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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sweden - January 26/27/28

After a busy week (and a couple nights with short sleep) I crashed on Saturday. Kathryn, meantime, was working (shopping/preparing) a dinner party for some of our friends for Saturday evening: Arne and Birgit Lundmark (Arne's manager of RK, Birgit works in the administration for the orchestra), Eva Wedin (RK alto and librarian), and Mikael Engström (RK accompanist). It was nice to return the favor of nice meals at their homes last visit. All are really delightful people with a wide range of interests, so conversation ranged over lots of subjects and Kathryn's Indian-inspired dinner was a hit. We didn't think Birgit could come, since she was about to leave with the orchestra for the Canary Islands, but luckily her flight wasn't scheduled until Sunday. Birgit had lived with an Indian family when a student for a time in South Africa, so she knew quite a bit about Indian food, and Mikael had recently gone on a vacation to India, so also had interesting observations as well. It was a lovely evening.

Sunday was a fairly lazy day, with some preparation and writing.

Monday was mostly a prep day for me, Kathryn again cooking, this time a beautiful fish soup for dinner with Eric and Monica, and Gary Graden (Gary's wife, Maria, was in "end of project" mode, so couldn't come). Again, a lovely evening with lots of reminiscing, since Gary sang in EEKK for quite a few years. Fun to hear Eric talk about various tours and projects, and Monica, too. It's always amazing to imagine what Eric's schedule was for many years (and the preparation for all the works he conducted). He and Monica were married in 1976 and Monica said at the time he always had RK Monday, Wednesday, Friday; Chamber Choir on Tuesday, and Orphei Drängar in Uppsala on Thursday. Of course, that doesn't include the Conservatory Chamber Choir, or teaching, or . . . And of course, ALL of those choirs were touring, so the calendar was very full (and masterclasses and guest-conducting . . . ).

So, two lovely dinner parties with dear friends and colleagues.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sweden – Friday 25 January – Orphée

Thanks to Tamara Beliaeva-Bohlin, we got tickets to the Royal Opera’s performance of Gluck’s Orphée (performed in the 1859 Berlioz version). Anne Sofie von Otter and Anna Larsson alternated in the title role—while we would have loved to hear Anne Sofie, Swedish contralto Anna Larsson was in the role that night, and did not disappoint. Interestingly, she’s also doing Erda during the same period at Kungliga Operan.

It was also interesting for me to see Gluck’s version of Orphée, since I’ll be conducting Monteverdi’s Orfeo in a production in Edmonton next November—quite different approaches to the story.

Although musically very strong, it was the production itself that was most interesting. Mats Ek, who is a choreographer, both directed (his first opera, we heard) and did the choreography.

The opera opens with the orchestra pit up and all orchestra members (male and female—the conductor, too) dressed in black suits, white shirts, long black ties, and black fedoras for the overture. At the end of the overture, the pit lowers and the curtain rises on the chorus and dancers, facing the back of the stage, again all in the same costume, except for Orphée, who only lacks the fedora, and whose hair is short, thin, and white (Kathryn said, ‘ratty comb-over’). The costumes and black and white set give the effect of a Magritte painting (with fedoras instead of bowler hats).

Anna Larsson is very tall and thin, so made a striking figure as she moved among the singers and dancers. Ek has everyone be very active (not just the 10 dancers), so the chorus has to move almost constantly and in quite complicated ways. They coped well and sang beautifully. The backdrop for this act is a large moon and gravestone—the sets throughout are minimalist, but very effective—as they sing their opening lament at the death of Eurydice. Larsson, of course, sings during most of the act—it’s a dominating role for the alto—and she was very moving.

When Amor (Jeanette Bjurling) appears to tell Orphée that he can go to the underworld to bring back Eurydice, she’s wrapped neck to ankles in grave wrappings like a mummy and carried around by four dancers, who set her down occasionally to sing (although she also sings while being carried around). This resulted in some giggles from the audience—also during bows at the end when she came out and hopped about with tiny little steps (usually with someone holding her arm for balance).

The second act opens on an extremely Hieronymus Bosch-like hell scene, with trap doors opening up and smoke rising from them. The chorus and dancers are now in nude body stockings (complete with sewn-on phalluses), some with the just the black pants on, some with just the jackets, and many with deformities from hunchbacks to enlarged hands or arms. Again, Ek has the chorus move in novel ways and the dancers in particular move and jump in and out of the pit.

When Orphée pleads to be allowed to bring back Eurydice, he’s accompanied by string quartet and harp in the Berlioz version—Tamara made her only appearance in the pit here, so it was a short night for her!

In the second scene, when the flute has an extended solo, Orphée and the chorus members move to the edge of the orchestra pit to watch the flute and applaud at the end of the solo. Eurydice (Lisa Larsson) finally returns.

During intermission we wandered around to people-watch, and whom did we see but Tõnu Kaljuste! We chatted briefly and it turned out he came over from Tallinn, Estonia, just for a day or two to see this production. The director is someone he will work with and he said (of the direction and movement), “It’s a new language—I love it!” One of his passions is the Nargen Opera Project Theatre, of which he’d dreamed for a number of years; it began in reality in 2004. Tõnu conducted Pro Coro with other choirs at two separate festivals in Toronto several years ago, so I met him there.

The 3rd Act set is just 3 large flats, one with the drawing of a chair, one with a lamp, and one with a door (all upside down). The chorus is now entirely in white bridal gowns (where both the men and women of the chorus/dancers were in suits or body stockings earlier, now all the males were, like the females, in the gowns) with stringy white hair (except for Orphée, of course). One part of the ballet has four of the male chorus members doing a short dance, including some “leaps,” with the largest chorus member in particular, and drawing laughter from the audience. After the chorus and ballet, the flats are flown away and the corresponding props (white armchair, lamp, and door) are brought on as Orphée begins to take Eurydice out of Hades. (Some unintended comedy since the tech person responsible for turning the lamp on and off as Orphée does was never on time). Eurydice (who by the way, is also in a gown, though distinct in style from all the rest, but the platinum blond hair is her own, and quite beautiful) is upset because Orphée will not look at her (he can’t, of course, or she’ll die again) and he finally becomes convinced that she no longer loves him, so he’d rather die. He looks at her and (of course), she dies, and then he sings in grief the best-known aria from the opera, J’ai perdu mon Eurydice (or it’s better known Italian version, Che farò senza Eurydice). He decides to kill himself to remain with her in Hades, but Amor returns to bring Eurydice back to life as a reward for his constant love, and we have a happy ending.

I can’t begin to describe all the scenic effects, dancing, movement, etc, but suffice it to say it was an inventive production, rich in symbolism (some of which I didn’t follow) and imagination. It was well sung and played, all in all quite a success. Many thanks to Tamara for the tickets.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sweden – January 24/25

Today’s rehearsal was perhaps the most tiring—for me and the choir. I ran the Pizzetti without break, only doing a bit of rehearsal—it’s so important for the singers to get a sense of the whole and how it fits together. The bigger challenges came with lots of time, more detailed work and many repetitions of parts of both Penderecki’s Agnus Dei and Stabat Mater. I think we got lots of good work done, but have to say I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I accomplished. These are by no means the most difficult pieces, but there are places that simply take lots of repetition to get right (or did today, at any rate). And it has places where I have to hear exactly what’s going wrong (and why) and I simply didn’t feel I did this as well today. The choir’s focus wasn’t as good today either—whether that came from me or from them, I’m not sure, but we’ll hope for a better day tomorrow. It’s important to remember that we’re all human (certainly I am!) and we all have to deal with the great days and the not so great ones.

Almost immediately after the rehearsal, we headed next door to Berwaldhallen to hear the Radio Orchestra and their 33-year old Music Director, Daniel Harding, do a concert just before they head off to their tour to the Canary Islands. The program began with a Rameau Suite from Hippolyte et Aricie. Obviously, the orchestra plays modern instruments, but they worked at elements of period style. For me (and even more for Kathryn), though, Harding’s approach was too aggressive and the sound of the strings, in particular, harsh. It didn’t engage either of us. The second piece on the program was Berlioz’ La mort de Cléopâtre, which I didn’t know, with mezzo Malena Ernman. This was much better and Ernman was really wonderful (although covered occasionally by the orchestra). Physically, she’s imposing, very tall and athletic looking, with a big voice which she uses well. She must have an amazing stylistic range, as she’s done contemporary opera (Sandström’s Staden), Mozart roles, and the lead in Cabaret. Nice to get to hear her.

The second half was Beethoven 5, and here Harding’s sense of drama, overall structure and pacing, and dynamic approach was fantastic. It was a wonderful performance.

