Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass

At the end of December last I unexpectedly got an invitation from a friend, composer Reg Unterseher, to come along and hear Tim Sharp & Wes Ramsay’s, “Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass” in Dublin. The performance was to take place in Taney Church, only ten minutes walk from my front door! It was an opportunity not to be missed, as I had heard very positive mention of the work when I attended the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in Dallas in March of 2013.

As the Mass was due to be presented as part of an actual service, my whole family went. The first thing that I noted was that the children in the congregation, including my own, were entranced right from the first moment the music began. Parents struggled to stop them jumping and swaying. For an Irish audience, Bluegrass is not a form they are very familiar with, and the instruments juxtaposed on the choral ensemble took everyone initially by surprise. This was something truly different to what any of us had expected.

I was already familiar with the atypical modal colours of Bluegrass vocal harmony and I have sat through many performances of contemporary choral works written by my esteemed American composer colleagues. This work was unlike anything I had experienced of either – and yet at a fundamental level it was completely familiar to me. The Mass is something rooted firmly and unapologetically in a powerful traditional culture. I could hear elements of shape note singing and sacred harp interlaced with the direct and simple melodic shapes and structures of Appalachian folk music. It should be familiar to me, because hidden away within the melting pot of European and African influences from this region is the voice of my own country.

Below the choral part sits the unique, and comforting, instrumental colours of the Bluegrass band. They never intrude, they don’t elaborate. They accompany and carry us forward without artifice. It couldn’t be simpler really, nor more effective. I am all for exploring traditional instrumental colours in a contemporary context, but equally they can sound very out-of-place when used to develop contemporary harmonic and linear elements of a work. There is a sense throughout the entirety of this piece that a strong musical hand is expertly juggling these disparate elements. Each movement has a satisfying structural sense to it, and there is a unified musical language present in the whole composition.

This is honest, direct music that treats its source material with respect. While the harmonic colours employed by Tim Sharp can veer towards the contemporary at times, this never feels forced. Two movements stand out for me – Credo, with its infectious and simple affirmations of belief. Bluegrass was created in a society where faith and music sustained people through the best and worst of times. Functional, but also inspirational, music. Then there is the sublime Agnus Dei – a masterclass for any composer in how to treat traditional source material. This was, for me, the highlight of the Mass.

The performance, in a cold church on a dark day, was beautifully realised, with some virtuosic and flexible singing from the sopranos in particular. This was strongly contrasted with a vibrant and earthy tone from the men’s lines. Tim Sharp himself played and conducted [very well too]. It was unsurprising to hear that most of the performers were educators and musicians, as there was a lovely musical shape to all the singing. They succeeded in warming up and enthralling an Irish congregation more used to the joys of Anglican Church Music. Well done to everyone involved!

20131229_212453I was very surprised after the performance/service how modest Tim was about his achievement, because that is what this work is – a real achievement. Its heartfelt and honest musical core, created within the context of a quintessentially American musical genre, is a celebration of a uniquely beautiful cultural ethos.

Me and Tim Sharp in Christ Church Cathedral, Dec. 29th 2013

You can check out the whole Mass on YouTube HERE, but in the meantime here is the Credo and Agnus Dei for your enjoyment [and mine for the 6th time today…].

The Choir, the Violinist and True Love in Sweden

Sometimes my job can be simply magical. Maybe it is something to do with the music, or maybe it is the ambiance generated by the performance. Or maybe life is full of magic, and I have simply been lucky to see it more often than most people.

Yes. Thats it.

Last November Anúna gave two very special performances in Sweden. We have only performed once in Stockholm, so I was anxious to sing there again [our last visit being in 1996]. This time we had a very special friend with us, the violinist Linda Lampenius. Linda and I are friends since around 2007 when she recorded and toured with us as part of Celtic Origins.

She is a superlative musician. Her celebrity status in Finland is so great that she was a judge for The X Factor in 2010 where she invited me to help her with her adjudication. A memorable experience indeed.

That cold November night she looked radiant and played beautifully, as always. The next night was Annedalkyrka, Gothenburg one of my favourite places to perform in the world. My younger brother Tom lived there in the 1980s and my own attachment to the country is deep.

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Anúna perform in Sofia Kyrka, Stockholm with Linda Lampenius [pic. Tommy Wiberg]

In October a young man by the name of Kristian wrote to me to ask me for a favour. I’m usually not great at deviating off the focus of a performance I have to admit, but this was a very special request for a special person. The performance was technically so complex that I had put Kristian far to the back of my mind so, as I read down the programme, I noticed that there was one odd piece on it. Suddenly all that occupied my mind was Kristian… the song was “The Flower of Maherally”, one I don’t sing very often anymore, but I had been asked for a special love song.

