Sunday, January 25, 2015

That Swing Thing!

“What good is melody?
What good is music if it ain’t possessin’ something sweet?”

So, what is that sweet thing?

“It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music.
There’s something else that makes the tune complete.”

What is that something else?

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Thus wrote Duke Ellington and his manager/lyricist Irving Mills in 1931 when It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) first burst on the jazz scene.

It’s that swing thing!

Master Chorus Eastside is rehearsing a choral arrangement of this number for our Great American Songbook concert, and we are really enjoying that swing thing!  A Russian piano teacher once told me that Americans played jazz and jazz-based numbers differently than anyone else.  It’s in our blood, she said.  And that’s very evident in the verve that MCE is bringing to our concert preparation.

What is swing?  It’s a bit hard to define, but it’s a syncopated lilt that makes the listener want to dance.  Paired eighth notes are played unequally, driven by an underlying triplet feel, with the first eighth note as the longer of the two.  When I see the directive “swing” at the beginning of a piece, I know to upshift into triplets, let my inner dancer loose, enjoy the syncopation...and not be too rigid about the whole thing!

It was big band jazz that made swing wildly popular, and the swing era held sway in American dance halls and theaters from about 1935 until the end of World War II.  Big bands intertwined New Orleans Dixie Land and Kansas City jazz styles, along with Latin American dance impulses, into an irresistibly lilting dance beat.  And Duke Ellington was among the best of the best, both as a band leader and as a composer.

Among the many works, large and small, that he wrote, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) stands at the top, and helped spark the first stirrings of the swing phenomenon.  It may be the first number to use the word “swing” in its title, and it certainly helped to introduce the concept to the general public.  Ellington credited the title phrase as the doctrine of his former trumpeter, Bubber Miley, who died of tuberculosis the same year the song was birthed.

Here’s the famous 1932 recording by Ellington’s band.

Classical conductor and jazz historian Gunther Schuller called It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) “legendary,” and in 2008 it was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  Schuller also predicted that Duke Ellington would come to be recognized as one of the great masters of American music—of all styles!

Ellington was truly one of a kind, and it is MCE’s privilege to bring this number, as well as all of the songs in The Great American Songbook, to life. 

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Great American Songbook

Master Chorus Eastside has begun rehearsals for our upcoming March concert called The Great American Songbook, a catchall term that has become current in recent years.  I love the phrase, it has music in its rhythm and flow.  And my chorus LOVES the music; rehearsals are energetic, to say the least!  But what exactly is the great American songbook?  It brings to mind a songbook of course, and you can actually find a songbook by that title for sale at Amazon, with more than 100 standards from “the Golden Age of American song.”  But when was the golden age of American song?  And can it really be contained in a single book?

The phrase as it is used nowadays is, in a way, a songbook, or rather, songbooks, but it is more than that.  It is a genre, even a kind of metaphor of a time, a way of singing and composing and playing music, of style.  The time, by most definitions, was the 1920s through the 1950s, although some stretch it to include the parlor songs of the late 19th century.  Some commentators think that the rock music explosion that began in the 1960s killed off the genre, but others disagree and include later lyrical singers and composers such as Carole King and Billy Joel.

I wasn’t able to pin down when the phrase came into common usage.  Michael Feinstein, probably the most visible modern proponent of the Great American Songbook, says that no one knows when it first appeared, but it has become an increasingly common term in the last twenty or so years.

The phrase doesn’t occur in any of my American music history text or reference books, several with copyright dates from the very early 2000s.  But the composers and lyricists and performers are certainly written up there: Harold Arlen, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Tommy Dorsey, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Glenn Miller, Lena Horne, Cole Porter...

And the songs are there: Stormy Weather, Stardust, Georgia On My Mind, Embraceable You, Fascinating Rhythm, Singin’ in the Rain, You’re the Top, It Had to be You, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Satin Doll...

And the styles are described there: Tin Pan Alley composers and producers (see my blog of April 24, 2013), theater, popular and parlor songs, movie and radio music and, of course, jazz, lots of jazz, because jazz is a uniquely American creation that spawned music of harmonic complexity and melodic expressiveness closely married to sophisticated lyrics full of poetic word play and wit.

