Seen&Heard Editor: Marc Bridle                              Founder Len Mullenger: Len@musicweb-international.com

Google
MusicWeb Internet
     
  
 powered by FreeFind 



S & H Festival Reports

48th CORK INTERNATIONAL CHORAL FESTIVAL Ireland, 1-5 May and 4th INTERNATIONAL MUSIC FESTIVAL OF RHODES Greece, 8-12 May 2002 (PGW)


The venerable Cork festival, combining competition with celebration of non-professional a capella choral singing, has missed only one year during its near half-century - cancelled in 2001 because of the foot and mouth disease epidemic in England. Revisiting the relatively new Rhodes Choir Competition a few days after Cork's 48th gave a non-specialist music critic a widened perspective, and it is necessary to bear in mind that history and geography play their parts, each festival seeking excellence in its own way but developing with differing visions.

Cork is an ancient Irish city, its river creating a natural port which has been a gateway to the world, its wealth displayed in many grand old houses of 18 & 19 C. Some of the humbler dwellings make up for grandeur with a wealth of flamboyant colours to cheer the heart on the greyest days, from shocking pucy pinks to deep and dank purply blues and orange yellows. Famously rainy, Ireland enjoyed fine weather for this year's events. Now Cork welcomes each year

The festival opened to civic pride, pomp and ceremony, with the band of the Southern Brigade, at the magnificent City Hall where the main events took place, on the bank of the southern of the two channels of the River Lee, which cross Cork's city centre. Handel's four Coronation Anthems received stylish performances by Christ Church Cathedral Choir under Mark Duley, supported by the accomplished period instrument players of Christ Church Baroque. This is Ireland's only professional baroque orchestra, formed a few years ago and active in educating the country's musicians. They supported the Irish opera singer, soprano Majella Cullagh, virtuosic in two Vivaldi motets, veritable 'concertos for voice'. An auspicious start!

Two exemplary seminars during our first full day affected my listening to the choirs in competition and concert. These were two of the best educational sessions intended for a public audience that I have been to for several years, informative and thought provoking.

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi from Finland, an experienced choral conductor and composer with a wide knowledge of contemporary composing idioms, raised for intending composers of choral music some 'taboo' issues and inherent paradoxes, his wisdom tempered by dry wit, viz.

'The best is that choral singers are mostly amateur", bringing a better attitude and extra enthusiasm to music making; a 'grape-vine' effect disseminates good new repertoire widely, and composers can find themselves surprised to receive royalties for performances of which they had been unaware in far away countries.

'The worst is that choral singers are mostly amateur", with extremely variable technical levels of accomplishment and capability.

- - There are very few fully professional choirs in the world, so tailoring music for specific choirs can lead to the common experience of 'farewell premieres'. Not many composers are comfortable with writing for choirs and personal co-operation is highly recommendable for commissions to succeed. Performance targets should be slightly higher than current levels - 'feasible, not unreachable'. There is 'a fine line between challenge and frustration'.

In the technical part of his talk, Mr Mäntyjärvi discussed questions of register, notation and presentation, which are not to be found readily in composing textbooks. But for the outsider, it was Mäntyjärvi's frank and open discussion of ethical and philosophical considerations which coloured one's listening to all the choirs at Cork and, a few days afterwards, those competing in the fledgling competition at Rhodes.

- - Choral music is held low in public estimation and there is often a contextual subtext, such as church or a political movement, which informs how it is listened to and has to be taken into account. This 'assumed ideological base' affects its image; e.g. he quoted a German composer who in the '70s had said that 'it would be professional suicide to compose for a children's choir'! Drawing on the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's Values and the Composer, Mäntyjärvi emphasised the primacy of 'style and technique' for 'modernist' composers. Often avoided in discussion are matters of 'meaningful content', pertinent 'social/political values', 'occasional music' for specific events and 'entertainment music'. Important to Aho, and to Mäntyjärvi, is a sense of history - 'to deny everything old is to deny history'. A social dimension may be paramount; questions of 'emotionally meaningful content' - why do people listen, for 'solace, strength, drama', or for 'tranquillity and sacrality (the mythical, mysterious and holy)'?

