What Doth a Good Choral Singer Make?

11bMany an eminent philosopher has pondered this question. Most have finally admitted defeat and returned to relatively safe areas of enquiry such as the nature of evil and Man’s place in the universe. But how many philosophers took the time to engage in amateur choral singing? Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would have been chewed up and spat out by some of the alto sections I’ve seen in action.

The very nature of The WholeNote “choral canary” issue is a tribute to the multivalent nature of choral singing in this region. There are groups of all sizes, abilities and musical focuses available to join. But among all these choices, the principles of good choral work are (or at least ought to be) a constant, no matter what type of choir is involved. Here are a few observations about the choral experience and the nature of being a good choral citizen.

Read more: The Choral “Right Stuff”

23_choral_cantemus3The easiest way to understand music’s place in our lives is to compare it to food. What are you in the mood for tonight? Perhaps you’re willing to brave an exotic, unfamiliar meal from a distant land. Maybe you’re looking forward to a familiar dish, which a notable chef promises to create anew with daringly unconventional spices, sauces and cooking practices. Or after a long week’s work, it may be time for nothing better than comfort food, not especially healthy but familiar and filling for the soul.

In music as with food, proper nourishment is achieved through balance. A steady diet of music that is redolent with sophistication and subtlety may yield a kind of spiritual dyspepsia and a desire for more straightforward, meaty fare. But an unbroken chain of fat-fried musical hamburgers is likely to bring on metaphysical bloat of the brain and hardening of the aesthetic arteries.

For composers, the monetary rewards of laying on the musical sugar-treacle must be tempting, as the popularity of Rutter and Lauridsen can demonstrate. On the other hand, proud and uncompromising creators who proffer a musical meal that is the aural equivalent of dry wooden sticks garnished with razor blades should not be overly surprised or aggrieved if most audience members politely decline the invitation.

This month’s column focuses on the familiar and its opposite. Nine out of ten Canadian choral clinicians urge concert-goers to choose at least one of each category in the coming weeks, for proper health and a balanced musical diet.

The weeks surrounding Good Friday are a common time of year to perform settings of the Requiem Mass text. On May 7 and 8, the Cantemus Singers sing Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, which history has deemed his most popular mass setting. French composer Maurice Duruflé’s popular setting can be heard on April 2, sung by the Alata Harmonia Chorus of Canada, and on April 22, Good Friday evening, at the All Saints Kingsway Anglican Church.

On April 9, the Amadeus Choir performs Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. This work, written during the height of Austria’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars, is considered by some to be Haydn’s greatest choral achievement. Other concerts with music by Verdi, Bach, Brahms and Handel can be found in the listings.

Let us turn to premieres, lesser-known works and Canadian composers. Now don’t flip the page or touch that computer mouse, you big scaredy-cats. I promise you that yummy aural snacks await, even if the tastes and recipes are not always entirely familiar.

24_donald_patriquinOn May 7, Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir presents a program that includes Montreal composer Donald Patriquin’s Canadian Mosaic. Patriquin is an inventive and adept choral writer whose work deserves more hearing in this part of the world.

On May 1, the DaCapo Chamber Choir premieres Gerard Yun’s We Have Not Heard. This concert is part of the excellent Open Ears Festival, which runs from April 27 to May 1 in Kitchener. Specializing in non-traditional music making, this is one of the best modern music festivals around. It deserves much more attention, especially from audiences and media in the GTA.

The Upper Canada Choristers’ May 6 concert Come to the Ceilidh! has a Celtic theme with songs composed or arranged by Canadian composers Mark Sirrett, Stephen Hatfield, Stuart Calvert, Gary Ewer and Harry Somers. Somers in particular was a tough-minded modernist, and it is good to see choirs continue to meet the challenge of his music.

On April 9, the Healey Willan Singers give the Canadian premiere of English composer David Bendall’s Requiem setting. On April 22, the Metropolitan Festival Choir gives a Good Friday concert which features the Canadian premiere of Bob Chilcott’s Requiem, and a number of Canadian works as well. Chilcott was a member of the renowned King’s Singers before embarking on a distinguished career as a choral composer.

