Community music writ large
It’s been a whirlwind three days in San Francisco, and it’s all winding down for me here at the airport waiting for a red-eye flight back to New York City. I opted for the overnight travel to maximize my time in this fabulous city, and the lack of sleep I’ll get tonight is a small price to pay for all the fun I’ve been having.
The primary reason for my trip here was to catch the last day of Chanticleer’s first National Youth Choral Festival (Chanticleer is a long-time client of our company, 21C Media Group). The four-day extravaganza had a lot of moving parts, and as a feat of logistics alone was an extraordinary achievement. More than four hundred high school choristers from across the country (and from throughout San Francisco Bay Area) had come here at the invitation of Chanticleer to study, rehearse and give a concert of serious choral music with them at Davies Symphony Hall. Some of the student singers traveled from far away (the furthest came from Hawaii, Georgia and Virginia), and their agendas were packed when they got here: they attended small and large group rehearsals; received diction coaching; watched a master class by three select students with Frederica (“Flicka”) von Stade and Zheng Cao; and then they all assembled on the main stage of Davies to sing for a packed house. Chanticleer’s music director, Matt Oltman, called it “the biggest thing we’ve ever done”. From my vantage point, it all seemed to come off without a hitch, and when the massed choirs and Chanticleer sang the final work of last night’s Gala concert, you couldn’t help but think that Chanticleer had done something that these young singers, and the 12 men of Chanticleer, would never forget.
Sitting over coffee this morning at Café Corbas on Hayes Street with Chanticleer’s president and general director, Christine Bullin, I was gratified to hear how pleased she was with the results. It had been a huge time and financial commitment to assemble such a huge program for so many students, but outreach is a key component to the group’s mission, and for the 10th anniversary of the founding of its education program, Chanticleer clearly had every intention of swinging for the fences.
“Lives will really be changed by this event,” Christine said at our sidewalk table. It was a clear, brisk morning, and the smell of flowers and roasted coffee was wafting in the breezy air (for my taste, San Francisco on a sunny day is just about the most perfect place on earth). “Just think about what these young singers have experienced. They’ve performed two pieces by young, living composers whom they’ve met through video conferencing; they’ve had live instruction in Chinese and other languages; they heard a famous opera singer – Frederica von Stade – singing next to them live: I wonder how many of them knew who she was beforehand? I’m not sure how many of them had been to Davies Symphony Hall before, but I’m sure many of them if not most of them hadn’t. And now they’ve sung on the stage of one of the world’s great halls!”
I missed the first three days of the festival because I was in New York catching a few installments of Iván Fischer’s Beethoven symphonies cycle, so I missed all of the preparatory work done by the students. The program for the final day was all about the payoff for all their hard work. It began early in the morning at Davies when each of the 12 choirs came out individually to sing a couple of songs on the main stage. Choirs that weren’t singing sat among the other audience members in the hall and applauded enthusiastically. The variety of works that were sung was impressive, and it was entertaining to see what each group did to try to stand out, either visually (everyone in one group wore bright red sneakers) or vocally (the Santa Rosa High School Chamber Singers drew plenty of laughs for their rendition of Ryan Cayabyab’s Da Coconut Nut). I remembered at least one song, The Battle of Jericho, from when I sang it in music class as a child, but the arrangements here were light years ahead in terms of sophistication.
After a break for lunch, three talented young soloists came out for a master class with mezzo-sopranos Frederica von Stade and Zheng Cao. They brought along a German and French language coach from San Francisco Opera, who gave her comments with Yoda-style authority while seated on the side of the stage. Soprano Patricia St Peter from the San Francisco School of the Arts worked on Do Not Go, My Love a touching love song by Richard Hageman, which the ever-ebullient von Stade admitted to not knowing previously. Flicka urged the young singer to trust her command of her voice enough to push for greater intensity of expression. Nathan Wilen from Palo Alto High School (a stone’s throw away from my alma mater, Stanford University) was the sweet-voiced tenor. He worked on Schubert’s Lachen und Weinen, and von Stade shared a pearl of wisdom that she had picked up from Marilyn Horne about making sure to hold you head at exactly the right angle to catch the spotlight (she also humorously showed him how his less-than-perfect stance on stage was probably to be blamed on typical text-messaging posture). Cara Gabrielson, a soprano from Portland’s Pacific Youth Choir, displayed a confidence as bright as the yellow dress she was wearing. She really dazzled the audience, and the coaches, with Arditi’s Il baccio, a showpiece of an aria with technical demands that the young singer met with aplomb. “You’re a natural performer – wonderful!” was Zheng Cao’s enthusiastic verdict, and the audience gave the young soprano a rousing ovation.
After the master class, the students assembled for a final rehearsal for the big gala concert. And what a concert! This was no greatest hits showcase, but a serious and satisfying program of diverse choral music (in six languages no less: French, Latin, Irish Gaelic, Chinese, English and Kenyan). Matt Oltman, who conducted most of the evening’s performances, also played host from the podium – all with his usual wide-eyed enthusiasm. Rather than seat each choir together, all of the members were blended together in the massed choir. The reason, Matt had explained earlier, was not only to encourage each individual singer to be more self-reliant, but also to encourage each chorister to strike up new friendships with members of other choirs. It was an inspired idea that paid a visual dividend as well: each choir member wore his or her typical performing attire, giving the massed group’s appearance that of a living mosaic.
In true Chanticleer style, a small group of select singers came together for a special Honor Choir that prepared and sang John Wilbye’s delightful and technically daunting madrigal, Sweet Honey Sucking Bees. Unlike the rest of the music on the program, the singers only received the music for this madrigal after they arrived in San Francisco, and gave their terrific performance after just two hours of rehearsal.
The big-ticket item on the program was Daniel-Lesur’s cantata Annonciation, which received its US premiere and was introduced by the composer’s son. As he spoke, chairs were set up for the orchestra that was to accompany the choir, drawn from area youth symphonies. Von Stade came back out, this time as narrator. It was a beautiful, mostly tender, and very evocative work. I could only marvel at Matt and his colleagues’ abilities to bring so many young performers together in so short a time for such a confident performance.
Chanticleer’s education director, Ben Johns, received a rousing ovation from the choristers when he came out to say a few words about all of the technologies that were utilized to make such a complicated event possible (including Skyping Irish composer Michael McGlynn at 5.30am his time for some Gaelic coaching. He gave his instruction from the bathroom of his house so as not to wake up his sleeping family). Ben then asked everyone in the hall to do something that may never have been done before in a concert hall: the audience and performers were invited to take photos and upload them to the social networking site of their choice. Not sure if was the first Twitter pause in concert history, but it certainly reminded you that these Internet-generation singers would have more ways of staying in touch with newfound friends than they ever would have in the past.
I’m sure everyone in the audience was choking up as frequently as I was throughout the evening, but it only got worse (or better, if crying is your thing) as the evening neared its conclusion. Flicka returned to sing Shenandoah with the choir, followed by an infectiously joyful Wana Baraka, a traditional Kenyan song arranged here by Shawn Kirchner. The music directors of the 12 choirs then came on stage and were greeted rapturously by the singers, and as the audience responded in kind the antiphonal applause rolling to and from the stage created huge waves of good feeling.
Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, long the most-favored encore given by Chanticleer at the end of virtually every concert during the holiday season, was the last item on the program. If there’s a more beautiful choral work than this one, I don’t know what is (and please leave a comment if you’d like to suggest what it might be). The massed choirs, the 12 music directors and 12 members of Chanticleer among them, created a sound of luxurious, radiant warmth that this listener didn’t want to end.