Those thoughts helped me towards a more benign understanding that most of the pieces offered in both competitions have strong tonal roots. They led Mäntyjärvi on to discussing the ideal v. the practical; 'integrity' v. compromise - adaptability as part of professional competence, writing different music to develop 'plurality and flexibility' - 'strategies for dismantling the ivory tower'. The choral conductor has to exercise good control but this depends upon maintenance of motivation - the composer of a newly commissioned work needs to be able to answer the singers' implied question 'why are we doing this piece'?. Music should be a shared goal, 'not a common enemy'!

(The slides that Mr Mäntyjärvi's projected for his lecture are copied in full as an Appendix to this report. His website is well worth exploring!)

Patrick Burgan

In another of the seminars, the Toulouse based French composer Patrick Burgan introduced Cry, his new choral setting of W.B.Yeats, to be premièred the following night by the National Chamber Choir conducted by Celso Antunes. He described how its imagery, following a six month search for a suitable text for this commission, so inspired him that completion of the score was rapid. He analysed for us the meanings (to him) of every phrase and how he found musical equivalents, using two of Messiaen's Modes of Transposition for the basic harmonic framework. There was fruitful discussion, with participation of the choir's conductor and several members, who told how his compositional approach which had seemed, at first acquaintance, dauntingly complex proved to be grateful to learn and made Cry satisfying to sing. Having had the benefit of hearing it three times prior to the official première, we rated it a small masterpiece (around four minutes) and certainly one which left us eager to explore a composer extensively published, performed and recorded, but hitherto unknown to us - a frequent experience in our travels for Seen&Heard.

The session for the prestigious Fleischmann International Trophy, awarded to Cantus from Norway, highlighted the recurrent problem of comparing unlikes. From my 'generalist' perspective one sympathised with adjudicators who would have to consider (or ignore) such variables as selection of extreme repertoire, stage choreography and movement, dress (stylish concert uniforms and gaudy national costume). This was epitomised by the daring Academic Choir Collegium Musicum from Belgrade, which offered, uniquely, one substantial item which consisted mainly of choral speech, with swirling movements and a mock attack unleashed upon their elegant conductor, Darinka Matic-Marovic, whose exceptional musicianship and theatrical flair was in evidence at the several contrasting appearances of these beautiful young Yugoslavian women. Would their response to the originality of Jokes from Bachka by Dusan Kostic be celebrated or lead to disqualification in a competition in which aspects such as smooth tone quality and impeccable intonation normally figure centrally? In the event, after prolonged discussion into the night, it earned them a trophy for 'the choir that, in the opinion of Festival audiences, gives the most enjoyable performance of the Festival'; many professionally involved voiced the hope that they might emerge as overall winners. The amusing staging of the familiar Oh, no John song by a choir from Canada earned its conductor (in full Highland tartan rig) a special prize for his 'imaginative and artistic programme'. (The audience was not privy to the criteria and marking protocols upon which adjudication would be based; these are generally confidential, so I was assured.) There were many special prizes and trophies, shared out in recognition of the prevailing excellence; the full results are at http://www.corkchoral.ie/results.htm and the International Results are appended as an Appendix below.

There was however no cause for dissatisfaction; the overall standard of the invited choirs, and the best of the Irish ones in the various categories, had been so high that with many worthy potential winners, subjective preferences were bound to have figured. The CDs from the previous 46th & 47th Cork International Choral Festivals gives an insight into the distinguished influx to the city every Spring and are recommended for assured pleasure, even for people who do not take a regular interest in choral music, a byway from mainstream concert fare (available for €12.70 each from chorfest@iol.ie).

Unique in Seen&Heard's experience of music performance competitions was the inspired and easy, unobtrusive integration of entertainment into a prestigious international competition. Each jury-judged session had a few non-competitive performances interposed without fuss, two non-competing groups, the Sirin Vocal Ensemble of Russia presenting ancient traditional styles at the Cathedral of St. Mary & St. Anne at 10.30 one night, and Tšakku, three young Finnish women who popped up everywhere with old folk music from the Viking Age & early Middle Ages with replica instruments made by the members of the group. Each competing choir, and other invited musicians and dancers, had numerous additional opportunities to give, or take part in, fringe concerts and appearances in venues ranging from the central shopping centre to the library and farther afield. My illustration from the programme book shows the activities in and around Cork planned in advance for the choir that won the chief international award (formerly Choir of the World at Llangollen Eisteddford, Wales).

