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 from a different perspective to most.

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. She looked radiant and played beautifully, as always. The next night was Annedalkyrka, Gothenburg one of my favourite places to perform in the world.

Anúna perform with Linda Lampenius (violin), Sofia Kyrka, Stockholm [pic. A.McGlynn]

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. I can describe it, but I think that all you need to do is look at Tommy Wiberg’s images below. They capture the moment in a way that words simply can’t.

Kristian and Marijune

That special moment…

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 received the photos only on Saturday last, and 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. Have a fantastic day…

Canticum Gaudium : the First International Early Music Vocal Competition, 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 in Poznań titled Canticum Gaudium. The competition was created under the auspices of one of the most famous and renowned European choirs, the Poznań Boys’ Choir, directed by composer/conductor Jacek Sykulski.

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. The city itself has a well-maintained and attractive central square that is full of life in the evening. Everywhere is walkable and people are polite and good-natured. Considering that there is a direct flight to Poznan from Dublin, I can’t understand why I have never met another Irish person who has been there.

Pictures Michael McGlynn

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.

Eric, Stephan, Roberto and Olga

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.

Hanna Rozankiewicz sings “Come again, sweet love”, picture by Tomasz Semmler

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”.

Bartosz Rajpold , picture by Tomasz Semmler

The youngest of them was Jakub Orlińsk, also Polish. We recognised his performances with a special award of Merit. When I spoke to Jakub about his relationship to early music and his particular choice of this unusual voice type, he told me in no uncertain terms that this was what wanted to do for his life. Well, this and break-dancing…

Jakub Orlińsk, picture by Tomasz Semmler

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. I was very taken with the Polish soprano Natalia Kawałek, whose passion and virtuosity were combined with an excellent vocal instrument. I found her performance arresting, and I will follow her career with interest. Aleksandra Lewandowska, also Polish, is a vocal stylist and specialist in early repertoire. She was always a consummate artist in the competition, giving some of the most challenging performances of interesting repertoire. I don’t think we heard her at her best, but she still managed a fourth placing in the final stage. Other fine performances were given by the dark-voiced mezzo-soprano Joanna Krasuska-Motulewicz, who gave some very dramatic readings of Handel and Bach, and the young sweet-voiced soprano Magdalena Urbanowicz who had an engaging presence on stage.

Natalia Kawalek & Aleksandra Lewandowska picture by Tomasz Semmler

The attendance of so many international singers was vital to the competition. Hungary’s Judit Zsovar and Iria Perestrelo of Portugal brought their own individual styles and passion to us with flair and considerable charm. One of the most dramatic performance pieces, which we heard not once, but twice in the finals, was Handel’s virtuosic “Lucrezia”. It was sung by Germany’s Julia Kirchner. Her presence and interpretation were statuesque, and Olga very generously offered her a special performance as a personal prize. Julia was the eventual winner of the third place prize. The second place was awarded to Poznan’s own Maria Rozynek, who impressed us with the passion of her performances, and was one of the youngest entrants at the age of twenty-two.

Julia Kirchner sings “Lucrezia”, picture by Tomasz Semmler

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.

Estelí Gomez, picture by Tomasz Semmler

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.

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

From the outside looking in…the 2011 ACDA Conference, Chicago

This July, Anúna will be presenting its first International Summer School at the National Concert Hall, Dublin.The launch of the Anúna Summer School just happened to coincide with the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in Chicago. I have been supported by, and made lasting friends with, many US choral people over the last twenty years. What better opportunity to meet so many of them in one place? Well, that was my excuse for the trip anyway…

My experiences to date in the USA have been pretty limited or unrealistic. They usually involve moving daily from place to place on tour with my choir Anúna, or attending business meetings that don’t allow you to get a sense of a city or town except in the most superficial way.  This was one of the reasons why I was very happy to stay in Chicago for a week, although it hadn’t struck me that it was also St. Patrick’s week, and that the city has a huge Irish-American community, ably represented by my friend and local guide Eamonn Cummins.

My non-choral moments included an architectural boat trip in sub-zero temperatures that was pretty thrilling, a sublime and unexpectedly joyful visit to Old St Patrick’s Church and a silent rugby match being beamed into a bar full of people dressed in green that were oblivious to the unfolding tragic Irish drama on the screen. There was a green river, plastic shamrocks, and hopeful tee-shirts with various slogans on them indicating that the wearer needed some form of close physical congress with you because they were pretending to be Irish for one day only. Maybe they weren’t pretending… having left a country soaking in a mire of negativity, these good-humoured and well-behaved revellers have redefined what it means to be Irish. Ireland isn’t just a place anymore. It’s a state of mind.

For those of you who have no idea what ACDA is, according to what is written in Wikipedia (therefore it must be true…) it is “a non-profit organization with the stated purpose of promoting excellence in the field of choral music. Its membership comprises approximately 22,000 choral directors representing over a million singers”. The conference allows choral directors, singers, composers, teachers and choral professionals to overdose on all things choral for a brief moment. Basically it’s a choral knees-up, or love-in as they say in the USA.

with Charles Bruffy, conductor of the brilliant Phoenix Chorale

I had many, many meetings (and missed many meetings too). One day I had a breakfast meeting at 9am. I managed to grab “lunch” at 9pm. Every day was a cornucopia of things to see and hear. It was a time to meet up with old friends and make new ones, to celebrate, complain and make merry. There were school choirs, college choirs, adult choirs, good choirs, not so good choirs, miraculous performances and hugely enthusiastic reactions from the audiences. Lots of listening, laughing and talking with publishers, singers, educators, conductors, composers and technologists, fitting in some excellent performances including my good friends Chanticleer.

