Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Voice of the People


I came across an interesting article in the Edmonton Journal on Friday and it highlighted a set of Choral groups that I did not know existed in Edmonton: Activist Choirs. Most of my own personal choir experience is focused in the classical and folk domain; thus, when I heard that the local Edmonton group, Notre Dame des Bananes, only sings repertoire with resounding political messages, their use of musical satire intrigued me.

In a way it really is not surprising to hear that Edmonton has a subset of Choral groups intent on delivering a political messages. If we break the concept of a choir into its basic constituent a choir is a tool. Of course, a choir is used in many ways, some conductors use choirs to perform repertoire they love in order to expose the world to beautiful and undiscovered music, some use choirs as a tool to escape from mundane lives, and choir is a tool some parents use to teach their children commitment and as an opportunity for group socialization. Whatever it may be, there are always motives behind participating in a choir, and it appears that Notre Dame des Bananes merely wishes to provide a musical medium in order to critique relevant issues, such as the current economic crisis.

I believe my surprise is rooted in the fact that, historically, stereotypical activist choirs were controlled by regimes which imposed
particular political beliefs upon the masses. Music, Dance, Journalism and numerous other facets were controlled in order to highlight a specific message. However, I believe choir is especially poignant because it is composed of dedicated followers who are lending their voices to a chorus that represents the voice of the people. Humans instinctively connect with other human voices so it is difficult to ignore the message of a fellow comrade. However, I do feel that in our more modernized time, we have moved away from imposing our political ideals through state-controlled tools and now we merely wish to have an outlet to join together and freely express ourselves, as Notre Dame des Bananes is currently doing.

In closing, I just think it is interesting to think about why we do the things we do and do they support the ideals which we are trying to uphold. What kind of risks are we willing to take in order to stand up for what we believe in? Will we be satisfied by singing about political worries in a safe atmosphere or are we willing to be at the front of a march while loudly voicing our individual beliefs?

Just something to think about until next time, take care!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The HK Bach Choir- The Potential to Be Better

On May 10 I went to check out the Berlioz concert at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre since I was eager to hear what Hong Kong Choirs had to offer. The Hong Kong Bach Choir was performing with the Sacred Singers and Macao Voices along with the Hong Kong Bach Orchestra. The programme consisted of Debussy's Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un faune, which was an orchestral piece, as well as Scene d'amour from Romeo and Juilet, which with orchestra and choir, and the concert ended with Messe Solennelle with choir, orchestra and soloists. These were all composed by Hector Berlioz.

When the Choir began to sing during the Scenes from Romeo and Juliet, I was shocked for two reasons:

1. They were not standing (what choir sits when it is their turn to perform?)
2. The Sopranos vocal apparatus' were unprepared for the high entry, thus, they were flat (flatness is something that plagued the sopranos' performance for the whole concert)

I know that the Hong Kong Bach Choir (there were 2 other groups singing with them as well but I will just address them all as the Hong Kong Bach Choir to keep things simple) is an amateur choir. Therefore, they are not paid singers and they are most likely professionals working in domains that may or may not be related to music. However, I do not believe being amateur gives a choir an excuse to sing poorly. I have heard enough prestige amateur choirs to know what they are capable of.

There are many components that go into producing an excellent amateur choir such as having an inspirational and meticulous conductor as well as dedicated singers. There are good singers just have to find them. When my conductor, Heather, first began her choir, all she was able to get were children from St. Albert. She molded them into excellent singers and it just shows that every community has singers waiting to be discovered and trained. Therefore, with the large population of Hong Kong, there are bound to be amazing choristers just waiting to be recruited.

Of course, there are many factors that come into play with finding choristers in Hong Kong and I believe it is a cultural one. In a culture that highly prizes individual achievement, it seems that group activities like choir are often overlooked. The majority of Chinese children are introduced to piano or other instruments that they can play by themselves. Rarely do you have parents who enroll their children in singing programs. It appears that parents would rather choose solo piano, math tutoring and swimming as suitable extra-curricular activities over group activities. My friend, Rover, told me that in his HK Boy's School, Choir was mandatory for boys who performed well in music class. In that sense, Choir was no different than detention since you were forced to stay after school to rehearse. I think this is the worse way to foster choral love! While I understand that this is potentially the only way to get singers, forcing people to do something is usually the fastest way to get them to hate it. It seems that the HK education system is grappling to find a balance to foster musical education.

The main problem I heard with the HK Bach Choir is that they were not given the tools to sing well. Of course, amateur choirs means that you will get singers with different levels of experience but it is the responsibility of the conductor to make sure that their choristers are equipped with the technique to meet the demands of the music. A few sessions of vocal training could have easily improved the HK Bach sopranos' flat musical entries. Choristers must learn what they are doing wrong and how to fix it. You cannot just keep giving them music without fixing pre-existing problems.

Another way the HK Bach Choir could improve is by receiving clearer instructions from the conductor. It was rare to hear a clear cut-off during the concert since consonants were littered at the ends of all the phrases. It is important that the conductor demands more from the singers. Every choir is capable of giving a clear cut-off; however, you have to push them to do it. Once they learn how, it is something that will be more automatic as they continue to sing. It does not matter how many singers there are and the U of A Mixed Chorus is a perfect example of this. There are over 150 singers but Bob De Frece's clear conducting means that their cut-offs are always clean. Fixing small things like diction alignment exponentially increases the quality of a choir.

Overall, it does not make sense for me to nitpick the quality of the HK Bach Choir's performance since I don't want to get lost in the detail about how they performed poorly. There are many obstacles they face since Chinese culture does not foster the development of choristers, and it seems that their conductor, Jerome Hoberman, does not provide the vocal training to increase his choristers' individual singing potential. In addition, he does not demand enough from his singers. Nothing ever changes without pressure. Conductors and singers must challenge themselves in order to improve. It is not so much a question of how good the HK Bach Choir is but how good they have the potential to be.

With that concluding thought, I wish you all the best! I will be back in Edmonton soon recording with Belle Canto for our new c.d. so that should make for some interesting posts!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hong Kong Choirs

Hello everybody,

I apologize for the lack of music posts but I am currently in Hong Kong soaking up the nice Spring weather, enjoying the open air markets, and eating food from side-street stalls.

However, I have not forgotten about choir or music in any respect and I am hoping to catch a performance by the Hong Kong Bach Choir on May 10th at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. I was searching for choirs I could see while in HK since I am interested to hear what HK choirs sound like. I was surprised to find a Welsh Choir and Hong Kong Women's Choir...not surprised so much in that they exist, but that they are largely Caucasian! It just surprised me that some of these choirs are so largely Caucasian when, in fact, they are the minority population in HK. I suppose we all find each other through choir. If I moved to a new city the first thing I would do is join a choir. It would be a quick way to make friends and singing with others would make me feel like I was becoming an integrated member of the community. A win-win situation!

I will try my best to make it out to the concert and report back here about what I hear. I'm really curious to hear what they sound like since they seem like one of the premier choral ensembles that Hong Kong has to offer.

Take care everyone!