The final day was hectic indeed, with the national open Competition on Sunday morning for early risers (after maybe a Saturday night of country dancing in the Festival Club) and overlapping and concurrent opportunities in the afternoon to enjoy competition sessions in City Hall of National Competitions for Light, Jazz & Popular Music, and forYouth Choirs, the Competition for Church Music at St. Fin Barre's Cathedral, as well as a concert in Celebration of Church Music given by the invited International Choirs at St. Mary's Church on the North Channel of the river. The streets were full of colourful groups of costumed singers, criss-crossing the city between one date and another for these appearances. My determination to explore the various festival venues confirmed the City of Cork's good fortune; all are architectural gems, brightly restored and with excellent acoustics. To even try to sample everything on offer demanded nifty footwork and, more's the pity, I did not make the enticing light music session which featured Note Perfect in Mac the Knife, Champagne Cork dispensing Jeepers Creepers or Vocal Ease telling us Let's Do It. Next year perhaps?

The practicalities of this massive annual enterprise are under supervision by but two paid administrative staff; they work wonders to co-ordinate everything, warranting a special section. The Director, John Fitzpatrick, himself an unpaid volunteer, is a marvellous communicator; he knows what is happening in the international choir world, and his good judgement ensures a high standard. He receives CDs from choirs that apply to attend, and will have heard most of them live. All the choirs, musicians and dancers invited to participate, whether competing or entertaining, are accommodated generously in Cork free of charge, as are a number of official Guests.

John Fitzpatrick demonstrated rare organising genius in controlling detail and in his overall belief in involving, valuing and supporting all the people involved. He has devoted himself to this Festival over his regular work commitments. John and his colleagues must be congratulated on creating, motivating and supporting an army of some 150 volunteers who are omnipresent and make everything go like clockwork, deployed to collect the singers at the airport and take them to and from their hotels and on and off stage (with never those prolonged breaks so familiar at contemporary music concerts!) and for excluding extraneous disturbance outside the auditorium during performances. The Cork programme book is a model of comprehensive information and of its presentation. Numerous individuals and organisations have come forward as sponsors to help defray the substantial expenses and to make the Festival one which is the pride of the City; its ripples spreading far and wide through the planet

The organisers must also be congratulated on their enlightened educational and outreach policy, which involves Irish schoolchildren as competitors. The great number of those participants over two days is proof of its success. Their standard of performance was generally high indeed and speaks of a wonderfully alive musical culture in Ireland. We were given to understand that many of the conductors from Ireland were ordinary teachers, not specially trained musicians. Those youngsters will not only imbibe a love of music and a striving for excellence through their choral singing, but they will also be helping to build an audience and pool of performers to guarantee a healthy future for Cork's choral festival.

The Results of the 48th Cork International Choral Competition are on line at http://www.corkchoral.ie/results.htm.

The 49th Cork International Choral Festival is scheduled for 1-4 May 2003; enter it in your diaries and check the website for the release of the Festival 2002 CD.

4th INTERNATIONAL MUSIC FESTIVAL OF RHODES Greece, 8-12 May 2002

The May 2001 Rhodes event was reported in Seen&Heard sympathetically, if a little critically, by newcomers to the choral competition world, and readers are invited to click onto this hyperlink before reading on.

Because this year's syllabus and Rules had already been published (as now are those for 2003) all our observations about the 2001 competition are still applicable. Its aims and ethos are, however, significantly different from 'elitist' choral competitions, such as those at Cork and the Musica Sacra International at Marktoberdorf, where more rigorous selection ensures that only excellent choirs are invited to take part. Unless the latter appreciate that the invitation to participate is itself an accolade, choirs which have excelled as Gold Medallists elsewhere may be shocked and disappointed to discover that they 'get nowhere' against stiffer competition. At Rhodes instead, the Artistic Director deliberately admits a wide range of abilities in the hope that choirs will learn one from another; the Cultural Organisation of Rhodes Municipality hosted a reception lunch for all the conductors and festival guests, which provided a good opportunity for sharing experience and exchanging views.

There are other key considerations which make it invidious to rate one of these different types of festival one against another. As with adjudication of performers, there are always difficulties in attempting to compare unlikes.

