Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Choral Reflection

There is something to be said for reconnecting with people that put you at complete ease. Yesterday, for the first time in five years, my closest choral companions from my teenage a cappella ensemble, Con Fuoco, reunited for an evening. As we each took turns to provide verbal updates in a round table manner, I just kept thinking how inspiring it was to listen to the paths that some of my friends have chosen. They are diverse and unique but the commonality was that they were completely true to that person's character. Their overall life trajectory appears organic to me as a third-party observer.

It also made me think of what our teenage selves would have thought if they were able to evaluate ten year older versions of themselves. One fellow choir girl remarked how she remembers drafting Plan's A-C and how some of them included aspirations for choral conducting training. She gave a laugh of amusement at how utterly inappropriate that would be for her now. It is amazing to see what predictions form when you're forecasting the future in the formative stages of adulthood. I, too, would be shocked at how I have turned out so far. I had one main career aspiration as an overachieving teen: Medical School.

The desire wasn't motivated by any cultural pressure. My parents watched on in silence as I self-motivated myself through a full courseload of an academically-oriented program. They chose to stay out of my path of academic frenzy when I made conscious choices to forgo Halloween festivities in order to finish a Styrofoam model of a eukaryotic cell or when I started video taping for an English class project when there was a school hiatus from a teacher's strike. In University, I realized that it wasn't so much the actual dream of "Medical School" that had enticed me, but the prospect of helping people. It was difficult to realize that there are multiple options to reach this goal with my limited teenage worldview. In the early years of my undergrad, I had these thoughts when I was still convincing myself of my Medical School aspirations.

"I'm in a perpetual state of stress. I'm not enjoying my courses. I'm not doing that well in them. This sucks."

During this time, I wasn't singing regularly. I was still in Belle Canto, but after a few weeks of missed rehearsal, I was starting to feel the emotional imbalance as I had no outlet for all of these negative feelings.

As I reflected on this last night, I realized that even if I was in Medical School at this very moment in time, I know, for a fact, that I would not be singing as much as I do now. While I understand that sacrifices must be made in order to pursue career aspirations.... I do not wish to compromise doing the things I love. I am also allowed to love doing more than one thing. That includes singing in choir. It is a component of my life that more than just a frivolous leisure activity. At this point in time, my Speech Pathology and choral interests have equal priority.

I've done a mental review of my blogging year; it's staggering to see the creative explosion of content I've generated through the blog this year. I had more opportunities to sing in new ensembles in the city which included my concert with the Scona Singers and the Ordo Collective. The latter providing me the opportunity to tour to Victoria and Vancouver to perform the work. I survived the Pro Coro audition process under the direction of Pro Coro's newly appointed artistic director, Michael Zaugg. I also began writing for Sound + Noise after editor-in-chief, Michael MacDonald, contacted me via Twitter to attend a meeting. There is something to be said for meeting a mentor at the right point in time. MacDonald was the one who encouraged me to do interviews and social media coverage of the Podium 2012 choral conference in Ottawa since I was going there anyway with Belle Canto. This shaped my social media experience at the conference and gave me the confidence to dream big with my blog. As a result, I have a series of Podium posts and interviews with conductors, Heather Johnson, Ivars Taurins, Hilary Apfelstadt, Lydia Adams, and Michael Zaugg to add to my archives. My Podium 2012 coverage also led to my first paper print article in the Fall version of Choral Canada's "Anacrusis" Journal. As well, my blog garnered some local media attention for the first time in an Edmonton Sun article. My studies at the Summer Vocology Institute in Salt Lake City inspired some voice science posts as well.

To say that 2012 has been a great speechie, singing, and blogging year is an understatement. In some ways, I wonder if I have peaked given the burst of opportunity that I have been presented with this past year. No matter what, I am certain if my teenage self had to reevaluate my current path, she would initially be surprised but proud that I have not compromised either my career aspirations or musical passion. I have developed a multi-faceted area of interests such as voice science, rehabilitation, choral singing, and blogging and, by doing the things I enjoy, I have somehow formed a life template that incorporates all of my interests.

Thank-you to all of my readers this past year. I hope to bring you more inspired content in 2013.

Con Fuoco Reunited

My favorite blog posts of 2012:

What do Choristers Do?

My inaugural post for Sound + Noise and my chance to introduce myself to new audiences in a refreshing format.

The Culture of Fear

A post that challenged me to evaluate what I find fulfilling in past choral relationships and my personal feelings on how this has shaped me into the performer I am today.

A Vocal Diagnosis

A post incorporating my approach to voice rehabilitation and how this extends to vocal pedagogy.

Painting the Nightingale

This post resulted after I came home from Pro Coro rehearsal and could not sleep because I was too buzzed. The rehearsal process for Praulin's "The Nightingale" was utterly consuming and rewarding. I have been waiting a long time to sing music like this. As well, receiving a personal message from Praulins himself in response to my post was a choir girl highlight.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Christmas Update

Greetings readers,

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

It's hard to keep this in mind when I find myself becoming a bit of a hypochondriac. Every cough or sniffle reminds me of my proximity to sickness. With a calendar filled with singing commitments, I know this is definitely NOT the time to be sick.

So far so good.

Pro Coro had a Christmas concert in Sherwood Park at the start of this month where we resurrected some familiar songs from our 'Once Upon a Time' concert (by the way, that concert is available for your streaming pleasure on CBC Music at this link). Our Sherwood Park concert was a good chance to sing through our Christmas repertoire for our larger Christmas concert at the Winspear Centre this Sunday. Some of the works on the programme is Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols," which is a choral favorite of mine from my treble choir years, Chilcott's "Rose in the Middle of Winter," Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque," and Nickel's "Creator Alme Siderum." Nickel's piece was premiered by Pro Coro two seasons ago. The Pro Coro concert out in Sherwood park was intimate and the audience was extremely appreciative. While it was a draining process to prepare with consecutive rehearsals from Sunday to Wednesday and braving the snowy commute to Sherwood Park, it was nice to share our music with a different audience.

Backstage at Festival Place in Sherwood Park

This is also my first Christmas where I don't have any academic obligations. No Master's thesis defense, no thesis edits, no final exam studying, no scrambling to finish up paperwork for clinical placements... it actually has resulted in a really manageable season. I only sing when I want to sing. It's a luxury I haven't had in the past. I was able to pick up a few caroling gigs with my previous women's choir, Belle Canto, which included singing at some lovely venues, such as Fort Edmonton Park. There's something about caroling inside while the snow softly drifts outside upon historical Edmonton houses from 1905. I sang with some ladies which I haven't seen since Ottawa when we were at the Podium choir conference in May. There is just something so comforting when you are singing amongst familiar voices. I even saw some friendly audience faces: a fellow Pro Coro chorister singing at the historical church down the street and a friend from University who was working at Fort Edmonton. During my break, she tried to convince me to sit on "Father Christmas'" lap, I declined once I learned that Father Christmas was actually younger than me.

I even had the time to take in some Christmas concerts. One being the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra performance of Handel's "Messiah" with the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, Alumni, and members of Richard Eaton Singers. The other concert was the Cantilon Choirs' "Dancing Day" concert. It was my first time ever watching a Cantilon Christmas concert and not singing in it. I was surprised at how relaxing it is was being on the other side of the stage as an audience member. The first half was structured more like a Christmas pageant highlighting carols from around the world and the second half included Rutter's "Dancing Day" performed by Belle Canto and the Cantilon Chamber Choir. It was fitting since the Chamber Choir just released their Christmas c.d. "The Time of Snow," where they recorded "Dancing Day." One of my favorite parts was the audience carols since it meant that I got to be conducted by Heather Johnson once again. When she gestures... I sing. I don't think that my programmed chorister discipline will ever escape me.

Cantilon Choirs' Dancing Day Concert

My Christmas singing obligations come to a close this Sunday for Pro Coro's Family Christmas concert. If you are in town, I recommend you come out to hear the harp playing of Keri Lynn Zwicker, Jeremy Spurgeon at the organ, Tommy Banks narrating "The Little Match Girl," and the voices of my fellow Pro Coro singers filling the hall with Christmas cheer.

Until next time readers, have a happy holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 2:30 PM
Tickets available at the Winspear Box Office (780-428-1414)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Start of Christmas

I am certain that everybody has their own poignant memories associated with Handel’s “Messiah.” Perhaps it is the “Hallelujah” chorus from a childhood cartoon, or maybe one of the other well-known Air’s such as “How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them,” often heard on classical music stations. I am sure many of the performers and audience members either formed or reminisced about their own experiences on Friday night.

As a result, I could not suppress thoughts of my very first "Messiah" performance four years ago. I remember my first performance vividly. I had spent a whole afternoon studying in the library for final exams. It was a particularly emotional week since I was coping with the passing of a family member at the time. I showed up at the call time of the performance and when I went to the bathroom to change, I noticed that everybody was wearing concert black. I had brought my Madrigal Singers uniform, which was a black and white gown. There was clearly a breakdown in the chain of communication for me.

“Uh-oh,” I thought to myself.

I knew I couldn’t walk out on the stage with my two-toned uniform. What was I going to do? Did I have enough time to go to a store to buy black clothing? The downtown shopping center was not far. Perhaps my parents hadn’t left home yet and they could bring me black clothes. I phoned them. No answer. I left a voicemail. I was being summoned to get on stage for the warm-up. I quickly change back into my street clothes, to reinforce the illusion that everything was under control, and went to warm-up on stage with the rest of the singers… who were all dressed in their concert black. The conductor expressed verbal displeasure at a tenor for wearing white sneakers with his tux. The tenor quickly assured him that somebody from home was bringing black shoes to remedy the mistake. Meanwhile, I was quivering with fear on my riser.

As soon as the warm-up was done, I ran back to the dressing room to find my cellphone to call once again. My parents had already left home and were at supper. An emotion I don’t often feel began to rise: panic. I spoke to my mother about my uniform crisis. She relayed this information to my father. I heard him state that he just happened to be wearing two long-sleeved cashmere polo shirts that night… one of them happened to be black. My mother wears black as her daily uniform. She said I could wear her pants. I closed my eyes in silent horror. Between my sister and I, my mother’s black pants, to this day, are the creative inspiration for our loving mom criticism. These pants are somehow baggy, yet tapered, at the same time. The pants zip up on the side, the leg tapers downward with a baggy silhouette to the ankles, and there is ample rise to accommodate babies I haven’t birthed. In short, they are mom-pants.

This was no time to be picky. I heartily agreed to this makeshift concert black. My mother arrived at the Winspear and I rushed her backstage to do a clothing swap in the dressing room. The pants zipped up easily enough, but I had to hold the waist to keep them up, and my father’s long-sleeve polo draped over my shoulders. I was swimming in clothing. I handed my mother my low-rise skinny jeans. To this day, I’m still not sure what was worse: the fact that I had to walk out on stage, clutching my waist so that my pants wouldn’t fall off… or the fact that my mother was able to fit into my skinny jeans.

This moment is seared into my “Messiah” memory.

I was glad to see that there appeared to be no uniform crises on stage during the Friday "Messiah" performance. It was quite a sight to actually listen to the “Messiah” live for the first time and not be singing it. Furthermore, it was so lovely to see so many familiar faces in the chorus. It is quite amazing to see a wide array of community singers, joining together, and donating their time to collectively indulge in the sheer joy of singing. For being a recently assembled group of 80, they had a cohesive sound, especially the women sections. I felt that the chorus sound didn’t settle until the “For Unto Us a Child is Born” chorus in Part I and I could tell that diction was something they were working hard to convey throughout the performance. Some of the trilling subtlety that Leonard Ratzlaff described to me in the preview was only audible to me in “His Yoke is Easy.” Unfortunately, as soon as everybody was singing and playing, all the vocal detail work was lost.

Also noteworthy was the lyricism of tenor, Colin Balzer. There was such vibrant energy behind his words such as “laugh,” “scorn,” and “dash.” Female soloists, Noah and Giunta, approached their sections with more operatic flare. Bass-baritone, Bintner, had a lovely moment in “Why Do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together” when the chorus rose with such unison passion behind him that they looked like a mob gang as they broke out into “Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder.”

It was a refreshing evening out to hear familiar music. While the baroque detail work was lost within the Winspear space, the performance still was successful in achieving its goal: it signaled the start of Christmas for many audience members. 

If you have a Messiah memory to share, feel free to post it in the comments section below!

Conductor: Stephen Stubbs
Musicians: Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
U of A Madrigal Singers (Leonard Ratzlaff, conductor), MAD’s alumni, volunteer Richard Eaton Singers
Yannick-Muriel Noah, soprano
Wallis Guinta, mezzo-soprano
Colin Balzer, tenor
Gordon Bintner, baritone

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Refreshing Take on Handel's "Messiah"

A Christmas Carol.

The Nutcracker.

Handel's "Messiah." 

These titles automatically cue a seasonal association. One of the aforementioned titles, Handel's "Messiah, is seasonal favorite at the Winspear Centre. This year the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra performs "Messiah" along with the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, who will also be joined by past alumni and members of the Richard Eaton Singers to form a solid chorus of 80 singers. In a time where there are a limited amount of available singers and a plentiful amount of musical offerings, this collective approach to performance is mutually beneficial. Even though the Madrigal Singers performed "Messiah" last year, there are new singers learning it for the first time. As well, 35-40 RES singers, some of whom have sung Messiah 20-30 times, provide voices of experience that are united with youthful energy of the Madrigal Singers. 

Director of the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, Dr. Leonard Ratzlaff, reveals the refreshing interpretation of conductor, Stephen Stubbs. Stubbs is a specialist in early music. He has been introducing different concepts of trilling and bowing during rehearsals and, as a result, he provides a new perspective to consider the much-beloved Messiah work. Stubbs has been working on a light and expressive baroque style in Handel's "Messiah," with a layer of subtlety that audience members will be sure to appreciate. Ratzlaff notes that this is possible because of the piece itself:

"[The Messiah] stands up so well to varying interpretations. It's such a strongly constructed work and every aspect of it is very compelling. It leaves a lot of opportunity for both musical imagination and Stubbs's historically informed approach."

The Messiah is composed of three sections. Part I of the Messiah focuses on the Christmas portion of the story, such as the birth of Christ. The second part documents the Passion story including the Crucifixion and ends with the "Hallelujah" chorus. The triumph of Part III can be heard in such choruses such as "Worthy is the Lamb." Ratzlaff feels it is interesting to note that even though the "Messiah" is associated with Christmas, the debut performance was in April 1742. Thus, the second and third parts actually have a closer association to Easter.

Ratzlaff also describes how four choruses in the "Messiah" are inspired from Handel's earlier Italian duets.

"It points to the fact that there is a musical integrity about Handel's writing and an inspiration behind it that not many people could have done, certainly not in the 24 days that, apparently, it took him to write," he states.

It is a season full of tradition and attending the "Messiah" is a wonderful way to participate. Who knows, the "Messiah" may very well become one of your own seasonal traditions it if isn't already. I hope to see some of you at the performance. I will be the one singing along... in my head.


Tickets available online or by calling the Winspear Centre box office (780-428-1414)


Friday December 7, 2012 at 7:30 PM

Saturday December 8, 2012 at 7:30 PM


Stephen Stubbs, conductor

U of A Madrigal Singers (Leonard Ratzlaff, conductor)
Yannick-Muriel Noah, soprano
Wallis Guinta, mezzo-soprano
Colin Balzer, tenor
Gordon Bintner, baritone