You see, Kristian wanted to propose to his girlfriend Marijune who was visiting from the USA. He has been a long-time fan of Anúna and he wanted to ask her to marry him on the stage just after we sang a love song that was dedicated to her. He came on stage, I called her up from the audience and he got down on one knee and proposed. Sheer magic indeed.

Needless to say, the concert and the tour ended on a huge high for all of us.

My short story ends with a postscript. I wrote to Kristian to see if he would mind me posting a note about his proposal. It turned out that he was actually in the USA and that tomorrow, Tuesday April 3rd, Kristian and Marijune will become Mr and Mrs Lejsund. Long life and happiness to you both. Thank you for including us in this wonderful moment of your lives.

Canticum Gaudium : Poznań 2011.

I am still buzzing. I have just returned from Poland, having been invited to adjudicate at the first International Early Music Vocal Competition and give a workshop in Poznań  at Canticum Gaudium. The competition was created under the auspices of one of the most famous and renowned European choirs, the Poznań Boys’ Choir.

Usually when I give workshops or masterclasses they are either technical singing classes or deal with the interpretation of my music. Rarely do they encompass both areas of my work simultaneously. The session lasted five hours. The attendees at the Academy of Music in Poznań were made up of children and adults – all of them accomplished choral singers. In total there were to be in excess of one hundred young singers attending the workshop.They came from a number of choral groups, but I had specifically been invited by the world-renowned Poznań Boys’ Choir, who had  conducted by composer Jacek Sykulski.

 

Jacek had chosen two of my pieces for the workshop – “Pie Jesu” and “Heia Viri”.  “Heia Viri” is not an easy piece to sing. It has an alternating 10/8, 4/4, 7/8 rhythmic pattern, which many choirs find pretty daunting. Jacek conducted this piece, giving precise entries and eliciting quite a dynamic reaction from the singers. After a while I asked him to stop conducting and to leave them to continue undirected. We listened to the singers dealing with the complex rhythmic structures without guidance. They started to listen to each other. To be precise, the adults did.

What the children did was most illuminating. I clearly remember three little boys in the front row thumping each other as they sang “Heia Viri”. This in itself is to be expected with boys anywhere, but not while negotiating alternating complex choral rhythms unconducted. Another boy was rapidly beating his music against his arm which he had rolled up into a weapon. This in itself isn’t unusual, but he was beating rapidly in a different rhythmic pattern to any that I had written. Children don’t need to listen, or analyse – they just sing it as it is. At what precise moment is it that we lose large chunks of our natural common-sense when singing in choirs?

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Just listening…

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…and laughing. Pics T Semmler

Then there was “Pie Jesu” which begins with a suspended 4th that resolves onto a 3rd in the second bar in an F major tonality. I gave the notes of the opening chord at 11.15am. An hour later we sang  “Heia Viri”, which is in D flat, returning to “Pie Jesu” for the last hour of the workshop that ended at 3pm. What was somewhat revelatory was the simple fact that I blew the notes on my pitch-pipe only once for both pieces and I didn’t let the singers re-tune prior to singing. The assembled choirs were able to pitch the opening of both songs each time we restarted without any assistance. They held the F tonality perfectly in tune for at least four hours. What are keys and notes? Just ethereal ideas really. I’ve tried this trick all over the world, and it never ceases to amaze me how lazy we are about things like this as choral singers.

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Poznań is a beautiful city, particularly when bathed in the warm, autumnal glow of early November. I visited the city in 2000 with Anúna, and it has changed considerably since then. The central part is dotted with fashionable restaurants and beautiful ornate churches. I particularly love the atmospheric coffee shops where the day can slip away so easily. Coffee always seems to taste better on mainland Europe than it does at home for some mysterious reason. These peaceful places are almost empty in the daytime, and for me were an oasis to renew my love for Poland.

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I hear some of you ask – what is Early Music? Well, in a nutshell, it is a musical land where few singers and teachers tread comfortably. Singers must have formidable technique but also a genuine love of this special music. It involves the use of improvisation and ornamentation and requires a strong and supple vocal technique. In the early 1980s the pure sound of enthusiastic and almost vibrato-less English voices brought this forgotten era back into the public eye. Since then much has changed in the way this music is interpreted, which has led to a renewed appreciation for the genre and a widening interest in it among the musical fraternity. I was delighted that so many young singers had chosen to enter this competition, and more importantly, how many of them dealt so competently with the specific demands required by the repertoire.

