Author: Jenny Clarke

Choral Travels: Oh, the Places We’ll Sing!

I was recently catching up on some reading on the new Chorus America website and came across an article titled “When It’s More than Just Singing–Choristers Share Their Most Memorable Experiences.” The piece is a compilation of quotes from singers about their “mountaintop” choral experiences. Reading about life-changing choral touring experiences reminded me of the year before college when I was singing with the Royal Choral Society in the U.K. That summer, I was among more than 100 singers loaded on buses and driven to Lyon, France, where we performed in the Berlioz Festival. Three decades later, I still remember the thrill of performing in the festival and exploring the city with fellow singers–definitely a seminal mountaintop choral experience.

Every season, Melodia’s Artistic Director Cynthia Powell and I talk about the places we’d like to take the group to sing. Favorites on our list include a visit to one of the great cathedrals in England to sing evensong while the regular cathedral choir is on summer vacation; or a trip to Mexico to sing a commissioned piece by Allison Sniffin on poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; or participation in the International Choral Festival in Havana, Cuba. All seem to us to be very exciting, appealing prospects, but they remain on our “dream” list as we ponder the dauntingly high costs and administrative burdens of such a trip.

I’m encouraged to see that despite the economic struggles of the last few years, choirs are still managing to transport themselves to festivals and performance opportunities all over the world. A notice just dropped into my email box this week about New York’s Collegiate Chorale’s scheduled tour this summer with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti conducting. The tour includes two concerts in Israel and three at the Salzberg Festival. Repertoire includes works by Naom Sheriff, Schoenberg, Bruckner, Bloch, Mahler, and Verdi. New York Virtuoso Singers, with Artistic Director Harold Rosenbaum, is going to Denmark and Sweden in early June. The trip is sponsored by Roger Davidson’s Society for Universal Sacred Music (SUSM), and the choir is singing selections from past SUSM festivals, plus a collection of choral works written by Davidson, sung in Danish.

Many choirs that do not have sponsorship for their trips rely on a choral travel company to arrange the accommodations, travel, and performances. Recognized companies include KI Concerts, ACFEA Tour Consultants, and TRC’s Performance Tours. For these tours, a per-singer fee is calculated and members of the choir who can come up with the fee are on their way. While these trips are great for the choirs with enough singers who can pay the fee—which is often upwards of $3,000 depending on the destination—for many choirs, like Melodia, few singers can find the funds or take the time from other commitments and jobs. Some choirs are able to focus fundraising efforts on touring while others can’t afford to take the focus away from their regular seasons.

However you tour and wherever you go, planning for rest and music preparation in addition to some gentle sightseeing are additional ingredients of a mountaintop choral experience.

What are your experiences of choral touring?

Choral Themes

Since becoming more involved in the organizational side of choral music, I’ve noticed all the different ways choirs present music, often with works grouped together into themes that range from obvious to suggestive. With so much marketing now taking place through social media and online listings, having a theme that encapsulates the character and content of a performance in a few words can be a big advantage.

I’m impressed with the creativity of some choirs in selecting themes. C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective‘s recent concert in New York, titled A Loss for Words, offered an evening of new choral music on alternative texts—repertoire that used a broad variety of vocal techniques, fragments of words, and made-up words–anything but real words that we might recognize. The repertoire selected was extremely broad and uniquely grouped.

The Esoterics, based in Seattle, is covering an interesting range of themes for its concerts this year. The ensemble’s September concerts celebrate a composer’s birthday–an endless source of concert themes. CAGE: John Cage Centennial features all of John Cage’s a cappella choral works in addition to Cage’s entire Songbook in a marathon performance weekend. The ensemble’s June/July concert, titled ANTAMA: Honoring the healing power of togetherness, has the theme of community and features works by lesbian and gay composers in preparation for the group’s participation in the tenth GALA Choruses conference in Denver this July.

Minnesota-based VocalEssence has British music as a theme for its upcoming concert, Brits & Brass, with Copper Street Brass Quintet, featuring U.S. premieres of The Night’s Untruth by Tarik O’Regan (co-commissioned by VocalEssence) and The Far Theatricals of Day by Jonathan Dove, as well as works by Judith Bingham, Britten, Parry, and Rutter.

