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You Say Tomayto, I say Tomahto

September 21, 2009

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What happens when a choral ensemble from one country attempts to sing the music of another tradition? Sometimes being an outsider brings a whole new perspective on the culture of a different place and fireworks ensue. Sometimes the effort, though well-intentioned, results in a complete misfire.

I experienced both of these outcomes over the weekend at a pair of choral concerts by two fine choirs, The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge from the UK and the Bay Area's Clerestory ensemble. Both groups feature terrific singers and perform a fairly wide repertoire. But while Clerestory managed to pull off many of the English works it performed in its concert of music dating from the Middle Ages to the present, Trinity College Choir 's concert of mostly liturgical works fell flat when the group attempted to sing American songs.

The globe-trotting Trinity Choir, one of the best mixed choirs in the UK, is currently on a US west coast tour. The group performed an eclectic mix of music by composers as diverse as Arvo Part, J S Bach, Henry Purcell and Pawel Lukaszewski at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on Friday night. Music by English composers dominated the evening's lineup and the group brought richness and feeling to all the music in the first half. I was particularly moved by the shimmering performances of Thomas Tallis' "O Nata Lux", Purcell's "Hear my Prayer" and William Byrd's "Civitas Sancti Tui".

But in the second half, Trinity Choir's attempts to sing negro spirituals were pretty laughable. The singers tried their best to loosen up and get into the "hallelujah" spirit for arrangements of "Way Over in Beulah-lan'", "Goin' Home to God" and "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho" arranged by Joseph Jennings, Steve Barnett and Jonathan Rathbone respectively. But they were way too stiff and seemed pretty uncomfortable with the music's showy high notes and ecstatic exclamations. No amount of technical perfection helped their cause. I'm not sure what it would take to get these buttoned-up, Cambridge-educated, young singers to access the energy needed to pull off this kind of repertoire. More of an immersion in the spiritual tradition is necessary for sure. As it was, the effect was rather like watching a Monty Python skit.

The Bay Area-based members of Clerestory fared a lot better at the English repertoire in their concert at St Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco. The eight-strong all-male ensemble took an unusually democratic approach to programming. Each of the singers simply picked a song that he loved and the group performed the selection. The singer responsible for each selection wrote about the piece in the program, providing some background on the work as well as his own personal interest in and history with the music. Rarely have program notes been so interesting.

I rarely read program notes during a concert, so I tried to figure out from looking at the performers' faces which of the songs each one selected. In some cases, this was clear. There was a particularly rapturous look in one of the performers that gave the game away. Sometimes, though, it was harder to tell. In general, the technical proficiency of the singing sometimes led to a certain flatness of emotional communication. The sound was clean and bright. Each individual voice could be heard in the texture. The blend was generally smooth. But on some occasions, the overall effect was sparse and a little under-emotional. I couldn't tell if any of the singers were actually enjoying certain pieces at all, much less pick out the person for whom the song held particular weight.

Among my own personal favorite works of Clerestory's concert were a little-performed but extremely vivid motet -- "Memorare Christ a 7" by Mattheus Pipelare (c1450 - c1515) -- and Josquin Desprez's haunting "La Deploration sur la Mort de Jean Ockeghem". But I was probably equally swept away by the group's cool, clean approach to pieces by such British composers as John Tavener ("The Lamb"), John Rutter ("Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron"), Peter Warlock (The Shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi") and Byrd ("Gloria" from the Mass for Five Voices.)

I wonder if Clerestory's success and Trinity's failure suggests that Americans are more steeped in British musical traditions than Brits are in American traditions? I wouldn't be surprised if this were the case -- after all, there are several more centuries of history behind the English choral tradition than the American one. Or is it that English church songs are simply easier to sing than African-American ones?

PS This just in from Clerestory founder (and former Chanticleer member) Jesse Antin which I thought might be of interest -- thanks Jesse for allowing lies like truth to post your comments:

"I've always thought that choral arrangements of negro spirituals are a tough thing to ask of any white choir. We had some success in Chanticleer thanks to [ex-Chanticleer music director] Joe Jennings' inspiration and background, which contributed some integrity to our attempts. Still, even for us there was some self-consciousness. For an English cathedral choir, that much further removed from African American traditions, it might be too much to ask. This taps into two other pet peeves of mine. #1: why do choirs touring internationally try to sing music native to the place they're visiting? This is a terrible and overrated idea. The audience may appreciate the thought or the effort, but they can't have paid to hear a foreign choir sing (possibly butcher) their own music, which they probably hear all the time anyway. Bringing the choir's *own* native music, I can understand. #2: why do choirs (or their directors anyway) insist on adhering to the score note for note? Is it our classical music hang-up? I ask because what the Trinity director should have done -- if he insisted on performing spirituals at all -- is modify or leave out the parts that his choir couldn't do effectively. This is completely within a director's discretion and it makes for a performance with more integrity, not less. The idea of insisting on a rigid adherence to an arrangement of an African American style is particularly ironic."

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