Catching up with Eric Alatore of Chanticleer and dancer Crystal Lee

Matt Oltman, their musical director, will be one of the facilitators at the Anúna Summer School, and gave an enlightening and very funny lecture/masterclass, with frequent interjections from the guys in the choir. I happened to video it, and you can see some of it below.

I got a chance to meet up with him and Dr. Stacie Rossow of Florida Atlantic University, (also participating in the Summer School), to discuss our schedule. I would say at this point that I’ve never eaten so much sushi in my life.

I was, from what I could gather, the sole representative of my country among the 5000 delegates. I’m in the unique position of being a one-man industry – composer, conductor, director, web designer, negotiator, accountant, agent, record producer, tour manager, record company etc. Being a jack-of-all-trades and technically an outsider, I had an opportunity to objectively view the Conference. There were a number of things that struck me, and I’d like to share these with you.

Choral music is changing. There is no precedent for this change. Technology is pushing into all of our lives in a way that it never has done before, and this will, and is, affecting the way choirs work and the infrastructure that surrounds them. I believe that these radical changes need to be addressed through interaction and dialogue. The Conference was an ideal opportunity for this to take place.

Some discussions I participated in were truly exciting, eye-opening and, I believe, genuinely innovative. However, they were snatched between events, incomplete and fragmented. It struck me that the Conference schedule simply didn’t encourage people to interact and discuss anything in more than a perfunctory manner. There is great power in such interactions and I feel very strongly that in future Conferences, Regional and National, there should be a part of the schedule dedicated to formalised dialogue with specific agendas and topics for discussion and debate.

A highlight of my visit was getting the opportunity to meet with other choral composers. The thing that struck me most of all on meeting them was how well they all know each other, and even regularly interact. In Ireland I can go years without speaking to another choral director, and I have had only one conversation with another Irish composer about writing for choir in the last twenty five years. I am pretty social, and love talking about choral music, but being so starved of conversation I had to apologise repeatedly to my colleagues for verbally steam-rolling through conversations. I don’t need to make any suggestions to my composer friends except to say carpe diem, which I note that most of them are. The moment for radical change to all aspects of their art-form and to traditional publishing models has come. I feel that choral composers specifically need to band together as a unit, putting aside self-interest, and collectively gain an enduring voice in the industry. We are unique in the world of composition, and long may it be so.

Sydney Guillaume, Philip Copeland, me, Paul Carey, Nick Cummins & Reg Unterseher

The only sour-note for me for the entire Conference related directly to the collision between the “old” and “new” ways of publishing sheet music. One of my arrangements was chosen for a choral reading session. The aim of these sessions is, I believe, to expose ACDA members to new repertoire that they can then bring to their own choirs, therefore enhancing the choral vernacular. It happened that the session my piece was to be included in was sponsored by a large choral publishing house. The publisher informed me that in order for my piece to be included in the session it needed to be traditionally printed music available through a US retail channel. They offered me a publishing deal for the work, a rather unattractive one in my opinion. I didn’t accept it. Unfortunately I only found out that the piece had been removed from the session when I arrived at the conference and got the bundle of songs for that session in my welcome pack. There was no logical reason for the exclusion of my piece. Simply put, the old won out over the new. I was surprised that the ACDA allowed this to happen.

Even at this early stage, enlightened choral people know that the digital publishing model is the future. Paper distribution, besides being environmentally unfriendly, will become the exception and not the rule in the future. Therefore the place of the traditional publisher in choral infrastructure will become less significant. Publishers should be embracing this change, not discouraging it. Forums such as the ACDA and their various national conferences need to look carefully at the current relationships that they have in place with publishers and build into that the realisation that some of the most important music is now being produced by individual composers.

I have been publishing my own sheet music exclusively from my website at since 1998. It has been extremely successful and recent technological changes have improved the site significantly. The website would never have happened if it hadn’t been for two things. Firstly I live on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean and it costs a fortune to send anything from here to anywhere by post. Secondly, I was born into a country where classical music hasn’t much of a profile, never mind choral music. I simply didn’t realise that being “published”, i.e. having a piece printed by a big publishing house, was something I should aspire to as a composer. By the time I did become aware of this, I was already selling my songs out of my bedroom on my antiquated PC.

By being entirely oblivious to standard publishing models I developed my own. It probably explains why I am less tolerant than I should be of composers who are reactive and not proactive in relation to new technology. Another major advantage of doing it for myself has been the interaction I have with other choral people all over the world.

What I saw at ACDA, despite the minor issues I point out above, was a real choral infrastructure that values education above all else. You even have Third Level colleges that have faculties where professors of choral arts teach choral music to students!!! Do you know how amazing that is? We don’t have any in my country. You have the most important online choral resource for directors all over the world in the fantastic Choralnet, getting bigger and better all the time. There you can talk to other people with the same love as you. You have these conferences that bring together all the choral disciplines under one roof, a forum for celebration and change.

You don’t know how lucky you are! Well, I do, and I will definitely come back in 2013. America is blessed with a thriving, varied and vibrant choral culture and it was a privilege to be part of it this year.  Long may it continue.