and pop musician Alex James – will have to conduct a full orchestra in front of a live studio audience. Each week, one will be voted off by an expert judging panel. The victor will win the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra in front of an audience of 30,000, live on BBC2 at the Proms in the Park, as part of the Last Night of the Proms celebrations on 13 September.

He further notes about Goldie:
I watch, fascinated, as Goldie climbs on to the podium at St Cyprian's. A giant, shaven-headed fellow with an imperious demeanour, he is dressed in a yellow T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and trainers. Gold teeth glint from his mouth. Yet the moment he launches into conducting, I – and the entire orchestra – are spellbound. Eschewing a baton, Goldie communicates the beat through a mesmerising rhythmic dance on the podium. A great slab of a man possessed of a raw physicality, he simply dominates proceedings with his sheer charisma. As he rallies the musicians to a rousing climax in the Brahms and the cymbals and kettledrums crash and pound, I am enveloped by what Phil Spector, in rather different circumstances, called a wall of sound. I'm even more taken aback when the PR leans over and whispers in my ear: "He doesn't read music, you know. He's doing it all on instinct."

I'm glad you don't need any training to conduct Brahms!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dudamel again

Earlier this spring I wrote about a concert conducted by Venezuelan Wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel . Here's a very nice piece in the London Telegraph.

‘He's the real deal, isn't he?" someone said to me last week after a sizzling concert in Gothenburg.
The young Venezuelan firebrand Gustavo Dudamel had just conducted a programme of Copland and Berlioz, in advance of a tour that brings him and his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra to Britain for three dates this week.

Not only that, but he had got the Swedish players to let their hair down and swing with the best of them in a catchy Latin American encore. "They are very open to ideas," says Dudamel, beaming.

Dudamel radiates joy. When he says conducting the Gothenburg orchestra is "wonderful", he breathes a sort of sighing ecstasy into the word, his face lighting up. "They are like a chameleon," he says. "They can change colour, but always keeping their personality and the Nordic sound - clean and velvety. I love this."

Dudamel also talks about what it means to be a conductor:

To learn conducting is one thing, but in his case, I suggest to him, audiences and orchestras alike are embraced by a communicative quality with which he seems to have been born. "You can learn technique," he agrees, "but a conductor is a leader, a person whom players will follow.

You can be the best musician in the world, but the instinct to keep the attention of hundreds of people is impossible to learn. It's something natural. I think this is the secret of a good conductor."

That reminds me of something Brock McElheran said in his wonderful little book, Conducting Technique for Beginners and Professionals: "It's no use learning long lists of baroque ornaments if no one wants to play them for you."

As I said in my earlier post as well: Dudamel is the real deal--if you get a chance to see him, don't hesititate.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Another elitism essay

Following on Mark Swed's column, Geoff Schumacher in the Los Vegas Review Journal writes about his own views. A short excerpt:

All this talk of elitism came to mind last week when I spent an hour in the company of Libby Lumpkin, director of the Las Vegas Art Museum. She gave me a tour of the museum's current exhibit, "Las Vegas Collects Contemporary," and discussed the challenge of educating Las Vegans about the merits of modern art.

Modern, or contemporary, art often is put in the same category as classical music: "elitist." In an essay in the museum's most recent newsletter, Lumpkin tackles the issue head on:

"It has been said that today's contemporary art community is an elitist society. Indeed it is. As elitist societies go, however, the contemporary art community is a peculiarly democratic one since anyone who wants to may join. Members come from almost every nation and ethnic background, and include nearly all income brackets, education levels and age groups. Only two essential criteria are required for participation: an openness to the concept that ideas are embodied by the forms artists create, and a willingness to confront objects that may challenge conventional wisdom, reshape cultural values or test assumptions about how we see."

Worth reading the whole article.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The term "Elitism"

Mark Swed, music reviewer for the LA Times, writes a great piece on the word "elitism" and its use in other fields (athletics, for example) as opposed to the arts.

He opens the article with, "Every now and then, writers at The Times lose a word. Mainly these are adjectives subject to misuse. Some years ago we were advised to let go of legendary. Similarly, don't expect to see iconic, which has become equally cheapened, in the paper much anymore.