The Brits across the pond are celebrating the Queens’ Diamond Jubilee in 2012 (a four-day holiday weekend June 2-5), a theme reflected in the programs of choirs throughout Britain this year. Repertoire seems to be mostly classical, with some new commissioned works featured, such as Ronald Corp’s This Sceptr’d Isle, to be performed by Highgate Choral Society, one of Britain’s longest established non-professional choirs.

Adding to the material available for performance for the Jubilee is a new collection of sacred music composed in the last ten years: A Choir Book for the Queen: A collection of contemporary sacred music in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee. Under the artistic direction of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, 45 anthems have been selected, twelve of which are new commissions for this project. During 2012, BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong is featuring anthems from the collection, live broadcast available online in the U.S. at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006tp7r (adjust for time difference–U.K. is +4 hours until 3/25/2012 and then +5 hours).

What concert themes attract your attention?

Choral Learning Curves

Sitting in my choral rehearsal last weekend, I was struck with how laborious the process of music learning can be–for the singers and for the conductor as well. For non-professional choirs, the first few months of the year can be a painful period as singers find their way into the complexities of the music. Conductors start to encourage singers to study their music between rehearsals with increasing urgency as the weeks go by.

For many choral singers, learning music on their own can be challenging, especially for those who don’t have the keyboard skills needed to play more than just their own part. Learning one part, without the other parts or accompaniment, doesn’t usually get a singer very far. Once back in the rehearsal room, surrounded by other voices and the accompaniment, the music learned without a context soon fades away.

Conductors and composers have developed a number of tools and techniques to help singers prepare outside of rehearsals. Alice Parker, a conductor, composer, and teacher working in the choral field for more than 50 years, believes that a good place to start is to study and learn the text with rhythmic precision, forming a strong foundation for dropping in the pitches later.

Singers can access a variety of online tools to help with their practice and learning. Two free websites, Silvas Woodshed and CyberBass contain MIDI files that highlight separate choral parts. While CyberBass features all classical works, the selection on Silvas Woodshed is more extensive, and includes a small selection of 20th-century works. Additional sites where materials can be purchased include Rehearsal Arts, which carries a selection of classical works where the part is sung by a professional teaching singer with the accompaniment behind–much easier to listen to than MIDI files. Difficult passages are slowed on special tracks called StudySpots. ChoraLine in the UK also carries quality materials, although these are all classical except for a small selection of pieces by popular contemporary British composers. Very few works by contemporary American composers are available on these sites.

Conductors will often create rehearsal materials for their choir if none are available. Examples might include playing the vocal parts on the piano, recording them, and circulating them as MP3 files. Some contemporary composers will provide MIDI recordings of their work highlighting each vocal part. Some choirs will provide recordings with a soloist singing individual parts with piano accompaniment, although making such recordings is time consuming and can be expensive.

My hope is that one day there will be a comprehensive virtual library of learning tools for contemporary choral works. Since this material can be the most challenging to learn and commercial recordings may not be available, this would ease the learning process and encourage more choirs to tackle contemporary works. Composers and conductors (with permission) could place audio files into the library for singers to access.

What tools do you use or recommend to facilitate the learning process of choral works?

Choral Scores of the Future

At the recent Music of Now Marathon at Symphony Space, I was intrigued to see violinist Daniel Phillips play a piece by his father, Eugene, using an iPad instead of a score, turning the pages with a wireless foot pedal. I quickly imagined what it would be like to have a whole choir using iPads instead of scores. Singers would no longer have to deal with heavy folders stuffed with scores, audiences wouldn’t have to listen to multiple crackling page turns, and choir organizers could avoid spending weeks acquiring paper scores from multiple sources and dragging them from place to place. Royalties and fees would still be paid, as they are with e-books.

Until that day comes, choir librarians and administrators like me continue to face the endless challenge of obtaining the multiple copies needed for the singers, which can come from sources as diverse as the music itself. A typical Melodia Women’s Choir concert may have between six and ten different pieces and almost as many sources for copies of the scores.