In contrast with the generous sponsorship in Cork, which demonstrated that by patient persistence the whole city had taken its Choral Festival to its heart, Rhodes is still struggling against local disinterest. That may have been reflected in a necessarily lower threshold for acceptance than in 2001 and a discernibly lower general standard of participants. Only one choir was rejected and none of the Lyric Soloists, for whom accommodation was supplied as Guests of the Festival. The events of 11 September 2001, and the continuing violence and terrorism not far away, may have contributed to a reluctance to travel, despite which there was a good spread of representatives from Western and Eastern Europe and South America. Widespread financial recession and consequent difficulty in raising sponsorship led to a number of withdrawals from the Eastern European block, some at a late stage. Additionally, a children's choir from Serbia was depleted because of parental anxiety about a small virus epidemic in Greece.

Despite the manifold problems which beset the always helpful Programme Co-ordinator, Alex Bassis, including last minute illness of one adjudicator, everything went smoothly and there was always some fine singing to be heard from international visitors, and notably also from excellent Hellenic choirs, two of the best from Rhodes itself. But those were mixed with seriously substandard efforts by choirs which ought not to have passed the hurdle of acceptance to an international competition. Likewise, the level of accomplishment displayed by many aspirants for the Lyric Soloist accolade in standard operatic arias was frankly embarrassing - these demand full professional training. However, a worthy winner did emerge, Polisadov Roman from Latvia, who has a beautiful voice and gave excellent accounts of two laments by operatic bass-baritones who had lost their wives' love, Verdi's King Philip and Tchaikovsky's Prince Gremin.

Many choirs that had sounded stiff and uncomfortable in the competition set pieces (which they were obliged to sing first) proved themselves happier as they settled into more congenial repertoire of their own choosing, and at their best in the Folklore Choir section. People who spoke with us agreed, as last year, that it is becoming increasingly anachronistic, and is perceived as pejorative of their strong indigenous cultures by visitors from some countries, for that section to continue to be exempt from full adjudication and qualification for the final 'shoot-out' for the €3000 Grand Prix, which will continue to be the case in 2003.

Unlike the situation last year, this did not cause any undue difficulty in the 2002 competition and there was general satisfaction with the emergence as finalists of estimable choirs from Columbia, Sweden and Lithuania, each of which might have been deserving of a Grand Prix, nor was there resentment that the young women of Siauliai University, Lithuania, who had journeyed by coach to Athens and boat to Rhodes, received the final accolade. All three of those Gold Medallists were closely matched and had given great pleasure during the week. Having noted last year that some crucial decimal points distinctions were so close as to be outside statistical significance, we were pleased to note that in two categories tied placements were awarded this year. The full results are appended, as to my 2001 report, and it was gratifying to learn that a Finnish choir had chosen to come to Rhodes as a direct consequence of having come across that report from a general search on Google - you can't have better feed-back than news of action!

Finances for attending Rhodes 2002

The entire costs of participating in Rhodes are borne by the choirs themselves and for those from South America the investment was formidable - for others, a certain deterrent; many members had borrowed money to be able to join their choirs. (Some of the close runners-up from Columbia were planning to recoup the cash already spent by a year's singing engagements after returning home.) These, and a very promising new company choir from Brazil's airports, brought South American verve and energy, which gave their sessions a real lift.

We were surprised that choir members were being urged, in addition, to buy tickets for the closing concerts, featuring Beethoven's 9th and Verdi's Requiem, given by the Opera & Philharmonic Society of Burgas, Bulgaria. Finally good sense prevailed and at the eleventh hour the Mayor of Rhodes waived those charges, unfortunately too late, so it proved. Dr Thrassos Cavouras, the Artistic Director, who conducted enjoyably vigorous accounts of choruses from Ernani and Nabucco, and Handel's Hallelujah, before the Beethoven 9th, due to begin at around 10.30 - too late for us after a full day of competitive events and closing ceremonies which had begun more than 12 hours earlier, and by all accounts it over-stretched the resources available and did not impress some of the visiting singers as a good advertisement for professional music making in the area. The Requiem, sometimes characterised as Verdi's best opera, did however make a splendid closing event for the Festival, with the Dies Irae duly tumultuous. Borislav Ivanov proved himself a fine Verdian conductor and Elena Tschavdarova was outstanding amongst the soloists, a name to remember and a mezzo to watch out for. Unfortunately the large potential audience of visiting choirs in town had scattered by that Sunday night, those still in Rhodes choosing to celebrate differently. The take-up by tourists was thin, so another year it might be prudent to place such a concert as an opening event before the competing choirs took the stage?

The stark realities in Rhodes were set out in the programme: "There is only one Sponsor for the 4th I.M.F.R., the participant Choirs themselves", and there was a reminder by the announcer that this was so before every session. An Address by Dr Cavouras in the Festival Programme expresses his appreciation of the sacrifices made 'to bestow the happiness of their song' upon the island, but made no bones about 'the complete and utter indifference of those who support the various products and species of a soi-disant popular entertainment', which left the festival bereft of 'any financial assistance whatsoever, nor any favouritism from the cultural powers that be'. If the Rhodes Festival is to attain maturity and maintain international credibility, that circumstance will have to be reversed speedily.

From our perspective we also hold out hope that the repertoires of choral festivals will move with the times and reflect developments in the musical and concert world at large. The value and wealth of 'world music' needs to be recognised without prejudice and we would hope that lists of set pieces, or of recommended music to consider, might include the challenge of more demanding music from both ends of the classical spectrum, i.e. the complexities of the Flemish masters such as Dufay and Ockeghem, and from our own time more music by composers who are not tied to conventional tonal harmony - but it is well understood that this must be a gradual process, measured, as Jaakko Mäntyjärvi in Cork urged composers, by setting 'feasible, not unreachable' targets, pitched slightly higher than current levels. Most choral singers are, because of their upbringing, still in thrall to tonality and the technical difficulties related to learning contemporary melodic lines and sound production (pitching included) are greater than for instrumentalists.

For choirs, and for visitors who take in the festival as part of a Greek holiday at an ideal time of year, a wonderful experience is assured; we met an English couple who had attended all four festivals. Rhodes is a fantastic city in the sun, its ancient Old Town a monument to antiquity of the highest order, with so much going for it that an aspiration to become a Mecca for choralists world-wide is a fair and achievable aim. We wish you good luck and will watch developments at Rhodes with interest.

CDs RECEIVED AND AWAITED:

Rhodes produces its Festival CD, details from choir_competition@hotmail.com. Those from previous Cork International Festivals are mentioned above, with contact for ordering; extremely enjoyable, and they may prove ear-openers for many unfamiliar with this important world-wide scene; a nice feature is that they omit mention of rank in the competition.

Sirin Vocal Ensemble of Russia and Tšakku from Finland both have fully professional CDs of rare early repertoire, obtainable via their websites.

It is intended to return to some that are still awaited as an addendum to this report.

Peter Grahame Woolf

 

 

Appendix 1: Results of 4th Rhodes Choir & Lyric Soloist Competition

GRAND PRIX of the City of Rhodes:

FEMALE CHOIR «LITTERA» OF ŠIAULIAI UNIVERSITY, ŠIAULIAI, LITHUANIA

Category Α (Mixed Choirs):

NAME

CITY

COUNTRY

W0

W1

W2

MEAN

MEDAL

THE CHOIR OF THE TEACHERS OF LVIV STATE MUSIC COLLEGE BYLYUDKEVYCH

LVIV

UKRAINE

207

213

218

70.89

Bronze

NICAEA MUNICIPALITY CORAL LABORATORY

NICAEA

HELLAS

206

216

214

70.67

Bronze

VEM – VOKALENSEMBLE MITTERDORF

MITTERDORF

AUSTRIA

206

214

214

70.44

Bronze

AMMOCHOSTOS MUNICIPALITY CHOIR

LEMESSOS

CYPRUS

190

191

194

63.89

 

AEOLIKI HARMONIA

ATHENS

HELLAS

191

189

191

63.44

 

CORAL INFRAERO

BRASÍLIA

BRASIL

183

187

184

61.56 – 10.00 = 51.56

*

* Reduction by 10 points because the Choir exceeded the time limit of 8 minutes for the 2 freely selected works.