Friday morning’s rehearsal with RK was much better. I opened with the Pärt again, concentrating entirely on intonation—as most of you know, the magic of Pärt‘s music is often in the silences and of the mood that is created over a span of time (or perhaps better put, creating a sense of timelessness). But that will be created with Kaspars when both choirs are together with him and the organist, so I worked on another area of importance in performing Pärt: really pure, clean intonation. With Pizzetti, we still needed to simply sing it more (again, only about 3 of the singers have done it before), but also to concentrate on intonation—there are some tricky places in this work. After break, the Stabat Mater came first. Here I worked “backwards,” something I do sometimes, beginning with the last section, then once it’s secure, doing the next section back until secure then connecting to the last (singing to the end), etc. This process continues until you’re fairly early in the piece. (Another way of explaining it: If there were five sections—ABCDE—I’d work E until secure, then D until secure, then sing D through E; then work C until secure, followed by running C-D-E, and so on). Since it’s our natural tendency to start work at the beginning of works, the last sections are sometimes slighted. This procedure means the final sections of the work get the most repetition. For this piece, I thought it was particularly helpful. The opening section of the Stabat Mater also needed work on intonation: the basses (in three choirs) sing a low A with each taking a syllable of the text and then sustaining it (I: Sta, II: -bat, III Ma, IV: -ter, I: Do, etc.). Since each part is sustaining a different vowel, and each vowel has its own structure of partials (sorry, non-musicians—you can just skip over this!), it’s tough for the singers to match each other’s pitch while singing different vowels. Just an acoustic phenomenon! At any rate, we closed with the Agnus Dei, first working on a few sections that were problematic, then running it. Good focus from the choir (which probably means I did a better job) and a good rehearsal to end this part of the project. It’ll be a slightly different choir next week (or probably two of them) for Matthew Passion Tuesday and Wednesday and Rachmaninoff The Bells and two folksongs on Thursday and Friday.

A word about RKs schedule: this isn’t always typical for them, but sometimes the way concerts are scheduled (particularly when they’re with the orchestra, or when there are tours), rehearsals for particular programs are scheduled all over the place. Here’s what they’re doing now through the spring:

Week 4 – the work we just did (Pizzetti, Penderecki, & Pärt)
Week 5 – Matthew Passion (2 days), Rachmaninoff Bells (2 days)
Week 6 – two more rehearsals on The Bells (with EEKK) and two on Rach Vigil (AKA Vespers)
Week 7 – one rehearsal on Vigil, last rehearsals on Bells and two concerts
Week 8 – off
Week 9 - one rehearsal on Vigil, then tour to Helsinki for both programs of Rach
Week 10 – this time they take both programs to Oslo
Week 11 – Kaspars arrives and they have rehearsals with him and the concert of the “three P’s” – also one rehearsal for Matthew Passion
Week 12 – final rehearsals for Matthew Passion and two performances
Week 13 - (week after Easter) off
Week 14 – I’m back again, for three rehearsals on Verdi Quattro Pezzi Sacri (which Peter will do on their Netherlands tour with the Netherlands Chamber Choir) and some time with the Pizzetti again (which they’ll do with the Netherlands Chamber Choir, but also on their own); and one rehearsal on Sandström April och Tystnad and Werle trees (for a domestic tour)
Week 15 – Peter arrives for work on the domestic tour program (all 4 rehearsals)
Week 16 – one rehearsal for tour, then 4 concerts in Sweden
Week 17 – me again, three rehearsals for my spring concert with them
Week 18 – mostly free, but one rehearsal for Larsson’s Förklädd Gud (God in Disguise)
Week 19 – 2 rehearsals on spring concert, one that I’m doing on the Brahms Requiem (for a tour later with Valeri Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic), and the spring concert on May 9
Week 20 – I do one more rehearsal with them on Verdi Quattro Pezzi and Pizzetti before they go to Holland and meet Peter for their tour for this week and the next. Then in Week 22, they return from the tour and do the Larsson they rehearsed back in Week 18

It’s a small glimpse into the scheduling world of RK.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sweden – January 21/22/23

Today was mostly a prep day for the beginnings of rehearsals tomorrow—except for a wonderful middag meal (lunch, dinner, supper, whatever you call it) with Gary Graden at his favorite fish restaurant, which was indeed marvelous. Gary and Kath had an appetizer of sill (herring) and main course of halibut with potatoes and Dijon hollandaise sauce—wonderful, they said! I had a pike/perch filet (similar to walleye) served over spinach with a béarnaise sauce and rice, also marvelous. A lovely house white wine accompanied the meal and a small dessert of chocolate mousse with mint (and a strawberry as well) and coffee or tea finished it off. Tremendous food and great conversation, as always. Gary has two interesting concerts the first week in February with his friend, Estonian astronomer/musician/composer Urmas Sisask. I’ll report about it then.

This morning was my first rehearsal with Radiokören (hence RK as the abbreviation—in Swedish the article is usually attached at the end of the word—in this case the “en” at the end Radiokören serves to mean “The Radio Choir”). Even though I know them and they know me, there’re always a few nerves leading to the first rehearsal (but no real worries). There were a number of subs for this concert (7 or 8 out of 32—although most have sung with RK before—perhaps many times before), which always means you have to think of bringing the choir into ensemble again. While there are wonderful things about RK being part-time (considered 50%), it means that not all singers can sing every concert.

I found out from Eva Wedin that RK hadn’t sung the Pizzetti (ever!) and in fact, when I asked at the beginning of rehearsal, only 3 singers had sung it before—surprising to me. If you don’t know the Requiem, it’s a gorgeous piece, written in 1922-23, inspired by Pizzetti’s studies of early music, but with his own musical language.

In a situation like this I can’t really plan a detailed rehearsal—there’s just too much that’s unknown about how it will go. So I knew I’d start with Pizzetti, see how far we could get, and plan to do the Sanctus (which is for triple choir) before break so they just had to change formation once. After break I’d do the Penderecki Agnus Dei, then finish with as much of the Stabat Mater (which is also three choirs) as I could do.

As it turned out, we were able to do all of those pieces, although there’s still work to do, of course. The choir’s very quick and are good readers, so we didn’t have to spend much time on notes, although both Penderecki pieces, especially the Stabat Mater, have distinct pitch challenges.

I think for young/inexperienced conductors this part of rehearsal technique is difficult. Score study and hearing what’s going on (especially with as many parts as in this repertoire) is a big challenge—and then to respond to what you hear with a good diagnosis of what is wrong (where intonation falters and why, which pitches are incorrect, where rhythmic difficulties are, etc.) and how to fix the problem. While a guest professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music last year, even for some of my grad students this was difficult: being good students, they’d plan a detailed rehearsal (what would go wrong and how to fix it) but too often follow the plan even if not all elements of the plan were necessary. If they’d simply sung through the music first, heard what was happening (comparing it to their inner conception of how it should sound), they could then formulate what to do. As it was, they wasted time “fixing” things that didn’t really need to be fixed. Of course, I understand that this is a necessary stage—thinking through possible problems and how to fix them is a good thing! But they still have to remain open to really hearing what’s happening and responding to it—a skill that builds slowly. The more experience one has, the more efficient one’s rehearsal technique can be—although of course rehearsal technique is part craft and part art: there are many ways to get from here to there! Mathematicians will tell you that there are a number of possible solutions to a given problem, but some are more “elegant” than others. It’s the same with rehearsal technique, I believe. Enough already, this belongs in a separate blog, not in a Swedish report!

At any rate, it was a good first rehearsal on this repertoire. Remember that I have four three-hour rehearsals (actually, Friday’s will be cut short because about half the choir is singing for the funeral of a former head of the music section of the Radio) to get this music and Pärt’s The Beatitudes ready for Kaspars Putnins and the Latvian Radio Choir, who have two rehearsals before their concert together on March 16 (plenty of time to forget things, too!). So lots to do to make sure they’re as secure as possible.

With the experience of today’s rehearsal, tomorrow’s can be planned in more detail.

I went over early to the Radio to do a little checking for other possible pieces for the spring concert, which still isn’t finalized (but will be soon). Also to check a particular notation in the Penderecki Stabat Mater, which is a part of his St. Luke Passion—I looked at the full score and the notation meant what I thought (quasi spoken), but that isn’t really much help. I'll just prepare the choir well with the actual pitches and Kaspars can easily change to as much “speech” and little pitch as he wishes.

