My final words in the blog entry made a few weeks ago regarding the recording of the Celtic Mass by Michael McGlynn were these:
It is, of course, somewhat nerve-wracking to be making what will be the world premier recording of the complete Mass. But, while the choir and I are a little nervous, we are far more excited. And honored. What an opportunity. Michael’s music is so wonderful…to contribute to his artistic journey by recording the complete Celtic Mass for the first time is a true pleasure and a responsibility.
I hope we are up the task.
I believe we are.
Well, here I am seven weeks later, having had a summer to reflect, and reminisce on the great experience of recording Michael’s wonderful work. And, though I haven’t begun the editing process yet, I am happy to report that my hope that we were up to the task set before us of recording this work at a high artistic level became a firm realization.
We were. But simply saying, “we were” fails to accurately capture the preparation, the grind, the fellowship, and the fulfillment of the entire project. The only way I can hope to do that is to tell the full story.
To begin, I must reassert what I said in my last blog: I am an unashamed fan of my younger (though not by much!) colleague Michael McGlynn. Of his choir—though his choral sound is quite different than mine. Of his compositions-which seem to me a bit underperformed in the US, though his pieces are popping up on concerts more and more frequently. Mostly though, I’m a fan of Michael’s concept. Michael seems to have successfully combined so much of what I hold dear, and merged it into a coherent whole. Ancient plainchant. Ancient Irish texts and tunes. Modal harmonies. Influences from Dufay to Milhaud to the Irish trad. band Clannad. Just today, while looking for programming ideas for our upcoming 2013 Ireland tour, I was watching the video presentation Michael made to accompany his piece Cormacus Scripsit, with Anuna appearing Druid-like in the forest, then moving to an ancient Irish sacred rune full of mysticism and spiritualism while his wonderful arrangement was sung. I thought “brilliant. Wish that were us!”
So what does one do when you have your own world-class choir, but admittedly admire the concept and music of a colleague so thoroughly? Well, you jump at the chance to record the one big work that said colleague has not recorded with his own forces.
And so, the journey began.
As I mentioned in my last entry, the Taylor Festival Choir has its own history and reputation. I am proud of our artistic product, and proud that its membership has remained a “family”…one with old members that welcome the newcomers into the fold. All of us look forward to coming together for whatever the project might be. And for something like this, the excitement is even greater.
It was with that spirit that we began the process. In-town singers began having sectionals, making sure all rhythms and pitches were in solid shape. Full disclosure: while we were only recording Celtic Mass, we were also performing the Vaughan Williams Mass in G-minor in Piccolo Spoleto. So all members had their musical hands full as the out-of-town singers arrived by car and plane (no idea why no one ever arrives by boat! It is Charleston after all. Maybe its because none of us is Tiger Woods…whose yacht Privacy is docked just a few miles from my house right now).
Prior to the choir’s arrival, however, we had seen more than our fair share of adversity. Funding for the project had been hard to come by, and those of us charged with raising the money desperately made our plea to our supporters until the 11th hour. Finding the proper recording venue was also a desperate search—thanks to the presence of a national organ conference, in which literally EVERY church and organ (save one, thank God) was taken so as to allow 30 organ scholars a place to practice. I had completely taken for granted that one of our preferred venues would be available. They are always available just after Spoleto is over. Until this year! Thankfully, one church that had the requisite organ and acoustic was available. Bethel United Methodist Church and its Music Director Greg Jones literally saved the day, as they turned over their magnificent sanctuary and organ to us for the needed two days.
Then there was gathering our musicians. I can’t ever remember being so stressed about completing a roster of singers and instrumentalists. Just getting the vocal soloists I wanted in one place, healthy, was a chore. One of our best sopranos, (Tina Zenker Williams) so perfect for a couple of the solos that I just steadfastly refused to even consider anyone else, was only available for one day. Another (Kori Miller), who was equally perfect for the solos I had assigned her, was just coming off a period where she had lost her voice completely, due to a vocal injury. Of course, there were other outstanding sopranos in our group capable of singing those solos. But I can be rather artistically stubborn, to say the least. A new baritone soloist (Brandon Hendrickson), in his first stint with TFC, emerged as a real star. An opera singer and opera director by trade, Brandon just happened to be available on these dates. Thank goodness for that stroke of luck. Our remaining soloists (Jaime Burney, Mike Sheaffer, Ansley Lucas, and Esther Williams) were all reasonably healthy (though Jaime was eating “for two” as they say…and is set to bring the next future TFC member into the world this coming January!) and posed no logistical challenges, thank Heaven. Once scheduling and health issues were dealt with, all soloists were scheduled for coaching sessions. As it turned out, they were all so well prepared and sounded so good that I often chuckled during their sessions, knowing how good they were going to sound in performance and recording. Filling out our instrumental roster, thankfully, went more according to plan. Only the cellist had to be replaced! A replacement was quickly found, and so we began the rehearsal process on the Monday evening before our Thursday and Friday performances.
As always, our first gathering of the full TFC roster began with a meal that was, as usual, served by Charleston’s Olympik deli…and it was divine. The fare included a special pesto flatbread invented by Ali the owner of Olympik himself—served to us by request every time we gather for our first rehearsal. Reunion time was of course required. Eventually, we made our way to the rehearsal hall, and the singing began.
Thankfully, it became quickly apparent that the choristers had come well prepared. Pitches and rhythms were, for the most part, spot on from the beginning, including the newly revised Credo, which had me a bit worried. (A bit more on the Credo in a moment). The major challenge in preparing the piece was, to no one’s surprise, were the pronunciation issues in the Gaelic movements. Kori had a couple of Skype sessions with Michael on Codhlaím go Suan. Sitting in on these were highly educational…and amusing! Michael was warm, funny, but insistent. He lightened up the proceedings with Skype tours of his house, his backyard, and chronicled the putting of his kids to bed! Kori did great with the pronunciation, earning high praise from Michael. Unfortunately, the choir—trained by yours truly—was not as successful in initial attempts to capture the subtleties and nuances of Irish in Michael’s texts. Again, thanks to the miracle of Skype, Michael was actually “with us” from Dublin as we rehearsed a couple of movements. Especially fun was Michael’s explanation that the metric stress of Alleluia: Incantations stemmed from the sound of the mo-ped Michael once drove!
Needless to say, having the composer take part in the preparation of the work at hand was a rare treat. Also a treat was having Dr. Karen Marrolli in the choir. Karen is the author of the only major study of the McGlynn Mass, and her insights served as a foundation for textual and musical study for the choir…as well as the conductor.
After two days of rehearsal, the choir was ready to work with our instrumental ensemble. Thanks to the vibrant musical scene of Charleston, we had assembled a really terrific group of musicians. The strings were top-notch…including none other than my lovely wife Mary. Our harpist proved to be a nearly flawless studio player, and the organist, Dr. Scott Bennett, was miraculously accurate on what is not an especially easy or conventional organ part. A real highlight for me was the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker playing some of the most gorgeous violin solos you will ever hear. Wait to hear them on the disc. Spine tingling.
Finally, we were all ready to perform. The initial performance, at Circular Congregational Church, went well. But the treat we will all remember was our performance at Mepkin Abbey. To express the radiance we all felt during and after that performance, a brief word is needed about Mepkin itself.
From their own website:
Mepkin Abbey is a community of Roman Catholic monks established in 1949 on the site of the historic Mepkin Plantation located on the Cooper River, north of Charleston, South Carolina. Founded by the monks of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the brothers of Mepkin belong to the worldwide Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance popularly known as Trappist. Following The Rule of St. Benedict, the monks at Mepkin Abbey devote their lives to prayer, spiritual study, work and hospitality.
In short, Mepkin is one of the most beautiful, truly spiritual places in all of South Carolina. Perhaps the most spiritual (this coming from a spiritual, proud member of the Unitarian church) spot I’ve even been to in the USA. When one enters the grounds, you simply feel God’s presence. You just…do.
So it was in this setting that we performed the Mass in a fashion that none of us will forget. At the conclusion of the work, the monks themselves jumped to their feet, and the remainder of the audience followed. What an experience.
It was after this high that we went forth, and after a day of rest began the recording sessions themselves. As I mentioned above, we had been fortunate to essentially be given carte blanche in Bethel United Methodist. Our recording engineer Rich Mays had done his homework, and we entered the facility with everything set. We were ready to go. This first day we had decided to record everything involving Tina, as Monday was the only day she was in town. In order to make sure Kori made it through health wise, we also decided to record Codlaím go Suan on that first day. Both were involved in the Gloria…so our initial session was set. Unfortunately, the Kyrie and Gloria are not especially easy, and getting things perfect didn’t come as swiftly as we would like. Bless Tina, she must have had to sing that final floating high A in the Kyrie what felt like a zillion times. But, thanks to Rich and Yiorgos Vassilandonakis (our session co-producer) things went pretty smoothly. Upon play back, we were all pleased.
The Credo was a special challenge. Michael had apparently written a Credo years before and discarded it. But, he had taken it back out, revised it, and created something truly vibrant. Vibrant, full of mood and texture changes, with writing almost operatic in scope, it was this movement that proved the greatest challenge balancing instrumental forces with the vocal. Precision was sometime difficult to attain, as the quartet was separated from the choir so as to allow them to be separately mic’d. The Gloria offered posed similar challenges, but somehow we sailed through it compared to the grind of the Credo. In the end though, we got it, and I’m confident Michael will be pleased.
We concluded the recording sessions with the unaccompanied Alleluia: Incantations. Maybe it was because it was the last thing we recorded, and we were tired. Or, maybe the piece is just hard. I suspect it was mostly the former, somewhat the latter…but whatever the issue was, Incantations was easily the hardest movement to get “in the can.” We just couldn’t quite nail it. And I began to see our energy level wane. Worse, we were running out of time in our final session on our final day. So…I finally screamed something like “we are not going to give up!!! Let’s gooooo!.” High school-ish…maybe. Certainly something from my background in team sports. In any case, we all perked up, and sure enough, we seem to have gotten it. (I only say “seem” because I write this before we begin to actually edit).
Finally, we were done! As one would expect, many of us headed to a local watering hole, and celebrated our sessions with a well deserved pint or two (or three….). I desperately wanted a Guinness in my glass…and in my memory it was Guinness…but I was recently reminded that they were out of Guinness! So I had some dark beer and apparently pretended it was Guinness! (Hard to do I admit. There is no substitute). I do recall feeling exhausted yet exhilarated, and even upon getting home late that night, I was far too wired to sleep. Thankfully, the ensuing weeks brought rest. Much needed rest. But also, a bit of a let down from the high of TFC coming together, rehearsing, performing and recording Michael’s unique work. His cyber-presence only made the process even more exciting. Certainly, this process was rewarding, exciting, and everything you hope a project of this magnitude might be
Next—editing the Celtic Mass sessions, and recording the James MacMillan Mass next summer. The resulting disc will surely be something we are proud of, and hopefully a disc choral lovers of the world will welcome into their libraries! McGlynn and MacMillan Masses. How exciting a disc is that?! Let’s just hope next summer’s sessions match this past summer’s in terms of overall satisfaction. If they are, this will have indeed been the CD of a lifetime.