Category Β (Male or Female Choirs):

NAME

CITY

COUNTRY

W0

W1

W2

MEAN

MEDAL

FEMALE CHOIR «LITTERA» OF ŠIAULIAI UNIVERSITY

ŠIAULIAI

LITHUANIA

240

257

269

85.11

Gold and 1st Prize

BOLSTERSTONE MALE VOICE CHOIR

SHEFFIELD

UNITED KINGDOM

231

243

259

81.44

Silver

Category C (Chamber Choirs):

NAME

CITY

COUNTRY

W0

W1

W2

MEAN

MEDAL

ARCADIA

MEDELLIN

COLOMBIA

249

257

261

85.22

Gold and 1st Prize

GROUPE VOCAL «CÔTE ET CHOEUR»

MONT SUR ROLLE

SUISSE

210

218

216

71.56

Bronze

HAIDARI CHAMBER CHOIR

ATHENS

HELLAS

180

186

189

61.67

 

PETALOUDES MUNICIPALITY VOCAL ENSEMBLE

KREMASTI

HELLAS

102

104

101

34.11

 

 

W0: Compulsory work, W1: 1st freely selected work, W2: 2nd freely selected work

Category D (Νεανικές Χορωδίες / Youth Choirs):

NAME

CITY

COUNTRY

W0

W1

W2

MEAN

MEDAL

RISBERGSKA SKOLANS VOKALENSEMBLE

ÖREBRO

SWEDEN

254

259

253

85.11

Gold and 1st Prize

PIHLAJANMARJAT

HELSINKI

FINLAND

226

236

226

76.44

Silver

JEFIMIJA

KRUŠEVAC

SERBIA – YUGOSLAVIA

180

183

183

60.67 – 5.00 = 55.67

*

* Reduction by 5 points because the Choir exceeded the time limit of 8 minutes for the 2 freely selected works.

Category E (Children's Choirs):

ΟΝΟΜΑ / NAME

CITY

COUNTRY

W0

W1

W2

MEAN

MEDAL

MUSIC SCHOOL OF RHODES

RHODES

HELLAS

221

219

219

73,22

Bronze

 

Category F (Folklore Ensembles): Seven equivalent diplomas

NAME

CITY

COUNTRY

AMMOCHOSTOS MUNICIPALITY CHOIR

LEMESSOS

CYPRUS

THE CHOIR OF THE TEACHERS OF LVIV STATE MUSIC COLLEGE BYLYUDKEVYCH

LVIV

UKRAINE

ALIVERI CHOIR 1995

ALIVERI

HELLAS

NICAEA MUNICIPALITY CORAL LABORATORY

NICAEA

HELLAS

PIHLAJANMARJAT

HELSINKI

FINLAND

ARCADIA

MEDELLIN

COLOMBIA

FEMALE CHOIR «LITTERA» OF ŠIAULIAI UNIVERSITY

ŠIAULIAI

LITHUANIA

Category G (Lyric Soloists):

1st Prize: POLISADOV ROMAN, RIGA, LATVIA

2nd Prize: KALINICHENKO SVETLANA, KIEV, UKRAINE

3rd Prize: ex equo to

VLASSI THOMAIS, ATHENS, HELLAS

BIBEEVA IRINA, TJUMEN, RUSSIA

Appendix 2:

Composing for choir by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Ideals and Practicalities

Cork International Choral Festival 2002

Who am I?

  • Jaakko Mäntyjärvi(b.1963)Helsinki, Finland
  • translator
  • computer system manager
  • composer
  • choir conductor
  • choral singer

Choral music

J The domain consists mostly of amateurs.

Advantages:

  • positive attitude
  • flexibility
  • artistic ambition
  • contacts; ‘grapevine effect’ in spreading of music

Amateurism in the positive sense of the word.

L The domain consists mostly of amateurs.

Disadvantages:

  • technical abilities not always so good
  • low public estimation of choral music (seen as a ‘hobby’)
  • ...and hence of composers who write choral music
  • motivation problems

Choral music seen as a hobby or as an ideological vehicle (church, politics, etc.).

Erkki Pohjola tells of a German composer who in the 1970s said that it would be professional suicide to write music for children’s choir.

 

Contemporary music

Values and the composer (from an essay by Kalevi Aho):

  • style
  • technique
  • meaningful content?
  • social/political values??
  • suitability for a particular occasion???
  • entertainment value????

"To believe in progress is to not believe that progress has already happened." (Franz Kafka)

Values unrelated to style and technique still seem to be somehow shameful or taboo in modern music. It seems as if many composers are afraid that they would make themselves look ridiculous in the eyes of their colleagues if they suddenly began talking for instance about meaningful content.