The adjectival criminal I'd like to see handed over to the word police is elitist, especially in its relationship to the arts and popular culture. In the "elitist" Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of "elite" is the "choice part, the best (of society, a group of people, etc.)," none of which sounds so terrible. But that is not what is meant when, say, classical music, my field, is scorned as elitist, as it regularly is."

This has bothered me for a long time. "Elitism" in the arts usually implies "stuck up," "snobbish," or worse. Yet we speak of "elite athletes" with no problem.

The arts are often considered expensive, only available to the "elite," not the ordinary Joe. Yet if you look at the cost of attending professional sporting events, pop/rock concerts, or other parts of pop culture, prices are certainly as high or higher.

Salaries for professional athletes or artists in the entertainment world are far more "elite" than those in the arts.

So why is elite a bad word in the arts, yet not so in other areas?

I say it's time to reclaim the words "elite" and "elitism" for their proper place in popular culture for the arts.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Eugene/Oregon Bach Festival

Kathryn and I spent time last week in Oregon. Thursday, June 26 we spent in Portland, one of our favorite cities, since the downtown is so humanly scaled and walkable, and it has great stores, shops, and restaurants. The weather was beautiful, so we enjoyed our afternoon and evening there and had a great dinner at the Heathman.

The next day, we went to Eugene, where we were staying with our friends Mira Frohnmayer and Marcia Baldwin. Mira was chair of the vocal department at PLU from a few years before I arrived, meaning that we worked together for 18 years. Some choral conductors have problems working with voice teachers, but I have to say Mira and I had a great relationship as colleagues. She's a terrific teacher with a knowledge of repertoire that's unmatched. Her partner, Marcia (their 15th anniversary is just a day away from our 12th--ours the 6th of July) had a great career as a singer (the Met, SF Opera, Santa Fe, etc.) and taught at Eastman before joining the PLU faculty. They're both terrific people and great fun to be with. Marcia's a great cook, so we had a number of fabulous meals at Chez M&M.

They retired a couple years ago, but spent time this past year teaching at Loyola in New Orleans for Mira's brother Phil, who's being treated for cancer. They loved teaching again, so will hang out their shingle again for a bit of private teaching in Eugene. If you're there and need a wonderful voice teacher, look them up!

Saturday evening we went to a performance of the Mass in B Minor, the opening concert at the festival. They'd really opened the night before in Portland, the first time in years that the festival had taken a program to the "big city." The performance was very good, but perhaps not as electric as Rilling's performances often are. It could be that the night before (which by all accounts went spectacularly) took a bit of the edge off--it may not have helped that they did the performances without intermission, too! Soloists were good, particularly Ingeborg Danz, who's been Rilling's "house mezzo" for years. You may remember that she sang in the great performance of Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri that Daniel Harding did with the Radio Choir in 2007. Chris Cock was also wonderful in the tenor solos. Chris is a PLU alum (from before my time) who teaches at Valparaiso University. He also sang the Evangelist for me in a memorable performance with the Choir of the West at PLU in 1993. We enjoyed the performance and seeing Chris, even if briefly, plus some other friends such as Paul Klemme, Therees Hibbard, Anton Armstrong, Royce Salzman, Philip and Carolyn Brunelle, and Birgit Hemberg (yes, from Sweden!).

Sunday was a great day of visiting, first to Philomath, Oregon, where a former student of both Mira and mine, Nathan Warren, has a winery that he runs with his wife Amanda (who's due any day now). We saw Nathan a couple years ago, but didn't meet Amanda, and Mira and Marcia hadn't see the winery. The Harris Bridge Vineyard is a small operation, but Nathan and Amanda are being very successful specializing in dessert wines (and they are good).

The winery is named after a covered bridge just outside the winery, and here are Nathan and Amanda as well:

We got back to Mira and Marcia's in time to meet old friends for drinks: Robert Ponto and his wife LeeAnn (don't know if I got her spelling correct!). Bob was the band director at PLU some time ago and both are wonderful people--I'd lost touch, even though Bob has been teaching at the U of O for awhile now. Very nice to see them again.

The next evening we managed to get tickets to the Garrison Keillor performance at the festival even though it was sold out, thanks to conductor Phillip Brunelle. Phillip is an amazing bundle of energy and accomplishment who's been with Garrison since the very first broadcast of the Prairie Home Companion, and also is conductor for all his gigs with orchestra. The performance was wonderful, utilizing not only the orchestra but the Festival Chorus and the Youth Chorus. Garrison was, as usual, funny and moving at the same time. Phillip says the shows always change and at one point he's at the piano, playing hymns as Garrison talks about the different organists at the church (this night Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky, among others. As Phillip says, he never knows who Garrison will mention. And of course there was also the marvelous Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra.

The following morning we bid adieu to Mira and Marcia (and great thanks to them for their hospitality), then went to meet Phillip, his wife Carolyn (a well-known artist), and our Swedish friend Birgit Hemberg (who's been friends with the Brunelles for many years) for lunch.

It was Phillip's 65th birthday and we had a delightful time, after which we headed back up I-5 to home.

All in all, a great anniversary trip.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Denver-Chorus America/NPAC

We went to the Chorus America conference from June 10-14, which this year was a joint effort with the other service organizations (orchestra, opera, chamber music, theatre, dance, etc.) as the National Performing Arts Conference in Denver.

I have to say, with combined organizations it was harder to find people (one of the chief reasons for going to these conferences!) and there were fewer purely choral sessions. However, it was still worthwhile.

We got there on Tuesday, before things really began, and ran into Dale Warland and his wife Ruth at the hotel, plus Roger Sherman of Loft/Gothic records, so had dinner together at a very nice Indian restaurant that evening.

We had a lovely time. I've known Dale for some time, since I brought him out to a PLU summer choral workshop some years ago (about the time he was leaving Macalester College and doing the Dale Warland Singers full-time. And I met Ruth not too long afterwards--as I mentioned, one year I flew out to Minneapolis-St. Paul to observe Dale's auditions. They're both wonderful people, incredibly warm. Roger I've known since 1978, when he recorded my performance of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers just before the National AGO conference in Seattle. Roger's a fine organist/church musician who'd met Dale a number of years before I did while Music Director at the Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis (later in Milwaukee). He wanted to get back to the Northwest and took a position at a little start-up called Microsoft. After "retiring" more than 10 years ago, he started Loft Records (which is now Gothic Records) and it has gradually grown, recently taking over the Clarion Records catalogue. He recorded and released all three of Choral Arts' CDs that I did. He specializes in organ and choral music and has a great catalogue, re-releasing many of Dale's older recordings that were out of print, and several from performance tapes. A terrific guy.

We also had time with our Pro Coro Canada colleagues (in order in the photograph below next to me): David Garber (manager), Trent Worthington (tenor, associate conductor), and Peter Malcolm (bass and treasurer of the board).

We also had a great time, time to brainstorm, and all found worthwhile sessions and networking.

Maria Guinand, our wonderful friend from Venezuela, did a great session which was essentially reminiscing about how her career had evolved--moving and fantastic. Maria has guest-conducted Pro Coro twice.

In the picture below, Karen Thomas (conductor of Seattle Pro Musica, which I founded in 1973 and which has blossomed under her leadership), Trent, Maria, and Vance George (retired from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, but not from conducting:

We also had a lovely dinner organized by Earl Rivers of CCM/University of Cincinnati choral department, again with Dale and Ruth Warland, and Johnny Ku, who's finishing up his DMA at CCM and was recently appointed conductor for the Taipei Philharmonic Choir beginning next year. I'll be guest professor at CCM again next May while Earl is on sabbatical, and am looking forward to it.

On Saturday, after the conference was primarily over, we met with Mike and Simone Rogers. Simone is a childhood friend of Kathryn's and they've always stayed in touch, even though they've seen each other rarely. Mike was in the Air Force, but is now retired from the service and working in Colorado Springs.

Mike and Simone:

We had a great trip into Rocky Mountain National Park, wonderful picnic lunch prepared by Simone, and a really nice visit. We had dinner in Boulder on the way back to Denver. At the park, we saw lots of wildlife, from Elk and deer to pikas and marmots.

And since Kathryn always takes these pictures and is rarely in them, here she is, too!

It was a good week. We've been back home now for a little more than a week, trying to catch up on work, and leave tomorrow for Portland, then Eugene for a performance of the Bach Mass in B Minor with Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Auditions 4

While at the Chorus America/NPAC conference in Denver, a group of conductors talked about auditions. Some additional ideas for auditioning:

- using excerpts from standard repertoire that all singers have to prepare (e.g. "And He Shall Purify" from Messiah to show ability with coloratura)

- conduct singer in an assigned excerpt to see how they follow/react to conductor

- additional exercises for ear testing: playing chords or clusters and asking singer to sing the middle pitch played

- do sight-reading in a quartet (you'd have a returning quartet on tap--new singers would replace one of the members and read)

- language: have 4-5 excerpts in different languages for the auditionee to read out loud

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Auditions 3

With my PLU choirs I always had a group audition, by section, after the individual auditions. This allowed me to find a bit more about musicianship, how quickly the singer could apply musical ideas, and to see how voices might work together.

If, for example, I were considering 16 sopranos for 12 spots available in the Choir of the West, I’d have an hour to work with them. In the last ten years or so of these auditions I did them “blind.” When the singers came in they’d pick a number (1 through 16) out of a box (they’d write their names on the piece of paper and hand it back at the end, so I’d have my “key” to who I was listening to). After introducing the process, I’d turn my back to the singers and call out numbers for particular singers. Of course, I could identify some singers’ voices right away, but I didn’t focus on guessing—simply on listening to the voice. I think new singers liked this “anonymity,” and later was sometimes genuinely surprised by the results as I ranked the singers.

I’d usually begin with a vocal exercise, and hear all singers one after another. Then we’d work on a passage from a work I’d chosen (usually something from upcoming repertoire). This helped me find out how quick singers were in learning something new and how musically they might sing. I’d then begin to combine different voices to see how they worked together.

At PLU this was easy to do, since we let sections know when recall auditions would be in advance (and they were held during regular choir rehearsal times, so we knew it wouldn’t conflict with another class). I did this a couple times with Choral Arts, but only if I couldn’t make a decision in a particular section with just the individual auditions. And with Pro Coro I only did it once when the choices were very close in the soprano section. I’d love to do this more often, but finding a time when all potential members of a section can do it is difficult, particularly since I have limited time available, too.

Other thoughts about the auditioning process? What works for you?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Auditions 2

So what have my audition procedures been?

This varies with the level of ensemble, of course. I want to hear something of the quality of the voice (sound, range, intonation, etc.) and also want to find out about musicianship (sight-reading/ear). I also listen for things that may cause problems: strident singing in a part of the range, an unusual vibrato (very fast or slow, very wide), lack of musicality, etc.

With all my groups this has involved singing something for me first (or the panel that hears auditions)—at PLU we’d accept a hymn, Christmas carol, or other simple song from a new auditionee, but returning singers were expected to sing an art song of some type. With Choral Arts this usually meant a couple songs that contrast and show different aspects of a singer’s voice. Pro Coro has long had a tradition of singing a Bach recitative and aria (in addition to an art song of the singer’s choice). This is difficult for some singers, but appropriate for a professional choir, and it’s been interesting to see how much one can learn from the singing of a recitative: whether the singer has a sense of style, of rhetoric, how well they hear the underlying harmonies that are implied in a Bach recitative, etc. This tradition (Bach recitative and aria) predated me with Pro Coro, but it tells a lot, so I’ve kept it.

Depending on what I hear in the music chosen by the singer, I may want to do some vocalizes for range if the repertoire hasn’t shown me enough of that, or even do a portion of one of the songs again, asking for something different (less vibrato, a bigger sound, a change of phrasing). This not only tells me something the song didn’t, but in the case of a new singer, how quickly they can adapt to instruction.

Figuring out musicianship in someone you’ve never heard before is difficult. I’ve always included some sight-reading (the level varies, according to the choir), but I also know that this is something that makes many singers very nervous—and they don’t show what they can really do. And it’s also not the kind of sight-reading one does in a choral situation. Further, it doesn’t say how motivated the singer will be to learn music. I’ve had some singers who aren’t terrific sight-readers, but will do whatever is necessary to be prepared (and the opposite—singers who read quite well, but aren’t willing to do any work outside of rehearsal, even if they can’t get a particular passage). You can only know this in returning singers, since you’ve had the experience of working with them.

Consequently, I’ve also often done tonal memory exercises (playing simple patterns that the singer repeats by ear, then gradually getting more difficult). Sometimes, especially with the students at PLU, this told me a lot about how quick the singer’s ear is and more about how quickly they might learn. When I watched Dale Warland do his auditions, he usually played examples at different speeds, dynamics and articulations, to see if the singer picks up on those details as well as pitch and rhythm.

With new singers, I also want to get a sense of their personality, how they might work in a group, etc. Everyone fills out a form telling me their background: voice training, music classes, instruments played (and how long), choirs they’ve sung in, etc. Follow-up questions at the audition might elicit more information and I also may have a follow-up phone call with a voice teacher or former choir director. All of this augments the information I have to work with in making a decision.

More about group/ensemble auditioning in the next post.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Reality TV hits conducting

"Maestro" is the title of the new BBC reality series where, as Norman Lebrecht states it, "the winner among eight para-celebrities gets to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra during the Last Night of the Proms, a ticket to world fame."

The contestants are made up of 2 rock stars, 2 newscasters, 3 actors (including David Soul of Starsky and Hutch!), and one comedian, each of whom gets 5 days of "total immersion" and some review sessions.

Interesting (with all that word often implies).

I'll be honest, I don't think the "conducting" part of conducting is the most difficult part. Many famous musicians have turned to conducting at some point in their careers, and successfully. Others have not been so successful, such as Dietrich Fisher-Diskau (as an aside, when he told Otto Klemperer that he'd be conducting a Schubert symphony the next week, Klemperer reportedly growled back, "And I'll be singing Winterreise.")

But those musicians who made a successful career in conducting were musicians with a thorough training and background before making the switch. Lebrecht says, "Consider Maestro on a relative scale of values. What if the BBC tried a talent show for new heart surgeons, with the winner performing a live angioplasty after five days’ boot camp and three weeks on the ward? Unthinkable, you’d say, it’s a matter of life and death. . . But music? Anyone can do music. You don’t have to give up childhood and six years in conservatory to sing Nessun Dorma or conduct Turandot. Four weeks of being taught how to fake it and you can fool the world. That’s what the BBC is putting over in Maestro: the principle that art is unimportant and the public are plain mugs."

What do you think?

Oops . . . didn't realize John Brough had blogged on this already. Here it is.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Auditioning 1

Nobody likes auditions.

I don’t think that’s too controversial a statement! Necessary evil? An important part of creating the best possible choir? Deliberate torture? All of the above?

Bill Eddins, conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, wrote on his blog about the auditioning process for a new principal trumpet for the orchestra. He took a fair amount of heat for this (and answered it well here), but it raises interesting questions.

And this is on my mind since I’m just finishing auditions for Pro Coro Canada, so . . . some thoughts about auditions and auditioning.

There are, of course, many un-auditioned choirs, and good reasons for having such choirs. I have to say, though, that with the exception of my church choirs (and it’s been some time since I was a church musician, essentially between 1970 and 1980), I’ve usually worked with auditioned choirs. Auditioning—evaluating both new and returning singers—is for me a necessary part in attaining (and keeping) a high-level choir.

I also understand auditioning isn’t an enjoyable process for either the auditioner (or the auditionee, especially when difficult choices have to be made).

However, we want our choirs to improve and need a way to evaluate singers, and the audition is one way to do that.

A more difficult question (and process) is whether a returning singer’s position in the choir is at risk in an audition?

For some time now—with the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University, with Choral Arts, with the Seattle Symphony Chorale, and with Pro Coro Canada—I’ve had policies that a returning singer has to earn his or her spot at each re-audition. And I know I’ve occasionally had singers who simply wouldn’t audition because of that, even though they could certainly make it into the choir, a loss for both of us.

I understand the discomfort this engenders (in me, too), but without this possibility, choir membership can become stagnant (particularly in adult choirs—less of a problem in student choirs). And one also has to recognize that an individual singer’s skills, both vocally and musically, don’t stay the same. They can improve or decline. And in the case of a choir like Pro Coro, which is a professional choir of 24 voices (and we can’t increase the number of core singers for budgetary reasons even if, let’s say, I hear several outstanding new singers audition for a particular section), I’m responsible for the artistic quality of what we do—and must make decisions accordingly. Not easy!

