If you're dialing in from Saskatoon or Zanzibar or any other place that isn't Champaign-Urban Illinois, and you weren't in the audience of about 300 who packed First Methodist Church in Urbana last night to hear The Chorale perform it's annual Celebration of Life concert, you missed an event.
The Chorale sang 15 hymns and spirituals largely from arrangements by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. Tenor Davion Williams, a former Chorale scholarship winner, sang three lively pieces by African-American composers. I played a set of pieces you can hear by checking out Friday's blog. We were led for most of the evening by a man Artistic Director Julie Beyler referred to as "our Principal Guest Conductor" since he has been with us now five times in the last decade, Dr. Craig Jessop. Dr. Jessop was the director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir until 2008 and apparently doesn't mind conducting our "chamber ensemble" of a mere 70-80 members from time to time!
What can I say about this man? He has a pile of energy. I don't know where he gets it all, but it is certainly necessary when working with groups of that size. Even better, it radiates outward to the members of the ensemble and makes it seem we will never get tired and that there is no place we would rather be than right here right now making this glorious music. What a privilege!
Energy is all the more important because whenever we invite a guest clinician to work with us, which we do every 18-months, the group rehearses for a few hours on Friday night, all morning and afternoon on Saturday, then again Sunday afternoon for a couple hours, and the concert is in the evening. It is hard not to be exhausted by the time the concert begins, never mind when it is over, and those last two hours are of course when you'd like to be at your best. (By the way, I don't know what most folks do with their down time, but I usually have 4 church services to fit in there as well, and sometimes a wedding, too.) Until I actually see Dr. Jessop looking tired I'll not believe it.
This year's venture was a bit different than previous ones, and in some respects the load was lighter. We had no orchestra this year and all of our rehearsal time was spent directly with our guest. Not only was there no orchestra but most of the pieces were unaccompanied. I only played the organ for the final piece--the organ was actually positioned so I didn't have to cock my head at a funny angle to see the director or keep whispering to choir members to leave space so I could see the director. No, I had a straight ahead shot, which is a rarity. One of the two pieces with piano accompaniment was scored for piano duet so we invited a terrific accompanist from the university to join us. The rest of the evening was spent listening to the Chorale, seated at my usual premium position at the piano (although the sound is actually better in the back of the hall) and giving pitches. I remember after the first half being asked to take a bow and thinking I'd never actually taken applause for such a simple thing as giving pitches before.
Only it wasn't quite like that. I've been fortunate to work with several conductors who seem to worry about the boredom of their accompanist when the concert is filled with a cappella music and the accompanist's entire job is to play the opening chord for the choir a note at a time (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) and then sit and listen. On Friday night for some reason Dr. Jessop asked me to "noodle" a bit in the key of one of the pieces (and then to do it in the style of Aaron Copland). After that he would ask me occasionally to do some improvising to set the mood for the piece, and by the time of the concert I had a new function: to prelude every unaccompanied piece with a short improvised introduction on the piano.
It was an intriguing task. From the audience point of view the effect was to link the pieces together (Dr. Jessop asked for no applause between numbers) so that they sounded like an extended "meditation." From the choral point of view it not only set the mood, and the tempo (an important function of the conductor that Dr. Jessop graciously ceded to me), but as the final rehearsal minutes went past I started taking notes about what he told the choir to focus upon for each piece--when a particular rhythmic gesture was critical, when the piece needed to dance, or not drag, when the altos needed to sing a particular line with more force--and tried to include references to those musical moments in my "miniatures" as if to say to The Chorale, "now remember what needs to happen when we get to this part!" secretly, in music, so the audience need not be aware.
I started at the end of one of the pieces for this reason, and included parts of the chorus in another--one of the improvisations started with the aforementioned alto line. I second-guessed myself a couple of times when the results from The Chorale weren't what I'd hoped and I wondered if I didn't remind them of the right character. Although I suppose we are not all given to subtlety and those rapid reminders may not have always hit home. Also, we didn't actually tell them they should be listening for those things: they just sort of dawned on me as we got close to the concert. But as he says often, "music is 90 percent craft and 10 percent art." (That might be from Robert Shaw) So in addition to the interest the audience shares in just "playing whatever the spirit prompts at the moment" there is also attention to how to say it, and why.
Dr. Jessop and I had a system: I would look at him near the end of each improvisation so he could start his preparation beats. In at least one case the "passing of the baton" went so well that the choir starting promptly on the very next beat with all of the energy of the last chord of the piano.
There were some disappointments, certainly. The energy of our conductor was not always transferred to the singers, who may have been too engrossed in their music, or too rooted in each note to think in phrases and groups, and to get the spirit of the thing which really only comes in those moments when we are completely free of the page and its demands and can get to that next level and make art. But then there were the moments when it happened.
The Chorale is an amateur ensemble. It is not necessary to audition to get in. Anybody who loves to sing is welcome. Under those circumstances it is not likely the group will sound like a bunch of music majors who have devoted their professional lives to honing their craft, touring the world and recording masterworks of the repertoire with precision and skill. And they don't, much of the time. But here is what is amazing: sometimes, they actually do. There were a few moments during the all-day Saturday rehearsal when, at a suggestion form Dr. Jessop, suddenly the blend, the ensemble, the precision, the choral sound could have passed for that of a truly great choir. It is incredible that there are such moments--it isn't even fair to those of us who have spent thousands of hours and dollars and blood and sweat and tears to get there to have a non-professional group reach such heights.
But occasionally they do, even if only for a few measures. And it is really intriguing. That a group of basically regular folks can actually sound that good if they really focus, and spend enough time in practice with someone who not only knows how to get the sound out of them, but persists in trying. It happens. And it rocks me back every time, and I think...."Wow! That was The Chorale you just heard, folks!"
And it shouldn't be a mark against our regular leader, either. Artistic Director Julie Beyler is correct when she points out that she tells the choir most of the same things, but it seems to help to hear them from an exalted guest. Heck, I even had a moment when Dr. J. was reminded the fellas to hold their music at a certain angle so they could see him as well as their notes and I said to may piano duet partner, "I told them the same thing last week [in sectionals]!"
That can be naturally frustrating, of course, but like Dr. Jessop, I say that in love. It is hard to produce fine music. It takes extraordinary amounts of discipline, focus, and perseverance. I get frustrated with myself endlessly. (By the way, I wasn't satisfied with some portions of the pieces that I played during the concert, either.) But, in the end, that's the path you have to travel if you want to get there from here. Dr. Jessop proved that. A few times he had the choir drilling passages on rapid-fire repeat, going for an effect by singing the passage multiple times in order to make excellence a habit. Pianists, he reminded the group, do this sort of thing all the time. And he even practiced things like holding a pose as the last chord died away and not moving before the piece is really over.
In the process, I'd say he showed that it's really hard work, rather than native talent, that has the lion's share in making the pretty decent pretty wonderful. This was evident in the way the group sounded at times over the weekend. That's highly unfair to us professionals. But's its also pretty awesome.
Because I can hear it and say, "wow, that wasn't the St. Olaf Choir you just heard there, ladies and gentlemen. That was The Chorale!"