Technical progress in one matter causes regression in others. The introduction of equal temperament in the early 18th century eliminated differences in sonority between keys. Schönberg’s twelve-tone approach discarded all the countless nuances incorporated in the tradition of tonal music. Total Serialism went even further and completely mechanized the process of composition.

If the control of a composer extends to the tiniest details of a composition, as is often the case in contemporary music, there is nothing left for the performer to do except to reproduce the music with machine-like precision.

Progress is a form of denial.

Functions needed in contemporary music:

  • a sense of history, tradition and the past
    (to deny everything that is old is to create music with no history)
  • social significance
    (the ethics of an artist include a social dimension)
  • meaningful emotional content
    (why do people listen to music? solace, stimulation, strength, drama...)
  • tranquillity and sacrality
    (an experience of the mythical, the mysterious and the holy)

"I would prefer my music to be timeless rather than in tune with the times." (Einojuhani Rautavaara)

Salmenhaara: When we had for decades chased feverishly after something new and unprecedented, there was only one thing left that was new: that which was old.

Social dimension? Politics? Even denying the social dimension is a social statement, because it means that the artist silently approves everything that is going on.

Why do people listen to music? They may wish to take time out from their everyday lives and seek beauty or solace. They may be emotionally distraught and seek comfort. They may be happy and in love and seek reflection of these feelings. They may seek new vitality, energy and strength. Or they may seek a strong sense of drama in music.

There is a huge demand for music reaching into the remote past, because it provides listeners with an opportunity to take time out from the hectic pace of life and return to an experience of the mythical, the mysterious and the holy. It is, however, possible to experience a feeling of the sacred and the mysterious without limiting oneself to the distant past.

 

Expanding the domain of the composer:

  • ideal vs. practice? integrity vs. compromise?
  • adaptability is part of a composer’s professional competence
    (avoiding the ‘write-down syndrome’)
  • writing different kinds of music brings plurality and flexibility

"Strategies for dismantling the ivory tower" (Harri Wessman)

Sibelius wrote music on a variety of levels: serious instrumental and vocal music; lighter salon music and entertainment music; incidental music for plays and tableaux; and occasional music for a variety of purposes. He was also a performing artist (a conductor). Working on several levels adds to the composer’s flexibility.

 

Composing for choir

Know your instrument:

  • range — characteristics and use of extremities
  • voice leading, melodic profiles
  • balance and sonority
  • stamina
  • social function (!)

Range

Textbook range

  • gives (arbitrary) upper and lower limits
    > ‘choir synthesizer’ fallacy

Extremities

  • cannot be used in same way as in instrumental music
    (extreme low: balance; extreme high: stamina)

Characteristics

  • trained vs. untrained voices
  • lower break, upper break

It is a common error to assume that the choral range is more or less homogeneous throughout. Actually, the use of extremities is more limited than it is in instrumental music: the extreme low registers tend to be much less audible and are hard to balance if there are voices in higher registers; the extreme high registers, if used consistently, lead to problems with stamina and keeping pitch.

Voice leading, etc.

Singers do not have buttons to push!

  • the fundamental difference between instrumental and vocal music is how the sound is produced
  • the learning process is also different
  • finding pitch (and maintaining it)
  • hearing one’s own voice and hearing others in the choir
    (cf. balance and sonority)
  • pickup points, reference notes, ‘anchor points’

If technical eclipses artistic, performance becomes execution.

On piano and organ, all you have to do is hit a key. Winds, particularly brass, are more closely related to singers in their sound production.

"Your entry note is the second note in the sextuplet that the second trombone plays in the measure immediately before you."

Practical experience of singing in a choir is invaluable for perceiving how things work within the choir. Surprising things can be audible or inaudible; a fuzzy chord may work perfectly well with different voicing.

 

Choir: Voice leading, etc.

Voice leading and melodic profiles:

  • use wide intervals with caution — pitching can be a bitch
  • multiple parallel leaps = increasing inaccuracy

Score psychology:

  • visual impact of printed/written music on the performer
  • continuum from extreme control to extreme freedom

Again, singers do not have buttons to push; all wide intervals need to be seen in the context of the surrounding texture.

Parallel leaps with no stable reference points are risky.

Score psychology:

• graphic appearance (messy photocopy of dodgy handwriting vs. fair copy)

• economy of notation

Extreme control is not a bad thing per se; certain types of music require mechanical precision to make an impact. Extreme freedom can be just as bewildering and frustrating.

