Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Canadian Chamber Choir in Chicago


Photo by Andy Rice, courtesy of Canadian Chamber Choir

There appears to be a raw void following a period of intense music making. During the past week on tour with the Canadian Chamber Choir, I had the privilege to connect with other singers through song. As on any tour, energy levels peak and dip, rippling through proximal choristers. The majority of these emotions are one of elation, compassion, and warmth; however, there is a compounding fatigue which leaves one wondering if a nap, caffeine, or snack are adequate to give an energy boost to get through another 2.5 hours of rehearsal.

Having an afternoon to explore Navy Pier before the first rehearsal
Travel always gives an opportunity to highlight what one needs in order to maintain self-care. I implemented small ways to maintain my stability: I brought my own coffee hand grinder and aeropress to ensure consistent caffeine delivery each morning. I tried to have some outdoor time everyday for a few minutes whether it was lying on the grass outside or venturing out for a walk in the pouring rain to get a coffee from a nearby cafe. When there is so much that is outside your zone of control, it is important to embrace small ways you need to regulate yourself.

There was a large focus on educational workshops with choral communities of sizes and age ranges. I remember looking out into the audience at Nicholas Senn Highschool and watching friends hold each others' hands as they watched us sing an arrangement of Gordon Lightfoot's Song for a Winter's Night. One of the members, who also happened to be Captain of the football team, chuckled with disbelief at the low range of the basses in our choir. Every time I see moments like this, it reminds me of the first time I saw the CCC performing in Edmonton. It couldn’t believe that singers could fly into one location from all across Canada and perform at such a professional level. I often have these moments reflected back at me when I watch the faces of students watching Canadian Chamber Choir perform.

Another moment that floored me was watching Sullivan Highschool Students learn musical skills in a collaborative manner. We worked on the school Fight Song, Fight on Sullivan, Fight On. Two students sharing the bench at an electronic keyboard and playing the chords announced by their teacher. The keyboard keys had stickers on each of the notes with the note names to help them landmark which chord they would need. I have since learned that Sullivan Highschool has a large immigrant and refugee student population. It appeared as if the the social, economic, and racial labels for each of these students could be temporarily set aside during these musical moments of unification.

Who knew that in the basement of the Oakdale Covenant Church in south side Chicago was the Oakdale Children’s Choir under the direction of Terrance Smith? Hearing them learn without sheet music in a call and response structure with Terrance was some of the most electrifying, invigorating, and exciting feats of choral singing I have ever heard in my life. I had goosebumps during the entire performance. It’s like somebody turned up the dial on volume and searing resonance and my ear drums hummed in response to the electrifying sound they were creating. It was also a marvel to see them create something so amazing on the grit of their local community and charismatic musical leader.




Another important component during this tour was working on the Where the Waters Meet project with Composer, Carmen Braden, and Indigenous Dancer, Activist, Actress, Model Sarain Carson-Fox. It will be a collaborative commission surrounding water: personal memories, safety, access, all articulated through sound and dance. Sarain opened the process with a smudge ceremony to unify the singers and acknowledge the water in all of us, further emphasizing the similarities in ourselves before we began to discuss the differences that still exist in the relationships between settlers and Indigenous people. As Carmen described it, the areas where two sources of water meet is often turbulent and muddy. However, navigating that process is still something she was committed to as a composer and one we collectively agreed, as Artists, was an important one to continue. Never before have I had the opportunity to sing sound sketches by a composer in formative compositional stages. A commissioned work is given to me by the conductor in its completed form. However, in this process, I get to see the thought process that goes into creating a new work. What is a privilege it is to have time allocated to this creative process.