I would argue that the Great American Songbook is, or is becoming, the popular American equivalent of classical art songs.  Consider how many art songs came from stage productions—opera—or were written for intimate parlor entertainment as well as concert recitals: the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Debussy, Fauré, the vast array of Italian art songs by Carissimi, Monteverdi, Antonio Scarlatti, and many, many more.  Their subjects are mostly about love—love fulfilled, love spurned, unrequited love, love recovered from (sound familiar?)—in music of harmonic complexity and melodic expressiveness closely married to sophisticated lyrics full of poetic word play....

My New Harvard Dictionary of Music defines art song in part as “a song intended for the concert repertory, as distinct from a folk or popular song.  An art song traditionally is a setting of a text of high literary quality...[with] accompaniment specified by the composer...”

Certainly there are differences between this definition and the Great American Songbook genre.  But music never stays still, and definitions change over time.  Perhaps, fifty years from now, no one will notice the difference!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Art of Conducting: When is Enough Enough?

I remember once in a conducting class trying something, a conducting gesture or an interpretive nuance of some kind, that wasn’t working.  My conducting teacher and mentor, Abraham Kaplan, waited patiently as I stubbornly kept plowing ahead with it.  Finally I gave up and he asked, “Why did you keep on doing that?”  With some chagrin and sudden wry insight I said, “Because I was in love with the idea.”  He grinned and then kindly but promptly turned my admission into a teaching moment for the entire class!

We conductors find it easy to fall in love with our ideas, our signature conducting gestures, our long-winded explanations, our interpretation of a number...our importance!  We tend to forget that a problem in rehearsal may mean that we are getting in the way, that we may not need to wave our arms or explain quite so much.  To quote the creator of the comic strip Pogo—sort of—the enemy is sometimes us!

None of us is immune, no matter how experienced we may be.  It takes humility, self-knowledge, and the ability to view ourselves with detachment—and humor—to recognize those moments.

So how do we tone it down?  How do we know when we are overdoing it?  When is enough enough?  That will vary with every situation.  No two choruses are alike, and even the same chorus can react differently from one rehearsal to the next.  And actually the same is true for a conductor!  But below is a video of a master conductor who judged that very, very little was needed.  Leonard Bernstein was famous for his grandly dramatic gestures, even leaping into the air at climactic musical moments.  In fact, I have seen Abe Kaplan, who prepared many a chorus for Bernstein and had plenty of chances to observe him, do the same thing himself!  But here, out of respect for the outstanding musicianship of his players, Bernstein took himself almost completely out of the way and let them make the music, with only the subtlest of guidance from him.

You couldn’t do this with every chorus or orchestra.  But it’s a partnership that is a pleasure to watch...and draw lessons from.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Mountaintop Experience

After Master Chorus Eastside’s recent Christmas concerts, which featured compositions by Northwest composers, several of them quite demanding, I asked if any of our singers would be willing to write down their thoughts about the experience for our blog.  One member responded with a creative combination of words and pictures, in the style of a graphic novel, that perfectly captured the experience.  Here is what he put together.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Here are a few pictures worth a thousand words

Our director says we are going to do some pieces by Northwest composers, and it promises to be a mountaintop experience.

When studying the pieces I notice a degree of difficulty, for me as a singer, to be overcome.

I then find other points that require my focused time and effort to get right.

I begin to wonder if I can sing these pieces successfully

I ask a higher power for help with this task.

I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We finally perform the pieces.

We see the composers’ faces radiating success, like the sun through the clouds

Dan Reitz, bass
Master Chorus Eastside

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jessye Norman on Singing

This morning I heard an interview with Jessye Norman on NPR’s Weekend Edition.  Now anything concerning Jessye Norman captures my attention, and not just for her velvety voice!  A number of years ago I bought an album, Spirituals in Concert, featuring Norman and Kathleen Battle singing spirituals, and I was struck by the sense of humanity, sincerity, authenticity, soul—not in the Motown sense—that she brought to these wonderful pieces.  There was a connection with the music and its meaning that went beyond the ordinary diva performance.

She grew up in a musical family, began singing as soon as she could talk: church music, spirituals, children’s songs, they were her musical language from a very early age, and that may be part of the reason her performance on the spirituals album was extraordinary.  But in this morning’s show the interviewer quoted something she wrote in her recent book, Stand Up Straight and Sing! that taps into her magic on a deeper level.

“Singing for me is actually life itself.  It’s communication, person to person and soul to soul, physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual expression carried by the breath.”