As we all know, photocopying scores is not permitted except under special circumstances. In our current program, we have two situations where copying is allowed. One involves the composer, Johannes Somary, who died a year ago. Somary had sent us the unpublished score not long before he became ill, which we were able to copy with permission from his widow, Anne Somary. Another piece on our current program is an unpublished work by a living composer who provided a .pdf of the score and a license to reproduce it, for which we paid a per-copy fee.

Some of the choral scores programmed in a concert may be in the public domain and may be available at ChoralWiki, home of the Choral Public Domain Library which contains a vast collection of scores. However, if you find a score here, it’s important to check it thoroughly to make sure it’s the original notation and to review it for errors.

For purchasing scores, jwpepper.com and sheetmusicplus.com carry significant choral catalogues. Smaller companies can help find scores not available elsewhere. Cliff Hill Music, is one I have used consistently.

Several choirs in the New York area make their score libraries available to other choirs through a rental program. New Amsterdam Singers‘ rental catalogue carries more than 740 sets of choral music scores with accompanying instrumental parts, including classical and contemporary works, available at a fraction of the purchase price.

Perhaps ten years from now choral singers will carry a simple tablet instead of a score–or by then there could be some completely new technology available. Time will tell.

Searching for a Song

One day last week, I was trying to think of a place to meet a friend on our way out for the evening. “Let’s meet on West 56th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues— you know, where Patelson’s Music House used to be,” the friend said via cell phone. As I turned north on Seventh Avenue, happy memories flooded back of visits to this historic music store. Long gone are the days when you could actually go into a music store in New York and rifle through shelves, binders and bins, browsing and looking for classical and choral scores. My score browsing afternoons are now limited to occasional trips to The Schott Music Shop, Great Marlborough Street, London, a haven for choral treasures and information.

When I look at the scores we’ve accumulated at Melodia Women’s Choir, I marvel at the different ways we’ve come across them. When we started, all we had was a crumpled box of treble scores that had been left for our artistic director in the basement of the church where she was music director at the time. The box proved to be a valuable source of material, with some real treasures among the pieces inside.

Now, almost ten years later, what we still lovingly refer to as “the box” is a library that overflows from several large filing cabinets. Scores have found their way to us through recommendations from the online choral forum choralnet.org; and they’ve arrived in the mail and by e-mail from conductors, composers, and singers. We’ve also sought them out by browsing the repertoire lists of peer choirs online, digging into dictionaries and catalogs, and scouring programs and websites.

In addition to the Melodia library of scores, our audio collection has become a valuable resource for finding material. The CD browsing situation in New York is not as dire as the sheet music store scene since a handful of specialty music stores carry an eclectic mix of recordings and J&R on Park Row has a wide selection of choral recordings. In addition to choral CDs mixed in under composers’ names, a specialty choral section carries compilation choral CDs and some collections by individual choirs. While waiting on the long check-out line at J&R last Saturday, my fellow shoppers were voicing how vital it is to be able to really look at an actual CD before buying it—the internet just didn’t work for them.

Although shuffling through CDs is definitely productive and exciting, many of the CDs in our choir’s audio collection have come from other places. Conferences and concerts have yielded up some good material, and Primarily A Cappella’s Singers.com has become a great resource for rarely-heard material performed by choirs from all over the world. Some gems in the Melodia collection have also come from direct orders to choirs throughout the US, in Canada, and the UK, and from rummaging in used CD stores and market stalls during travels around the US and England.

Some music publishers are also adding audio to their choral catalogs. Hal Leonard’s Voices of Distinction 2011 catalog is a good example. Titles with the “Closer Look” icon frequently include an audio sample in addition to a score excerpt—a great way to discover composers whose work we’re not familiar with.

Once repertoire has been selected for a concert using all these resources, the next project is to find out where to acquire multiple scores and find any instrumental parts that are needed. Read more about that in my next post.