Since I knew better where problems are, the rehearsal could be more thoroughly planned. It was a tougher rehearsal than yesterday’s, though, because of much more starting and stopping for details (always more frustrating for the singers). There’s still work to do on the Stabat Mater, and the Pärt (which we essentially just sang through) will need work tomorrow to make intonation better—if you’ve sung/conducted any Pärt, you know it’s deceptively simple: the intervallic leaps and exchanges between parts (crossing voices) is never as easy as it seems, even for such a good choir. Beautiful music, though.

Tomorrow will be some more detail work, but starting to put big sections together as well. Hopefully Friday can then be mostly running pieces and movements to get as much sense of flow as possible. Each day I also try to vary tempi and rubato so singers are prepared for whatever Kaspars wants.

Tomorrow evening after rehearsal we’re going to the Radio Orchestra’s concert, Daniel Harding conducting a big Rameau suite, and Beethoven 5—all before they head off on a tour to the Canary Islands. On Friday evening, thanks to Ragnar Bohlin’s wife Tamara, we have comp tickets to Gluck’s Orfée at the Royal Opera (Ragnar said Tamara got the last two tickets). We also stopped by Konserthuset before rehearsal to get tickets for Gustavo Dudamel’s concert with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra the night before I leave. We ended up getting seats in the choir loft, not the best place to hear the orchestra, but terrific for a dead-on view of Dudamel—it should be fascinating to watch this young phenomenon conduct a Prokokfiev cello concerto with Truls Mørk (the fantastic Norwegian cellist) and Nielsen Fifth Symphony.

Programming III

It seems obvious, but it’s easiest to program if you have the broadest possible knowledge of the repertoire for your choir. The bigger the lists of “possible pieces” and your knowledge about their demands (whether they’re appropriate for your group), the more options you have. For young conductors this is a challenge. For them in particular, but for all of us, searching for new repertoire is a constant occupation, whether browsing at the local music store or music library, subscribing to various publishers’ new issues, noting pieces on someone else’s concert program, following repertoire postings on choralist, enlisting your colleagues’ help, listening to recordings, or attending reading sessions at music conferences or workshops.

I was lucky to have some great mentors early in my career. Neil Lieurance was a student teacher at my high school during my sophomore year, took a non-music job there my junior year (but accompanied the small ensemble, and I also started to take voice lessons from him at that time), and then took over the choral program my senior year. Neil loved learning new repertoire (still does!) and provided a great role model. Even after I graduated and went on to university, I’d visit and he’d share whatever new music or recordings he’d added to his library. His excitement about this was catching. Since he was working on a master’s degree at Western Washington University in the summers, I got to know Bob Scandrett, who headed the program there, and attended several summer workshops with clinicians such as Gregg Smith, Günther Graulich (editor/owner of Carus Verlag) and Louis Halsey (a fine conductor in his own right, but probably best known now as the father of conductor Simon Halsey—who’s been Simon Rattle’s choral conductor since the beginning of Rattle’s career in Birmingham). Just with those three conductors/workshops I learned a wealth of American repertoire, European repertoire, and British repertoire.

Rod Eichenberger was my first teacher at the University of Washington and also had a great appetite for exploring new repertoire. During my sophomore year (after Rod had come up to Western for the end of the Gregg Smith workshop and we collaborated on making a rather potent punch at the after-party) I started hanging around his office with the grad students (I learned a lot from them, too—during that time I sang in almost all of their graduate recital choirs). Rod always received lots of new issues from publishers—ah, the days when it was easy to get complimentary copies! —and had them stacked all over the place. He made a deal with me: if I’d file all this music for him, I could keep any duplicate copies. That was the beginning of my personal reference library. I got some fantastic music, but just as importantly began to get an overview of the repertoire. If I filed a piece by Hindemith, let’s say, I looked through the file to see what else he’d written. This was an incredible gift to me.

All of us need to continually expand our knowledge of repertoire. This will also be shaped by the ensembles you conduct: the choral repertoire is broad and has so many sub-genres: treble, male, mixed, sacred, secular, for large ensemble, for small ensemble, etc., plus all levels from the most inexperienced choir to advanced repertoire only a professional choir could attempt. For example, when I taught at Mount Holyoke College for three years (a women’s college), I had a crash course in women’s literature and learned as much as I could about it and searched it out. Later, when I wasn’t conducting a women’s chorus, I didn’t keep up with this repertoire so much—but with the advent of the men’s chorus at PLU (which I led), I began collecting men’s rep appropriate to my beginning level ensemble. Whatever your choir(s), you’ll want to explore and acquire as much literature that’s appropriate as you can. When you take on a new choir with a new and different repertoire, get to know experts in that area and pick their brains, look at their programs, browse their libraries. When I became Artistic Director of Pro Coro Canada, Jon Washburn (conductor of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, whom I’d known for some time) let me come up to visit and spend an afternoon browsing through his extensive personal library, specifically looking at Canadian choral works. Again, an incredibly gracious gift.

One of the glories of the choral medium is that there is such a wealth of repertoire to explore. We’ll never run out of it, and that’s one of the joys of this job. It should never be dull.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sweden – January 18/19

I had lunch with Per Korsfeldt, out near the offices of the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir (EEKK). Per has sung with EEKK since 1989 and is manager for the choir for quite a number of years now, too.

If you’ve read posts from last year’s trip to Sweden, you know that one of my concerns has been what will happen to the Chamber Choir post-Eric. I think the picture has become clearer and more positive. For the first time, EEKK has gotten some continuing support from the government. This is extraordinarily important, since it makes it possible to plan ahead. Previously, application for funding had to be made every year—followed by the wait to see if it is approved—and, given deadlines, it made it tough to do any long-range planning. This isn’t a large sum of money, but enough to provide a foundation for the administration of the choir and some other things.

As a side note about the name of the choir, if you’re old enough (like me!), you may remember the choir on recordings being referred to as the “Stockholm Chamber Choir.” In Sweden the choir was simply known as the “Chamber Choir,” or later, the “Chamber Choir at the Radio,” but when they toured or recorded, they always used the name, “Stockholm Chamber Choir.” Unfortunately, they’d never registered that name and another enterprising conductor named his choir (and registered it as) “The Stockholm Chamber Choir.” Eric was, understandably, NOT happy, but there was nothing to do about it. So, unlike the Robert Shaw Chorale, Roger Wagner Chorale, or other eponymously named choirs, Eric Ericsons Kammarkör got that name purely through circumstance.

From attending just one rehearsal of EEKK last week, it seemed to me that artistically, the choir is in very good shape. Per confirmed this, saying that he’s very happy with the singers they’re able to draw. A core singer in the choir can earn about a 1/3 salary with the choir and they’d like to see that move to about 50%, but not higher. The problem with moving higher is that some of the fine free-lance singers (who also have solo careers) wouldn’t be willing to give up their solo life, so the level of singers available would actually go down.

The contract with Konserthuset (where EEKK provides the chorus for major choral/orchestral works with the Stockholm Philharmonic and also does one program each year sponsored by the house) means the choir has done projects with as few as 12 singers (one of their domestic tours) to as many as 80. In a way, this means they get to hear and “try out” lots of singers, which is very positive in keeping contact with and developing fresh and new singers. There are also singers (more operatic voices) who will frequently get hired for bigger oratorio projects, but perhaps not for the a cappella programs. It’s a process that seems to work well. A continuing question is the base size of the choir. Eric has most often used 33 (one extra soprano) as his base for both the Radio Choir and Chamber Choir. This allows for two voices on a part in the 16-part divisi that became almost a standard after Ligeti’s Lux aeterna and in so many Swedish works by Lidholm, Sandström and others. And for doing the big works of Reger or Strauss, for example, it allows for the sonority necessary for those pieces. Given financing, the core may have to become 24 singers, but that’s a decision that won’t be made yet and no matter what the core number, as now, the group will expand or contract depending on repertoire demands.

You can find the choir on the web here. The site is only in Swedish, but just click on “kalendarium” and you can see the schedule and repertoire for the choir.

It’s nice to know that Eric’s legacy (or this part of it—and the original, since he established the Chamber Choir in 1945!) will most likely survive, and hopefully, thrive.

Kathryn and I met members of the choir (and orchestra, since quite a few of the Västerås players live in Stockholm) at the City Terminal to catch the bus to Västerås for the concert there. Everyone was in a very good mood and it’s fun to see the choir in this sort of “tour” mode. Several singers were bringing the beer for the trip back—Arne Lundmark says this is a tradition that goes back very far with Eric’s tours). It’s about an hour and 15 minutes to Västerås, with pleasant scenery (at least for Kathryn and me, who’ve been in the city the entire time). It’s a city of 120,000 or so in central Sweden, about 100 km west of Stockholm on the shore of Lake Mälaren.