This absolutely and utterly resonates in my own soul.  It’s what drives me as a conductor, and it’s what drives the chorus I conduct, Master Chorus Eastside.  It’s captured in our mission statement: Master Chorus Eastside, through the very best in choral music, feeds people’s souls.  Without that communication the music can still be beautiful, but beautifully empty.

We tend to respond to the word “soul” intuitively rather than intellectually.  Some dismiss it altogether.  It’s described in several dictionaries as that thing that encompasses consciousness, thought, feeling, life, action, morality, spiritual or emotional depth, something separate from our physical bodies.  However you define it, or perhaps dismiss it, do what Jessye Norman suggested in this morning’s piece: sing, even if you don’t think you can!  All that oxygen you breathe in in order to expel it in song is good for the body, makes you feel good, and makes the person listening to you feel good too.  Go to a Christmas Eve or Christmas day service if you are so inclined, gather with family and friends and sing carols, sing in your car, sing in the shower.  Communicate, soul to soul!

Here is the complete interview if you would like to hear it:

And here is Ms. Norman herself—soulfully!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, December 11, 2014

William Billings' A Virgin Unspotted and Chris Fraley's Let Us Be Merry

I really enjoy the music of the colonial American composer William Billings.  It is tuneful, sturdy, expressive, original, and gives a kind of snapshot of musical life in Revolutionary-War-era Boston.

So what does William Billings have to do with Master Chorus Eastside’s Christmas in the Northwest, which features several works by Northwest composers?

First, a little background on Billings.  He was a singing master in late eighteenth-century Boston, meaning he taught Bostonians how to sing and read music, conducted church choirs, and composed pieces for his six tune books, which were his main teaching tool.  He began his working career as a tanner, but his passion for music is evident in his introduction to his second publication, The Singing Master’s Assistant, in which he describes his feelings upon the release of his first tune book, The New England Psalm Singer (1770).  Here is part of it, creative eighteenth-century spellings intact, at least as best as I can make them out.  See IMSLP for the original,,_William

 “Oh! how did my foolish heart throb and beat with tumultuous joy!  With what impatience did I wait on the Book-Binder, while stitching the sheets and puting on the covers, with what xtacy did I snatch the yet unfinished Book out of his hands, and press it to my bosom, with rapturous delight, how lavish was I, with encomiums on this infant production of my own [can’t make it out; could it be Numbskull?!]?  Welcome!  Thrice welcome, thou legitimate offspring of my brain, go forth my little Book, go forth and immortalize the name of your Author...”

And it goes on for a few more rapturous sentences until he begins to reveal his criticisms of this first effort, finally stating that most of it wasn’t worth printing!  Hence The Singing Master’s Assistant of 1778, which contains revised versions of the most popular tunes from his first book plus some new numbers.  He heartily recommends it as much better than The New England Psalm Singer.

I can almost picture him with his short leg, his one eye, his unconcern over his appearance and manner (the famous description of him is all over the web, and can be found in various Oxford Dictionary of Music and Musicians editions, the New Oxford Book of Carols, and lots of other publications), ardently clutching his tune book to his breast!  This is a man after my own heart!

It is in The Singing Master’s Assistant that A Virgin Unspotted appears, and thus the connection with our concert.

The text unfolds the familiar biblical story, and predates Billings by a good 100 or so years; in fact, it could be heard all over England and the colonies with all sorts of variations in text and melody.  Billings’ tune is his own, which he called Judea, and the tenor carries the melody in his four-part setting, as was typical of the time.  It is straightforward and rugged, probably much like Billings himself.  But it’s always fun to see what a modern composer can do with a good tune, so when Seattle-area composer Chris Fraley showed me his arrangement I leaped at the chance to perform it.  He calls it Let Us Be Merry, and it is indeed a merry setting.

Chris wisely doesn’t overdress Billings’ setting, but he adds some creative touches that reveal his own thought processes.    He begins with the refrain, “Let us be merry,” rather than the verse, “A virgin unspotted,” which supports the title and underscores the cheerful nature of the work.  He moves into a minor key for his second verse, perhaps to reflect Joseph and pregnant Mary’s humble origins and their stressful journey to Bethlehem as laid out in the text.  And then in his third verse (the sixth verse in the recording above), he paints the humility of the text with a deft hand: he drops to an even lower and darker minor key, moves from the original’s jolly 6/8 into a somber 4/4, and transfers the melody to the darker-voiced alto.  But hope is evident too, for he repeats the last line twice to accentuate the main theme, swings back into 6/8 for the refrain, lets it spin out for a bit in simple counterpoint, and then joyfully unleashes all in one last repeat of the refrain to conclude.