Adjudication is a particular skill. Some adjudicators love emotional performance, some prefer accuracy and technique and some want raw talent recognised. I know that it is an important means for the transmission of my experiences and knowledge as a performer to the next generation. The organisers chose a very interesting line-up of adjudicators :  Eric Desnoues (France), soprano Olga Pasiecznik (Poland/Ukraine), bass-baritone Stephan MacLeod (Switzerland) and countertenor Roberto Balconi (Italy). There was some amusement among them when we met initially that my biography in the programme included mention of my involvement as a specialist adjudicator in the Finnish version of X Factor. Well, adjudication is adjudication, and seeing as the main aim of all singing competitions is appropriate transmission of information – about the song, about the text, about the composer and crucially, about the singer – I would say, hastily, that there isn’t that much difference between genres of music in the end when you are looking for that special element in a performer…the “x factor”…

I must state first of all that any opinions I give in this article are my own, based on my twenty five years in the music industry, and may not always reflect the views of my colleagues. Our deliberations were passionate: all of us have very strong ideas and opinions about this music that we love. We debated each singer at length in French and English. I was writing my notes in Irish, which got harder and harder for me as the week progressed, as I can’t seem to retain coherency in French and Irish simultaneously for no good reason. We may not have been unanimous in everything, but there was always a consistent thread running through our judgements which went beyond personal taste. My colleagues made the difficult experience of adjudication something which was full of stimulating debate, good-humour and passion.

While I have worked as an adjudicator before, this experience was unique in one particular way: we interacted with the singers directly, discussing their performances with them individually and in small groups. I believe that being open and honest with young singers is hugely valuable to both yourself and the performer. You have to make your comments clearly, answering direct questions with direct answers. You also have to justify why you feel a certain way about something, and that can be a challenge. Through these interactions we learned much from the singers about their lives and their ambitions for the future. I wish I had had access to something like this when I was starting, rather than cold written statements, if any were given at all, that could easily be misunderstood.

What were we looking for? Was it simply the voice combined with passion, communication and intellect? Many of these singers had all of these traits. However, lurking beneath all these things lies the need for a strong bedrock of vocal technique. Text must also be very clear, and the meaning of the words transmitted. But the thing that I was looking for most of all was that the singer must attempt to bring this music to life in today’s world, which is so alien to the one in which the words and music were originally conceived.

Most of the performers sang Lute Song from England, particularly the works of the great John Dowland. These are deceptive songs, superficially easy to sing but difficult to perform with conviction. I was the only native English speaker on the panel. I don’t have problems with people singing in accented English. If you are Polish or French then it is pretty likely that you will sing with a Polish or French accent, but the accent should never obscure the meaning of the words. All I want, and I am sure the same applies to all languages, is that the words are coherent and it is obvious to the listener that the singer understands them.  I have serious problems with affected English pronunciation. By this I mean English being distorted for obscure and often ridiculous reasons. I must state here that many of the worst offenders in this area are native English speakers. No, I don’t agree that “r” should be rolled, but tolerate it because most singers do it. It is infinitely harder to not roll the “r”… No, the word “Spring” is not pronounced “Sprrrreeeeng”. Distortion is distortion, no matter how accepted such odd practices have become.

There were some good performances given by the singers in the lute song genre, particularly by the baritone Romain Bockler from France, who eventually came fifth in the competition. He gave a delicate reading of Trombocino’s “O mia cieca e dua sorte” in the semi-final. This was matched by the young Polish singers Maria Rozynek and Bartosz Rajpold who both sang moving renditions of Dowland’s “Flow my teares”. Hanna Różankiewicz, the youngest performer in the competition, performed one of the best-known Dowland songs “Come again, sweet love” with a moving sensitivity. Samitra Suwannarit-Grabowska from Thailand sang a heart-stopping rendition of Dowland’s “Sorrow, Stay”. I don’t believe that Samitra performed as well as she could have in this competition. She is a fine artist and her performance particularly touched me.

There were three very good Polish countertenors in the competition. Roberto’s opinions and knowledge were particularly helpful to me, as he is a countertenor, and he explained the different features of this unusual and increasingly popular singing voice for men. All three singers were young. Marcin Liweń has a powerful voice and fine musicality and shows great promise for the future, while Bartosz Rajpold sang with intensity and passion, even at this early stage of his career. He was particularly good in his performance of Handel’s “Su, Magera”. The youngest of them was Jakub Orlińsk, also Polish. We recognised his performances with a special award of Merit.

I should point out how well the singers got on together. When we met them face-to-face it was disarming to see how young they all were, despite the intensity of some of their performances.

We were delighted to award the first prize of five thousand euro to the American soprano Estelí Gomez. She gave a number of immaculate performances. Purcell’s “O lead me to some peaceful gloom” was like a crystal stream of sound, while Rameau’s “Du pouvoir de l’Amour / Jeux et ris qui suivez mes traces” was simply, and I hesitate to use the description because it has become almost a cliché, ravishingly beautiful. In this recit/aria she used Baroque gesture [try here for further info], a form of hand movement that historically would have been used in contemporary perfromance of this time, in such a natural way that it just looked right. Personally, I was hugely impressed by her technique, particularly her support which was almost invisible to my eye. I was delighted that she participated in my choral workshops the next day, but more of that in a later article.

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She has a very engaging and bright personality and I spoke to Esteli about what winning this competition meant to her :

How are you feeling now after your victory? What do you think winning this competition will mean for you in the short term?

“The two strong feelings that come to mind are appreciative, and inspired. This was my first vocal competition and first time singing solo in Europe, as it were, and I was delighted at the high caliber of musicality of the contestants and judges, as well as the attentive organizational efforts that held the festival together so well; also, the kindness that the hosts and judges showed us, and that the contestants showed one another, was an amazing blessing and inspiration throughout and in retrospect.

That being said, I think a common misconception, when a singer wins a competition (or important role or gig), is that he or she has achieved some sort of untouchable state of arrival. While I can absolutely describe the Poznań competition experience and environment as one which, for me, really encouraged and celebrated that which I have been striving towards in my music-making, I do recognize that a competition win does not a “finished” singer make. I am hopeful that such a win will provide me with musical exposure in Europe, yet in a sense I have already gained a great measure as such, having been myself exposed to competitors’ varied styles and judges’ diverse tastes during the competition week itself. Ideally, I intend to continue exploring these performance practices and preferences on both sides of the pond, and I am very glad and grateful that my first efforts to do so were encouraged”

Why do you like singing this unusual repertoire particularly considering your own musical background?

“I grew up in a family that strongly values music – my parents met in a folk/bluegrass group, and all our extended family holidays involved singing, instruments, harmonizing. But, even more strongly, they emphasized the joy of personal expression within art (visual art too…my brother is an animator!), and that’s what drew me first to jazz, then early music. I loved singing solo and small ensemble jazz repertoire in high school, before I’d begun to dabble in solo classical singing, because it involved not just freedom of expression, but requirement of expression – the idea that on a basic level one must constantly engage in a composition and make personal, committed decisions, connecting to text and phrase structure with enough conviction and confidence to be able to improvise…! All exciting elements that jazz and early music performance share. The performance of early music requires a special and wonderful balance of academic/historical context, or engaging one’s brain, and then this intensely courageous improvisatory/creative element, or engaging one’s soul. For me, this is an incredibly satisfying combination!”

What are your memories of Canticum Gaudium and Poznań that you think will stay with you?

“I would say that the amazing friendliness of our Polish hosts – those affiliated with the competition, as well as perfect strangers – was particularly special and memorable. Before and after the competition I travelled to a few other cities in Europe for more concert performances, but no public was friendlier or more generous than that which I found in Poland. Otherwise, I would say that the experience of traveling so far and investing so much time, effort, and money to sing just thirty minutes of music in the semi-final round… that was definitely an experience and level of investment I won’t forget any time soon!”

What do you think that this competition has to offer young singers who might be interested in attending in 2013?

“The spirit of this competition was so rich with positive, healthy energy, that I came away with not just a better idea of how Renaissance and Baroque music is sung in different circles today, but feeling truly inspired by the approaches of the performers and honest, helpful commentary of our judges. I would highly recommend the experience as a whole to any dedicated early music singer, looking not just to show off or win prizes, but to invigorate his or her musical agenda and encourage fluency in different repertoires, presented to a unique and appreciative audience.”

I want to wish Estelí and all the competitors well-deserved success for the future. I know I will be returning to Poznań, and I won’t wait eleven years next time. Finally I want to extend my personal thanks to all those who gave their time and energy to the organisation of this competition. There wasn’t a single glitch, just goodwill and positivity. I particular want to thank Joanna Theuss and Jacek for making the entire experience one I will always remember and treasure.

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The winners: Romain, Estelí, Maria, Aleksandra and Julia