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Monday, April 28, 2008

Sweden – 26-27 April 2008

Saturday we went to a concert by Gary Graden’s St. Jacob’s Chamber Choir, with guest conductor Martina Batic, at Storkyrkan (the Cathedral). Martina, from Slovenia, is the winner of the Eric Ericson conducting competition in 2006 (the first was held in 2003, which Peter Dijkstra won, the next will be in October 2009). Masja Goundorina (who you may remember has been studying with Anders Eby and was language coach during my rehearsals of Rachmaninoff The Bells) did the choral preparation before Martina arrived this past week for the last few rehearsals.

The program opened with two pieces by the late renaissance composer Jacobus Gallus (originally from Slovenia, although he worked primarily in Vienna and Prague, also known as Jacob Handl), “Veni Sancte Spiritus” and “Subsannatores subsannavit Deus.” This was followed by the Martin Mass, in a very strong performance, shaped nicely by Martina. Finally, there were two works by the contemporary Slovenian composer Damijan Mocnik (sorry, I can’t find a way to write the proper diacritical marking over the c), “Hymnus Tertiae horae” and “Veni, Creatur Spiritus.” Both were interesting pieces, the second, based on the chant, calling for a larger group at the front of the church (which Gary led) and a smaller group from the back and sides led by Martina, particularly interesting. Mocnik was born in 1967 and I discovered he’d been a composer in residence on Orcas Island in Washington State last year (why didn’t I know about it?). An interview with him can be found here.

Martina was born in 1978, graduating from the Conservatory in Ljubljana in 2002, then going to the Hochschule in Munich for a diploma in choir conducting in 2005. Immediately after that she was offered the position of choirmaster at the opera in Ljlubljana, a full-time job she’s held since then. As part of winning the Ericson competition, she conducted a program with the Swedish Radio Choir last fall, and has been invited back for programs in the next two years.

Eric Ericson was also at the concert, so we had a chance to visit.

Also attending was Ingemar Månsson, who had the Hägerstens Motet Choir in Stockholm for years (Sven-David Sandström was a member of that choir for 20 years). He moved to Lund (in Skåne, in southern Sweden) and for some time has directed the Lunds Vocal Ensemble, which has won a number of prizes in European competitions. It was nice to see him again, too.

We were invited back to Gary and Maria’s house for a barbecue with the choir and Martina. Also along was an Australian conductor and teacher, Ingrid Leibbrandt, who’s been visiting and studying in Sweden since the mid-80’s. Ingrid wrote a book, On the Road to Paradise, which consists of interviews with Eric, Ingvar Lidholm, and others, and analyses of several seminal Swedish choral works (you can find a review of my book and Ingrid’s in the Summer/Fall edition of the American Choral Review here). I don’t have a copy yet, but will certainly get one. Ingrid is delightful and it was wonderful to meet her. She’s currently involved in a project with Eric of editing video footage of Eric rehearsing (she herself took more than 100 hours of such footage, following through a program from first rehearsal to performance). I absolutely hope she can get funding to put together this material in a form that can be easily accessible so that future generations can not only hear the results of Eric’s work, but can get a sense of how it is achieved.

Ingrid, Martina, and me:

The party itself was great fun, as are all parties at Gary and Maria’s house. Members of the choir brought whatever they wanted to barbecue and a variety of other salads, breads, desserts, wine, etc. They’re a fun group to be with and we’ve gotten to know a few of them fairly well, particularly after the project we did together at IFCM in Minneapolis and later in Uppsala in 2002—and of course, we just keep showing up at their concerts and parties!

The weather has begun to change—a little cooler, cloudier, and with a bit of rain (when Gary, Martina, Ingrid, Kathryn and I chose to take a walk down to the Baltic was the only time it really rained hard that afternoon!). My parents arrive on Wednesday for two weeks, so we hope there will be a bit more sun during that time.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sweden – 23-25 April

This week was busy with three rehearsals with RK, Wednesday/Thursday/Friday, for the Vårkonsert (Spring Concert), which I’ll conduct May 9. RK has only one rehearsal next week (not with me), so there’s a gap before concert week, when I’ll have one rehearsal on Tuesday with choir alone, Wednesday with our collaborators, the jazz ensemble Chapter 2 (in Berwaldhallen, where the concert takes place), then Friday from 5:30-6:30 PM before the concert at 7:30. In between, on Thursday, I rehearse RK on Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem (quite a change of pace!), which they’ll do during their tour of the Netherlands with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev.

The Vårkonsert is typically a lighter program and the concept and much of the program was set before I was tapped to conduct it. This isn’t too unusual, since the Radio has to plan long in advance and the choir has a program committee that works together with Arne Lundmark. The concert is advertised as: A strong fragrance of spring and affection with English madrigals and “feel good.” I think, however, of the original program proposed, we only kept Morley’s “Now is the Month of Maying” and Stanford’s “The Blue Bird.” However, also planned later by Arne and the committee was a group of traditional Swedish spring songs, David Wikander’s “Förvårskväll” (which I didn’t know and is truly gorgeous) and “Kung Liljekonvalje” as opening and closing, and two men’s chorus favorites in between: “O hur härligt majsol ler” and final piece in August Söderman’s “Ett Bondbröllop” (A Peasant Wedding). These last two are certainly in the repertoire of any men’s chorus in Sweden.

I added Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Just as the tide was flowing” and two pieces by John Rutter from his Birthday Madrigals (a set written for jazz great George Shearing's 75th birthday): “Draw on, Sweet Night” (a beautiful setting of the text from the well-known Wilbye madrigal) and “It was a Lover and His Lass” (a jazzy setting of the Shakespeare text, originally written in 1976 for The Scholars, a group of ex-Cambridge singers founded around the time of the King’s Singers).

This program is also in collaboration with the jazz ensemble, Chapter 2, made up of Johan Norberg (guitar) and Nils Landgren (trombone). Both are well-known artists in and out of Sweden and it should be really exciting to work with them. Originally, we were primarily alternating our sets of pieces, but I was able to meet with Johan and Arne earlier in the week and discuss how we might work together more during the concert. Some of the details of this won’t happen until we meet (Nils is in Germany), but will take the following form:

Opening with the Morley (we’ll sort out how this works when we meet—Nils is also a skilled singer, so we may involve him as scat singer as well!). Then RK alone with the RVW.

After this, “The Blue Bird” with an intro by Chapter 2, then we sing and Nils will add some things, à la Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble on their album, Officium.

Then Chapter 2 does a set, followed by our set of traditional Swedish spring songs.

Then another set by Chapter 2, followed by Rutter’s “Draw on, Sweet Night” and then “It was a Lover and His Lass” with Chapter 2 joining us (when Rutter added it to his Birthday Madrigals, he added piano and bass—we’ll do our own version of rhythm section). Finally, we’ll close with Roberton’s setting of the Welsh song, “All Through the Night,” assuming the music gets here in time (Arne had heard it on a CD and thought it would end the concert nicely, which it will!).

So, rehearsals went well this week—it’s not too difficult a program for RK, of course—and the music is well in hand. For those who haven’t heard RK live (and particularly, up close), it’s always astounding to hear both the power of the voices, but their ability (when asked) to sing amazingly softly as well. The pieces in English took the most time of course, since even though the members of RK all speak English very well, it’s still a challenge to sing idiomatically in another language. And of course, interesting for me to do the Swedish pieces with RK! There are some of the same issues in pronunciation we all deal with, of course, with disagreements between members of the tenors and basses over the pronunciation of a particular word in the Söderman. I came down on one side of the argument, but will check with Robert Sund when I see him Monday, since he knows the male repertoire and traditions as well as anyone!

However, it’s a great privilege to be able to work with this choir on any repertoire, so I’m enjoying the opportunity.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sweden – Uppsala, Orphei Drängar and Robert Sund – Part 3

After the concert, we all got into busses to go up to the Castle. It’s an imposing structure which for some time has been not a royal building, but the residence for the county Governor and the large rooms are used for special occasions such as this one, degree granting, etc.

On the way to the castle we were taken by way of the river, where across from Robert and Margareta’s apartment, there hung a giant poster with Robert’s face—another surprise for Robert when he woke up that morning! Robert’s visage was everywhere, a great caricature on banners, same on the coaster under the beer, and on the beer bottle itself a picture of Robert—the beer was called Avslaget (which was explained to us means both “cut off”—as in a conductor’s cut off—and “out of date!”). And the caricature was even on the top of the dessert. All the pictures led to a running joke in the speeches, based on North Korea’s leader Kim-Jong-il, and his ubiquitous portraits: “Kim-il-Sund.”

There were over 700 of us in the hall, a striking high-ceilinged room, tapestries on the walls, with a very long head table, and all the other tables in long rows (each seating 49 or 50) at right angles to it. Candles, a beautifully set table, and everyone in their tails and gowns made for a gorgeous setting. There was also a beautifully prepared program booklet, with lots of pictures of Robert from early days with OD to the present, the complete list of guests, and a number of the songs that were sung (I knew a couple well enough to join in).

A glass of champagne waiting for us as we arrived, and eventually Robert led the group with a song into the hall. There was beer all ready at the table, and (for us guests) tickets for snaps (schnapps). The snaps and beer (and later the wine and sherry) came in handy, since at least 10 times Robert would be announced, stand with his tuning fork and give the pitch for the next song (which was always followed by a toast: skål!

This is a repertoire all members of OD know by heart, so hearing that many voices in a resonant room is amazing. A side note: OD has long had a rule that members have to leave at a certain age (I think 50 or 52) in order to keep the group with a balance of youthful and more mature voices. For this reason there are lots of “veterans” (who do sing on particular occasions and even do their own concerts) who are still amazingly good singers. Across from us at the table were Christer and Karin Solén—Christer sang with Eric for many years in the Chamber Choir as well as OD, where he was tenor soloist for 15 years, and he can still sing a powerful, ringing high C.

Next to Kathryn was Kettel Skarby, who I’d met twice in Uppsala, first in 2002 when I gave lectures on the book, and then again last year during a conference sponsored by the Choral Centre. It was great to talk to all of them (and have ready explanations for such things as the meaning of “avslaget”).

There were of course, speeches (including a nice one by Philip Brunelle on the “secret” group’s behalf), awards, some planned songs, and much else. Robert gave a great speech near the end, mentioning many people—Eric Ericson, of course, (who couldn’t be there because he was on tour with EEKK that weekend—he’ll be at the Stockholm concert), and the many officers who make OD work. Robert also mentioned Cecilia Rydinger-Alin, who will be the next conductor of OD and who was there, of course, with her husband Folke Alin, the long-time accompanist and assistant conductor of OD, as well as repetitör and co-choirmaster at the Royal Opera (he prepared the opera chorus for the great production of Orphée that we saw).

Cecilia and Folke (seated):

The waiters and waitresses (dressed beautifully) came out for each course (or to remove the last one) in a long line in front of the head table, paused, then moved down the long rows between the tables together.

Quite simply, everything was done with class.

And, of course, the reason we were here (Robert and Margareta):

Robert, Steen, and Margareta:

Robert and Margareta:

After dinner (around 11 PM), everyone repaired to an upstairs room for coffee and brandy, before coming back downstairs for dancing with a big band. We greeted a few people, but didn’t stay. Most of us called it a night after dinner and we walked back to the hotel with Dick and Diane Loomer. A fabulous time!

Sunday morning around 9 we bid goodbye to Gunilla and Jerry, who were headed to the airport, had breakfast with Ágnes, visited with several others including Lawrence and the Brunelles, then went for a lovely walk. We were to meet Ágnes again at 1 PM, so checked out after the walk and hung around the lobby, where we managed to see almost everyone one last time as they were on their way out. We then had a long lunch and visit with Ágnes before catching the train ourselves.

Gunilla and me:

Kathryn Sparks with Ágnes (all photos credit to Kathryn--except this one!)

Again, I can’t say how much of an honor it was to be a part of this. It was a special occasion in every way.

Sweden – Uppsala, Orphei Drängar and Robert Sund – Part 2

Gunilla met us at the apartment early Friday afternoon to drop a few things off, since she was going back home directly from Uppsala. We caught the train to Uppsala and who would we see when we got settled, but Diane and Dick Loomer! We had a wonderful time catching up during the trip. Diane has been co-conductor (with Morna Edmonson) of the women’s choir Elektra in Vancouver B.C. for 20 years and is founder/conductor of the men’s choir, Chor Leoni. She and Dick also run a small publishing company dedicated to Canadian choral works, Cypress Music, well worth checking out. Dick and Diane are both delightful people and the time passed quickly.

The weather, by the way, has been beautiful, with lots of sunshine. After checking in at the hotel we made plans for dinner. When we came downstairs, Jerry McCoy (head of the choral program at the University of North Texas and President-Elect of ACDA) had just arrived, so he joined us for dinner. A great time with great people.

The next morning we met Lawrence Cherney for breakfast—Lawrence is Artistic Director for Soundstreams in Toronto. Pro Coro has taken part in several Soundstreams events and we wanted to talk about possible future collaborations. Ágnes came down for breakfast as well. At 11 AM we met to rehearse a Schubert song (including some different words wishing Robert a happy birthday) that we were singing at the dinner, so met all the others at that time. Philip Brunelle led the rehearsal—I have to say, we were a pretty motley choir! Afterwards we all had lunch, joined by Karl Eric and Margareta.

After a bit of a break, we dressed and left for the concert. There was an almost full house, with most of the “veteran” members of OD who were attending wearing tails, as is traditional for the dinner (their wives in evening dresses). The concert itself was great and Robert chose a program with some of the pieces that will be on the tour program next fall, traditional Swedish male choir repertoire, plus guests Lena Willemark (a marvelous singer who does a wide variety of styles from folk to jazz to “kulning”—the high, loud singing originally designed to call the cows home), Claes Janson (a fabulous blues/jazz singer), and jazz piano trio, Trio X.

Besides traditional Swedish male chorus songs, the classical repertoire included Bob Chilcott’s 5 Ways to Kill a Man, Anders Hillborg’s male chorus version of muo:ayiy:oum, Toivo Kuula’s Iltapilviä, and Murray Schafer’s Magic Songs, commissioned by OD some years ago. Magic Songs is a challenging set (I’ve done the mixed voice version with Pro Coro) and OD did them from memory with choreography—very impressive! There were also songs by Lena and Claes, duets with the two of them, a solo performance by the trio, and Robert joining Lena on Ale Möller’s Tango vid midnatt on accordion (a talent I didn't know he had, but I'm not surprised!). There were also speeches and the presentation of a medal to Robert by the President of the University. Great fun, the choir sounded wonderful, and the program was followed by at least three encores.

During the second half of the program it was arranged to have spotlights on all of us so that Robert could finally see the “secret guests.” It took a minute for him to finally realize who was there—he said he first saw Steen, who’s very tall—and he was genuinely surprised and delighted. In his own speech, he broke into English momentarily to great his “friends from abroad.” Believe me, it was our pleasure!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sweden – Uppsala, Orphei Drängar and Robert Sund – Part 1

I’ll break this post up into several parts, since there’s so much to tell (plus pictures).

Orphei Drängar is one of the world’s best men’s choruses—you can find their website here—with a history that dates back to 1853. They came out of a tradition of student choirs at the famous Uppsala University (founded in 1477), although OD (as it’s called) has long had members who are no longer students. Uppsala itself is a beautiful university town with a rich history and impressive Cathedral and castle. Because of the Cathedral (earlier versions than the present one) it has been the center of spiritual life in Sweden since the 1200s.

The first time I came to Sweden in April of 1989, OD formed the “bookends” of that visit. When I arrived, they were about to go on a short tour with Eric Ericson and he invited me to go along—and so I did, riding the bus, attending rehearsals and concerts, staying at the hotel with them, eating meals, and generally having a wonderful time. At the end of my stay Eric invited me to attend the first of May “Serenade” concert (which Robert Sund was conducting). This is part of an important time in all Northern countries when Spring is officially declared and the long, dark winter over—and in this case the students party, shall we say, impressively! We had a luncheon with Orphei Drängar, then the afternoon concert, then went to the library for sherry with some honored guests and the President of the University. At the appointed hour we all went out onto the balcony where we could see that every square foot of ground was covered with students. The President made the official announcement that Spring had arrived and the students cheered, threw hats into the air, and began their celebrations. Shortly afterward we went to the castle, where we heard a brief, outdoor performance by Allmänna Sången under their new conductor, Cecilia Rydinger-Alin (Robert Sund had recently finished his 15 year stint as their conductor)—you’ll see (if you haven’t already figured it out) how prescient all of this is! After that we had a lovely dinner at the Castle. You can imagine this was a pretty impressive introduction to Sweden and OD!

By the way, if you conduct a men’s choir, OD has probably the most extensive library in the world for this repertoire, and the library is online in a searchable database here.

OD has a particularly strong history of conductors: Hugo Alfvén (you may know his beautiful “Aftonen”) was the choir’s fifth conductor from 1910-1947 and raised standards, plus writing many compositions for this choir. Eric Ericson followed him from 1951-1991, which meant further increases in the choir’s standard, a much wider repertoire, and eventually recognition and tours outside Sweden (they first toured the USA in 1970, for an incredible six weeks). Robert Sund has had a long career with the choir, beginning as a singer in 1965, becoming Eric’s assistant conductor in 1968, in 1985 becoming co-conductor with Eric (they alternated responsibility for concerts), and sole conductor in 1991.

Robert and I also go back a long way. While I met him briefly in 1989 in Sweden, I really got to know him a month or so later, when we were both judges at the first International Chamber Choir Competition in Marktoberdorf, Germany. All the judging discussions were done in German and I sat next to Robert, who was kind enough to supply me with words when my German ran out! We’ve kept in touch over the years; he helped with background when I was researching my dissertation on Swedish choral music the summer of 1990, and I also brought him as a clinician to the PLU summer choral workshop in 1993. I’ve seen him and his wife Margareta at conferences and on every visit to Sweden since.

That’s all prelude to the events of this past weekend, which marked Robert’s 66th birthday and his last series of concerts with OD in Uppsala (he will lead them on a tour to North America in October—don’t miss it if you’re anywhere close by!). Margareta and Karl Eric Ericson were the primary conspirators (Karl Eric is a life-long friend of Robert’s, was involved with the tour I was a part of back in ’89, and was at a memorable dinner at Robert and Margareta’s in 1996 after Kathryn and I were married). Along with a few others I got this message from Karl Eric a year ago: “I am writing to you as a member of a "secret" group within Orphei Drängar. The group is planning for Robert Sund's last official appearance as OD's conductor. Part of the planned activities and events will be kept in utmost secrecy, especially for Robert. My task is to approach some of Robert's old and close friends inviting them to Uppsala for the concert on April 19. We believe that Robert will be highly surprised but also most happy and delighted to spot you and the other old friends in the audience during the concert!”

Karl Eric, Margareta, and Dick Loomer:

Karl Eric and Margareta did an amazing job of keeping this secret . . . except for me, since Robert already knew I’d be in Sweden. I got a message from Karl Eric in January: “I guess that Robert will rather soon contact you. The reason is that OD's president (Christian Wetterberg) a few minutes ago has talked to him about OD's wish to invite his two sons and their wives to the concert and the dinner. At the same time he asked Robert if there were some other persons he would like OD to invite for the event. His first proposal was you! The president told Robert that OD will invite you as soon as Robert has delivered your contact addresses! So, in short: when Robert contacts you - try act as if you are really surprised! That is to ensure that Robert will not get a suspicion that you already know about this.” Of course, I acted “surprised” when I got the call from Robert!

So it was that Kathryn and I got to go to this truly fantastic event, along with other friends of Robert, including Philip and Carolyn Brunelle, Gunilla Luboff, and Jerry McCoy from the USA; Diane and Dick Loomer, and Lawrence Cherney from Canada; Gardar Cortes from Iceland; Tove Ramlo-Ystad and Tor Ystad from Norway; Steen and Sigga Lindholm from Denmark; Matti and Mariana Hyökki; Seppo and Laura Murto, and Gottfrid Gräsbeck from Finland; and Ágnes Szalai from Hungary (Ágnes is also a dear friend of ours—we also met for the first time in Marktoberdorf). Simply put, it was a great honor to be included in this group and the amazing weekend.

Cast of Characters:

Philip and Carolyn Brunelle:

Carolyn, Ágnes Szalai, and Gunilla Luboff:

Jerry McCoy, Richard, Steen Lindholm, Philip:

Diane and Dick Loomer:

Lawrence Cherney (on the right--Seppo and Laura on the left):

Gardar Cortes:

Tove Ramlo-Ystad and Tor Ystad:

Steen and Sigga Lindholm:

Ágnes, Matti and Mariana Hyökki:

Laura and Seppo Murto:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sweden – April 14-16

Monday was a long trip back from Kristiansand, Norway to Stockholm on the train. While long, the weather and scenery were beautiful and it was a relaxing time.

Tuesday morning we went to the morning rehearsal of RK—their final rehearsal before their short tour to Visby (on the island of Gotland), Kristianstad, Hässleholm, and Halmstad. It’s a nice program: Mantyjärvi Pseudojojk, Sandström April o tystnad, some of Nystroem’s Havsvisioner, Lidholm . . . a riveder le stelle (one of the great 20th century a cappella masterpieces, I think), Werle trees, Jan Sandström Biegga Luothe, Stenhammar 3 Körvisor, and some Swedish traditional favorites (like Hogo Alfvén’s Aftonen). Major soloists in the Lidholm (Helena Ströberg), Werle (Johan Pejler) and Jan Sandström (Mathias Brorson) all are doing beautifully on these challenging solos.

Tuesday evening we went to Konserthuset for a program with the London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding conducting. This is a little unusual, since Daniel is Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Orchestra—here he was appearing at the “rival” concert hall (home of the Stockholm Philharmonic) with his “other” orchestra, as he’s Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO. We saw a number of RK’s members there, the concertmaster of the Stockholm Philharmonic, and I’m sure there were many members of both the Radio Orchestra and Stockholm Philharmonic!

The program was interesting: Boulez Mémoriale for flute and eight instruments, Prokofiev 2nd violin concerto with Viktoria Mullova as soloist, and Brahms 2nd Symphony.

The Boulez was well-played by the six string players, 2 horns and principal flute. The principal horn at the end has a long diminuendo, which was extraordinary, truly a niente (to nothing).

We were once again in the choir loft at the back of the orchestra, so we couldn’t hear Mullova as well as I might have liked (especially when she was accompanied by fairly big tuttis), but she gave a wonderful performance. The orchestra was good, but not as tight as I might have expected.

The Brahms, long one of my favorite symphonies, was given a very good performance, Daniel very much in charge.

Harding does make noise while conducting (with outgoing breath especially at intense moments), perhaps not audible from the other part of the house, but very clear from where we were! This is an interesting problem for conductors, who don’t (or shouldn’t!) make noise when conducting—only the ensemble should! Of course, many musicians (Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson) do make noise when playing. When I worked with the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz was also known for his vocal noises (not singing) during conducting. In recording sessions (where I was usually back with the producer and recording engineer), the producer could communicate to the whole ensemble in between takes with a speaker (“winds out of tune at G,” “we need better ensemble from the low strings at B,” etc.), but also with a phone with which he could talk to Jerry. Sometimes this was because of something more sensitive (dealing with a particular player, or a tempo that wasn’t matching up to previous takes), but also occasionally, “Jerry, you’re making noise again.” This is a difficult habit to break, since musical intensity and expressivity becomes closely associated with the noises—take away the noise and one doesn’t feel the same intensity.

In a roundabout way, this leads to my feeling that conductors need to learn a clear, pattern-based technique early on. Abe Kaplan told me once that when he watched Robert Shaw doing an a cappella work, where he used an unconventional conducting technique, his conducting was free and extraordinarily expressive. In the same way, in front of an orchestra, using a technique he’d learned much later in life, his technique didn’t have the same expressive intensity. Abe felt that Shaw’s expressive conducting (not pattern based) was simply so strongly learned that when he switched to a pattern-based technique, he couldn’t incorporate his expressive gestures into it. Perhaps those readers who worked with Shaw over a long period of time can say if they think this is correct or not.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my early experiences was with a conductor who was quite uncomfortable in front of orchestras, so I decided I wanted to have a technique that would allow me to do both equally well. For me, having worked hard on developing a clear technique, early on it was my struggle to be expressive as a conductor (that has to do with personality, too, of course). Later, with more and more experience, I gradually learned to be more and more expressive but still within traditional patterns (when necessary).

It’s not necessary, of course, to always work within a pattern. One of the most expressive conductors I remember watching was Sergiu Commissiona at Aspen in 1977 or so (he was best known for his work with the Baltimore Symphony). In a master class he told of how he began with a very strict technique and then, over the course of years, learned “what the orchestra didn’t need.” I feel if conductors absorb a clear and clean technique (able to handle all technical requirements) at the beginning, they can then learn to be expressive without losing the basis of their technique. More about this at another time, perhaps.

Another thing notable about Harding’s conducting technique (which is excellent and expressive) is that he does very little subdividing in slow tempos. That was something I learned from Gerard Schwarz as well. While I didn’t like Jerry’s conducting technique in general (his fast tempi had a quick rebound and almost a double ictus with elbow and baton), he rarely subdivided in slow tempi. This forced the orchestra to really listen and feel the underlying pulse. It was a great thing to learn—that sometimes not being “clear” can get the best musical results.

At any rate, fun concert!

Today was a fairly relaxed day, with Gunilla coming over during the afternoon for dinner and a visit (she brought some beautiful salmon and strawberries and we supplied the rest). We had a lovely time, as we always do when Gunilla is around. You may ask, “aren’t you staying at Gunilla’s apartment??” Well, yes, we are. Gunilla’s here this week to visit a few friends and is, of course, an invitee to Orphei Drängar’s big program this weekend. So, she’s staying with a girlfriend this week. She’ll come back on Friday and we’ll take the train together to Uppsala. It’s wonderful to have the time to catch up!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sweden - April 8-13

Before leaving for Norway this week, we went to Peter Dijkstra's rehearsal with RK on Tuesday morning. I'm more and and more impressed with Peter—he's great to watch work: interesting ideas about the music, great ears, and an efficient rehearsal. He's also a nice guy. A great combination.

Wednesday was errand day to get ready for our trip to Kristiansand and visit with Heidi (Kath's youngest sister) Traedal, her husband Trygve and two children, Elisabeth and Christoffer. Thursday was a day long train trip, first to Oslo, then a half hour's layover before catching the train to Kristiansand, which is at the southern tip of Norway. Beautiful scenery on the ride and quite a bit of sunshine between the cloudy portions. We arrived around 7:30 PM and were picked up by Heidi and Elisabeth.

Our visit has been wonderful as always: lots of conversation and catching up, walks into town (not too far away and the weather was nice on Friday), a visit to Trygve's studio at the conservatory (he's a pianist), great food, a trip to a favorite Indian restaurant (Christoffer always asks for the maximum "heat"), and a nice concert Friday evening by the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra (Heidi works for them in administration).

The orchestra concert was conducted by Rolf Gupta, the orchestra's Music Director, whom we met last year for dinner at the Traedal's. The program took place in the Cathedral, the only place in town with a large enough audience capacity for this program (around 1200—a new concert hall has begun construction, but won't be finished until 2010 or 2011). Acoustics were pretty reasonable. The Cathedral is lovely, a wood ceiling, balconies, and organ loft, with acoustics that aren't too live for this music. The orchestra was augmented by musicians from Tromsø in the far north of Norway—there are 50 musicians in Kristiansand's core. The program opened with Debussy's Prelude a l'après midi d'un faune. It was given a nice performance and brought back memories of a great performance I saw in San Francisco years ago with the Joffrey Ballet in residence at SF Ballet. That program was a recreation of choreography, sets and costumes of the originals for the Debussy (in Ninjinsky's choreography, sets and dance based on early Greek art with a two-dimensional portrayal), Satie's Parade (with sets and costumes by Picasso), and Stravinsky's Rite of Sping (wonderful to see with the original choreography).

The KSO program continued with Ravel's Tzigane with violinist Sara Chen. Chen is just 18 and grew up and trained in Norway--as Trygve said, she's one of a group now of outstanding young Norwegian violinists on the rise. She gave a terrific performance. After the pause, the second half of the program was Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. It was a very good performance, even if not as strong as the one I heard at CCM a year ago last fall conducted by Hugh Wolff (that one was amazing, with the Philharmonia Orchestra—the top student orchestra--playing with great virtuosity). The concert was really enjoyable and I enjoyed watching Rolf work—he's a very fine conductor.

We're relaxing today (Sunday), just having had a beautiful brunch, and can hardly believe it's almost time to get back to Stockholm (we leave around 8:30 in the morning on Monday). 

Monday, April 7, 2008

Sweden - April 2-7

Last week was mostly taken up with rehearsals with RK. As outlined earlier, Tu-Wed-Thurs were working on Verdi Quattro Pezzi Sacri (what gorgeous pieces and RK can make a wonderful sound on them) and the Pizzetti Requiem (another gorgeous piece--mostly review and help for those 4 or 5 singers who didn't do the Pizzetti on their recent production with the Latvian Radio Choir, plus giving them Peter's markings).

Rehearsals went generally well, although for whatever reason the men struggled with the opening of the Te Deum, particularly singing it in tune. Since on Wednesday I let the men go early so I could work for the last half hour on Laudi alla Vergine, I let the women go early on Thursday to work with the men on the opening. Better, but not yet where it should be. I'll have one more rehearsal on May 14 (a long way off) on this repertoire before they head for Holland to do it with Nederlands Kamerkoor and Peter Dijkstra.

Friday was rehearsal on Werle's trees and Sandström's April och Tystnad. The Sandström is gorgeous, slow (except for one short section), and was great fun to do, since I hadn't conducted it before. If you don't know the Werle, do get to know it! You can find Eric Ericson's recording here. It's a setting of 4 ee cummings' texts for choir, octet, and baritone solo, virtuosic and great fun. Werle worked for a period as a dance-band pianist and his knowledge of this "American" style is integrated wonderfully into the piece. It's difficult, though, and we spent a lot of time repeating some sections to get pitches and ensemble down. There are still a few places needing work, but hopefully we got a lot done for this program, which Peter will begin rehearsing this week.

Also on Friday evening, I went to the airport to meet Kathryn, who was scheduled to get in at 9:30 PM, but was delayed until around 10 PM. Given the fact that she was on British Air going through the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow, which had a disastrous opening the week before, we were both happy that she came that close to being on time and with all her luggage! She'd slept for about 6 hours on the Seattle to London leg, so was surprisingly rested.

Saturday (after a fairly lazy morning) we went to another Sjung Med! (Sing With!) concert at St. Jacobs with Gary Graden. This was an expansion into new repertoire of the same group that has been doing the Folkjul concerts I wrote of earlier. Again, it was organist Gunnar Idenstam, violinist Lisa Rydberg, with Gary conducting an octet from the Chamber Choir. Most of the music was Bach (some organ music, the Bourée from the violin partita in E major, "Zion hört die Wachter singen" from Cantata 140, several chorales from Johannespassion, a couple of minuets, etc.), some familar hymns with the audience singing, and a great improvisation by Idenstam at the end. Gary leads the singing with infectious joy and the audience (the church probably 2/3ds full) was really responsive.

Lisa is a wonderful player (as I'd mentioned before, besides her specialities in folk music, she also plays baroque violin with various groups around Sweden) and her takes on Bach offer the kind of HIPP (Historically informed performance practice) one might expect (although on a modern fiddle and bow), but with the addition of folk influences and ornamentation. She has a website, but it's fairly out of date. Gunnar Idenstam is a wonderful player and, as you'll see from his website, very busy!

At any rate, a wonderful hour or so of music.

Sunday was another relatively slow day, but then Gary picked us up around 5 to go out to their home for a walk and dinner. The four of us took a great walk around the neighborhood (which is close by an arm of the Baltic Sea) then came back in time to go pick up their youngest son, Philip, who had a football game and practice that day. Their older son, Johan, was busy at home editing some electronica music that he'll be doing at a club in Oslo with two other friends. Maria made a fantastic soup, which we all had with crayfish to spread on top, a salad and wonderful bread. It was followed with a dense, gooey, chocolate torte, fruit and ice cream. Decadent doesn't begin to describe it! At any rate, we had a marvelous evening with good friends, conversation and food.

Monday was another slow day, with some score study and a few errands. One of the errands was to go to the train station to buy tickets for our visit to Kathryn's youngest sister, Heidi, husband Trygve, and children Elisabeth and Christoffer, in Kristiansand, Norway. We leave Thursday and come back Monday--not a long enough visit, but the time we could afford, given other commitments. It'll be a great time.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Gene Puerling dies

Another giant dies.

Gene was the founder/leader/arranger for two of the outstanding jazz/pop vocal ensembles of the 20th century, the Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited.

The LA Times obit can be found here.

When I was doing my PLU Summer Choral Workshops, we almost always had a jazz clinician. One of those years it was Gene. It was a thrill to meet him, to watch him do clinics with teachers and students, and demonstrate how his Singers Unlimited recordings were made, over-dub by over-dub.

It was also fun to hear his stories, touring with the Hi-Lo's, about going to the Black Forest where their producer had his studio, how they bought a better multi-track player to record Singers Unlimited (and how it was covered over with a sheet until they returned again--they were the only ones who used it!).

The Hi-Lo's made an appearance at a PLU jazz festival a few years later and sounded as good live as they did on their recordings.

For those that don't know, the Hi-Lo's were a four-voice male ensemble, with the notable range of Clark Burroughs' tenor. The Singer's Unlimited had some crossover singers (besides Gene), but was three guys and soprano Bonny Herman. The Hi'Lo's were a classic vocal jazz ensemble, featuring full-voice singing and tight harmonies. They were an enormous influence on such groups at the Beach Boys and Manhattan Transfer. Singers Unlimited, on the other hand, was purely a studio group. Gene wrote 6-part arrangements for this quartet and all parts were over-dubbed, some many times. Their sound was a bit more artificial, but beautiful nevertheless.

Get some recordings--most are still available on CD (you can find them at Primarily A Cappella, for example), especially the Hi-Lo's for pure, beautiful, joyful singing.

For an interview with Gene, go here (thanks to the Choral Blog for this link).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Beginning rehearsals with RK again

Today I began rehearsing with RK again. They'd had the week after Easter off after a fairly exhausting and busy time. After I left they had their performances of Rachmaninov The Bells (in combination with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir) with Jukka-Pekka Sarasate, first in Stockholm with the Radio Orchestra, but then in Oslo and Helsinki, with their respective orchestras. They also did the All-Night Vigil, in Stockholm with Risto Joost, then in the other cities with Tõnu Kaljuste.

Prior to Easter they combined with the Latvian Radio Choir under Kaspars Putnins, singing the Pendereki Stabat Mater and Agnus Dei, Pärt The Beatitudes, and the Pizzetti Requiem (all pieces that I prepared). Then, on Good Friday and Easter Saturday they did the Bach Matthew Passion with Daniel Harding and the Radio Orchestra. That was, I heard, a mixed success, as Harding put the two choirs/orchestras at the front and back of a very large church, which made for difficult coordination problems. I hope to hear tapes of the broadcasts of all these concerts. At any rate, a very busy time for the choir!

I have three rehearsals this week on the Verdi Quattro Pezzi Sacri, which they'll be doing in May (notice again how schedule often forces them to prepare works far in advance of the performances) with Peter Dijkstra and the Nederlands Kamerkoor in Holland. They'll also do the Pizzetti on that tour, but on their own, so I'm also reviewing it with them. Even though they've just done it, there are about 5 or 6 of the choir that didn't sing that production and I also have Peter's markings. Yes, markings! It's a pleasure to be able to work with Peter's meticulously marked scores--if you read my previous post on this topic (or have dealt with this yourself), you'll know that it can be frustrating to prepare a choir for someone with no idea of what they want. At any rate, I'm enjoying this.

On Friday (my fourth rehearsal) I'll work with them on a really beautiful piece by Sven-David Sandström, April och Tystnad, and Lars Johan Werle's trees (an ee cummings text), one of my favorite Swedish works. This is to give a little head start to their work with Peter next week on a program that they'll do on a short domestic tour.

Sunday was a getting-over-jet-lag day, then Monday I met with Gary Graden for lunch, followed by meeting with Eva Wedin at the Radio library for some planning. It should be a busy week!