Pro Coro has long had a policy of re-auditioning every year. With Choral Arts and the Seattle Symphony Chorale we did every other year (sops and tenors one year, altos and basses the next). I believe the Swedish Radio Choir does every third year (although every year after age 55, I believe), but that's unusual for a European professional choir, since most are unionized and once a singer gains tenure, it's very difficult to remove them.

More about the process in the next post.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Catching up

Sorry to have been silent for awhile . . . but life goes on!

I had less than a week home from Sweden before heading to Edmonton for auditions, a board meeting, and lots of planning meetings.

We just yesterday got back from Edmonton and are in the midst of the usual catch-up from travel--clothes to be washed, mail to take care of, errands to run, etc.

So, I'll gradually get some posts going.

Given auditions for Pro Coro Canada, I've been thinking about the whole auditioning process and will likely have a post or two about that. I also plan to write something about what it was like to work with the Swedish Radio Choir: what it's like and what I've taken away from that experience again this year.

The summer calendar is quickly filling up, even though I'm taking most of the summer "off" (no such thing exists!). Kathryn and I are off to Denver and the Chorus America conference June 10-15 (along with three other compatriots from Pro Coro). We'll likely get down to Eugene and the Oregon Bach Festival for a performance or two and visits with friends in late June/early July. My brother and his family will be out from Memphis for the month of July, so we'll have some time together. Our friend from Sweden, Eva Wedin, will come to visit for about 10 days at the end of July, and Catherine Kubash from Edmonton not too long after that for a few days as well. We'll head to Vancouver B.C. for some concerts at both Festival Vancouver and the Vancouver Early Music Festival.

My regular score study program also has to begin in earnest next Monday or I'll fall far behind! With Pro Coro I have Haydn's Harmoniemesse (parts should arrive next week and I need to begin marking parts--this will save an enormous amount of time--and I'll also mark the choral scores), Vaughan Williams' Mass in G Minor, a lot of new stuff for our "One World, Many Voices" program, and the Victoria Requiem. We also have two commissioned works, a substantial work by Allan Bevan for choir, soloist, narrator and chamber orchestra for Christmas, and a new work by Associate Conductor Trent Worthington for November. I probably won't see either score until the early fall, so all the more reason to make sure everything else is well-prepared already!

I also conduct Monteverdi's Orfeo in Edmonton in November as part of the Festival of Ideas, celebrating the University of Alberta's centenary, so continued score prep there, too. This should be a terrific production with a great cast (Colin Balzer, Suzie LeBlanc, Catherine Webster, Mireille Lebel, Bill Hite, Paul Grindlay and others) and wonderful period-instrument orchestra from all over. A number of the cast members and orchestra members will be in Vancouver for a production of Rameau's Pygmalion, along with Ellen Hargis, who will be stage director, so it's also a chance to meet and work on a few details of planning.

At any rate, even though it's technically a summer off, it'll be full!

More when I can.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sweden – 14-15 May 2008

So, the last full day finally arrives. We met with Gary Graden for lunch—he’d just gotten back from Berlin, where he’d prepared the Radio Choir (Simon Halsey is their regular conductor) for a performance with Michael Gielen and the Berlin Philharmonic. He’d had a great time and said the choir is singing very well. It was good to see him one more time before leaving. A great friend.

At 3:30 I had my last rehearsal with RK, who were leaving the next day (same day as us) for the Netherlands and their concerts with Peter and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. This was to refresh the Pizzetti Requiem and Verdi Quattro Pezzi Sacri for them before they began rehearsals with NK (they are only doing the Verdi jointly—the Pizzetti they will do on their own, although with NK in the audience!). I think they’re well prepared, but of course, Peter has done the preparation of NK, so I hope the Verdi melds easily for them. All such great music!

We bid goodbye to singers, to Arne, Marita from the RKs administration (who was always so helpful), and to Mikael. A little sad to leave after working with the choir so much since January, but I have much to do and great projects to look forward to next year. Eva Wedin will visit us this summer in Tacoma, and it’ll be great fun to show her some of the Pacific Northwest.

Arne, me, and Mikael:

Me and Eva:

The evening was spent packing and the next morning washing linens and cleaning before the taxi arrived to take us to Arlanda airport.

And that ends this year’s Swedish adventure.