After unloading and dumping stuff in the concert hall backstage, there was about an hour before rehearsal, so Arne and his wife Birgit took Peter, Kathryn and me to an Italian restaurant which Peter (who’d had rehearsals here Monday and Tuesday) said was the best in town. We did, in fact, have a lovely meal, pasta with chicken and a very nice polenta with ox filet. Conversation turned to food—Kathryn, ever the foodie, asked about favorite dishes from home—and Arne rhapsodized about a dish from northern Sweden, near Piteå, where he’s from, and Peter of a favorite cassarole from Friesland in the north of the Netherlands, where his family originates.

Peter and Arne had to rush through their meal, since it came a bit late, in order to get back for rehearsal at two. We took a little more time and, when we returned, got a tour of the facility by Rikard Gateau, the manager of the Västerås Sinfonietta. The facility is really wonderful (not one you’d see in a town that size in North America), connected to one of the largest conference facilities in Sweden, and the concert hall (seating around 900) has very good acoustics. Practice and ensemble rooms abound and a choir was rehearsing in the small hall when we toured through. In the concert hall lobby itself is a full restaurant, bar, gift shop, and a fantastic coffee, tea, and chocolaterie (which of course we had to visit later: we tried marvelous truffles flavored with Earl Grey tea, calvados, and malt whisky). Rikard is extraordinarily energetic and the orchestra has great support, with a Thursday subscription series that is nearly sold out for 10 concerts each year (they could sell out completely, but want to reserve at least 300 seats for guests and new audience members) and a shorter Friday series that’s also well attended. He has the ambition to take the orchestra from 50% work to full-time, and I’d guess he’d be successful.

After our tour, we met Tamara, Ragnar Bohlin's wife, who' s a cellist in the opera orchestra, but also freelances regularly--here she was subbing as principal cellist for this concert. We chatted a bit about divided family life, since Ragnar is, of course, in San Francisco while Tamara and their two sons (10 and 8) are in Stockholm. The usual tough decisions of two-career families: Tamara is originally from Russia and has now been in the Opera orchestra for 10 years and the children are both well ensconced in school and lessons (one's a cellist and the other studies piano). Tamara can take a leave of absence for a year, so they may well spend the next academic year in San Francisco, seeing if she can get good employment as a cellist and if they can find a good situation for the boys. I don't envy the dilemma!

The concert itself was very well attended, the downstairs almost full (I couldn’t see the balcony) with an enthusiastic crowd. Rikard introduced the concert and asked for a show of hands from the audience of how many were choral singers—at least a quarter, if not a third, raised their hands. This was a full program, so Peter opened with a Schubert Italian overture in D, followed by the Mozart. The first half closed with Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, which begins with a pure statement of the chorale, Komm, süßer Tod, followed by phrases of the chorale sung with different groups of singers holding the notes varying lengths, with resulting dissonances eventually melting into the final chord of the phrase, For this, Peter had the groups spread out around the hall, which was very effective. The performance of Immortal Bach was dedicated to Bror Samuelsson, who died last fall. Samuelsson was an original member of Eric’s chamber choir in 1945, but soon after moved to Västerås and was instrumental in educating many generations of choral singers—and an enormous influence in Sweden. He was also a composer—I recorded the Ave maris stella (one of his Tre latinska hymner) with Choral Arts on our Scandinavian Christmas CD (available very reasonably now at CD Universe), a lovely CD, if I do say so myself!

The second half was the Haydn, of course, which even more energetic and joyful, with soloists doing a particularly beautiful job tonight.

After that, a short gathering with wine and beer in the orchestra’s room at the concert hall, then nice trip home (more beer available then, too, of course!). Special goodbyes at the end for Peter, who heads home briefly before going with his family to Holland for two weeks for a production of Bach and Bach relatives (and some Mendelssohn, too). Do check out Peter’s website for information on his conducting activities and repertoire.

The choir also bid goodbye for awhile to Anna Zander, one of the altos, who is due in about 5 weeks, she looks very pregnant!—and was one of the soloists in the Mozart—she has a beautiful voice and sings very musically. She’ll be on maternity leave from the choir for about a year.

For me, time to say goodbye to Peter, who’s not only a talented musician, but also a truly nice guy, very warm and open. Nice to meet him and watch him work.

I now begin two weeks of my own work with the choir: next week four rehearsals on Pizzetti’s Requiem (which I discovered, to my surprise, the choir’s never done), Penderecki’s Stabat mater and Agnus Dei, and Arvo Pärt’s The Beatitudes. Should be fun!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sweden - Jan. 15/16/17

I went to the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir (EEKK) rehearsal tonight, led by Lone Larsen, who’s preparing them for a program that will be conducted by Laurence Equilbey in February called, “Transcriptions.”

You may well know Laurence’s group, Accentus, which is an Ericson-inspired 32-voice chamber choir in France (she studied with Eric and has kept in close contact, and Eric’s recorded several CDs with them: North and Suomi/Finland). She’s done two CDs of transcriptions: the first, Transcriptions, includes Barber’s own transcription of his Adagio for Strings (Agnus Dei), several of Clytus Gottwald’s wonderful transcriptions originally written for his own 16-voice ensemble, Schola Cantorum Stuttgart (Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, and Wolf), and one especially arranged for Accentus by Gerard Pesson. She recently released a second CD, Transcriptions 2, which is just as interesting.

If you don’t know these transcriptions, particularly the ones by Gottwald which inspired many of the others, they’re quite amazing re-creations of these orchestral works, virtuosic and orchestral in sound. Gerard Pesson recently finished a new transcription of Wagner’s Sigfried Idyll, which was premiered by Accentus this fall. It’ll receive its second performance by EEKK on the upcoming program.

It’s truly extraordinary, even for these transcriptions, using a slightly larger choir (for this the EEKK is expanded to 39 voices), several soloists, and even whistling. The music is set to a text put together by Martin Kaltenecker from fragments of the libretto to Siegfried and the journals of Cosima Wagner. I think few choirs will be attempting this: it’s virtuosic, requires big voices capable of creating a huge sound (yet singing fantastically well in tune), and the low basses have to dwell at the bottom of the staff down to low Cs with enough volume to be the foundation of this orchestral sonority.

This was the choir’s first rehearsal on the program, and Lone read through quite a bit of the program, but spent most of the time on the Wagner. Her rehearsal technique is clear and well organized, spending time on those sections and those parts that have particular difficulties, then integrating them into the whole. I’m just sorry I’m not around for the performance.

Lone is Danish, but came to the Royal College of Music to study in the “diplom” program (their advanced degree) with Anders Eby and has stayed in Sweden—although she also spent two years in NY studying orchestral conducting at Juilliard and doing workshops around the US. Her own group, Voces Nordicae (Nordic Voices) is a 16-voice professional ensemble, which was just named the Swedish “Choir of the Year.” I hope to get to hear them rehearse or perform on my second visit this year, later in the spring.

The Radio Choir’s dress rehearsal was today with the Västerås Chamber Orchestra. Peter had two rehearsals with the orchestra on Monday and Tuesday in Västerås, so they were well prepared, and they’re quite a good orchestra. The choir was standing in a large semi-circle around the orchestra in a single row. As with all such rehearsals, there were adjustments to be made, since everyone hears each other differently (new hall, orchestra present): the choir sings too loudly at first, the choir needs more diction, phrase shapes get lost by both choir and orchestra, and the orchestra finds where they are too loud or need to adjust articulations. But everyone adjusted quickly and I think the performance will be a good one. This is the first collaboration between these two ensembles, but it’s hoped it will become a continuing relationship.

Kathryn and I met for a late lunch with Ragnar Bohlin at a beautiful 17th century palace near his church in Södermalm (where I recently heard his performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio). He’s enjoying an extended break at home since the San Francisco Symphony Chorus has an unusual break—it’s extended from Christmas through February 12, when he returns to start work there. We had a lovely and wide-ranging conversation on the choral differences between the US & Sweden (and Europe), what kinds of things we’re both working on, and life in general. We also found out we’d see him later at the Radio Choir’s concert and that his wife (who’s a cellist with the Opera Orchestra) would be playing as an extra with the Västerås Chamber Orchestra for the concert.

We then went to hear the final rehearsal (just an hour—the Radio Choir typically has an hour’s rehearsal the day of the rehearsal, then an hour’s break) for the concert, then went to the concert. There was a great audience and the concert went really well—a lively, energetic performance, particularly of the Haydn. Orchestra, chorus and soloists all did well. We’ll also travel with the choir to Västerås on Saturday for the performance there.

We also saw Eric and Monica at the concert, as well as Bo Johansson (Bosse), there in part since his son, Lasse, who sings in the Radio Choir, was doing the bass solo in the Haydn. Good to see Bosse, who’s off to Frankfurt tomorrow with his Adolf Fredriks Girlchoir for a series of concerts.

All in all, a terrific day.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Ensemble Concert at PLU—One-on-a-Part Singing

Around 1989 or so I decided I needed a way to get the singers in my choir to be more independent musicians. At the same time I felt there were gaps in the repertoire the students experienced. Given two mixed choirs of 45-50 voices each, plus a men’s and women’s choir, we never did any madrigals. We also didn’t have a vocal jazz ensemble at the time, and in the Northwest, jazz was big in the high schools, so lots of my students missed this. It also filled a gap for my music education students, who would then know some repertoire they’d need.

With those problems in mind, I created an Ensemble Concert: my choir was divided up into (usually) 10 or 11 one-on-a-part ensembles (most SATB, some SSATB and occasionally SSATBB), I gave them some time from our regular choir rehearsals (usually half rehearsals until the last few before the concert), and each ensemble prepared one madrigal and one lighter number (most vocal jazz ballads, but occasional other pieces, too). All had to be a cappella and true one-on-a-part (no doubling allowed). We didn’t use microphones, since going back and forth from amplified to un-amplified in concert wouldn’t work acoustically, and too many students didn’t have experience with microphones (also a huge extra hassle). Most ensembles arranged their own rehearsals outside of choir time, too.

The concert was a big success, was done every year after that, and I believe it’s still a part of what the Choir of the West does every year.

Things evolved over time. Students got creative in all sorts of ways, from costuming to choreography. Some students wrote or arranged their own pieces. One year two quartets asked if they could collaborate and did a very good version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (complete with choreography from the music video and me doing the Vincent Price bit from the organ loft). The Ensemble Concert was tremendous fun for the students and the audience, and I also think the students learned a lot from the process.

How was it organized?

First, I figured out how many ensembles there would be and chose “leaders” for each ensemble. “Leaders” is in quotes because they weren’t the “boss” of their ensemble, although they would help with organization and organize rehearsals. However, other members of the ensemble were expected to take part in evaluating, giving interpretive ideas, etc. I tried to get as many of my music ed students in leadership spots as possible to give them valuable experience, but it was more important to have leaders the other singers would respect. I also tried to have fairly equal numbers of male and female leaders.

Next was choosing the members of each ensemble, which was done by the leaders choosing the members (privately, in my office), much like choosing sides in sports. There were rules, however:
- no discussions of what happened inside the room (no one should know they were the last chosen)
- they drew to see who got first choice, so that was random. For the next round, those who chose last got first choice on the next round. If there was an SSATB ensemble, I tried to give someone who needed two sopranos an early choice. We worked one part at a time, sopranos, then altos, etc.)
- if several people wanted the same singer, I’d decide who prevailed. Then whoever “lost” would get the nod the next time
- they sometimes needed advice, since they might not know each singer’s voice. I provided this and singers sometimes chimed in, too
- I was always cognizant of keeping ensembles well-balanced in terms of size of voice: in a one-on-a-part ensemble, three big voices and one small one would only lead to frustration in trying to balance

This process worked well and there were remarkably few disagreements.

Next was choosing repertoire: we had a collection of madrigal books in the library and the vocal jazz library was available (later, when we had a vocal jazz ensemble again, the vocal jazz director would help as well). Leaders presented possibilities to their ensemble, then the ensemble voted on what they wanted to do. They had to bring choices to me and if two ensembles picked the same piece, first to me got the nod—this helped keep them from procrastinating.

I supplied them with a handout about how to work in rehearsal, the importance of getting notes learned quickly (practice outside!) so they could work on musical/expressive issues right away and not at the last minute. The importance of doing a one-on-a-part ensemble is that everyone is totally responsible for his or her own part—no one else can cover for you! (We very occasionally had someone ill enough that they couldn’t sing—on at least one occasion I jumped in to cover a part, but this was rare).

When they began rehearsing, I’d rotate around (they were usually in practice rooms) to see how they were doing. I told them I wouldn’t interrupt their rehearsal, but just observe, unless they wanted help with something. It was great fun for me to watch and see my students in a different light.

I also had to begin working on the program order at this time. I knew the pieces they were doing, the mood, and what keys they were in. Each ensemble sang once piece on each half, their vocal jazz piece on one half and the madrigal on the other. On each half I always alternated jazz with a madrigal. Essentially, I tried to create a concert that would flow, and not have too many pieces in a row with the same mood or key. I also knew which ensembles were doing particularly well, so tried to get them towards the ends of each half to make sure the final few pieces were strong.

Finally I also made it a rule that they had to be in the concert hall listening to the other ensembles, leaving to get ready only one ensemble before they were to go on. That meant they got to hear one another, which was the point, too (early on some ensembles wanted to wait backstage to warm-up more or rehearse—uh-uh!).

This was a fun and creative way to solve what I perceived as weaknesses in our program.

Who’s done something similar or used other ways to broaden their singers’ experience in choir?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Programming II

So, last time I talked about the importance of thinking of repertoire in programming from the standpoint of the needs of the chorus and individual singers to maximize their growth.

But what about the needs of the audience? Or of the institution that supports you if you’re not an independent choir (or your board, if it is)?

You can’t forget about those needs (or at least you shouldn’t if you want to keep your job!), but the challenge is to balance those with what the choir needs to do.

Again, your own situation will determine much of this. A church choir serves a specific function (which requires certain kinds of repertoire), but this can vary from an Episcopal/Anglican choir that draws almost exclusively from British Anglican traditions to a choir that does primarily praise music . . . and everything in between.

School choirs have their own educational requirements that may vary considerably. Some public schools in the US may find it difficult to do much sacred music, or perhaps have pressure to “entertain.” There are always external expectations (tradition, administrative, parents) to deal with as well.

Most choirs have repertoire expectations associated with them (sometimes clearly laid out, sometimes not), from those that specialize in music of a certain period or ethnic background, to choirs with a distinct educational purpose. You may also have other expectations: an annual Messiah performance, a spring pops concert, a tour program, or what have you. All of this has to be taken into account.

Pro Coro Canada, my ensemble based in Edmonton, Alberta, is a professional chamber choir with a 6 or 7-concert series. I conduct 4 concerts, our associate conductor conducts one, and guests take the others. Since we’re an independent choir that needs sufficient ticket income to survive, I have to create programs that will be marketable and will appeal to our audience. While I’m given the power by the board to make all programming choices, with that goes the responsibility to make sure I draw audiences, too. That’s where balancing my needs (or desires) and the choir’s needs with what the audience is willing to hear. In the long run, I won’t keep my job if audiences disappear and no one’s happy with the music we do.

Like most of you, we do a Christmas concert that has fairly broad appeal each year. We also have the tradition of a Good Friday concert—this doesn’t have to be specifically music for Lent, Good Friday, or Easter, but should fit generally—thus we’ve done a number of different Requiems, Bach’s Mass in B Minor Ivan Moody’s Passion and Resurrection, a wonderful commissioned work by Alberta composer Allan Bevan (Nou goth sonne under wood—the audience came to hear the Mozart Requiem, but Allan’s was the piece that got the extended standing ovation), and Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. As a professional choir supported by the Canada Council, we need to do significant Canadian works each season. Additionally, for the past number of years we’ve had a grant from the Wirth Foundation for Central European Studies to support doing all the late masses of Haydn, along with works by other composers from central Europe. There are then a lot of “givens” in any season I plan. I also want guest conductors to bring something special to the choir (thinking of the choir’s long-term growth, remember?) and I therefore want them to do music they love and do well. I have to advise them (since they don’t know the choir or audience expectations) and they’ll have budget limitations, but I try to give them as much freedom as I can. Recent guest conductors have included Maria Guinand, Anders Eby, Gary Graden, Ivars Taurins, and Leonard Ratzlaff, all who bring something important to Pro Coro and the Edmonton community.

Every one of you has “givens” as well that are necessary and important in your repertoire planning/programming. I know that while much will be laid out for you, you shouldn’t forget to balance those with the needs of your choir for their own growth as well.

Yes, there’s still more . . .