Virtually Choral

While recently searching online for some choral project ideas for next season, I was struck by the extent to which choral music–traditionally a group activity involving people being together in real time–has moved into the virtual world. Sure, choirs have been using the internet for years for communication, promotion, and networking, but now video is increasingly being used to connect choirs, singers, composers, and audiences without any kind of human contact.

For choral work, YouTube has transitioned from a fun showcase into an important tool. Even though I knew she had recorded it and asked the choir to do so, I was amazed to see a recording of a performance of a work by Catherine Aks by my ensemble, Melodia Women’s Choir, posted by the composer within days of the premiere! For composers who are self-published, regularly posting performances to YouTube is a powerful tool in getting a work heard and performed.

As a choral singer, it’s helpful to review recordings of different performances to get some familiarity with the work and the composer as part of the concert preparation process. Finding video clips to pass along to the rest of the choir as a learning tool, particularly of new or rarely performed work, is proving to be easier than locating audio recordings. In the past, I’ve spent hours online looking for a choir that has performed a piece that is not commercially recorded, tracking down contact info, finding out if there is a concert recording, and then waiting for the CD–a lengthy and inconvenient process.

The one drawback with the numerous video choral recordings posted on YouTube is that the quality is quite often mediocre. Live recordings, often taken in low-light situations with handheld video cameras or Flip cameras with minimal sound recording capabilities, only provide a sampling of the work and not a quality audio or video experience. San Francisco-based Volti has found an interesting way of posting work on YouTube that doesn’t include video, but features a high quality audio recording with a still photo of the choir, a blurb about the piece, the text, and a listing of the upcoming performance. Mark Winges’s Where Everything is Music is featured on this one:

Another recent development involving video is Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir. The YouTube video of Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 1 project, a recording of his Lux Aurumque by 185 singers who each recorded a video of themselves singing their part using their own computer, has attracted more than 2.8 million views so far. Virtual Choir 2 features a nicely produced video connecting 2,052 singers performing Sleep in a star-filled galaxy of interconnected singers, and his Virtual Choir 3 project is currently underway. To participate, singers go to the website, select a part (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass), and watch their computer screen as the music is played and sections of the score are visible on the screen. Whitacre even conducts! When the singer is ready, he or she records and submits their performance. Each singer needs headphones, a webcam, and preferably an external mic. The deadline for Virtual Choir 3 submissions is January 31, 2012.

The use of video has endless possibilities as the choral and virtual worlds collide and expand.

Choral composers–how do you present your choral work on video?

Resolving to Sing

New Year’s resolutions, while frequently focusing on the physical–going back to the gym, revisiting that diet, getting out the running shoes–can also bring singers out of hiding and into audition rooms. When January 1 comes around each year, audition requests start to trickle into choirs’ e-mail boxes as singers set new goals and plans for the year, and as groups broadcast audition details for the spring season.

Glancing through some of the messages I’ve received recently for Melodia Women’s Choir, I see inquiries from singers with as many reasons to audition as there are choirs in which to sing. An experienced professional who sings on commercials misses singing with a group. A recent graduate just moved to New York for a job and wants to continue her musical life and meet other singers. A singer recently completed a course of voice lessons paid for by a “passion grant” from the company where she works and is ready to try out for some choirs.

Many New York City choirs have a consistently rotating roster of singers as lives shift and change. Even when a choir may only have a few open spots, many choral directors are eager to hear all of the singers who are available to audition and who meet the choir’s membership criteria. Within a short time frame–usually 10-15 minutes–the director will make a rigorous survey of a singer’s skills. A series of vocal exercises, the performance of a prepared song, and a sight-reading exercise are usually part of the audition. For choirs that consistently tackle challenging contemporary works, a high level of sight reading is key in addition to highly accurate pitch.

For Melodia, we listen for a particular tone quality that is full-bodied but goes toward a straight tone without a big vibrato sound. Singers who don’t do well in the sight-reading part of the audition are rarely accepted. Melodia, like many choirs, has a lot of music to cover in a short time and needs singers who can read well and learn fast.

For a singer, finding a choir that is the right fit can sometimes take several attempts, but most will eventually discover a group that has the right pace, culture, and a repertoire that they love. Some singers, having joined a choir, will work on their vocal technique and choral repertoire in individual voice lessons. New York-based soprano and voice teacher Mary Ellen Callahan says that 95 percent of her voice students are currently singing in a choir. For many, voice lessons are an extension of their commitment to a choir and its repertoire, as well as their desire to continue working on vocal technique.

Have you defined specific music-related goals for 2012?

Choral Glories in 2011

Now that the final flurry of holiday concerts is almost over, I’m taking a pause to reflect on the many accomplishments I witnessed in the choral field during 2011. Choral music has experienced an astonishing year, claiming its place as a vital and evolving form that touches and engages millions of participants and audiences.

One highlight has been a full year of choral programming on New York’s classical music station, WQXR. Each week on the program The Choral Mix, host Ken Tritle has explored “the vibrant and transformative world of choral music,” delving into a variety of topics punctuated by choral performances–both live and recorded. I sang in one of these–the first live broadcast of The Choral Mix from The Greene Space, WQXR’s performance space, in a program of works by Brahms. With a small live audience around us, four remote control cameras streamed the singers across the Internet. I was even able to view an archival version as soon as I got home from the performance.

Although The Choral Mix content veers toward early and classical repertoire, contemporary work was also featured throughout the year. The program on August 14 was devoted completely to 20th-century American music. Contemporary American composers also appeared throughout the year, including Tan Dun and David Lang in the “Choral Passion” program and Paul Moravec in a Memorial Day tribute. The Choral Mix airs at the marginal times of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Sundays, but programs are available anytime on the WQXR website.

A new development this year was the first Sing New York festival, culminating in a Choral Finale attracting more than 600 singers from choirs all over the New York area. Nine conductors led singers through significant choral repertoire in a great atmosphere of choral unity. Organizers of the event, the New York Choral Consortium, are planning the second Sing New York festival for summer 2012 and anticipate that American choral music will have a stronger presence in the Choral Finale. The video below shows conductor Cynthia Powell leading the massed singers in He, Watching Over Israel, from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

In other good news, I’m thrilled to see choral groups featured in the recently announced first round of 2012 NEA music grants, although I would be happier if there were more of them; out of 127 funded projects, about 12 are choral. Contemporary American music shows up in several funded projects, including Santa Anna (California-based Pacific Choral’s commission, performance, and recording of a work by Frank Ticheli), as well as a project of Minneapolis-based Vocal Essence with jazz trumpeter and composer Hannibal Lokumbe.

Individual choral artists also received some major recognition this year. Conductor Francisco Núñez received a MacArthur “Genius Award” for his work as artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York. Noted for its outstanding work with young people, the choir’s consistent commitment to contemporary choral work in the Transient Glory program deserves acclaim. Watch video of Núñez talking about the choir and the award.

Finally, this year showed that some recognition can be a long time coming. The Catholic Church recently announced that Pope Benedict plans to canonize Hildegard von Bingen and make her a Doctor of the Church. As the earliest known composer of sacred music in the Roman Catholic tradition and one whose works still play a vital role in the repertoire today, this acknowledgement is welcome, although more than eight centuries too late for Hildegard!

One final cause for celebration for me is being able to share my love of choral music on NewMusicBox.

Happy Holidays to all.

What are your musical highlights of 2011?

Holiday Music…Or Not

As seasonal decorations pop up all around New York City, holiday music now fills our ears wherever we go. Whether in a deli, a restaurant, or a department store, the annual holiday song mix rings out—a small taste of the vast selection of sung holiday music let loose in December. Notices of holiday concerts buzz into my smart phone all day long as choirs everywhere bring more than ten centuries of wondrous music to audiences who don’t seem to get tired of hearing it. But what about the choirs that don’t have a strong interest in performing holiday music? Where does contemporary choral music fit into the holiday music web? How do audiences choose what to go out and hear during this busy season?

For choirs that don’t have a burning interest in holiday-themed concerts—my own choir, Melodia Women’s Choir, included—an easy solution is to present a fall concert before Thanksgiving. Although this can mean a scramble to prepare and promote the concert in only a few weeks, it leaves the door wide open for broad repertoire choices regardless of the season. C4: The Composer/Conductor Collective based in New York that performs music written in the last 25 years with particular emphasis on works by composer-members also chooses dates before Thanksgiving for its fall concerts. C4 member and composer Martha Sullivan told me that she believes the challenge for a composer interested in writing seasonally appropriate choral music is to find texts that may lend themselves to a meaningful setting but still resonate with a broad audience. An example of one that Sullivan has used is the “O” Antiphons for Advent, adding that the “O” Antiphons are set to a text that is explicitly for sacred use, but many composers have used them in such a way that they are good for concert use as well.

San Francisco-based contemporary music vocal ensemble Volti presents a holiday concert of contemporary and premiere works that nods to the season but remains solidly rooted in the choir’s regular programming direction. Described by Volti as “a non-traditional program rich in poetry” and “an exploration of aspects of the divine in the most mundane moments,” this year’s concert features premieres by Mark Winges, Stacy Garrop, Ian Freebairn-Smith, and a 2009 work by Shawn Crouch.

Anonymous 4

As a choral music concert-goer as well as singer and organizer, I try to balance a couple of traditional holiday concerts by outstanding choirs with some performances that are especially exciting to me. Since treble repertoire is my favorite voicing, likely special treats will be Anonymous 4‘s performance of their “Anthology 25” program of ancient, traditional, and contemporary works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a performance of Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus. Other than that, I’ll dust off my holiday music choral CD collection featuring everything from plainchant to pop and listen to WQXR Holiday Music at www.wqxr.org. When I want some non-choral fun, I’ll watch my favorite holiday music YouTube clip of the Bowen Beer Bottle Band’s rendition of Angels We Have Heard on High. Enjoy!

What less-heralded music do you like to hear in this season?

Choral Music Collaborations

One evening last summer, I made my way to a crumbling, cobbled plaza in the Meatpacking district of New York City to participate in Make Music New York, a festival of free concerts in public spaces. On this hot June evening, about 60 singers, conductor Kent Tritle, some soloists, and a keyboard player gathered to sing choral works for all who passed by. Seeing the look of surprise and wonder as dog-walkers, parents with little kids, and people rushing from A to B stumbled upon a choir singing on their corner was a delight to watch. For individual singers and choirs of all sizes and styles, special choral events, collaborations, and guest performances can bring a whole new range of experiences to choral musicians and take the choral repertoire to a vast new audience.

Conductors and choir organizers who are open to collaborative ideas also have an opportunity to incorporate choral music into multi-disciplinary projects. These collaborations allow choral singers to perform with world-class artists and bring the choral arts to audiences that would not usually attend a choral concert. In Meredith Monk’s Ascension Variations, choral singers from The Stonewall Chorale and Montclair State University were among 120 performers of a site-specific work that flowed through the spiraling galleries of the Guggenheim Museum. The Young People’s Chorus of New York could be heard from the balcony at the Joyce Theatre during performances with the Stephen Petronio Company in Nico Muhly’s I Drink the Air Before Me. The same choir can be spotted at wide-ranging events that include the unveiling of Lord & Taylor’s holiday windows, TV appearances, and international tours that bring choral music to an immense audience.

Invitations to participate in community-based events also help to bring the choral arts to a new platform, and they can be tied to a choir’s specific focus. For Melodia Women’s Choir, the ensemble I started eight years ago, Women’s History Month has brought a host of invitations for collaborations and performances. For example, for two years the choir sang at the New York City Comptroller’s Women’s History Month celebration at the New York Surrogate’s Courthouse. Crowded onto a marble staircase, the choir sang to an audience of more than 400 people from a widely diverse community not present at our regular concerts.

Melodia Women's Choir

Scheduling guest performances and special projects can be challenging for choir organizers already under pressure to prepare for their regular concert programs. But these events represent unique opportunities to bring choral music beyond the confines of concert hall walls, keeping it present and alive in a broader world.

Have you ever been asked to bring music to an unusual place or event?