The past week with Canadian Chamber Choir reinforced the importance of non-competitive spaces where you can create Art. For me, it was allowing myself to relinquish a sense of inner control and invite a connection with others through shared voices. Being grateful or privileged doesn’t begin to describe the lingering feelings following the tour. If I think about my own family, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose each other. We had to learn how to live with one another. Being chosen to join a choir, being adopted into a family, it feels entirely different. You trust in the vision of another and the members create an inclusive space. I can think of no higher compliment than to be adopted into a choir family. It renews a vigor in me to embrace challenges, continue learning, and to keep performing.

More photos from the past week:
A lovely desert platter of USA and CA love hosted by the Canadian Women's Club of Chicago
Singing at the Bahá'í temple

The idyllic pumpkin patch outside Trinity United Methodist Church


The most beautiful display exhibit/coffee table at my billet's home in Skokie, IL. My homestay host, Joe, served in the US Military posted in North Korea and Japan, came back to teach history at a local highschool for 35+ years, and though retired, now gives school tours at the Field Museum. I miss our morning time of reading a paper copy of the Chicago Tribune and listening to a Lyric Opera Chicago broadcast on the radio.
Pre-concert rest before our performance at Anderson Chapel at North Park University

More social media gems over the past week:


Check out Canadian Chamber Choir's blog for more posts:


Day 1

Day 2 and 3

Friday, June 9, 2017

The First Edmonton International Choral Festival





This past weekend was the first edition of Edmonton's International Choral Festival. VoNo Vocal ensemble from Stockholm, Sweden and the Halifax Camerata Singers traveled to Edmonton to participate in the Festival. As I've been ruminating over the past week since the Festival has finished, the lingering feeling I have now is how well the past, present, and future were represented throughout the festival.

The Halifax Camerata Singers' Halifax 1917: From Dreams to Despair  was modern in its presentation while sharing a significant historical moment from Halifax's past. The format of the show was an interwoven musical and textual chronology of life in Halifax from January to December 1917. The Rhapsody Quintet provided an instrumental anchor at the core of the work with Actor, Jeremy Webb, voicing the part of a WWI solider who is reading out his letters to home. As each month passes, different musical themes would emerge to highlight a historical period, such as the welcoming of the New Year with Auld Lang Syne or Operetta tunes like Vilja-Lied from The Merry Widow. The use of projection and presentation of a Charlie Chaplin short with live instrumental accompaniment by the Rhapsody Quintet also created a moment where the audience could feel transported back in time. The work progressed towards the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917. The entire show was the perfect balance between historical discourse with written letters, musical vignettes through solo and choral ensemble works, and instrumental works by Rhapsody Quintet. Brava, Halifax Camerata Singers and a special kudos to Peggy Walt for her months of archival research to write the letters and identify the historical themes in the show.


Pro Coro's repertoire was focused around themes of past childhood memories but re-imagined with a contemporary compositional voice. It began with the ethereal and playful bernat vivancos bubbles, which by the way, had the best comedic moment in our show. A percussion triangle was decimated by a chorister. She went to strike it on cue, it snapped into two pieces, then crashed to the floor during a quiet suspension in the piece. You're welcome, Kim :) There was the world premiere of Uģis Prauliņš' The Way Children Sleep that posed questions of how watching the innocence of sleeping children can make one reevaluate the role of war in our society. Cy Giacomin's, the boy in outerspace, that was recently premiered by Vox Choir, used poetic text written by a boy with Autism. Pro Coro also tossed in a prairie welcome with Trent Worthington's Alberta Homesteader and Flunky Jim and Stuart Beatch's Prairie Bound on the program. Pro Coro also had the pleasure of being conducted by Kathleen Allen, the Emerging Choral Conductor sponsored by Choral Canada. She conducted Tormis' Helletused, Childhood Memory. While I consider her to be far from emerging, she humbly assured me that everyday she is learning means that she is becoming a better conductor. I find her resistance to settling very inspirational.