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sweden – 9/10/11 January 2008

I came into the Radio to have lunch with Eva Wedin, delightful as always, and then went to the first rehearsal of the Haydn and Mozart. Peter’s approach here was to work almost immediately on details of phrasing: lots of variety of phrase shapes, almost always working with word stress. This is at the forefront for me, too, and I believe strongly that you have to start with shaping music right away or you run the risk of the ensemble learning to sing/play unmusically (also, it's just more interesting!). Since Pro Coro has had a grant from the Wirth Institute for Central European Studies to do all the late-Haydn masses (and have done all but the Harmoniemesse), it was also fun to see how Peter was shaping the music and how it compared with my approach.

Again, Peter shows absolute ease before the choir, runs a tight, effective rehearsal with no tension or sense of rushing, and with a nice sense of humor, too.

While walking home after rehearsal, Peter caught up with me, since his hotel is on the way back to the apartment, and we had a nice chat.

More detail work from Peter today in rehearsal—continued refinement of phrasing and dynamics.

After grabbing a quick bite to eat I came back to the Berwaldhallen (the Radio’s concert hall) for a performance by the orchestra. Conductor was Lionel Bringuier, another part of the amazing youth movement going on in the orchestral world. You probably know about Gustavo Dudamel, the astounding Venezuelan conductor who at 26 has been tabbed to take over the LA Philharmonic in 2009. This is by no means an isolated case—Daniel Harding, Music Director for the Swedish Radio Orchestra (who I’ll watch in rehearsal and concert in the next couple weeks) is at the comparably advanced age of 32. Could be an interesting topic sometime.

Back to Bringuier, who’s just 21 and has been assistant conductor to Esa-Pekka Salonen at the LA Phil. The program opened with Kingdom of Silence by Russian composer Victoria Borissova-Ollas. I have to say, I didn’t find the piece compelling. Occasionally interesting sounds (lots of tuned percussion—gongs, etc.), but the whole failed to capture my attention.

Next on the program was Prokofiev’s 2nd piano concerto. Subbing for Yefim Bronfman was Yuja Wang, a Chinese pianist who’s been studying with Gary Graffman at Curtis. Just 20 years old, she’s already appeared with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and San Francisco Symphony. She’s tiny (I don’t know anything about women’s clothing sizes, but know there’s a size zero—she can’t be more than that) and if you saw her on the street in regular clothes would probably take her for 16. Well, she played the heck out of the concerto—just a stunning performance. She’s certainly a musician to watch out for and hear.

After the intermission was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, certainly one of my favorite pieces. The performance was a good one, but not spectacular. And following the Prokofiev, it would have to be a spectacular performance not to be a bit anti-climactic.

The final rehearsal before working with the orchestra next week, so Peter continued with detail work and running enough sections for a sense of continuity. He’s worked separately with the soloists (from the choir), so they sang today on the Haydn, but he skipped any long sections with them. After letting the choir go for the last half hour of rehearsal, he worked with the soloists in the Mozart (a different set of four singers). Again, his work on phrasing and dynamics was exacting and intensely musical. I look forward to hearing it next week, when I’ll hear the performance at Berwaldhallen and in Västerås.

This evening and tomorrow I’ll be doing some work for Pro Coro on a grant application. Then Sunday my wife, Kathryn, arrives (yay!), so no more Swedish posts until next week, but perhaps the next installment in the programming series.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Here's your chance!

From an article in The Guardian:

"We've had them ballroom dancing, ice-skating and eating live insects in the jungle. Now a group of celebrities are to pick up their batons and try their hand at conducting. The BBC has just commissioned a new reality TV series called Maestro, in which seven celebrity would-be conductors will go head-to-head on the podium before orchestras and choirs. The winner of the series, expected to air on BBC2 this summer, will step up to conduct an orchestra during the Last Night of the Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall in September."

What will they think of next?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Thoughts about being a true artistic director

Just a brief post (we'll see--I do tend to go on!).

Following up my comments yesterday about Peter Dijkstra and his looking after the long-term growth of the Radio Choir, I think there is such a difference between conducting a choir and being a true artistic director/music director.

For me, the true AD takes care of all aspects of the choir's long-term development. This means thinking beyond just the individual concert and even season. It means programming in such a way that the choir's abilities will develop; continuing to work diligently on improving every aspect of the choir's technique and musical expression; working with administration to set the conditions for long-term growth and stability; carefully choosing guest conductors (if there are guest conductors) who bring something to the choir; and at times making difficult choices, particularly with choir personnel, whether in auditions or elsewhere.

When I did my audition concert with Pro Coro in 1998 (I'd guest conducted them in '96) and was interviewed by the search committee, one of the things I told them was that if I took the job, I wouldn't (and couldn't) look at it as simply a series of nice gigs, but would only do it if I felt I could develop something significant there. Particularly when you're not resident (and I don't live in Edmonton), this is an important issue: do you think about and work towards the ensemble's goals (and do you have goals?) on a regular basis, or just when you come to town to do your concert? I think in all of my positions I've thought strategically and with long-term goals in mind. That doesn't mean I've always been successful--but at least I do think that way.

If you think of the great orchestral conductors, so often they've been associated over a long period of time with the orchestra they've built. And one can think of choral conductors like Eric, Robert Shaw, or Dale Warland, who've worked consistently over a long period of time to build their ensembles.

It's something to think about.

Sweden – Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The morning began with a walk to the Radio to watch RK rehearse with Peter Dijkstra. I also got welcomed back by the choir, which was very nice, and I look forward to working with them in a couple weeks.

While Peter will just turn 30 this year, he’s very clearly in charge, but with a warm, relaxed approach. I already knew the Radio Choir likes working with him very much, and it soon became clear why.

Since his upcoming program is not so difficult technically (Haydn Harmoniemesse and a Mozart Litany with chamber orchestra), today became an “ensemble” day—a time to work on vocal sound, blend and intonation, much of it with separate sections of the choir, to let the choir know exactly what he wants and is working towards. While the rest of the choir left for sectional rehearsals elsewhere, he began with the basses singing Bach’s arioso, “Am Abend, da es kühle war” from the St. Matthew Passion. Playing the accompaniment (he’s an excellent pianist), he had placed the bass section alternating basses and baritones and worked for a unified sound, not too heavy from the basses, and not too bright from the baritones. He also took care with equalizing high and low notes. Peter’s a baritone or bass-baritone himself with a superb voice and technique (wide range and easy head voice), so was able to easily demonstrate what he wanted with “a nice balance between chiaro and oscuro.” As an exercise he also had them do a section all piano and then mf/forte. This was terrific detailed work and he then put them back in bass/baritone sections to work on keeping the same sense of color and blend. Finally, he arranged them in a circle to work on the beginning of the chant, Pange lingua. Again, work towards better blend, good intonation and here, working without conductor and listening and breathing together for better ensemble.

After a half an hour tenors came in to work on the Benedictus from the Mass in B Minor and the same chant. Similar work, but also stressing the need to match dynamics—the one singing louder and sticking out isn’t always at fault, but perhaps the others who hold back.

The full choir then joined for the Bach chorale, “Wenn Ich einmal soll scheiden,” also from the Matthew Passion. Here he began with them singing on “nü,” which he said he likes for the mix of forward and round vowels, then “nu”, then “na,” and finally with text. Again, attention on blend and quality of sound, but much more here on intonation, too. He was also detailed about German pronunciation. Following this the choir worked on the 3rd movement of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine, almost entirely on intonation, and all on neutral syllables (not text).

After break, the same process was repeated with altos (who sang “In deine Hände” from Cantata 106) and sopranos (with “Quia respexit” from the Magnificat). They worked on the chant as well, of course.

I’ve taken a little more time than normal to describe this rehearsal, because I think it’s interesting (well, for conductors, anyway!) to see this approach, but also because it outlines how necessary it is to continue to work on fundamentals, no matter what the level of choir. It’s not something you can ever just “forget about” because you’ve got very well trained singers with terrific musicianship and wonderful ensemble experience. It was also interesting to see the choir’s response—in so many ways, they’re hungry for this kind of work, since it gives such direct feedback about what the conductor is after. One can also forget as a conductor, that as a singer inside the section or ensemble, you can’t always hear clearly how it’s blending, or whether your color is matching another singer four people down the line. And this work causes the singers to listen so much more intensely, which will no doubt pay benefits in the next few rehearsals as well.

It’s also necessary to repeat work on fundamentals because they are fundamentals—they are “fundamental,” or the ground, or basis of everything else. My great friend and dear departed colleague, Jim Holloway, used to talk about two ways to look at education: one held that as you learned things, you simply stacked them up on top of one another as your knowledge became more sophisticated (which obscured the things on the bottom of the stack, the higher you got); the other looked at education as climbing a circular staircase, so you could regularly pause and look over the railing and look back at the fundamentals everything was based on.

This is why this kind of rehearsal is important: for me, at least, it reminds me not to take too much for granted, but to remind myself and my singers of the important fundamentals that make music work. It’s easy to get caught up in getting done what needs getting done especially with few rehearsals. Certainly that’s true for me (and most of us!), where there is rarely the luxury of “too much” rehearsal time—but it’s something to think about whether it’s possible to plan for when budgeting.

I think the rehearsal also shows why RK likes working with Peter so much. He is a terrific musician himself with total command of the music and what he wants; working with such good singers, he can vocally demonstrate what he wants from them; and this kind of work shows how much he’s concerned with raising their level (and thinking long-term, beyond just any given concert). Having been without a chief conductor for some time, it’s absolutely what RK needs: someone who they trust and is dedicated to developing the choir to reach its highest potential. One simply can’t do that with a series of guests.

After rehearsal, I walked over to Eric and Monica’s, where I had a lovely lunch and coffee with them. They are both such dear people and have always made time for me whenever I visit—and fairly regularly, when Eric was traveling much more, I’d get a postcard from him from Paris or Prague or wherever he was conducting or leading a masterclass, just to say hello. I think both are doing very well: as I’ve said, Eric has slowed down physically, but is still so interested in what’s happening musically. He was excited today, since he’d just gotten an award from the Swedish government yesterday for his efforts to take Swedish music all over the world—and that he’s certainly done! He was also looking forward to some guest conducting in the spring in Poland and Spain. There are already big plans being made for his 90th birthday celebration next fall. It certainly ought to be an amazing celebration!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Sweden, 5/6/7 January 2008

I met Gary Graden at St. Jacobs at 3 PM for a concert by the new Youth Choir there. Jacobs got some extra money for special projects from the Swedish Church, to include the formation of a youth choir. Mikael Wedar, an energetic young conductor who teaches at the high school on Kungsholmen (my neighborhood—or should I say, Gunilla’s!), leads the choir. These are post-high school students, ranging from age 18-20 or 21. They started with 13 singers in the fall and now have about 30. The program was essentially Christmas music—carols and traditional songs in a variety of arrangements, most in Swedish, but also one of Alfred Burt’s carols, two arrangements by Jonathan Rathbone and Gene Puerling’s arrangement of Silent Night. The “odd man out” was Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst—a good piece, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how it fit in the program! There was also some singing along with the audience. The choir’s OK, not spectacular, but it should continue to grow as everyone continues working together.

Besides chatting with Gary and Mikael afterwards at the reception, I talked with Anders Åstrand, one of the percussionists who played in the Whitacre--and if you look at one of last year’s Swedish blogs, part of the WÅG trio (Anders, Gary and an organist) who gave an improvisatory concert at Jacobs. Anders is a composer and has his own percussion group and does lots of interesting work. He’s also written a choral piece that he’ll send me.

Sunday morning brought a bit more snow, but much warmer temperatures, right around freezing—a fairly relaxed day, spending time catching up on email and doing some listening. Gary gave me a copy of his new CD, Folkjul (Folk Christmas), which comes from Christmas concerts at St. Jacobs that evolved over several years, arrangements worked out/improvised by organist Gunnar Idenstam, folk violinist Lisa Rydberg, and two folk singers, Sofia Karlsson and Emma Härdelin, along with the choir: just one more example of Gary’s creativity and love of collaboration. Idenstam is classically trained (winning the Grand Prix de Chartes in 1984, a major improvisation competition), but also works regularly in the genre of folk music, particularly with Lisa Rydberg. As composer/improviser he says he mixes art music, folk music and symphonically oriented rock music—I’d like to hear one of his recitals! Rydberg is the only violinist to graduate from the Royal College of Music with degrees in both classical and folk music (and regularly works as a baroque violinist as well).

As you can imagine, this isn’t a “choir” album (there I go betraying my age—excuse me, CD--"album" is a little dated). It’s a mix of organ improvisation, music for organ and violin, choir and violin, violin and soloist, and all the permutations in between. It ends with quite the arrangement of Veni, veni Emmanuel, with one of the solists doing some “kulning,” which is a singing style that evolved when the cows needed to be called home—notes in the stratosphere, but not sung in a “classical” way! It’s really wonderful, interesting music—although I don’t think you’ll find carols you can put on next year’s Christmas concert! If you have any interest in this from my description, though, buy the CD. It’s worth it. You’ll find it on the BIS label (from Archiv Music, cheaper than Amazon!).

At six PM I went to a performance of the 2nd half (parts 4, 5, and 6) of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, sung by the Motet Choir at Maria Magdalena Church, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. It was very good performance with good soloists, particularly the soprano, choir, and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble—which was good, especially the valveless horns and trumpets.

Ragnar is primarily in the US now as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. I met him in San Francisco last June when I was doing a concert there and he had just begun his work in SF. From all accounts (and I didn’t hear this from Ragnar), things are going very well and Michael Tilson-Thomas entrusted him with conducting Messiah this year, which got excellent reviews. He’ll also do Poulenc’s Figure Humaine (one of the great and challenging a cappella pieces of the last century) with the 30-voice professional core, plus 50 or 60 more singers from the chorus this spring. He’s been at Maria Magdalena since 1995 and comes from a prominent singing/conducting family. His mother, Eva Bohlin, has led many fine and prizewinning choirs, and his grandfather, Set Svanholm, was a great singer and colleague of Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, and also led a family singing group, the Svanholm Singers (and was for many years choir director at St. Jacobs—just one more connection in the small Swedish choral world). Ragnar was home for an extended visit. His wife is a cellist in the Opera Orchestra and they have two young children, so for the time being the family is at a distance.

It would be interesting to know if the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble has crossover membership with the Stockholm Baroque Orchestra that played last year for Anders Eby’s B Minor Mass (I’ll see if I can find out). I don’t know how big a group of period instrument players there are in Stockholm, but certainly there are some very good ones. The Drottningholm group started some 30 years ago for productions at the opera house at the summer palace (Drottning means Queen). The 400-seat opera house was opened in 1766 and the stage machinery, designed by the Italian, Donato Stopani, is still intact and it includes a wave machine, thunder machine, and a flying chair which is often used for deus ex machina effects. After the assassination of King Gustavus III in 1792 (which is the basis of the Giuseppe Verdi opera, Un ballo in maschera), the theatre was forgotten (and therefore preserved). In 1920 it was restored with the addition of electric light, which today is designed to flicker like candles. It re-opened on 19th August 1922 and has been used since for productions in period style. In the summer of ’90 I was able to attend a performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio (with the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble in the pit), which was marvelous. Seating is a bit uncomfortable, however, since you sit on wooden bleacher-style bench seats with no back! If you want to see the theatre and some of the machinery (well, the copies of it they now use), rent the Ingmar Bergman film of Mozart’s Magic Flute—it’s a delightful, quirky production (what would you expect, with Bergman directing?), sung in Swedish, with a very young Håkan Hagegård singing Papageno. Oh . . . and the conductor just happens to be Eric Ericson.

Speaking of Eric, he and his wife Monica were also at the concert, along with several of Monica’s sons. In 1989, my first visit to Sweden, I sublet her son Nils’ apartment and in the summer of 1990, when I did the bulk of my dissertation research, I sublet one of her other sons, Erik’s apartment—so it was nice to see them again. I’ll have lunch at Eric and Monica’s on Tuesday, so will catch up much more with them then.

Also singing in the concert was Gunnar Andersson (brought in as an extra tenor), who was for many years producer for the Radio Choir. We’ll also find time to meet.

It's much warmer today and almost all the snow is gone.

I spent nearly two and a half hours at the “phone house” store trying to get a wireless modem for my computer—running down to the hotel and paying 60kr (almost $9.50 USD) for two hours of access isn’t either handy or cost effective! Most of the time was spent trying to get the system to work on my Mac, only THEN to discover that to get a contract I have to have a Swedish personalnummer (like a social security number) and evidence of regular pay in Sweden. Argh!

I then met Gary Graden for lunch and explained my frustrating morning. He very kindly offered to sign up for me, which we did, so now I’m in Gunilla’s apartment putting this post on the blog. Thank you, Gary!