You can hear it “sung” by a computer at:

Enjoy!  We certainly have enjoyed presenting it at our concerts.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Musings on Master Chorus Eastside’s Concerts: Christmas in the Northwest

Is there something special about a Northwest Christmas?  We have evergreens and holly in abundance, but so do plenty of other places.

We are woefully short of white Christmases.

We do have rain and low clouds and long winter nights, but that’s hardly a mark of holiday distinction (although I think most of us are secretly proud of our toughness in bearing up under a Northwest winter)!

Perhaps what really makes a Northwest Christmas stand out is our wealth of music, especially choral music.  The Northwest, and Seattle in particular, enjoys a richness of choirs and composers that is the envy of cities across the country, and it is our pleasure to celebrate some of those composers in our just-around-the-corner concerts, as well as the carols, new and old, that grace this holiday season.

Our musical program flows in a kind of story line, beginning with calls to rejoice: first, a call to celebrate the birth of Christ in my own arrangement of Personent Hodie, which piles ostinato upon ostinato in spellbinding fashion; then a call invoking the presence of God in Seattle composer John Muehleisen’s mystically luminous Invocation.  He drapes the ancient Scottish text with luscious tone clusters and dissonances, freely shifting meters and soaring melodies to create a sense of ecstasy and wonder.  Next, with halls decked and the festivities prepared, like minstrels of old we unfold the ageless Christmas story in the spirited French carol, Masters in This Hall.

The focus narrows to the Virgin and Child in Seattle composer Bern Herbolsheimer’s superb setting of the much loved carol Silent Night.  Bern was my composition teacher at Cornish College of the Arts, so I am particularly fond of this work, a masterpiece of expressivity, tenderness, harmonic depth, and delicacy of treatment.  Breathless contemplation of that silent, light-filled night merges into childlike images inspired by the Christ Child in Children’s Song of the Nativity with its ingenuous journey to the manger scene, and  memories of childhood Christmases in Away in a Manger.  And in childlike innocence the lovely, graceful In dulci jubilo sings out in heartfelt longing “oh that we were there” with the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest!”  Children, Go Where I Send Thee! sends us on our way “there” in a merry counting game reminiscent of childhood that always leads back to the little bitty baby born in Bethlehem.

We continue with an emphasis on the immediacy of the birth: first, Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today), one of the great works of Renaissance choral literature; then Novum gaudia, (Good news! Christ is come today), by Central Washington University professor and composer Vijay Singh.  This is a vigorous medieval processional for men’s voices that begins simply but unfurls in increasingly joyful complexity.  Woodinville composer Chris Fraley takes up a sturdy Revolutionary War-era American tune, Let Us Be Merry, and reworks it in imaginative ways.  William Billings’ original is straightforward, unadorned, but Chris creatively “paints” the text: for example, a minor key setting as Joseph and heavily pregnant Mary head to Bethlehem to be taxed, and somber music and a slower meter to depict the humility of verse 3.  The “virgin unspotted” of the first verse inspired the next grouping, There is No Rose by Oregon composer Clyde Thompson, and Ave Maria by University of Washington choral professor Giselle Wyers.  Both are modern settings of venerable texts, both are stunningly beautiful, and both adore Mary as the mother of Christ.  Clyde skillfully weaves sudden, shimmering harmonic transitions together to mark each new textual thought in There is No Rose, while Giselle’s setting of the age-old prayer to Mary, Ave Maria, layers melodic cells in tide-like ascents that climax in a rapturous outburst of devotion and praise.

We come back to earth with Il est né, le divine Enfant!, a French country stomp that turns the birth of Christ into a village celebration.  And finally we close with a modern Christmas classic, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, so memorably sung by Judy Garland in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis.  The movie version is sad and poignant, but this arrangement recalls the warmth of dearly loved friends and hangs a star of hope on the highest bough of the evergreen Christmas tree.  And in that lovely moment, our celebration over, we send all out with holiday wishes into their own individual Christmas in the Northwest.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside