by Mark Doerries and J.J. Wright
Day three, Friday March 15th, brought a couple of excellent workshops, many new faces, and some important insights about the infamous “closer”.
Vance George, the Choral Journal, and Marc Rothko
The day started with a workshop by the Director Emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Vance George. His workshop, entitled “Sure-Fire Choral Techniques for Your Next Big Choral Orchestral Performance with You Conducting!” was straightforward and informative, and to my taste, one of the best I attended. His method was simple: to go through several of the major choral-orchestral works since the 17th century and impart the wisdom he has gathered through his illustrious career. He worked off a handout on which we saw firsthand his precise and thorough score markings in Mozart’s, Verdi’s, and Faure’s Requiems, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Carmina Burana, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Handel’s Messiah. His tips were varied, some specific, like his teaching method for melismas in Messiah, and some more general, like the importance of using “ugly” vocal sounds sometimes, exemplified on the main theme from the “Libera Me” of Verdi’s Requiem. There’s much more to be said about this, but we are working on the possibility of an ongoing feature on the blog in cooperation with Mr. George highlighting specific performance practice techniques for major repertoire.
Next we moved on to a meet and greet with the editorial board of the Choral Journal. We had the privilege to sit and talk with Dr. Phillip Copeland of Samford University, who is the technology editor for the journal. He pointed us in the right direction for successful article writing and submission techniques. Dr. Copeland was extremely informative, and he affirmed us in his insistence to continually submit articles as they come, saying he’ll do his best to get them published.
Our stomachs rumbled and we decided to lunch at an artisan café in the Dallas Museum of Art. We explored some of the modernist art including a colored-glass installation in the café, a giant cube of toothpicks, and a stunning block painting by Marc Rothko, Orange, Red and Red. The musical community is a small world and just by chance J.J. ran into a judge from a jazz competition in Chicago he entered only a few weeks earlier visiting Dallas on vacation.
Wading in the Water
The afternoon was filled with several high-level concerts ranging from high schools to professionals including: Westminster Choir College, the Houston Chamber Choir, and Philip Brunelle’s VocalEssence. The early afternoon culminated in one of the few performances of contrapuntal music at the conference, a rendition of J.S. Bach’s Der Geist hilft by the Westminster Choir under the direction of Joe Miller. Hearing the work was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise homophonic choral realm. Of all the choirs performing at ACDA, the connection between conductor and ensemble was electric with Miller’s delicate gestures arousing nuance and subtle vocal shaping from his singers. Despite an inexperienced sound from the choir, rather strident high-register voices and a few intonation issues, the conference could benefit from more ensembles daring to tackle such stylistically diverse and challenging repertoire.
The late afternoon saw performances of the Houston Chamber Choir under the direction of Robert Simpson, an advocate for new music by Texas composers. The concert featured music about weather and included compositions by Parry and emerging conductor-composer Dominick DiOrio whose A Dome of Many-Colored Glass contained beautiful choral writing and a dynamic part for virtuoso marimba. One odd pairing was the juxtaposition of James MacMillan’s “Factus est repente” from Strathclyde Motets with Bob Chilcott’s Weather Report.
Closing the concert session was the well-loved Minneapolis-based VocalEssence performing a concert of early and contemporary Latin American music. The well-blended chorus began with an exciting set of renaissance music accompanied by a flamenco-style guitarist. The choir sang from memory and without a conductor. The concept of the program was quite different from most of the choirs heard at the conference, which largely explored only American composers of the past 30 years.
There was an interesting and alarming, but possibly understandable, trend for many of the choruses we saw to end their set with a spiritual or folk tune of some sort. Most interestingly, this feature needed not have anything to do with the program that preceded it. Functionally, these pieces served as a sure-fire technique to win favor with the audience and get the standing ovation. Aesthetically, though (and most certainly below the immediate surface), it seemed rather to undermine whatever affective intention the choir had in programming their set. In some cases, choirs presented a set of music that was extraordinarily difficult to execute, only to conclude with a spiritual. This left the listener wondering if the programmers thought this music was merely entertainment to follow the “real” music that preceded it. These pieces were almost always done with a light intention, and seemed non-committal, with the exception of the high-school singers. By performing the spirituals and folk tunes in this context, it seems to reduce them to a genre unworthy of the same stature of the other programmed music.
It also begs another question: namely, has it become too much of a risk to program substantial and difficult music without throwing the audience the proverbial “bone”? This is a topic of great interest to us, so if you have thoughts or comments, please continue the discussion below!
In honor of my (J.J.) newly discovered fascination with the tradition of ending a set of choral music with a spiritual, I convinced Mark to join for a dip in the shallow wading pool outside the Meyerson Symphony Center.
Receptions and More Receptions
Before heading off to discover a new Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner, we attended a reception held by the alumni association of Indiana University. While Mark will graduate with his doctorate from IU in May, J.J. studied in the jazz department as a freshman before completing his degree in jazz performance from the New School. At the gathering we reconnected with close mentors and made new friends including the current and former chairs of the choral department, Dr. William Gray and Dr. Jan Harrington. Many current and former students mingled at the reception including Dr. Eric Stark, the Director of Butler University’s University Chorale and Director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Chorus, and ten undergraduate music education students. We took the opportunity to promote Notre Dame’s Masters of Sacred Music and newly formed DMA in choral conducting and organ performance. We also met Dr. Betsy Burleigh, a new faculty member in conducting and former director of the Providence Singers, and Dr. Mary Goetze, the founder of the IU International Vocal Ensemble and IU Children’s Choir. Goetze will speak at the Notre Dame Children’s Choir Conference in March of 2014 (details to follow soon).
After dinner we headed to the Fairmont Hotel for the National Collegiate Choral Organization’s reception. The suggestion came at the behest of Mr. Brian Zaros, a colleague of J.J.’s from NYC who is now the choral director at Avon Old Farms School. Brian was kind enough to introduce us to several great people including: Professor Jason Harris of Oberlin Conservatory, Nicolas Dosman of Colby College, Dr. Stephen Caldwell of the University of Arkansas, Dr. Andrew Crow of Ball State, Dr. Matthew Ferrell of St. Cloud State University, Dr. Mitos Andaya of Temple University, Dr. Miguel Felipe of University of Hawaii, and Dr. Alan Harler – former Director of Choral Activities at Temple University. It was a friendly crew and an great opportunity to get to know some of the great college and university conductors around the country.
On Saturday morning, Mark attended a 7AM breakfast of Temple University alumni. The gathering of more than fifty current and former students, faculty, and staff connects musicians from all over the country. Mark describes his Temple colleagues as a family lead by the gregarious conductors Alan Harler, Janet Yamron, and Jeffery Cornelius. After a quick visit to the Nasher Sculpture Garden to see a Calder exhibit, it was a short trip back to the hotel and off to the airport.
We’ll leave you today with the view from our hotel room in the Hilton Anatole. This kinetic sculpture, entitled NEBULA, is the work of Reuben Margolin, and always presented a good opportunity for reflection upon seeing it. The sculpture weighs 12,000 pounds and is attached to an elaborate pulley system that gyrates and makes the sculpture look like a caterpillar floating through the air.
We thank you for staying with us during our coverage of this year’s ACDA National Conference, and look forward to next time in 2015, Salt Lake City, UT.