Gary’s an American who’s lived in Sweden since ’84 or so. He first came to study with Eric Ericson, which he did, along with singing in Eric’s Chamber Choir for a good number of years. He married a Swede, his beautiful wife, Maria, and they have two boys—so he’s never looked back. When I first met him in ’89 or ’90 he had the choir at Adolf Fredriks Gymnasium (or high school) and had started a youth choir at St. Jacobs. When Per Borin left as music director at Jacobs, Gary took over and the youth choir morphed into the current St. Jacobs Chamber Choir. He’s just heading to Hamburg, where he’ll do a prep rehearsal for the Nord Deutsche Rundfunkchor for Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. They’ve already performed the work, so he’s just doing one rehearsal, then hanging around for the orchestra rehearsals and three concerts, one in Hamburg, one in Lübeck, and I’m not sure where the other one is. Anyway, a long way to travel to do one rehearsal, but interesting, I’m sure!

The rest of the day will be spent catching up on email and some score study. More in a few days.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Programming I

One advantage of jet-lag is you wake up in the middle of the night--wide awake. Well . . . I don't know that it's an advantage, but it gives you some time to think and write, hence this series which I'll scatter amidst the Swedish posts.

Programming is, I believe, one of the most important—and challenging—jobs for the conductor. There are so many things that go into a successful concert program (and so many different types and level of ensemble) that it’s difficult to boil it down to just a few “rules” or suggestions. So, some thoughts to begin with:

It’s through the repertoire they sing that your ensemble will improve (or not), so this is one of the first things to consider. What’s does your ensemble need to improve its sound, technique, musicality? What music will stretch their abilities (but not break them)?

Eric Ericson has always held that his choirs were built through the repertoire they performed. He has spoken of the struggle his Chamber Choir had in the ‘40s with Ingvar Lidholm’s Laudi, and how much the choir learned from that challenge over the course of six months of rehearsals. He’s also called the 50’s the “training decade” for the Radio Choir, when major pieces (by Stravinsky, Dallapiccola and many others) taught the choir how to deal with difficult pitches and rhythms, culminating with another composition by Lidholm, his Canto 81, which summarized the challenges of that decade. Eric says that by meeting such challenges he can only imagine a better choir, conductor and chorister.

Yes, I know this will vary enormously from situation to situation! There are differing needs for a children’s choir program, school choir, church choir, community choir, university choir, professional choir . . . and whether it’s auditioned or a “Y’all come” choir. The point is to look to the areas in which your group needs to grow and to find repertoire that moves them in the direction they need. You are the one who needs to think about what your choir does well and where they still need to improve—it doesn’t matter so much where they are now, but where are they going, and where will they might be in several years.

With this in mind, I always try to think about long-term growth of the choir when programming, not just of the next concert. What styles should my choir experience? What will push them each year to become better individual singers and musicians? If there’s repertoire they should be doing, but aren’t capable of yet, what are the “stepping stone” pieces that will gradually give them the skills and experience to meet it?

For example, with the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University, which I led for 18 years, I had a choir which was quite select, expected to sing at a high level in relationship to its peers, toured regularly, and was made up of both music majors (who needed the education and experience to send them into the professional world as successful teachers or performers) and talented non-majors who were looking for a great musical experience.

This was therefore not a specialist choir, but one where my students needed to experience a wide variety of literature. As singers with limited repertoire behind them, they also needed to graduate having sung great masterworks as well as newer or less familiar repertoire.

Consequently, I wanted to make sure that a great variety of repertoire was covered in any given year, or at least over the two years that many students might spend in the choir: music from different style periods (renaissance, baroque, classic/romantic, twentieth century); music in different languages; a cappella music and music with orchestra; and some repertoire from the 20th century that would push them hard in terms of a different (and challenging) musical language.

Early on, I decided that they needed to experience some music of Bach each year—great music in every sense of that word from the baroque period, big technical challenges, and (after all) we were a Lutheran university! So almost every year they did a Bach motet, occasionally a cantata, or one of the major works with orchestra. While this much didn’t happen every year, my first year at PLU they did Cantata 80 on the first orchestra concert—planned before I arrived as part of the Luther anniversary—Cantata 191 for Christmas, and Jesu, meine Freude on tour. Major works over the years included the Mass in B Minor (in 1985—the big Bach year), the Magnificat, and St. John Passion. I don’t think any of my students who were at PLU for all four years of their academic careers graduated without singing some Bach.

I was also lucky in my first ten years or so to have a situation where the choir toured each year during PLU’s January term. This was a special 4-week term, which encouraged students to take part in special courses—for my students this became their only class and we rehearsed intensively (around six hours/day) for two weeks, and then toured for two weeks. Some repertoire was learned in the fall, but most of it during that intensive period. This allowed me to do a full (mostly) a cappella program at that point, with the 2nd semester free for other projects. It was in the second semester following tour that the B Minor Mass and St. John Passion were sung, along with the Brahms Liebeslieder with the McCabe sisters and Britten War Requiem I mentioned in another blog; Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Britten’s Cantata Misericordium; a Peter Schickele commission (The Twelve Months, which is a “piano concerto” with choir instead of orchestra); a faculty commission for my colleague Richard Nance’s Mass for a New Millennium (which we also recorded); Beethoven’s 9th with our own PLU orchestra (and a different year with the Tacoma Symphony); and Alexander Nevsky along with several other university choirs and the Seattle Youth Symphony. We also did (and recorded) the Rachmaninoff Vespers during the 2nd semester. In addition, we had orchestra available for our Christmas concert, which allowed us to combine with the University Chorale and do works such as the Poulenc Gloria, a faculty commission by Gregory Youtz (Officium Pastorum with brass quintet), Finzi’s In terra pax, Bach’s Magnificat, Vaughan Williams’s Hodie, etc. This gave an extraordinary opportunity for the singers to experience a wide variety of works.

As I said, I also wanted them to do some 20th century works that really challenged their ears. Music here ranged from Swedish works (surprise!) such as Sven-David Sansdström’s Agnus Dei and Hear my Prayer, Lars Edlund’s Gloria, Thomas Jennefelt’s O Domine, and Lidholm’s . . . a riveder le stelle (done together with my Seattle-based chamber choir, Choral Arts). Other works included Penderecki’s Agnus Dei, Arvo Pärt’s Credo, and Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Each of these works presented special challenges for them—pitches, rhythms, sometimes language (Les Noces in Russian), not to speak of my own challenges in convincing them to do these “strange” pieces!

Of course, this was for my own growth as a conductor, too. In the same way that the challenges of the repertoire forced growth from the choir, it did the same for me.

Yes, I had an extraordinarily privileged situation, but the principle doesn’t change even if you’re working with the least skilled un-auditioned ensemble: what repertoire can you choose that will make them better?

My experiences with choirs at different levels tells me that doing challenging music is more often the limitation of the conductor/teacher—I’ve heard children’s choirs doing some amazing music, for example. They don’t know that mixed meters are difficult. If it’s presented to them well and matter-of-factly, they just do it.

More later.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Subscribing to blogs

For those new to following the blogging world (and I'm very new), you can use several services to "subscribe" to your favorite blogs. For example, I use google reader--with this I can go to "add subscription," type in the web address of a blog (gosh, how about, and when you come back to google reader (it's bookmarked, so I can access easily), new blog posts are summarized. You can either click on it and read, or mark "all as read." Very handy if you start to follow several blogs, some only occasionally with posts of interest.

I know there is a way for me to allow email subscriptions to my blog (if you sign up, you'll get an email every time I have a new post) and will figure that out shortly. If you have advice about this for me, don't be shy!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

I'm here!

Well, I'm here in Sweden. Fairly uneventful flights (non-stop Seattle/Copenhagen, 3 1/2 hour lay-over, Copenhagen/Stockholm) and transportation to the apartment--although I don't think anyone still looks at air travel as glamorous!

Thanks again to our wonderful friend, Gunilla Luboff, for lending us her apartment. A great place, centrally located.

My main task today was to stay awake (which I've done sucessfully!! Getting settled, getting some groceries, etc.

Met for lunch with Arne Lundmark, manager for the Radio Choir, and Eva Wedin, choir member and librarian, both great friends. Had a very nice time, got started with programming for the Spring concert, and caught up with what's happening at the Radio. I think things are going well for the choir with new chief conductor, Peter Dijkstra, and I look forward to watching him work with the choir next week.

When I got back to the apartment, there was a nice "Welcome to Stockholm" greeting from Eric Ericson on the answering machine. We then talked briefly and will find time later to get together. Eric is still doing well (a "little slower" from age, he says), and doing fewer concerts, but still vital. He'll celebrate his 90th birthday next October!

The weekend will be a little slower, so time to get organized, do some score study, and ready for the busy times to come. I probably won't blog about Sweden until next week, but if I have time, may touch on another musical subject.

Until then . . .