This is also a season of premieres for the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. On April 2, they present Eriks Esenvalds’ Passion and Resurrection, and Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light. (On May 11 they debut Imant Raminsh’s Quaternity: A Cantata of Seasons. Raminsh is a Latvian Canadian composer based on the country’s west coast, but he has had a fruitful relationship with many Ontario choirs.)

Three concerts are worth noting that bridge the gap between familiar and novel. Pax Christi Chorale and the Pax Christi Youth Choir give an April 17 concert in support of their audaciously titled new CD Great Canadian Hymns. This collection of all-new compositions is intended for use in church worship services. Nowhere more often than in a discussion of hymn-singing does one hear the phrase, “I like the old ones better,” so a new CD designed for such use is a welcome thing.

On May 7, the Toronto Children’s Chorus sings two relatively unfamiliar works by familiar composers, Brahms’ Four Songs for Two Horns and Harp and Verdi’s Laud Alla Vergine Maria. The former work is particularly beautiful, and worth hearing live.

Finally, a concert series that exemplifies the combination of old and new is Tafelmusik’s rendering of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (April 7-10). Although this orchestra has played Beethoven before, this is its first foray into a work that is normally the purview of enormous choral forces.

The last movement of this symphony is both historically important and undeniably popular, yet many Beethoven aficionados find it the least satisfactory section of the work. Certainly, it is the symphony’s most loosely constructed movement. Personally, when I hear the oom-pah percussion of the tenor solo section, I immediately want to go a-wandering, my knapsack on my back, val-da-ree, etc. But for the vast majority, there is no denying the unique power of the choral movement, especially the taut mixture of serenity and tension in the final B Major interlude before the marching band-like race to the finish.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Last month I devoted a column to a discussion of Bach’s choral music, works that have probably become as central to the European choral canon as anything one can think of. This month, for contrast, I’ll write about lesser known and/or modern works being performed in March and April, and of choral endeavours that have sprung from other traditions as well. What follows is only a few of many excellent concerts this month – please consult the listings for more choices.

14_the_victoria_scholarsThe baroque French composer François Couperin (1668-1733) has traditionally been known for his innovative harpsichord compositions, and his influence on the keyboard works of later composers. In recent years musicians have been investigating his vocal works. While there are good recordings of Couperin’s choral music available, concerts of it are rare in this area. We have a chance to hear one of his early works, the Messe a l’usage ordinaire des paroisses (mass for regular parish use) performed by the Victoria Scholars on March 6. Belying its somewhat lumpish utilitarian title, it has the dancing rhythms typical of French choral music of this era.

Another composer better known for his keyboard works than choral music is 19th century German Josef Rheinberger. In recent years, the Lyrica Chamber Choir of Barrie has made a project of reviving Rheinberger’s work. On March 26, they perform his Missa Brevis Op.117.

I’ve known choral conductor Ron Cheung since we were young tenors in the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir, in the years when it was conducted by choral wild man Robert Cooper. Ron founded the Voices Choir in 1996. In celebration of Ron’s 20th year of choral conducting and Voices’ 15th year in existence, they are presenting a programme on April 2 that includes Robert Schumann’s very rare late period setting of the Requiem text. It is not a work I know at all, but the inevitable “net search” reveals that it clearly has its champions. Schumann fans and others curious about his quirky, dynamic music might well want to give it a listen, especially performed live.

While the classical music world’s focus on the music of past centuries is often seen as conservative and unadventuresome, deeper investigation into neglected areas of musical history has resulted in the rediscovery and rehabilitation of female composers of past centuries. In honour of the centenary of International Women’s Day on March 8, St. Catharine’s “Primavera Concerts” are presenting an all day series of three separate concerts on March 5. Along with music by composers from earlier times – Hildegard von Bingen and the amazing Barbara Strozzi – the excellent Oriana Women’s Choir will perform works by Canadian choral heroes Ruth Watson Henderson and Eleanor Daley. These two composers constitute a genuine Canadian tradition of their own, and their works have anchored many a concert in this part of the world (including the Voices concert mentioned above).

15_karen_burkeI had the pleasure to participate in a choral event in December at which the Toronto Mass Choir performed. Many choirs make pleasant sounding music in a pleasant manner. The Toronto Mass Choir is the kind of group that arrests your attention with their exuberance and rhythmic drive. Choirs steeped in European traditions often stumble when executing gospel music. Two common elements of gospel performance are memorization and physical movement, the precise opposite of what most choirs are accustomed to. Freeing one’s hands of the necessity to hold a music folder allows singers to sway and clap on the off–beat. These elements are really not just options with gospel – they’re often as necessary to its performance tradition as agile coloratura is to Handel and Mozart.

Choirs can often be bribed to memorize music with extra goodies at break time, but movement while singing remains difficult for many groups – a basic shift in weight from one foot to the other can be enough to cause the pitch to drop and the tempo to drag. This kind of movement has to be built into the practice of the music from the beginning. While it is difficult, the advantage for choral singers is plain to see – a choir that programs a choral concert will likely be in better shape that season than ever before. Choirs interested in innovative marketing strategies might well consider the appeal of “choral–cize” concerts to a fitness–minded audience eager to work up a sweat. But I digress.

For choral musicians interested in getting their gospel chops in shape, Toronto Mass Choir and its dynamic director, Karen Burke, are hosting Power Up 2011, an annual gospel music workshop on the weekend of March 4-6. The weekend includes workshops in vocal improvisation and songwriting, and culminates in a mass choir performance on the Sunday evening of the weekend. More information can be found at the Choir’s website www.tmc.ca.

Lastly, on April 2, the Toronto Chamber Choir devotes an evening to the works of Josquin Des Prez (c. 1450 approx - 1521). Josquin was quite possibly the world’s first genuine choral superstar. In a time in which music was not disseminated easily, his pan–national popularity and influence is well documented in sources from the early Renaissance. Now even more remote to our ears than Monteverdi, Byrd or Palestrina, his music denotes mystery, lost customs and sounds and beliefs. But well performed, it is hardly austere – he wrote rowdy and rhythmic popular songs as well as settings of religious texts.

Full disclosure prompts me to acknowledge that I have a small part to play in this concert. Likely, the proper thing for me to do was to not have written about it in the first place. But live performances of Josquin’s music are rare enough in this part of the world that I really have no choice but to risk my journalist’s credibility by highlighting it for The WholeNote readers. In the battle between journalistic ethics and Josquin, Josquin’s got to win pretty much every time. ν

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com

Sometimes I wonder which musicians love more, to play or to argue about music. It’s probably the former – it can be a hard way to make a living, so you’d blasted well better love it. But if you get ten musicians in a room, you’ll get least eleven opinions about the right way to play/sing/compose a Scarlatti sonata/Fado song/12 bar blues/raga/tuba concerto.

21_dorothee_mields_photo_credit_ujesko_Among composers, J.S. Bach is the uncontested favourite for many musicians. But if we generally agree on Bach, the ideal way to play his music is anything but uncontested. This topic is probably more hotly debated among musicians than that of sports teams, movies or microbrewed beer. Well, perhaps beer is discussed more, but as this is a music column, I will leave that subject alone, and refrain from throwing down the gauntlet for Guinness, in consideration for the feelings of those who may prefer other, inferior brands.

Small armies of musicians and writers have done battle throughout the twentieth century regarding Bach orchestra and choir size, tuning, phrasing, trills, pitch level, instrumentation, phrasing and for all I know, whether or not Bach tapped his foot while playing. The lines have often been most contentiously drawn between those who play modern instruments, and proponents of “historically informed performance” (often shortened to the seriously groovy acroynym HIP) who favour instruments designed like those used in Bach’s time, and musical interpretations that are to some degree based on research into the musical and rhetorical practices of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Most would agree that there has been a détente of late – early music players have become a good deal less dogmatic in recent years, and modern instrument players have allowed themselves to find inspiration in some of the interpretive choices that have emerged from the researches and experimentation of early music players.

We have a chance to compare examples of these two different approaches in the coming weeks. Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir are performing the Bach’s Mass in B Minor from 9-13 January, and Mendelssohn Singers (a pared down version of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) perform the St. John Passion on March 3.

The St. John Passion is a harrowing work, as intense as an Italian opera, filled with heroes, villains and a grim dénoument. While smaller ensemble Bach allows the interweaving of the various lines of music to be heard with greater clarity, a larger ensemble can convey a sense of grandeur, a sonic majesty that can overwhelm the listener.

Bach himself never actually heard his Mass in B Minor performed in full during his lifetime, which complicates the question of interpretation, as music researchers sometimes refer to documented information about an original premiere for clues to historically informed performance. Musicians have had to look instead at the musical resources with which Bach executed his weekly church cantatas, and have drawn conclusions in part from this information. Modern custom has tended to settle on a chamber choir and small orchestra, and it is in this manner that Tafelmusik will be performing the Mass.

But the debate continues. Large-scale Bach practitioners on modern instruments and smaller ensembles of Baroque players had learned to coexist with the wary respect of two neighbouring elephant herds. But then two musicologist/performers, Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott, leapt cheetah-like across the savannah, stampeding both herds with meticulously researched books and essays (in 1981 and 2000, respectively) suggesting that the ideal ensemble for Bach cantatas (and by extension, the Mass in B Minor) was one singer on each vocal part. Using this paradigm, the ideal force for the Mass would be 8-12 voices at the absolute most, and often no more than four or six voices at any given time.

Many musicians have picked up on this idea, and it may be that Bach oratorio and cantata performances in the next century will bear little or no resemblance to the choral roar-outs of the past. But will we ever really dare to attempt to play Bach’s music as he was compelled to do? Even the proponents of one-to-a-part Bach often use adult female sopranos and altos, rather than the schoolboy singers Bach had at his disposal, and perhaps this is for the best. In his excellent Inside Early Music, which contains a series of illuminating interviews with early music performers, Bernard Sherman writes, “…when we imagine shivering Thomasschule students, at seven-thirty on a winter morning, performing a virtuoso chorus written three days earlier, we might ask if we could tolerate truly historical Bach.”

Well – like many musicians, mention Bach and I become somewhat distracted. Switching gears with some effort (and the help of a Guinness), I will finish by flagging some other concerts coming up during the next few weeks.

Albert Greer is a veteran Canadian conductor and singer who has dedicated his career to fostering excellent music making in this region. He has conducted Orillia’s Cellar Singers since 1977, and is planning to retire in 2012. The Cellar Singers perform Faure’s Requiem and a new work by popular Canadian composer Nancy Telfer on March 5.

22_john_burge2On February 12 the Grand Philharmonic Choir sings Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and premieres Canadian composer John Burge’s Declaration, the lyrics of which are based on the text of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights (which was drafted by Canadian law professor John Humphrey in 1948).

On February 26 the Tallis Choir presents an all French program of works by Martin, Poulenc and Duruflé. On the same night the Georgetown Bach Chorale performs works by Pärt and Bruckner.

On March 5 the Oakville Ensemble performs an all-English program of music by Byrd, Tallis, and Weelkes. And on the same night the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra and Toronto Choral Society combine forces to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Bruckner’s Te Deum.

Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.

What do we mean when we use the word “expressive” to describe a musical performance? Among musicians, it’s a common but somewhat amorphous term that comes in handy when being critical. It can be a stick to beat performers one dislikes (or envies), as in, “I was surprised at how inexpressive her singing was.” It’s a useful term for music teachers and conductors: “Let’s try that again with a little more expressiveness, shall we?” It’s also great fun to throw around in undergraduate music theory and analysis classes. State, “Now, let’s think about what Brahms was trying to express with this melodic use of a minor sixth.” Then add, “and this will be on the exam,” and enjoy it as the students’ demeanours shift from blank to terrified.

In choral music performance, in which singers are most often reading from printed music, the goal of expressiveness is to move beyond a bland execution of the notes on the page, using timbre, dynamic contrast, diction, blend and balance to find some kind of meaning or point of view in the musical performance. One particular challenge in the journey towards musical expressiveness is that what constitutes appropriate expression for one composer or musical era is entirely inappropriate for another. A darker timbral colour appropriate to German choral music of the late 19th century may be too heavy for music of the Italian Baroque, which generally benefits from a light and transparent sound.

The situation becomes more complicated as one engages with early music, which often has been revived after centuries of neglect. It is odd to think that Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for instance, considered by most people to be a classic for the ages, was not in fact a universally popular piece until well into the 20th century. In this case and many others like it, the absence of a continuing tradition has compelled musicians to engage in a process of rediscovery. Although performance practice of early music is thoroughly informed by scholarship, research, virtuosity and decades of experimentation, we have to acknowledge the paradoxical reality that the performance tradition of much ancient music is a young and almost entirely modern construct.

The reason that the modern musical world might go to such trouble to revive the past is the subject for a future column. In the meantime there are a number of concerts on the horizon that illuminate the question of expressiveness in music, especially early music.

Toronto’s Tallis Choir, which specializes in music of the Italian and English Renaissances (very roughly, the 15th to early 17th centuries) attempts to bridge the gap from a modern concert performance to the original conditions in which this choral repertoire was first performed. Accordingly, their concert on December 4 featuring the music of Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554–1612) will attempt to create the conditions of a midnight Christmas mass in 1605, performed in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Gabrieli’s music was specifically composed to take advantage of the architectural structure of the Basilica. His singers were split into two full and separate choirs situated in two different sections of the church, and the call-and-response structure of the music (also known as “antiphony,” but only by particularly expressive musicians) created wonderful sonic effects. Other works by Gabrieli will be on the programme as well.

p25In a similar vein, Toronto’s St Michael’s Choir School is an institution that has dedicated itself in part to maintaining a performance tradition of choral music from the early Renaissance up to the modern era. Rather defiantly eschewing the larger Catholic church’s modern predilection for folk or popular music, the school, which was founded in 1937, represents one of the pockets of the world in which a working understanding of a composer like Gabrieli has never entirely stopped. Many skilled Canadian singers and conductors have got their training at “St Mike’s.” The central work of their December 11 Christmas concert is English composer Ralph Vaughan Willliams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols. This work, written in 1912, has taken on the status of a chestnut, and it contains songs that have become well-known favourites for carol aficionados. But Vaughan Willliams was part of the folk music revival that took place in England at the end of 19th century, and in writing the Fantasia he was engaged in an act of reconstruction and promotion similar to the early-music musicians of a later generation (in intention if not in execution).

In choral performances of Christmas carols, so prevalent at this time of year, both expressiveness and early music performance practice can be central questions. Carol concerts are almost without exception musical compendiums that can encompass 13th-century chant, 20th-century gospel music, and everything in between. Choirs must be able to execute well music from wildly disparate stylistic areas.

Among the many excellent carol and seasonal concerts presented this December, space permits only a sampling (please consult The WholeNote listings for a comprehensive guide). The Etobicoke Centennial Choir’s Sacred Traditions will feature sacred music from the African, Jewish, and Christian repertoire, and play host to the Nutifafa African Performance Ensemble on December 4. Toronto’s Upper Canada Choristers will feature Cantemos, the UCC’s Latin-American ensemble, in a December 10 performance of music from, and inspired by, the Medieval epoch; and on the same day the Oakville Choral Society will present Bach’s Magnificat and other works. The Alexander Singers will include some Chanukah music along with Christmas repertoire on December 11. And the Cantemus Singers will present a Christmas Oratorio by the pre-Bach German composer Heinrich Schütz on December 12.

As this magazine also includes listings for the new year, I will finish by mentioning two concerts to watch for after Christmas: The Elmer Iseler Singers join the Esprit Orchestra on January 30 for a concert that includes Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and Montreal composer José Evangelista’s Symphonie minute; and on February 5 the Mississauga Festival Choir performs a concert in support of the mentoring organization Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Peel.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at choralscene@thewholenote.com.

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