We can’t thank enough all of our friends here who make us feel so welcome, the great singers of RK, and most of all, Gunilla. What a spectacular time!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sweden – 12-13 May 2008

Monday it stayed sunny, but the temperatures dropped considerably, down to around 60 F/15 C. It was then a good day to go out to the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) in a really impressive building with both permanent collections and temporary exhibits about Swedish history and life. Exhibits range from housing to clothes (lots of shoes, which didn’t interest my dad and me too much) to folk crafts. One temporary exhibit was on the Sami people (those formerly known as Lapplanders) and their lives—a very beautiful exhibit that shows that the Swedes weren’t much better than we were at dealing with native ethnic populations.

Tuesday we met Eva Wedin for lunch at Sturehof, a favorite restaurant that specializes in fish. Since Eva had been ill and wasn’t at the rehearsals for the Vårkonsert she hadn’t been able to meet my parents. We had a lovely time.

Eva and me:

Eva and Kathryn:

That evening we took the tunnelbana (subway) and a bus out to Birgit Hemberg’s new apartment, which is in the same building as her good friends, the Dimanders (Margareta and Bertil). Again, we had a lovely time and, as always at Birgit’s, wonderful food. Birgit was for many years the editor of Allt om mat (Everything about Food), Scandinavia’s leading food magazine. She also edited Bonniers Cookbook, which would be the equivalent of Joy of Cooking and a recent food lexicon—while she’s technically “retired,” it’s clear she’s not really!

Birgit, me, Dad, Margareta, Mom, & Bertil:

Birgit and the Dimanders have also established a foundation to keep Eskil Hemberg’s work in front of the public, and hold the Eskil Hemberg Days festival in Värmland, on their family farm, during the summer. They do an art exhibit during the festival and it may be that Kathryn will exhibit in 2009.

At any rate, we had a lovely time, not getting back home until nearly midnight. For my folks that meant a very short night, since they had a 6:45 AM flight. However, they got to the airport successfully and I think had a really wonderful two weeks in Sweden. It was great for us to have them there.

Sweden – 10-11 May 2008

The weekend following the concert had gorgeous weather with blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70s F/23 C. One of the things we most wanted to do with my folks was take a ferry trip out in the archipelago. The archipelago surrounding Stockholm is extraordinary, with small islands and big ones, most with summer homes built on them, even the smallest ones.

Saturday we decided to take the ferry to Vaxholm, the “capitol” of the archipelago, and not too long a trip—about an hour or so by one of the older steamboats. We made probably 6 or so stops along the way and they are efficient—most stops to drop off passengers and pick up a few more took just a couple minutes.


Vaxholm itself is a lovely, small town with a fortress on the island just next door, established in 1558. We first had a relaxed lunch, sitting outside but under cover from the sun (which was quite warm), then wandered around the town a bit before heading back via a much faster boat with fewer stops.

The fortress seen from Vaxholm:

Sunday we took the bus out on Djurgården to Waldermarsudde, which was the home of Prince Eugen (1865-1947). The prince was a very talented artist and the house reflected his interests and considerable taste. Built in 1903-04, it has gorgeous views, three floors (the top floor being his studio, designed to bring in maximum light year-round. His own paintings, paintings of friends in his circle, and furniture from all periods fill the house. He donated it and most of his collection to the Swedish state and it has been maintained as a museum (he also added a gallery building next to his home in 1913 to contain his growing collection), the first two floors of the house mostly as he left them, the other two floors and the gallery with whatever exhibit is current.

Again, the weather was beautiful, the tulips (of which there were many) around the house in full bloom, and we couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. This was my first time to the museum, but Kathryn had been here twice before, the first time with Gunilla in November 2002 (it’s one of Gunilla’s favorite places and one of her relatives was an artist in Prince Eugen’s circle—and there are several of his paintings there) and again last winter. She says it’s just as beautiful a setting then, so don’t miss it if you have the chance to visit.


Sculpture outside (notice the “arrow” from the archer’s bow!):

We had lunch there in the delightful café, which offers mostly traditional Swedish food. We also ran into Birgit Hemberg and her two sons (whom we hadn’t met) and their wives while there, a lucky coincidence since we were to go to dinner at her apartment the next evening, and hadn’t yet connected on directions!