Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wana Baraka: An Imaginative Journey

It’s always fun to learn new music – and Wana Baraka, one of the pieces that MCE will be performing this spring is quickly becoming a group favorite.  This piece has it all – a cheerful melody, syncopated rhythms, and fugue-like Alleluya sections that really swing.  Plus, it’s written in Swahili.

The arranger, Shawn Kirchner, is unsure how this popular, traditional, Kenyan religious song came into being.  He learned the piece in 1994 through a delegation of Kenyan singers who in turn may have learned the piece from singers who participated in the Agricultural Missions International Consultation in Ghana. 

 I wondered about the story behind the song yet feared the history would be sad – filled with images of imperialism, capitalism, and civilizing missions.  I searched for clues at the University of Washington music library but found nothing.  So, inspired by Jean Kidman, and the natural way that speech seems to flow in the text, I tried to imagine, in the form of two conversations, how Wana Baraka became a popular, traditional, Kenyan song.   

Six friends are walking together, possibly heading to choir practice. It’s not important where.  Tenor and Bass murmur quietly, what a fine day.  Baritone agrees, it’s a blessing…such a beautiful day…and it’s available…to those who pray…yes, absolutely…Jesus himself said soMmmmhmm, and they have peace, adds Alto.  Alleluya! Don’t forget joy, exclaims 2nd Soprano.  And WELL-BEING, shouts 1st Soprano.  

Maybe the conversation takes a serious turn: Tenor and Bass talk quietly about Swahili language – how it blends the original East African coastal cultures and helps define a sense of national identity for Kenyans. Baritone adds another idea, that Pentecostal groups and breakaway African churches have never been passive musicians, and have been creating their own versions of American and European hymns, using their own musical systems and their own understanding of Christianity, since the 1900’s.   Alto thinks radio was also a huge influence.  Swahili broadcasts in the 1950’s helped to nationalize language in Kenya and the African Inland Mission radio broadcast helped to popularize hymns that had been translated (different African dialects used different musical systems).  Radio also helped by featuring choirs, rejoices 2nd Soprano.  There were so many…like the Mwanza Town choir, the Muungana National choir and the International Fellowship Church (IFC choir).  The IFC choir members came from different ethnic groups and composed their own music.  1st Soprano muses…So, when we perform a song like Wana Baraka, we’re continuing a musical tradition.  We’re singing and moving to music that combines religious, secular and contemporary ideas …and we’re keeping it popular.   Alto smiles…it could even be a children’s song…that tune and rhythm is so playful.  The friends agree, this IS a happy song.

Debbie Roberts, alto
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, April 10, 2014

There is No Movement Without Rhythm

There is no movement without rhythm.

Think about that for a moment.  Is it true?  Certainly rhythm can spark movement, but the other way around?

Perhaps it’s true but we are unaware of it.  As a musician I often find myself tapping out rhythms to all sorts of things: dripping water faucets, the click of heels on a pavement, the driving monotony of an engine, the ticking of a clock (if you still have a ticking clock!).  Rhythm has long fascinated me, and my very muscles and bones and the beat of my blood respond to its playful groupings, its shifting accents, its irresistible propulsion toward movement.  And because of that, I love African and African American music, which is why Master Chorus Eastside is in rehearsal right now for our upcoming Out of Africa concert in May.  It’s an infectious mix of African choral music and the styles that grew from the melding of African and European music in the Americas, styles which are unique in the world.

Slavery was a terrible, dehumanizing institution, both for the enslaved peoples and for those who enslaved others.  But because of it we have spirituals, jazz, blues, gospel, ragtime, samba, tango; they are the vigorous children of the enforced marriage of African rhythm and European harmony and melody, and they are a part of the American psyche.  I once attempted a slow-jazzy Gershwin prelude in my piano lessons.  It was just a little too difficult for me but it was so much fun to play; felt as natural as breathing.  My Russian piano teacher commented that, as Americans, it was “in our blood.”  Made me think!  MCE is exploring some of those styles in our concert, and we are having a ball delving into our musical roots.

As you move through your day, pay attention to the rhythm of your movements.  As you bend down and up, as you walk, talk, blink, move your hands, turn your head, as people and objects move around you, is there rhythm to be discovered?

This is the stuff of music!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Magic of Gregorian Chant: Post-Concert Musings

Master Chorus Eastside presented a highly successful Masterworks concert a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been musing about one aspect of it ever since: the impact that our opening Gregorian chant had on the audience--and the singers.  We began with an ancient Te Deum, a long and lovely 4th-century plainchant that seems to spin out forever in time and space.

We entered the main floor silently from all sides, encircled the audience, and simply began, in unison, without accompaniment.  About two-thirds of the way through we added continuous, cascading, bell-like peals from the piano along with a low drone and chimes from the organ.  Occasionally a few of the singers were ever so slightly out of sync, and yet that didn’t seem to interfere; rather, it suggested faint, reverberant echoes in a great cathedral.

I think I received more comments about that chant, both from audience members and singers, than almost any other piece on the program.

Legend says that the Te Deum chant was spontaneously composed and sung in alternation by St. Ambrose and St. Augustine at Augustine’s baptism in the year 387 A.D.

This implies mystery, divine inspiration, ecstatic utterance, and isn’t the only legend to so suggest.  There are many chants with accompanying stories that evoke the same idea.

And who or what is to say them nay?  There is something in chant that often captures people’s imaginations, lifts them out of themselves, speaks to them in a way that transcends the intellect.  Perhaps it is chant’s austerity; it is bare, unadorned, in its purest form stripped of harmony, a spare intertwining of melody and text.  Perhaps it is the many words that are sung on the same pitch, redolent of eternity. Perhaps it is the plainchant melodies; they tend to float upward in spacious arcs and then settle back down to their starting pitch, as if coming "home."  And perhaps it is plainsong's basic essence: sung prayer.  Whether one believes or not, it can feed the soul in some undefined way.

 Is this a commentary on our secular, scientific, post-Industrial Revolution society?  Maybe.  Our culture is bombarded with fast-paced  images, information, commercials, entertainment, all of which address only the here and now.  It can be difficult to find moments of quiet and contemplation.

So take a few more plainsong moments and refresh your soul.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bach on the Brain: Inside the (Wandering) Mind of a Pianist

(Reposted from with permission)

     Have you ever wondered what goes on inside the mind of a performer during a concert? When I am in the audience, I am usually so engrossed in the music that I don’t think about that until afterward. However, when I am the one performing, it is hard to shut out the self-conscious voice and concentrate solely on the music!

     Last Sunday I had the opportunity to play the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto as part of Master Chorus Eastside’s Masterworks concert. The conductor, Dr. Linda Gingrich, had approached me about a month before and asked me to consider this piece, and as I had performed it in college, I eagerly agreed.

     I hadn’t touched the piece in years, but was pleasantly surprised by how quickly it came back into my fingers.

(Cori at the keyboard)

In some ways it “fit” better than when I was in college. I think this is because of my recent study of Bach’s Toccata in C minor and the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Not only did it feel better in my hands, but my understanding of, and appreciation for, Bach’s lyricism and wit has been growing as I have worked on these pieces, contributing to my interpretation of the concerto movement. What fun it was to approach cadences with an attitude of, “Hear that? Guess what technical wizardry comes next?!” I like to imagine Bach as a bit of an improvisatory show-off, playing the concerto in a friend’s living room during a party with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Just listen to the long right-hand trills in the second half of the piece – don’t they sound like a long-winded soprano?

     As I practiced the concerto movement in preparation for the concert, I tried to figure out what I wanted to “say” with it. Bach has never been my first choice of repertoire, as I much prefer the romanticism of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but he’s been growing on me. I came up with bits of dialogue throughout – like the bit about the long-winded soprano. As well, I began to wonder if I could really play it from memory again. I have always hated memorizing my pieces. Being a great sightreader has its advantages, but not when it comes to the laborious task of memorizing. But, as it remains the norm on the concert stage to play pieces from memory, I decided to take on the challenge. The dialogue bits I had come up with helped a little, but I also made sure I had harmonic “hooks” so that at cadences I knew what key I was in. I also did quite a bit of thinking the piece away from the piano. This was a tremendous help, something I had learned from my professor in college. When at the piano I tried “ghosting” where I would play the right hand and think the left hand part, and vice versa. With all these strategies, I got to the place where I felt my memorization was secure. The missing link was what would happen to it when performance nerves took over?

    I’ll skip to the punch line – the performance went well with nary a memory slip. But what was I thinking as I played? In the past, I might have said I heard the audience rustling their programs, or the coughs of the people in the next row, or I might have been thinking about the food I would eat after the concert. (In fact, I think the promise of leftover birthday cake in the fridge was a fleeting thought!) But this time I really did try to concentrate on communicating what was in the music. I still had the “Will I get through this without a memory slip?” thought, and the “Oh no, my dad is in the audience – what will he think of this?” thought, but mostly I thought about Bach’s inscription on many of his works: (translated) “For the glory of God.” That is the purpose for which he wrote his music, and as a Christian and a musician I wanted to communicate that as I played. So to the best of my ability, I played “to the glory of God” with all the humor and wit I could summon from what I imagined might have been going through the mind of Bach as he played it for the very first time.

Cori Belle
Master Chorus Eastside

Monday, March 10, 2014

Thoughts on Masterworks

A masterwork can be any size: large, small, in between.  A masterwork can occur in any craft: music, sculpture, painting, quilt making, woodworking, ballet.  A masterwork can appear in any genre: jazz, classical, popular and theatrical music.  It is, quite simply, a piece of outstanding work, of consummate skill, no matter its source, size or complexity; a thing to be enjoyed, marveled at, and prized for what it reveals about human creativity.

Master Chorus Eastside has gathered together a sparkling collection of miniature masterworks for our upcoming concert on March 16, small gems of the musical world.  We begin with truly petite sparklers, the spare, ethereal, unembellished unison-line prayers of Gregorian chant.  Legend has it that Pope Gregory the First, the Great (540?-604), received plainsong, or plainchant, directly from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove that alighted on his head and dictated them by placing its beak directly in his mouth.

In reality, Gregory did not write the chants, but he did standardize worship music for the European church, which had been dominated by regional traditions.  Over the centuries these tiny masterworks blossomed into the rich liturgical and choral tradition of the Christian church, and those roots can be traced in the larger Haydn, Mozart and Vivaldi masterpieces featured in our concert.

By the 1790s Haydn was the grand old man of Catholic Austria, world-famous and secure in his position as a renowned composer, and a sense of ease, good cheer, and even playfulness pervades his Te Deum.  It praises the Triune God, and Haydn used a tripartite sonata structure and other “threes,” such as the three-times-repeated cries of “Sanctus,” as musical manifestations of the Trinity.  He ends with a jubilant fugue that repeats over and over, “In te Domine, speravi” (I trust in you, Lord, let me never be confounded).  It is evident from the music that this is more than a request; it is a confident statement of faith.

Mozart, on the other hand, was only twenty-three years old in 1779 when he composed his exuberant Regina coeli K. 267.

Instead of the Trinity it praises the Virgin Mary as the “Queen of Heaven,” but like Haydn’s Te Deum it has a three-part sonata structure, and contains a bit of “three” symbolism: three-times-repeated cries of “alleluia” that sound uncannily like Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus.  Whether he actually knew Messiah at that point is debatable, so it may be purely coincidental!  By contrast, his serene and much loved Ave verum Corpus is a product of the end of his life, his last completed sacred work.  A Eucharistic hymn, it was first sung on June 17, 1791 during the feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), its time-honored liturgical place.  Six months later, December 5, just thirty-five years old, he was dead.

This brings us to a gem of the Lutheran Church, Heinrich Schütz’s powerful Ich bin die Auferstehung, and a gem of  the secular world, the first movement of Bach’s sparkling Italian Concerto, played by our accomplished accompanist, Cori Belle.  Although staunch German Lutherans, both men were greatly influenced by the Italian style, which was all the rage of the European musical world.  For Schütz it was the polychoral tradition of the great cathedral of St. Mark’s in Venice.

For Bach, it was the concertos of the red-headed Italian priest, composer, teacher and impresario, Antonio Vivaldi.  In fact, he transcribed ten of them for various instruments, mostly for keyboard.  In his Italian Concerto, which he originally wrote for two-manual harpsichord and titled “Concerto after the Italian Taste,” he contrasts extremes of dynamics, expressed through the loud and soft manuals of the harpsichord.  A modern piano can handle those contrasts very well indeed.

And now we come to the crown jewel of our concert, Vivaldi’s sprightly, Italian-to-the-core, Gloria.  The Gloria text constitutes a major section of the Mass, but in Venice the text was sometimes broken off and set separately for festive occasions.  This mid-length masterwork is divided into twelve independent sections, several quite short, but all lyrical and expressive.  Vivaldi composed his Gloria for the renowned, all-female choir and orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietá, the charitable institution where he spent much of his working life, and the music is so youthful in spirit that it is easy to imagine these highly trained girls—and women, not all of them were young— playing and singing with verve, grace and superb musicality, and captivating all with a kind of mystery, for they performed in an upper gallery behind iron grilles, unseen by their audience!

We close, in a kind of musical benediction, with one last tiny sparkler, Fauré’s brief but lovely Cantique de Jean Racine.  It praises the God of light, asks for His mercy and then sends us out in peace, our souls fed by the beauty of these miniature masterworks.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, February 27, 2014

If It Were Easy, Choirboys Would Do It

I’m departing from my planned blog because of something I just read in the March 2014 National Geographic, and it pushed all kinds of buttons.  In the piece called “People of the Horse,” the author quotes an announcer making the calls during a demanding horse/rider relay race at Crow Fair in Montana, billed as an All-Indian rodeo.  There has just been a bad crash requiring an ambulance, and the announcer says, “This is a tough business.  If it were easy, choirboys would do it.”

If it were easy, choirboys would do it?!?!?!

If it were easy, choirboys would do it?!?!

Excuse me, but singing is not for wusses!  It requires fine muscle coordination in the jaw, tongue, and throat,  and strong rib cage and abdominal muscles.  It requires deep, controlled breathing within a relaxed body, directed inhalation and exhalation, intense concentration, and highly skilled eye/brain/muscle coordination.  It’s downright athletic!  Plus, a singer needs an ability to quickly read what is essentially a different language and translate it into music.  AND, choral singing requires an ability to lay aside one’s ego and work within an organization for the greater good of that organization and the community at large.  It takes strong people, physically, mentally and soulfully, to do all that.

I love National Geographic; this has nothing to do with the magazine, or Native Americans either.  It’s a vivid image, easy to grasp, and I can understand why the announcer used it.  But that’s the problem; it’s indicative of the prevailing attitude in our society that men who sing, unless it’s in smash-up rock bands, are not manly men.

I beg to differ!

And it’s time to push back against that attitude!

Many school and church choral programs are crying out for boy singers.  Just like many choruses, my chorus, Master Chorus Eastside, always has a tougher time filling the tenor and bass sections than filling the women’s sections.  What are we going to do about this?  Unfortunately I don’t have any easy answers, or even hard answers.  It will be a long, slow change, but it needs to happen.

Choir geeks one and all, stand tall and proud!  Let’s hear it for the boys and men who have the courage, and the strength, of body, mind and will to swim against the current and sing in a choir!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Monday, February 17, 2014

Papa Haydn

There is a famous story about Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony.  He and his orchestra were spending the summer, as usual, at the castle of Prince Esterházy, their employer, while their families remained in the town of Eisenstadt, the seat of the Prince’s domain.

During the summer of 1772 the Prince extended his stay, to the dismay of many of the players.  They turned to “Papa Haydn” for help.  And so Haydn conceived a typically ingenious and amusing idea.  During one of the Prince’s private entertainments, as the finale of Haydn’s new symphony unfolded, one by one the  musicians stood up, blew out the candles that illuminated their music, packed up their instruments, and quietly walked off stage, until only two violins, and an unruffled Haydn, were left.

The Prince took the hint, and the next day ordered his entourage back to Eisenstadt.

I’ve conducted and sung several of Franz Joseph Haydn’s works, and they invariably sparkle with good cheer, a sense of play, and irrepressible joy in music making.  In fact, his sacred music was sometimes criticized for its joviality.  His reply: “Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving him cheerfully.”

That sense of optimism can be heard everywhere in the piece MCE is working on right now, his Te Deum in C major.  Empress Marie Therese had been after him for years to compose a church piece for her, but Esterházy was reluctant to allow his celebrated composer to write for anyone other than himself.

However, Empresses have a way of prevailing!  The result is this sunny setting of the liturgical Te Deum laudamus text, first performed in September 1800 and conducted by Haydn himself.

This is no ethereal, overly pious rendition of “We praise Thee, O God,” but a full-throated shout of merriment.  There are only a few places in the entire 193-bar work where Haydn tempers the emotional level: the music becomes sweeter for about four bars as Christ’s humanity is touched upon; a ten-bar, slow moving C-minor section beseeches God’s aid; and a humble confession of sin and plea for mercy occupies eight bars.  But even here it feels as if chuckles are bubbling just below the surface.   And they just can’t be suppressed, for Haydn ramps it up again over a quick three bars, bursting into an effervescent, syncopated double fugue that asks God to “never let me be confounded” (non confundar in aeternum).  There seems little doubt that Haydn certainly expects God to answer that prayer!

He is having way too much fun with this music.  And, truth be told, so are we!

Haydn certainly had his problems and faults.  He hastily married while on the rebound from a love affair, he and his wife ultimately separated, and in his early years as Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court he could be assertive and blunt (what conductor isn’t from time to time!).  But he was also kind, modest, devout, possessed a roguish sense of humor, and was sincerely helpful to his fellow musicians.  He wasn’t called Papa Haydn for nothing!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside