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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Denver-Chorus America/NPAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike and Simone:

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

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

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

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Auditions 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Auditions 3

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Auditions 2

So what have my audition procedures been?

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about group/ensemble auditioning in the next post.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Reality TV hits conducting

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

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

Interesting (with all that word often implies).

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

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

What do you think?

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

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Auditioning 1

Nobody likes auditions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about the process in the next post.