Balance & sonority

Balance:

  • the range is not homogeneous
    (low alto / high tenor especially problematic)

Sonority:

  • harmonic series
  • voicing
    (octave doublings, fifth-on-bottom)

Stamina, social function

Stamina:

  • use of extreme high registers and the break
  • singers have to breathe!
    (the more important the smaller the choir)

Social function:

  • crowd control
  • ‘ownership of the process’ is important
    (music should be shared goal, not common enemy)

Already referred to under Range. Breathing is an important consideration, because singers will make time to breathe if the music does not allow for it! Staggered breathing is a skill unto itself; in choirs unused to it, it may cause the pitch to go flat.

If an amateur choir loses its motivation, it is extremely difficult to regain it. The conductor’s responsibility in this is huge, because one cannot simply say to an amateur choir: "We are doing this piece and that’s that."

This is not to say that all music should be comfortable and familiar. Challenges and new types of music are more than welcome, provided that they are scaled to the choir’s abilities. In an ideal case, the target would be slightly above the level of achievement that the choir is used to.

A conductor once said that the only difference between conducting a children’s choir and conducting an adult choir is that the adults are much more childish.

Composing for choir

Know your instrument; be aware of:

  • the skill level you are writing for
  • the risks of tailoring music for a specific choir
  • the fine line between challenge and frustration

WHY?

  • choir wants music it can call its own
  • choir wants music by composer X
  • choir wants challenges and artistic development
  • choir wants prestige and publicity

Premieres of works by well-known composers (even of choral works!) attract a fair amount of publicity.

From the composer’s point of view, the crux is whether the work stays in the repertoire (‘farewell premiere’).

WHO?

  • a composer who is well known
    (may be expensive; may take ages; may turn down)
  • a composer whom the choir knows
    (is readily available for consultation)
  • a composer who has been recommended to the choir

WHAT?

  • be specific when commissioning
  • length
  • number of parts/divisions
  • technical demands
  • language of text, or even specific text(s)
  • suggest cooperation or workshop if composer does not
  • return the piece for rewriting if it does not work!

Caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware)

Some composers like detailed specifications, others do not. If you do not give specifications, you may receive anything at all!

Some composers like attending rehearsals, others do not. Sometimes even a single rehearsal reveals things the composer had not considered.

The workshop approach is rare, but is used for instance with children’s choirs.

If the piece does not work, return it for rewriting. Or, if the composer does not agree to rewrite, get out early: admit that you cannot perform the piece rather than going for a half-baked premiere requiring a huge chunk of the choir’s resources. The responsibility here lies, again, with the conductor.

WHAT DOES THE COMPOSER NEED TO KNOW?

  • What other contemporary works has the choir done?
  • What strengths and weaknesses does the choir have?
  • What is the choir like right now?
  • What is the intended function of the commissioned work?

The composer does need to know the choir, even if only superficially. It is no good writing on the basis of a dated impression ("Oh yeah, I saw them on TV last year, there were about 60 of them and they were brilliant" ... and then there were 24) or on the conductor’s say-so ("Oh sure, they’ll complain but they’ll do it").

Strengths can be played on, weaknesses should be avoided. Divided tenors, for example.

If the work is intended for example for massed choirs at a festival, this gives quite some leeway; but it should be considered whether the commissioning choir also wants to perform it on its own.

 

Finally

SWOT analysis

  • STRENGTHS
  • for the composer: flexible instrument, inexpensive performances
  • for the choir: new repertoire, prestige, challenges, new approaches
  • WEAKNESSES
  • for the composer: technical limitations are a fact of life
  • for the choir: not many composers are comfortable with writing for choir
  • OPPORTUNITIES
  • for the composer: a huge number of potential performers
  • for the choir: developing the workshop approach with a commission
  • THREATS
  • choral music remains a genre with low public esteem

Composing for choir

"Generally, the range of a choir is dependent on the strength of the catapult." (Anon. on Usenet)

How far a choir can go depends on how strong its motivation is. At times there may be a thin line between gearing up for a challenge and resigning in disgust.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh! Thank you!
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

 

 

 

 

 

 


Seen&Heard is part of MusicWeb Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index

Return to: Music on the Web