ACDA Chicago – TOP 10, Part 2

Here’s the rest of my Top 10 list from ACDA Chicago, still in no particular order.

6. Thrilling Singing Part 2: Gene Puerling back in Chicago.

The Singers Unlimited

If you don’t know who Gene Puerling is, you’re missing an important piece of 20th century vocal music. As the arranger and bass/baritone for The Singers Unlimited and the Hi-Lo’s, he changed the face of vocal jazz; in my opinion he’s one of the most important musical voices to emerge in the 20th century, and the fact that he is so little recognized in the choral world is a true travesty. That said, ACDA vocal jazz night featured Christine Guter‘s ensemble, Pacific Standard Time, singing Gene’s Fool on the Hill as well as I can imagine a group ever singing it. A brief background: Puerling wrote (and TSU recorded) this arrangement as a Christmas present to their many Chicago studio jingle clients; it passed from hand to hand and ended up being played for Oscar Peterson, who got them a record deal with MPS in Germany, where they eventually recorded 15 records. The original recording was heavily overdubbed, and concludes with a mind-blowing wall of polyrhythmic, polyphonic vocal brilliance: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it performed live. Hearing it was like what it must have been for the audience who heard Mendelssohn conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I cried. Thank you, Christine.
7. High audience standards
Let’s be honest. Virtually every choir performing would have received immediate standing ovations in their home venues, and rightfully so. But with this audience, and next to the other choirs in performance? You had to be something truly special to earn that praise. Although part of me felt bad for these outstanding choirs getting nothing more than polite applause, I mostly left feeling proud to be a part of a group whose standards remain so high. There was no grade inflation in THESE concerts!

8. What makes good programming?

Simon Carrington

Simon Carrington (formerly of the King’s Singers) got an appreciative round of applause at his presentation when he said something to the effect of, “every choir here should be doing something written before 1800.” And having heard virtually every choir, I agree that the best choirs had repertoire that crossed along a wide swath of genres and musical periods. As a conductor, I certainly can do a better job of programming older music; and as a writer of new music, I am in the awkward position of believing that many choirs performed TOO much new music at the convention. That said, I wonder whether ACDA convention performances are indicative of repertoire choice in general; my guess is that the best conductors program a healthy variety in the course of a year but, for whatever reason, lean towards contemporary and experimental works at conventions. ACDA attendees/conductors, would you say that is true?

9. New publishing models
 I was very excited to visit the Independent Music Publishers Cooperative (IMP) booth, and it happened to be next door to MCP’s. Mandy and I became fans of Abbie Betinis after this year’s Michigan SSAA State Honor Choir performed several movements from her Behind the Caravan: Songs of Hafez. Abbie and seven other established choral composers have established as a curated collection of their works. I LOVE this idea. It means that, for the composer, the cooperative is taking care of marketing and business drudgery. And it means that, for the conductor, I can visit ONE website to see a selection of the best works of a bunch of stellar composers. If I want to see something by a particular composer, I can of course visit individual websites, but if I’m programming music, I’m far more likely to seek out sites like this one. It has the advantages (hand-picked collection, variety, reliability) while giving the composers the advantages of self-publishing (no rejections for slightly out-of-center music, more of the profits benefiting the composer). I’ve wanted to do something like this for a LONG time in the vocal jazz world; maybe it’s time to look into how they’ve done it and see if we can make something similar work! (I’m also looking forward to Paul Carey’s upcoming blog post about IMP)

10.  Thrilling Singing Part 3 – It’s the EMOTION, stupid!
I’ve been sorting through programs, looking for the perfect representation of what I want to say for this one. And I’ve come around to being unable to do so. There isn’t one perfect answer: there are a LOT of perfect answers. What I want to represent is the conviction I came to through the conference that it wasn’t the quality of singing that most moved me; It was the emotional connection to the music and text. (Is it a coincidence that I picked up Tom Carter’s Choral Charisma at the conference?) In that spirit, here’s a few quick hits of ensembles that moved me aurally AND visually.

  • Young People’s Chorus of NYC (Francisco Nuñez) – The joy coming from the stage throughout their set was palpable.
  • Murrieta Valley High School Chamber Singers (Jaclyn Johnson) – When a select group of men sang Sumer is Icumen in to start their program, but the rest of the ensemble was facially and bodily engaged with the piece, I knew this was something special.
  • University of St. Thomas Chamber Singers (Angela Broeker) – From Claude Le Jeune to bluegrass and Cuban songs, the choir remained connected to the music.
  • University of Kentucky Men’s Chorus (Jefferson Johnson) – I didn’t catch this entire performance, but Ol’ Man River, closing the set, was fabulous. It was semi-staged, with a stellar student soloist, and brought the audience to its feet.
  • Lawrence University Cantala (Phillip Swan) – This women’s chorus had some of the most creative programming I heard. They worked to create an emotional journey in 25 minutes “Jekyll, Hyde…and Seek,” and I was especially moved by the risky move of programming “silly” music – something I seldom hear. Their performance of The Log Driver’s Waltz was superb and probably would have netted a mid-performance standing ovation, had they paused for applause before continuing on.

That’s my top ten list. There were many more fabulous moments I haven’t included here, and I consciously avoided any of the things I found less-than-fabulous. I want to make this a space for positivity; go somewhere else for criticisms and screeds.

Thanks to Philip Copeland of Choralnet for mentioning me in his blog, and welcome to all the choral folks who have swung by here as a result!

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