Thursday, October 23, 2014

Catching up with Phillip Addis, Figaro in Edmonton Opera's Barber of Seville

Metallic shelving units line the perimeter of the Jubilee Auditorium rehearsal hall. They are laden with props. A quick glance around the room reveals a barber’s chair in one corner. There is a side cart decorated with razors, combs, and a tall glass jar ready to disinfect any used combs. The stage manager helps me to clear a spot on the wooden prop vanity to interview Edmonton Opera’s leading man, Phillip Addis, playing Figaro in the Barber of Seville. Addis relaxes back in his seat with a sense of calm. He is no stranger to Principal roles having sung the title role in Pelléas et Mélisande with the Opéra Comique in Paris and Il Conte Almaviva in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro with Pacific Opera Victoria earlier this year; however, this is Addis’ Figaro debut.

It’s been a good rehearsal process because the first time through a role, you prepare as much as you can. But when you start staging, often you start to have realizations as to why the show flows the way it does,” Addis says with a mature sense of insight. “Once you start listening to what your colleagues are saying in the dialogue, it just changes. Instead of imagining what they’re singing, you become a listener engaged in a conversation. There’s something more immediate about the relationships as opposed to when you’re just reading it from the score, trying to picture how they’re going to deliver their lines in between your lines,” he states highlighting the collaborative importance of his fellow cast members.  


In preparing for his debut role, Addis reveals that he did not want to watch any videos prior to coming to the rehearsal process. He elaborates on his rationale: “I didn’t want to end up being a copycat. I know there’s a lot to be learned and there’s a lot of great resources out there but I wanted to make sure I was fresh and a clean slate for the direction both dramatically and musically. It gave me more freedom to figure it out myself, who Figaro is for me.” By unraveling the layers of his character, Addis found that Figaro’s primary motivation is money. The prospect of success and reward is irresistible.

Figaro is the grease that makes the town run. He maximizes on his influence as a barber and is able to exploit the knowledge of his diverse networks. As a result, he anticipates outcomes as problems are approaching. Addis also sees Figaro as being very observant character that soaks up facts and emotions behind what people are saying. However, at the core, Addis views Figaro as a sympathetic character. “Figaro just wants people to be happy and he wants people who love each other to be happy because that translates into success for him and money as well,” he states. 


There is an overall sense of urgency because Figaro is constantly juggling multiple storylines. In order to convey this to the audience, Addis must exude an energized physicality on stage. “I don’t want him to come across is just having had too much coffee, although there is a bit of that. I am trying to be fairly wide-eyed and physically exuberant… he knows there is no time to lose. Overnight, this opportunity could pass him… otherwise [Rosina] will be forced to marry Bartelo. He is keenly aware of the pressures of timing and that excites him instead freezing him into a panic.” 

Figaro’s opening aria is in no way relaxing. Addis laughs as he reflects on this fact. “The singing is challenging and we’re doing a lot of active things. He’s not just singing about his life, he’s reenacting it all,” he says. However, once everything is cleared from the stage, there is one brief moment of quiet before the Count arrives in his barbershop. From that point onwards, it’s non-stop for Figaro until the closing curtain.

In order to generate the energy required for the role of Figaro, Addis shares that he is still searching for that balance. “Occasionally, we’ll run through a scene and I’m a bit out of breath by the end of it. But that’s good. It means it’s a proper challenge. Hopefully, it means that what I’m doing is not boring,” he states before elaborating on the importance of breathing. “If you’re holding your breath the whole thing is off... I think that ties in with the idea that if [Figaro] is truly anticipating the problems that are going to arise then I need to anticipate where I need to take a deep breath before a burst of activity. The idea of that deep breath, wherever it may lie, it is supportive musically but it can also work dramatically too. If you want [Figaro] to be clear-headed, then he can’t be tense and frantic,” explains Addis. He notes that the goal of the whole ensemble has been working on exuding energy but being in control of the situation as well.

There is an allure of the Operatic form for Addis: “The thing about Opera is that so much that goes into the storytelling. It can be really engaging. But there’s a certain comfort in it. I find it less exposed than concert and oratorio work. In those other forms, it’s just you and your voice. You’re doing all the storytelling. And it’s between you and the accompanist and the conductor telling the story musically as well. There is no visual crutch so you have to be so precise. It’s just more exposed… In Opera it’s quite different. First of all you rehearse in the same setting for a few weeks. You get to pass the responsibility of the storytelling between more people… It’s a more complicated collective relationship.” 

As Addis prepares for future projects, he finds himself drawn back to the fundamentals of his craft. “I’m more aware not of things I want to improve and explore technically, which I think will serve me well for the larger roles that come along, and truly essential to get through the larger roles in the repertoire. [The idea of being a lead character] that, in itself, I don’t find scary. But it’s everything that goes behind making a performance that much more engaging… I’m trying to make sure that I’m always trying to put the best performance forward,” he states with a sense of humility.

In the days leading up to opening night, Addis is looking forward to the sitzprobe. The singers will get to rehearse with the Orchestra for the first time. “I’ll be grinning. I sometimes get excited to the point where I get teary-eyed. I love it. It’s a gut reaction. There’s nothing artificial about how profoundly orchestral music moves me” says Addis. He summates his thoughts on Opera: “The blend of great orchestral music with great vocal writing. That’s why I’m in this. It’s what I love the most about Opera and other classical vocal repertoire. It’s got two things I absolutely adore fused into one.”

All photography by Nanc Price courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Tickets are available from the Edmonton Opera Box Office (780-429-1000) and online.

Barber of Seville Shows:

Saturday, Oct. 25, 8 p.m.

Tuesday, Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Survival of the Fittest - What Indie Opera Is Doing Right


This past weekend was the opening of #UncleJohn and it was exactly the kind of production I have hoped would come to Alberta. It was musically immersive and culturally relevant - all wrapped up in a sleek, modern, indie opera company. I will reiterate what I was hearing throughout the week: "This is the future of Opera."

Members of the Edmonton Opera Chorus took a roadtrip down to see #UncleJohn at the Cave and Basin, which was a part of the Banff Centre's Summer Arts Festival. What I didn't expect upon watching the production was how familiar I felt with this show even though I had not seen anything by this company before. One of the reasons for the familiarity is their stellar marketing on social media. Throughout the past year since working with some of the Against the Grain Theatre crew on Edmonton Opera's production of Tales of Hoffmann, I've been living vicariously through social media to keep up with their productions. Even though I was not in the audience for Figaro's Wedding, I could read updates, see pictures from the production, and even have conversations with people regarding the production. Many times, social media gets a bad reputation because it can decrease our face-to-face interactions; however, there is also a balance in recognizing that social media as a powerful networking tool. For the entity that manages to balance real world and digital interactions, they are able to master two powerful communicative realms. All those tweets and Facebook updates I have seen from preparation for their other productions have developed a cumulative artistic presence in my subconscious.

There have been numerous articles regarding about the future of Opera companies, such as a comprehensive one by Michael Vincent at Musical Toronto. There are inquiries regarding fianancial viability of traditional Opera companies and the presence of niche independent Opera companies with a fresh perspective. Whatever the the successful model is, if we take a note from Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest, it is all about adaptation. Organisms with the most advantageous traits will survive. In order for any Art to survive, whether it be Opera, Choral music etc. it must be accessible to a wide population. The sea of silver-haired patrons have the time and money now to renew their subscriptions; however, if there is no move to connect to younger audiences, the demographic of future attendees remain uncertain. If I study #UncleJohn as a model organism, here are some of the successful traits within the company:


AtG Theatre chooses the venue location to fit the context of the story that they are telling whether it is the Burroughes for Figaro's Wedding, the intimate Extension Room yoga studio for Kafka/Janáček/Kurtág, or the Cave and Basin outdoor patio for the wedding reception setting for #UncleJohn. The location allows the audience to be distributed throughout the set and a part of of the story. This is effective because there is nothing lost in translation in the setting. The audience doesn't have to imagine the reception space through a painted backdrop because they are sitting in the reception space. When Anna, Zerlina, Masetto, Elvira, and Ottavio are all descending upon Leporello from all angles, the audience can feel the panic of Leporello trying to a find a way out through the snaking spaces between chairs. Conversely, audience members can feel the wrath of sound from the singers tracking Uncle John down. 


No surprise here, but speaking in the audiences' dominant language increases understanding. It is not only the fact that #UncleJohn was translated into a new English libretto by Joel Ivany, but the show's vernacular is also current. My generation speaks in hashtags and uses terms like super perv, hot mess, and Tinder. When I heard these terms used within #UncleJohn, it unlocked an immediate sense of cultural familiarity. They were speaking my language.


Ticket prices are an important dividing factor for a potential audience members. #UncleJohn prices were $25 for student/senior and $30 for adult, which is pretty much comparable to spending VIP tickets at a major movie cinema. This is also cheap when compared to traditional Opera where ticket prices offset costs high production costs.


AtG theatre has a knack for booking singers that are emerging or already established voices of Canada. The exciting part about this for me is that these singers are amongst my generation of musical peers. My choral friends have gone on to study at Universities across this country with these budding Opera singers and it is always surprising how we are all interconnected within a few degrees of separation. I often see Instagram comments by a friend regarding a singer or a text notifying me when one of their Opera friends will be in town singing for a production. It is exciting to watch young professionals at formative stages in their careers where they are taking risks and challenging themselves in non-traditional settings. A significant amount of confidence is demanded from an Artist singing endless Mozart aria runs amongst audience members that can hear every breath and see every slight change in their facial expression. There is no hiding.

Social Media

AtG Theatre recognizes the importance of social media. They have created a network of users and active platforms to engage with the world. Artists have Twitter handles in their program biography and audience members were tweeting and posting photos before, during, and after the show. They took it even further to create Twitter profiles for Leoporello and Uncle John, which created continuity in the story. Their Facebook updates with videos and witty promo photos plus a coverage by Schmopera releasing behind-the-scenes rehearsal videos and interviews leading up to the show's release. It is not only a factor of having a social media account but it is also about being creative in its uses.

In many ways, our culture has been reinforced to admire Art through an impenetrable third wall. Thus, people can treat Art as an artifact too fragile for manipulation, something to be collected and admired with disconnect. However, reinterpretation of a work gives an art form new life because a different perspective is being shared. It is not a battle between Opera purists and Indie Opera voices, but it is about stimulating a discourse about Opera in the community. In fact, AtG Theatre's #UncleJohn is leading by example, collaborating with the Canadian Opera Company and The Banff Centre for this production. There must be adaptation to increase accessibility to audiences. It's time more people begin considering what traits we need to adopt to carry on these stunning musical scores and stories to future audiences. AtG Theatre's #UncleJohn is just just another way of how Indie Opera is doing it right.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cor Flammae - Vancouver's Queer Classical Chorus

photo credit: belle ancell photography

It all began with a viewing of a lesbian opera. Cor Flammae co-founders Missy Clarkson, Madeline Hannan-Leith, and Amelia Pitt-Brooke caught the premiere performance of Leslie Uyeda's When the Sun Comes Out at last year's Vancouver Queer Arts Festival. Witnessing COC Ensemble Studio Graduate, Teiya Kasahara, challenge traditional voice casting as a coloratura playing a butch character confirmed that not only was there a sphere for queer artists, but one for those performing at a professional level. At the opera after-party, Clarkson, Hannan-Leith, and Pitt-Brooke were inspired to form a professional-level queer choir, Cor Flammae, meaning "flaming heart."

photo credit: belle ancell photography

Clarkson began contacting her local networks to do research into queer choral composers. Compiling a list of queer composers was somewhat challenging since Clarkson notes that historically composers are considered "straight until proven not-straight," and at the time rarely announced their sexual orientation. "We always view the past through a lens of the present. The past is an organic being," says Pitt-Brooke, acknowledging the bias that comes with historical interpretation. Much of the confirmation lies in interpreting the meaning behind omission, code words, or gender-neutral references when discussing composer relationships. One such veiled composer is Franz Schubert, who is included on the Cor Flammae programme with historical queer composers such as Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, John Cage, Maurice Ravel, and contemporary Vancouver composers such as Michael Park and Catherine Laub. There were three defining points for the repertoire: secular, a cappella, and queer. Interesting programming choices are also present, such as in exploring harmonic similarities of works by Barber and Menotti, who were romantic partners for over 40 years. The final madrigal of The Unicorn,The Gorgon & The Manticore that Cor Flammae will sing was a composition performed at Barber's funeral in 1981.

photo credit: belle ancell photography
Forming the choir was an expedited process. After submitting a proposal to the Queer Arts Festival organizers, the Cor Flammae creative team reached out to their musical networks to audition singers on March 15. They were also able to secure queer conductors Peggy Hua and Hussein Janmohamed, who had recently completed their conducting Masters at UBC, to lead the group in the chosen repertoire. Accepted choristers, or "queeristers," had to be ready to pose for a professional-level photo shoot on March 31. However, this was no conservative photo shoot. Stylist Adam Dickson orchestrated wardrobe and characters for every queerister after a series of short interviews to reveal individual personas. Clarkson, a hairdresser by trade, called upon her fashion industry networks to assemble a crew of 16 individuals comprised of hairdressers, makeup artists, videographer, photographers and styling assistants to execute this photo shoot: "I wanted it to be a fashion shoot unlike every other choir, having a uniformity of choir garb while showcasing people's personalities and letting that shine through. There is a lot of erasure in the classical music scene and I wanted people to be able to be their fancy selves," she announces.

photo credit: belle ancell photography

One would think that the difficulty in forming a queer choir would be finding the choristers. Clarkson revealed that the choristers all came out of the woodwork; however, for some choristers, it didn't come without personal struggles to publicly broadcast news of their sexuality. She could think of four choristers who had to officially "come out" as a result of joining the choir. A chorister revealed their bisexuality once their mother saw them on a Cor Flammae poster. In regards to self-perceived queerness, Clarkson states the position of the choir: "The idea is to be quite liquid about it. We don't have anybody in the ensemble that overtly identifies as transgendered at the moment, but we want to break those old gender-binary habits in our language around rehearsals. We are trying to queer the very un-queer space of classical music." The established presence of queer identity in choral music is noted to be more developed for queer men more so than queer women or gender-variant people. "It even comes down to dress code, sometimes queer women and trans people just don't feel welcomed because of their presentation," states Pitt-Brooke. It is uncertain which other factors are playing a role in the decreased visibility of queer women and the gender-variant in classical music. Cor Flammae tenor, Bruce Hoffman, noted a wish to assemble a queer choir 20 years ago but was unable to locate a sufficient number of sopranos and altos to form the group.

photo credit: belle ancell photography
Singing to a sold-out theatre at the opening of the Queer Art's Festival, Cor Flammae is aware that the audience members may have never been to a choral concert before in their lives. "We are happy to bring this choral music to the masses. It is not for the elite. It's for the people... theoretically, as queer artists we speak to people on the fringe. We are trying to create a platform for people to perform in their full selves and listen with in their full selves. We want to create an atmosphere where all people feel invited to classical music," states Clarkson speaking to the goal of the group. Pitt-Brooke adds that "the project is about finding people from different communities and joining in art together."

photo credit: belle ancell photography

It is significant that Vancouver has a queer population enough to form not only only a queer choir but one that performs repertoire at a professional level; this signals a cultural progression and accepted visibility of all artists regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Every triumph in this regard creates an environment and open dialogue that supports the work all artists in a community. Kudos, Cor Flammae.

photo credit: belle ancell photography


Cor Flammae Inaugural Performance at the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival
July 24, 2014 7:30-9:30 PM
Roundhouse Community Centre, 181 Roundhouse Mews
Tickets $30 Adults, $15 Youth/Seniors/Underemployed are now SOLD OUT.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Art is a Gift - An Interview with Canadian Choral Composer, Peter-Anthony Togni

Settling down for a chat after the Composers panel at Podium 2014, Peter-Anthony Togni and I begin by catching-up from when we last saw each other in Edmonton. Pro Coro Canada performed the Canadian premiere of Togni's Missa Liberationis on Good Friday. There was a strongly worded review published following the concert that I wanted to get his thoughts on. "I think if you haven't rustled people's feathers in some way, then you're not doing your job," he states with an air of humor. However, with over 20 years as musician, composer, and CBC radio broadcaster, it hasn’t necessarily made Togni immune to such feedback. “I am as vulnerable as the next person. I know what it is I wanna write. I know what my aesthetic is and I know what I'm playing with and I know that not everybody likes it. And I know it's a direct reflection of my Catholic faith. For me it helps me interpret what I think is supernatural. If you get a moment like that, the rest of it doesn't feel like writing music anymore,” Togni states in summary.

The spiritual aspect of music is not to be overlooked when considering Togni’s composition perspective: “I was thinking of this the other day as I was listening to Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor No. 24. There are some moments in that that are so perfect… I actually think what we're listening to is a conversation with God written down… it's like sticking your finger into the electric socket,” Togni says with a  twinkle in his eye. Sometimes Togni feels these moments occurs in his pieces; however, he emphasizes how music is a pathway and connection for him to this world. “There's everyday roads of life and there's the other world. Composers always want to live in the enchanted forest all the time. We're trying to create Utopia. I believe in the holiness of beauty. But beauty doesn't have to be pretty music can be ugly. Look at the Spanish cruxifices or Christ nailed to a cross, that's beautiful. Pain can be beauty,” he says while taking a moment to consider the aching torment of that image. A constant struggle between the roles of the mortal and divine appears to ripple beneath Togni’s calm façade.

Togni goes to explain how the role his Faith has shaped his character: “I flirted with Monasticism in my early 20s. I was drawn to the Benedictine monks. There was a monastery in Paris where I finished my degree. I flirted with Priesthood but I think what God was telling me to do was to be in the world. Now, I think the Church is about being in Church and I think it's about your being outside of the church. I think tradition is clouding what is right and wrong. What about talking about what we have in common?” Togni continues, “my Faith is not one to swim against the stream, but my nature is to swim against the stream. My friends call me a Catholic hedonist. I love it,” he says with a laugh fully aware of the conflicting nature of this label.

Currently, Togni’s most recent commission entitled, Warrior Songs, for percussion and choir was premiered by Ars Nova in Colarado. He describes the theme as being a warrior for peace. Not actually being the warrior, but having the power to kiss the blade and not use it. Exploring the use of percussion on the piece was a new area of exploration for Togni. “I never thought of Singers as being vehicles of rhythm. But it's all about rhythm. Anything that moves, even if it's melodic, it has rhythm,” explains Togni.

During the Composer Panel at Podium, Togni was one of the Composers who stated his inspiration comes largely from sound and not text. He described how he hears the structure of the piece within sound. Togni brings up the concepts of Theo Drama and  Ego Drama to highlight the philosophy behind his composition perspective:

“A great piece of Art is a beautiful flower in the middle of the forest and nobody sees it. Ego Drama wants the flower to be seen, adored, and noticed. My inclination as I get older is I can see clearly where my Ego is. I can see myself wanting people to like something, and hope that it gets great applause. I am trying to remove myself from that. My inclination as I get older is to move more into the Theo Drama. Music that is spiritual is not about impressing everybody,” he says. While Togni did not feel inclined to stand up and be recognized from the audience as the National Youth Choir premiered his piece during their Podium Spotlight concert, it allowed him an opportunity to say thank-you to the performers and audience. He notes that it is good to nurture his neurosis in order to fully embrace the role of being an Artist.

As for how Togni decides where to go next, he realizes that it is inspired by whatever is right in front of him at the time. “It is never anything I plan because most things I plan are a disaster,” he states with a laugh and contemplative coolness before we conclude our chat. Togni reminds me that "Art is a gift,"at the end of our interview, and following a weekend at the Podium 2014 conference, I have no doubt. 

 Listen to Togni's work here

Monday, June 9, 2014

Behind the Spotlight with Canadian Composer, Matthew Emery

"I don't like to be the centre of attention... I am more comfortable with writing and somebody else taking it into the world," Canadian Composer, Matthew Emery reveals to me during our interview at Choral Canada's Podium 2014 conference. 

In fact, the opposite of Emery's aversion to the spotlight was occurring over the four day conference. His piece, Lover's Chant, won the 2014 Competition for Choral Writing and was premiered by 2014 National Youth Choir/Chœur National des Jeunes at Podium 2014. Furthermore, professional choirs such as the Canadian Chamber Choir, Pro Coro Canada, Vancouver Chamber Choir, and Elmer Iseler Singers have already been programming Emery's work to bring awareness to his works. Not bad for somebody convocating from his UBC Undergraduate degree in Composition program that coming Wednesday.


Sitting in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, Emery emits a poised and calm exterior; however, it is evident there is a constant stream of interior cerebral activity. As Emery begins by musing whether or not he should buy a last minute ticket to Vancouver and crash the UBC Music reception on Wednesday, I realize that I am speaking to Emery at the transition point from student to full-time Composer. 

Emery sang in Elementary, Highschool, and Amabile Choirs in his hometown of London ON before moving to Vancouver to complete his Undergrad in Composition where he also sang with the UBC University Singers . Most recently, he was singing with Larry Nickel in Jubilate while living in Vancouver. Emery traces his start in composition to Grade 10 when he began experimenting with chords on the piano and writing them down. From there he began pondering how pieces could be better or what he would like to sing as a chorister.

"If you don't sing in a choir, you won't be able to write for choir very well," he states with a gentle bluntness. 

Emery feels that he is conservative in all of his own writing. "I might throw in a gliss or something in my next piece," he says, granting me a subtle smile before continuing, "but I'll probably stay pretty tame. There's other people to do the crazy stuff." He provides examples such as R. Murray Schafer or Pro Coro gargling water during their performance of Ugis Praulins' The Nightingale to highlight the possibilites writing for voice. "In some ways, voice may be the most versatile instrument," he states with a serene awareness.

In terms of starting a composition, Emery reveals that it all begins from the poetry: "I don't really hear a melody first and find the poem to fit that. Just reading the poem I come up with the melody or the chords. Or the form of the piece could be related to the text in some way. But then the instrumental pieces that I write I would try to find inspiration from nature, buildings or architecture." While Emery worries about running out of public domain poetry, he also realizes that there are great poems he doesn't want to use because he thinks there are already perfect settings of them, citing Stephen Chatman's "Remember Me," as an example. "I don't think I could a better musical expression of that poem," he plainly states.  
It is clear that choral music is at the heart of Emery's compositional voice."I grew up singing so [choral music] is what comes most naturally to me. When I think of music, I immediately think of singing something. Having the text and singing poetry is what makes choral music so inspiring and powerful that you can take a meaningful thought from someone else, combine it with music, to make a great thing," Emery says with an enlightened tone. 

Emery's self-imposed structure is impressive. He sets a goal to write a piece every other week, resulting in 24 choir pieces a year. He reveals more information on his process: "I've always been on a routine. I try to just write on the weekdays all morning, have lunch around 12, and edit all night. Somewhere in there, I'm always reading poetry. Sometimes I take the afternoon off from composing to do the work, e-mailing publishers or scores or finding poems. Originally, at UBC, that's when nobody was using the practice rooms from 7 AM until classes started and it was quiet where I didn't have to compete with the Opera singer or Tuba player beside me."

He notes that he has future aspirations to write a Cantata piece for Choir and Orchestra or something intimate with one voice per part, similar to David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion.

While Emery prepares for a season as Amabile Choirs' Composer in Residence, he will also be heading to the United States for other compositional residencies this upcoming year. The opportunity to work one-on-one with the singers performing his works is an aspect of his job that he welcomes. "I really enjoy going to the rehearsals. You can say whatever you want. The singers are not tense yet for the concert. Everyone is just chill. I spent a good hour with the National Youth Choir in rehearsal and it was great... it's interesting how people perceive the music. Whether they absolutely like it or hate it. Some people don't like that it's boring or too traditional. Or some people love that aspect and say 'it's a breath of fresh air.' What's most interesting I think is watching the choirs and how they sing my pieces. Some pieces they release all their tension and it looks like it's freeing for them. They look very calm and lose all their worries. It's interesting to watch people performing and see how they visually change," describes Emery. 

Emery prefers to be behind the spotlight instead of basking in the attention a premiere draws. "At the concert, I get all nervous and worried about what happens if it doesn't go well, or what the person behind me thinks. [The Podium listeners] are toughest audience outside myself. After the premiere, once it's out there, it's free, and I don't have to worry about it. But at the first performance, I'm a nervous wreck," he states in a tone that reveals a rare ripple of insecurity during the interview.

He notes that Podium has been a great time to reconnect as well as meet some of the Conductors programming his works. Emery is overwhelmed at the support from Conductors such as Julia Davids, Elroy Friesen, Michael Zaugg, Jon Washburn, and Lydia Adams. "I can't ask for anything more. I owe them a lot. Julia put two of my pieces in her new series with Cypress Music so that's great. I can't ask for anything better than that," he states with graciousness. Emery values Conductor insight from their gestural execution of his works or how he should consider notating a passage for a given effect. "Taking composition classes at school, you're only getting feedback from another composer, it is good to get feedback from the other side."

The future is full of possibilities. Whether Emery ventures abroad for Graduate studies in Composition or continues to compose out of London, ON, it is apparent the amount of support from the Canadian choral community will continue to foster his career. "I'm glad to be part of Canadian choral community supporting me and other young composers. We are taking pride in the music of Canada, and supporting our music, which is what we need." 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"I'm a bit of a hippie." What you didn't know about Canadian Choral Composer, Cy Giacomin

Photo Credit: CyGiacomin.Com

Lounging in the corner of the Wired Monk coffee shop, Cy Giacomin takes a moment after his morning reading session at the Podium conference to chat about choral music. Giacomin, 26, already has a substantial resume as a Composer, Bass with the Canadian Chamber Choir, Artistic Director of the Bluewater Chamber Choir in Sarnia ON, and accompanist and teacher of Piano, Organ, and Trombone. As well, he just finished a run of Sound of Music with Theatre Sarnia as the Music Director prior to returning to his hometown of Halifax for Podium. The previous evening was the opening spotlight concert of Podium where his work, "There Was a Time" was premiered by Pro Coro Canada and the Halifax Camerata Singers.

Pro Coro Canada and Halifax Camerata rehearsing for the Spotlight Concert at Podium

A teenage chorister approaches at the start of our interview in the coffee shop. She gently apologizes for interrupting and continues by praising Giacomin for his music and her enjoyment in singing his works. Giacomin responds with warmth and a strong sense of modesty. He thanks her for sharing her regards. Giacomin later mentions to me an audience member comment from the previous evening. They were surprised that he wasn't older when he stood up to take a bow following his premiere. This is not surprising to me since there is a contemplative wisdom in the rich construct of his compositions, yet a vibrant energy weaves throughout his works, especially when he plays with time signatures and tempo in his music.

Giacomin elaborates on what it is like to hear one of his works performed live: "It's nervous excitement. [The choir] is about to come on stage and interpret your work. Your heart races a little bit. For me, it makes choral music the most exciting part of composing. That's why I focus on it. I have written for all kinds of ensembles but only in choir do you get to relinquish control of everything you've hoped for in terms of balance, dynamics, tone quality." He manifests a clear visual to demonstrate his point, for example, "if there are too many singers in the Alto section and the Sopranos need more singers and you have Altos that can sing high the conductor can say 'can you sing the Soprano part for these bars?' and move people around. I can't even imagine people do that in an Orchestra for an Oboe to play a Violin line. There is a lot of flexibility after a composition is done. It just means that what you write has to be that much stronger to survive those kinds of adjustments."

"Is it ever hard to relinquish this control to the singers?" I ask. 

"It was hard to come to terms with starting out. But once you come to terms to relinquish control, it is a decision you make, you only have to make it once. This is my music. It may not be accurately represented in the concert hall. It is still music I will be proud of," Giacomin states in a wise tone further enhanced by his Bass voice. "I can't release anything to a choir I am not 100% proud of. Because if I get compliments after, I feel guilty," he says with a laugh. I smile in response remembering the adoring glance from the teenage chorister earlier.

Giacomin elaborates on the challenge of trying to communicate complicated ideas with just black ink on white paper. He recalls one of his composition teachers said that a Composer's job is 10% creative and 90% problem solving. "I think my pieces are easier than they actually are. Because they come from my brain so I know the lines inside out and then when I try to sing them I think: 'oh yeah, that makes sense!' You give it to someone who has never seen or heard it and suddenly it's difficult. That is a huge hurdle to get over. Making sure you can accurately describe a difficulty level. That is one thing I need to know before I start writing for a choir. Each piece could have beginner attribute and then three bars you require an advanced choir. I try my best to hear the choir or talk to the conductor about strengths and weaknesses. There's nothing better than a piece specifically tailored for you. It is usually the most rewarding way to go," reveals Giacomin when approaching commissioned works.

It is all about text when Giacomin looks for an inspiration. "I can have an idea that is coherent and complete but it can take months to get it on paper. I don't particularly enjoy searching for text. I like coming across text and see if it desires to be set to music. I'll keep it in mind for later. If somebody is commissioning me with a text in mind, that much better, because I don't write text. I have tried but it is not my strength. But I can set any text to music. Text always drives the music. I have known some Composers who do music first then create lyrics after with that music and I marvel at their ability to do that. It's not easy. It's like designing your interior decor without having a house." Giacomin manages to find another visual example that perfectly compliments his point. Poetry, Biblical verses, Wikipedia, TV shows, Giacomin even gestures towards a poster on the wall at the Wired Monk to highlight how he draws upon all these textual sources in his environment and repurposes them for music. As a result of this constant stream of textual inspiration, there is no fear of running out of words.

As a singer as well as a Composer, Giacomin keeps a functional perspective when putting the finishing touches on a piece: "When I am getting close to the end of composition. I tend run through parts in my head one at a time. It's mostly traffic control. To make sure there is time to rest and swallow saliva. I hate those pieces that only have enough time to breathe.... where you're salivating so much it's hard to sing. I have to go through each part for those reasons. It's mainly for safety concerns. I don't know what it's like to sing a Tenor, Alto, or Soprano line so I like to check with those sections after the premiere to make sure things are singable," he states in a rational tone.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Giacomin draws upon all these musical facets when approaching his compositional style. While he states that he doesn't feel like he has a unique voice quite yet, he is conscious of combining all of his experiences, whether it is Musical Theatre or Punk. He states that it has taken a long time for him to consolidate and focus to develop his compositional framework. Giacomin further elaborates on the balance between the academic and emotional approaches to composition: "At school, I was writing for the intellect. On free time, I tend to write for emotional's sake. I need both. Choir music is more emotional than it is intellectual. Obviously all music is emotional and intellectual but I found the academic style was almost completely devoid of emotion. Nothing in the human heart for it to enjoy because it is so intellectual. And that's not a criticism, I appreciate both. I want to combine both so that a piece can be intellectually stimulating and emotionally stimulating."

"How do you know when you reach both of these goals?" I ask.

"The Composer's opinion is just one opinion. I always work a piece until I am truly happy with it," Giacomin states in a pensive tone while taking a pause to further elaborate, "you make sure that what you think of your piece is nothing but the highest compliment. It's something that you never want to change once you have the final bar line. Your happiness with the piece is what is actually communicated to the audience.  How happy is the piece is how happy is the Composer. That's what audiences can pick up on universally. You can't try to make anybody else happy. You can only hope to makes yourself happy and hope for the best after that."

Sarnia, Ontario is currently Giacomin's home base and he feels his timing couldn't be any better. Sarnia didn't have an a cappella ensemble prior to him co-founding the Bluewater Chamber Choir.
Prior to starting the Chamber Choir, he had never conducted before. The choir has now become a vehicle for learning more about choral singing. Giacomin shares that there are a lot of similarities between conducting and composing since putting together a concert program is like a miniature scale of composing. Different pieces will sound different in the context of neighboring works. There are some perks of having a test choir when one is a Composer and Conductor. Giacomin reveals that he may introduce some new works he is planning on writing this summer to the Bluewater Choir. Noting the newfound power he has to potentially program his own works with Bluewater, he notes that he wouldn't program too selfishly, "maybe just one or two," he says with subtle smile.
In addition to preparing for an upcoming tour with the Canadian Chamber Choir to PEI and New Brunswick this September, Giacomin notes that there has been interest by a dance studio in Sarnia for him to write a Ballet. Giacomin greets the prospect of future projects with anticipation and further brainstorms multiple ideas off the top of his head that include Opera as well as a Choral Theatre concept the includes five La-Z-Boy recliners on stage.

There is a strong sense of humility when Giacomin acknowledges the importance of Conductors and Choirs performing his works. He notes that a Composer alone would never be heard. It is the voice of the choir communicating his music to an audience. To further emphasize his point, Giacomin notes that Composers could all go on strike, not write any new pieces, and the world would be fine. "There are thousands of pieces out there. Choirs can function without the Composers but it's not the other way around. They're at least equally as important. I think Composers help perpetuate the evolution of Culture and help in that progression," he says with fervor.

This passion carries into Giacomin's next statement when he reveals that it was pure luck that he got into singing. In an honest tone, Giacomin states, "it's also a religious experience for me, singing in a choir - people coming together to create something greater than themselves. I am not a particularly spiritual person per say, but in choir there is something supernatural." 

Concluding our morning chat over coffee, Giacomin highlights the importance of collaboration within choral communities. While many people may think that Composers shut themselves away to compose, for many of them, it's a very active dialogue between Conductors, Composers, and audience members. Giacomin goes further to say, without an air of pretentiousness that "if everyone sang in a choir, there would be no war. We can do so much more together."

Giacomin composes a statement that perfectly concludes the past 45 minutes and his prior statement, "I'm a bit of a hippie."

Download and listen to Giacomin's "Lovesong" sung by Pro Coro Canada here

After-party following the premiere of "There Was a Time" by Pro Coro Canada and Halifax Camerata.
Photo credit to Peter Malcolm.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Choral Marathon

This past week has been a choral marathon. 

It was an effective test of travel adaptation as soon as we arrived in Halifax. I think the choir had become used to the hot, sunny weather of Ottawa and our proximity to metropolitan downtown desires. We were also still coming in off of a high from the Sunday concert with the Ottawa Cantata Singers. Upon arriving at our Dalhousie dorms, it took some time to adjust to the fact that we were not in downtown apartments and, instead, on the lush and remote back corner of the Dalhousie campus.

There is a crossroads moment in every tour, where you either rise and fall or you peak and shatter modest expectations. Pro Coro was definitely peaking in our Amherst concert on Tuesday. We were adjusting to a new space, we were expecting just to sound good but we found that we had to work even harder because we were not meeting the challenge prior to the intermission. Casey discussed this thoroughly on his tour blog post.  It is interesting how easy it is to become complacent. Complacency can kill an ensemble. 

Finishing strong at the Amherst concert, we went into the second day of rehearsals refreshed and refocused for our main tour goal: the Highlight concert for the opening of Podium.  It was Pro Coro's first appearance at a Podium conference. It was also Michael Zaugg's debut with the choir on the national and international choral stage. Upon my own personal reflection, I have been working towards his moment for two years. 

I recall coming home home from Podium 2012 in May, sitting across from my father at the kitchen table, and wondering what I was going to do next because I was convocating from Grad school in June. I had been accepted to do complete my Vocology certificate with the National Centre for Voice and Speech that coming summer and was contemplating PhD applications in the Fall. I also wasn't sure if I would be reaccepted into Pro Coro after the audition process with Michael in April. However, after interviewing Michael at Podium and hearing the sound he had developed with voces boreales, I realized with utter clarity, the type of gut intuition that makes one so inexplicably sure of themselves: I could not leave Edmonton.  If I was accepted into Pro Coro under the direction of Michael Zaugg, I could not leave. I knew Pro Coro was invited to perform for the next Podium 2014 in Halifax. I knew I had to stay in Pro Coro until the Halifax tour if given the possibility.

My Father gave a chuckle at my flustered realization. I laughed aloud myself. Never have I been the person to restrain myself if there is something I want to do. I just go out a do it. Normally, if I am not doing something I want to do, it is because I am not aware it is an option yet. If there are opportunities that would have been appropriate for me to take, I would take them. It just so happens that all of my opportunities thus far have been in Edmonton. I haven't needed to move locations to pursue my passions. In my mind, I like toying with the prospect of flexibility and freedom in everything I choose to do. I laughed aloud because, here I was, at a crossroads between deciding between more continuing education and choir. I chose choir. I chose Edmonton.

The Podium performance on Thursday supported my decision even further. During our performance of the Nightingale, I had a glimpse of how good it could get. There was a palatable sense of unification amongst the group.  It didn't matter that we decided last minute to sing the Nightingale in mixed formation that very afternoon, I just trusted that we would deliver an excellent performance regardless. There was no apprehension walking on stage. This was not the case two years ago when we first sang this piece. It is of one of the most difficult pieces I have had to learn to date but there is a sense in the choir that we are ready for the next challenge. This tour really solidified that we are united in a goal to perform music to the best of our ability, and in knowing that collective goal, we have bonded as a team.

There is a lot I don't know about the future yet. But this tour has just confirmed that I am here in Edmonton to stay, at least, for now.

Choir Girl at #Podium2014

Check out my Storify collage to see what I have been up to while in Halifax!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Chat Amongst Choir Bloggers

After wandering the streets of Ottawa late Saturday night and unable to locate any coffee shops open after 10 PM to host an interview session fellow author of the Choir X Blog, Jean-Pierre and I wander into the Chateau Laurier and set up a work station at a lobby table. Embellished piano improv wafts in from the neighboring lounge as we prepare to take turns to interview with one another. It is time to turn the tables on bloggers who often discuss content but are rarely asked why their motivations behind it.

Jean-Pierre begins by presenting me with a copy of mosaik by Stephen Hatfield in which JP contributed French text. 

What's your fav excerpt?

The line I'm proud of is one on page 9:

"Une berceuse vaut mieux qu'une chicane"

Where it states that a lullaby is worth more than an argument. The whole theme of the piece is that we might not be able to understand each other because of our differences, yet we are able to sing together. While we can't all talk at the same time, we can sing together. Even youth all of the conflicts between national tensions between natural languages we are able to sing together.

Does this parallel how you see life?

It makes me think of Lori Anne. Her motto is "Sing, it makes you happy" and it reminds me of that. 

What was it like hearing mosaik for the first time?

I just wanted to get up there and sing with them. It's like having a child, that creative idea that is your piece but you need to let it go and let it speak to others. Now it needs to live on it's own. This isn't my piece or Stephen's piece, it is the choristers piece. 

Why do you choir blog?

To share my passion with others. I love singing in choir. I get so enthusiastic and passionate about it. It's my way of sharing my life and that Art with other people. It's promotion to get more people in the seats to come see what it is.  I do it to have that link to the choral community that's out there.  It started live tweeting during choir rehearsals. So I started out with #shitchoristerssay #shitchoirdirectorsay and I moved up 400 followers on Twitter. Clearly this is subject that rings true with other people. I'm not alone. People are following and people are interested. Blogging and tweeting 140 characters wasn't enough for me. I had more to say.  Tweeting became blogging. 

Why is the blog called Choir X?

The blog is called Choir X.  The subtitle is the basses point of view. The chorister's experience.  Also I am big on branding.  And X is more catchy than ex. It's easily recognizable. 

Were you ware you aware you were selling yourself as a blogger before creating your blogging identity?

Yes *laughs* short answer is yes. 

What do you hope to do next?

Blog post once each week. Talk about the local choir scene, national choral scene, international choral scene. Talk about people's points of view: choristers, directors, composers, and Arts administrators. 

I've been in choirs for 10+ years. On the the blog there is a resources page with a list of all clinicians, conductors, and choral ensembles I have participated in. I'd like to do some flashback pieces, what it was like to work with those people, or do a post on one certain piece that we sang and the history, context and whole emotion behind it. 

I would like to go back to conferences and festivals such as Festival 500 in Newfoundland, Podium, and Europa Cantat and cover social media from the blogging point of view. I don't want this to be a local Ottawa choir blog. As international as I can make it.  I don't want to just blog about Ottawa. The global choral community is bigger than that. 

What one of the things you're most proud of with the blog so far?

Meeting you, that's pretty cool, connecting with other choral bloggers like Laurie Ann and Amy. Finding out that I can relate to people. This is more from tweeting than blogging but reaching 400 followers. One time my friend, Andrew and I tweeted different ways to pronounce excelsis like Ek-shell-sis or Ek-tsell-sis with #choirkidproblems and it got retweeted hundreds of times. 

Anything you want to add before we turn tables? 

I'm thankful to be in a city like Ottawa where there is a National Arts Centre, Parliament, Govener General to have the opportunity to work such with such incredible conductors like Barbara Clark, Michael Zaugg, Matthew Larkin to name a few. I'm right now I'm just so thankful for these opportunities being in heavy nation's capital as a chorister. Everything in my life, I can relate to choir in one way or another.  

Read the other half of this interview project by visiting JP's Choir X blog.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Arrival and the Departure

The portion of our tour in Ottawa had a sense of dual sense of arrival and departure. One of the most poignant moments from the weekend was when the Cantata Singers of Ottawa sung a farewell song for Michael Zaugg. Their conductor, Amy Henderson, took to the podium and Pro Coro quickly scrambled to get off the risers so the CSO could have their moment with Michael.

Many of us sat in the front few pews and off to the side to witness the moment of choral intimacy. They sang what they could not speak. I could hear the quiet sobs of Pro Coro choristers beside me, there were some CSO choristers discretely wiping away tears, or choristers who needed to discontinue singing in order to compose the emotional turbulence in their voice. I found my eyes beginning to fill with moisture as I watched them singing. The significance of Michael's nine years increased with every note the choir sang. It was both heartbreaking and heartwarming to see a performance of this nature. It made me wonder if Pro Coro would be singing such a song in 10 years for Michael. There are so many different phases in life. I felt honored to be witness at such a significant transitional moment in a group's history. It is evident that the Cantata Singers had a wonderful run with Michael at the helm of their choir; however, I am also excited to see the development of Pro Coro in the future.

The Ottawa weekend wasn't all sad departures though. Ottawa had some gorgeous summer weather, which meant sunshine filled walks along the Rideau canal, sipping iced coffees in courtyard patios, and good local eateries all around. I got to connect with blog readers within the Cantata Singers of Ottawa and The Canadian Chamber Choir, reconnect with familiar choral and blogging faces I had met at Podium 2012, an old highschool friend, and even an Arts writer and fellow chorister I know from Sound + Noise.

Now that my Ottawa adventures are completed, it is time to focus on what the next phase of our Pro Coro tour will bring in Halifax. There will be much more music making to be had and many more people to meet! Stay tuned readers and keep your eyes peeled for me if you are attending Podium 2014.