VoNo Vocal Ensemble was the group I had the least familiarity with before going to their concert. I am so glad this was the case because their presentation of Earth Calls blew my mind. It gave me a glimpse of what the future of choral music could look like by adapting the present day tools we have to communicate with an audience. The use of choreography was sleek and created flow throughout the entire show. There was also a segment with choral improvisation where audience members would shout out a number from 1-17, and whichever number was heard, it was the basis for a short improvised work from the ensemble. Each number corresponded to one of the United Nation's Goals for sustainable development. They would take that goal concept and improvise text and music for it.  I've watched a lot of improvised theatre and I've watched a lot of modern dance but I have never seen it done with professional choral singers before. Sometimes the best ideas are ones that take the things we know and merge them together to synthesize something new.



The Gala Choir was made up of singers representing 42 local Edmonton choral organizations. Each spotlight choir had a chance to sing 2 pieces and then the Gala Choir was conducted by Robert Sund. It was also a special treat to have Paul Mealor conduct In the Bleak Midwinter and Robert Sund conducting his arrangement of Sukiyaki with Pro Coro's youth choir, #CONNECT. Michael Zaugg noted that Robert Sund conducted his very first Festival choir experience in 1994. There was a sense of past meeting the present on a local and international level. I can't wait to see what the next Edmonton International Choral Festival brings to town on May 30-June 2, 2019. Mark it in your calendars.



As well, Pro Coro Canada just launched a collaboration with the Leading Note in a new series of music for advanced and professional choirs. Many contemporary Canadian works PCC has sung over the past few years, as well as at this YEG International Choral Festival, are now available for purchase. You'll see familiar names like: Cy Giacomin, Stuart Beatch, Kristopher Fulton, Jeff Smallman, Jason Noble, Robert Rival, and Cecilia Livingston.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Sassy Sisters of Cinderella. An Interview with Caitlin Wood and Sylvia Szadovszki.


Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

The sisters of Cinderella sparkle with a searing sassiness. Soprano, Caitlin Wood, and Mezzo-Soprano, Sylvia Szadovszki play the sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, in Edmonton Opera’s upcoming production of Cinderella. There is an instantaneous connection and infectious charm that is amplified when they are within proximity of one another. They have a tendency to finish each other sentences, release a unison giggle at comedic moments, and offer each other knowing looks of support as they help each other formulate answers that reflect their personal experience.

Caitlin Wood as Clorinda. Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

There is a sense of homecoming in many ways since Caitlin grew up in St. Albert and Sylvia in Calgary. This is Caitlin’s debut performance with Edmonton Opera and she shares, “it’s nice to be home and to be able to perform at home. A lot of family, friends, and one of my mentors who got me into music growing up will be coming. They haven’t seen me perform since highschool.” In her last highschool production, she was playing Maria in West Side Story. It will be definite treat for her supporters to hear her in this professional role.

Sylvia Szadovszki as Tisbe. Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Sylvia is ecstatic to be back at Edmonton Opera after her previous work in the Barber of Seville. “When you first get hired, you don’t know the people there, but everybody here is so nice, sweet, supportive, and fun. It makes coming back to the company just really awesome,” she reveals.

Caitlin notes, “To me, Clorinda and Tisbe, they’re are always together. Once I met Sylvia, I found it so easy to see who these characters are going to be.” Even though they both entered the rehearsal process with ideas of who their characters might be, these traits were not fully formed until they met one another. “We come with our own ideas of the character but we are flexible and amend things in rehearsal. When you are in this rehearsal situation, it becomes so much easier to see a character and play off of each other. When practicing recit alone, it’s basically impossible,” says Sylvia. 
Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

When asked about who they thought their characters were before they entered the rehearsal process, both Sylvia and Caitlin reveal they knew the sisters were mean but they didn’t realize how Director, Rob Herriot, would play it up with comedic effect. “I probably thought that the sisters were more under control, but I feel like now, they’re absolute brats. I probably thought they’re late teenagers, early 20s, they’re probably not going to throw an entire fit. But they do. I think they’re those people never taught or corrected by their parents to be kind,” says Caitlin. “We’re very uncivilized,” says Sylvia with a warm laugh.

In commenting on how they are finding the quick-paced costume changes, the relentless Rossini bel canto runs, and the cast of quirky characters, Sylvia reveals that “the whole cast has a really good sense of humor. Everyone is quick-witted, one of the most fun processes I’ve ever been a part of.” She cites Stephen Hegedus, playing Alidoro in the production, as having some choice comedic moments in the rehearsal process. 
Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Fashion inspiration from the 1950s plays a huge role in this performance. Edmonton Opera costume designer, Deanna Finnman, plays with a wide palette of color, texture, and structure in the sisters’ dresses. Caitlin recalls the first time she went in for a fitting: "I immediately thought “these are what these girls are going to look like.” It helped me figure out who the characters after seeing the costumes and going into the fitting. It takes a really specific person to pull off these dresses. I think the sisters are exactly that, very loud, garish, go big or go home." Sylvia further elaborates in the fashions for each sister: "Caitlin’s costumes are more poofy, huge dresses and mine are more angled. We have taken that information into how we move and how our characters do certain gestures.  There’s never been a time when I’ve gotten in a costume and it hasn’t amplified the character. You get so many more ideas. I could play with this bow, I could walk tighter way because I’m in a tighter skirt.”

The constant contact over the past few weeks has increased the sisterly bond between Caitlin and Sylvia. “People have actually made observations that we answer questions the exact same way, we’ll say the exact same thing on the exact same pitch. We have melded,” says Sylvia. “We are now related,” states Caitlin with a laugh. Sylvia begins, “I felt like we had this instant little…sisterly bond,” says Caitlin finishing the sentence.

Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

As the Edmonton Opera cast of Cinderella is working their way through tech week before opening night this Saturday. Both Sylvia and Caitlin muse about their favorite upcoming moments. Caitlin is eager to start running through the eight costume quick changes she does throughout the show. “It’s always exciting to have things come together finally,” says Sylvia, “having all the pieces of the puzzle come together.”

Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

The sister duo of Caitlin and Sylvia have the power to steal the show with killer comedic timing and how they embrace the ridiculousness and excess at the core of the sisters. Both Caitlin and Sylvia overflow with gratitude towards Edmonton Opera, and I would not be surprised if their performances leave the audience asking themselves: when can I see them again?


Cinderella performances:
February 4 at 8 PM
February 7 at 7:30 PM
February 9 at 7:30 PM

Tickets are available online at Edmonton Opera

Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Friday, January 27, 2017

An Interview with Jane Berry




To state that Jane Berry had a challenging year from October 6, 2015 to October 7, 2016 is an understatement. In addition to being a PhD student, professional chorister, running a beach volleyball club, and mother to 5 year-old Piper, she spent the majority of her time taking care of her mother, Marilyn Berry. Marilyn underwent surgery for brain tumour removal on October 6, 2015. Following that surgery, Jane witnessed her mom cycle through gains and losses while maintaining a connection to her mother through good humour and music.

Personally, as a fellow chorister witnessing Jane manage her multiple roles from the sidelines, it was staggering to see her navigate this complex process when reading her Facebook updates or chatting with her at choir break. I also remember catching glimpses of her composing her first major choral work, the Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising in dedication to Marilyn Berry, who passed away on October 7, 2016.

Initially, Jane’s Mass for Recovery began as a counterpoint exercise. She was a teaching assistant for a second year counterpoint class and found herself frequently sketching melodies in down time during lectures.

“I found myself writing the Kyrie, the section with the women's voices before the bass solo, the part that returns again at the end. Pro Coro was also starting to prepare for the Missae production last year. The year before we had done the Rheinberger, Praulins, and Frank Martin Mass. The opening Kyrie is basically adapted from Frank Martin’s mass; it had a huge impact on me. I recalled the line in my mind but not the true form of it, my mind had adapted that line. That is a strong musical quotation in my mind. I started writing just the Kyrie. I was working on it in Pro Coro rehearsal one day, and Michael [Zaugg] was looking over my shoulder, and said, “Oh, what’s that? a Kyrie? Send it to me.” I had very little done at the time; I had only that initial section completed. Six weeks later, I sent him the entire mass.“

She did not expect Michael to program the entire Mass. “In all honesty, Michael expressing interest in wanting to see it, and suggesting that we might perform it, was this really strange vote of confidence in me that I didn’t expect. I don’t know if I would have gone farther than the Kyrie,” she reveals.

“What happened when I started fleshing out the Kyrie, I started to incorporate my experience watching my mom. There is a voiceless motive in the Kyrie that was specifically related to my mom's recovery. Michael’s encouragement made me finish the Kyrie. That is when I had the motivation and inspiration to write the whole Mass and really link it to her recovery. Everything sprang from the motivation of wanting to finish the Kyrie. My mom was already in the hospital by the time I finished the Kyrie, and when she woke up from surgery, that was when I started being at the hospital every single day. Basically, six weeks after my mom finished having surgery, I was done the Mass. From there, I did the majority of edits after she died.” A warm tone of gratitude is evident when Jane speaks about Michael’s role. She lauds his patience and his collaborative input in the editorial process of the score.

Jane chose to use the Mass framework and Latin text in a modern way: “I think having a contemporary setting of that text was important. If I had been too traditional with it, it wouldn’t have felt like a representation of my mom. She was both religious and contemporary as well. I tried to reflect that balance she had in the setting of it.” Each of the Mass movements is also paired with a subtitle that documents a stage in her mother’s recovery: Kyrie - The Speechless Awakening, Gloria - Breakthroughs & Breakdowns, Credo - Turbulence, Memories & 1000 Needles, Sanctus - The Battle of Glenrose*, Benedictus - Angels & Prayers, Agnus Dei - Going Home. “The entire piece was based on her rediscovery of things that she lost during surgery: language, memory, lucidity to some extent. This battle of regaining and losing, having these amazing breakthroughs and ridiculous regressions where she would go from fluent speech one day to nothing the next,” Jane states.

“One of the things I have an incredible amount of respect for my mom was that she was so liberal and progressive. Working as a feminist, working for women’s rights, running a shelter for battered women and children, and being a social worker. It was really interesting to see her involvement with religion. It’s something that hugely influenced my life. I remember times when we went to this church that was huge, and borderline cultish,” she says with a laugh, “but they had a really good music program. She would lean forward during the sermon, loud enough so many around us could hear, “ok, and this is where the pastor interpreted things a little wrong, this historically happens very often, the wife doesn’t actually have to serve…” Whenever it came to issues of gender in the church she was very vocal about her rationale about how she compromised with this liberal side of her and how she consolidated with her interpretation of religion,” she says.

There is a meticulous musical design behind the entire work: “Basically, my theorist self made me write it chronologically. My idea behind the whole thing is the structure of two tonalities. If you look at any of the movements, there is a underlying structure of a ninth: first movement has C minor and G minor overlapping so the fifth becomes the root for the next chord etc. etc. It starts in C, with the ninth reaching up to D, and the D then cycles through acting as the root of the next movement. It worked out with the six movements I could end up back in C so it forms a full circle. That idea came really early to me. There was a duality in her recovery process, progression and regression, so having two kind of competing tonalities seemed appropriate. Somehow I also feel like this duality relates to her her decision to finally have surgery. Although she was diagnosed in 2003 she decided not to have surgery at that time. We were all supportive, especially in retrospect, knowing that she may not have lived to see my daughter if she had chosen to have surgery at an earlier stage. But she had such a good quality of life in the interim. There was this dichotomy in every aspect of her recovery. She was stuck between two worlds. She was aware of what she had lost. The more lucid she was the more painful it was for her. Near the end, she was almost calmer.”



Each of the movements documents its own story in the recovery process: “The Benedictus, Angels and prayers, was about a few specific nurses from the U of A Hospital. They would take her for extra bubble baths, shut the door, and sing to her. It was my mother’s favourite thing. The movement began as detailing these specific individuals and then changed to represent a sort of resignation. This movement was the most religious movement for my mom. She was struggling with faith and understanding why things were turning out the way they were. Now the Benedictus has evolved to be more about the period in time when she got to come home. Where my daughter, Piper, could come in and dance around her and give her hugs.” Jane wove the fragments of melodies she would sing at her mother’s bedside within the Credo: Bizet’s Habanera, Garth Brook’s The River, and the American folk tune, Cross the Wide Missouri. Her mother knew the Kyrie and Gloria the most. There is a Laudamus Te melody in the Gloria, which her mother knew as “her song.”

The subtitles of the movements became more prophetic than even Jane could have predicted. She titled the “Battle of Glenrose” before her mother was even admitted as an inpatient. Prior to that transfer, Marilyn spent just over three months at the University of Alberta Hospital recovering from her neurosurgery. It was her mother’s move into the Glenrose that signaled the start of many complications, especially her struggle with depression. The Agnus Dei “Going Home” relayed the feeling of the unknown, as it was originally written while Marilyn was still in the hospital Jane was unsure of what the end would really look like, whether going home would represent a return to their apartment or her mothers passing.

It is no surprise that Jane wrote the piece with Pro Coro’s sound in her mind. She is blunt in stating that the work wouldn’t be as good as it is if she had to limit herself in term of functional composition restraints such as range. She wrote parts with specific chorister voices in her mind. Her experience as a singer is also apparent in the score since soloistic lines weave throughout all voice parts. She wrote melodies she would want to sing.

Jane notes that Pro Coro’s upcoming concert with the premiere of Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising will feel like a memorial in some ways. Many of the individuals she would have wanted to be at her mother’s memorial in Edmonton will either be singing in the concert or are planning to attend. Her sister is flying in from Halifax the day before and her family here in Edmonton is waiting for the end of winter before travelling back to Halifax for a ceremony in their home province.

Speaking as a chorister and friend who has witnessed Jane’s life from the sidelines, it is a true pleasure to be able to premiere her work. I feel honoured to be part of the choral community that can help a fellow chorister remember her mother, channeling our collective voices through a musical medium. In April 2016, I was part of a quartet of singers that sang at her mother’s bedside. I still recall the look in her mother’s eyes. There was spark of excitement but tears pooling at the edges. I remember how lucid she looked, and how Jane laughed when she realized the strength of her mother’s grip on her arm as she was trying to pull away. The Mass for Recovery reminds me that when a loss for words renders us speechless, we will always have the role of music to communicate what cannot be spoken.


Pro Coro Canada will premiere Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising Sunday January 29, 2017 at their Missae IV Concert. All Saints Cathedral at 2:30 PM.
 
*The Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital is a facility providing inpatient and outpatient services in Edmonton, AB.
 
Jane grew up singing and composing from an early age before eventually going on to begin her music studies at Acadia University where she completed a BMUS in Composition. She then continued to complete a MA at the University of Ottawa and is now in the final year of her PhD at the University of Alberta. Jane Berry is thrilled to be performing as a member of Pro Coro Canada for her fifth season now and is also a member of several of Pro Coro’s specialized smaller ensembles. Jane enjoys working as a vocal coach for the Etown Minors acapella group, teaching at the University, running a local beach volleyball training facility, and most importantly, spending time with her beautiful daughter, Piper. Her academic research interests include music cognition, autism and sensory sensitivity issues, abstract and graphic score analysis, and popular music studies. After a long hiatus from composition Jane recently found herself compelled to pick up writing again following some difficult life events and has since found a renewed joy in composition.