Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Listen for Life Blog has a new home!

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Once in a very great while.....

Concert review of The Choral Project and the Canadian Brass: or, “How to make classical music sound amazing, beautiful, joyful, and FUN, all at the same time”

Once in a very great while, one attends a concert that immediately jumps to some imaginary, personal list of “Top Ten all-time best concert programs”, and for many audience members of the packed, sold-out house in downtown San Jose’s gorgeous Basilica of St Joseph on January 28, this was definitely one of those programs- and performances! The ever-popular Canadian Brass were absolutely amazing in terms of musicality, inventiveness, technical prowess, choreography, charisma, programming, tone quality, ensemble precision, dynamics, tone colors, personality, and complete command of their artistry and audience -    but another, equally amazing thing about Tuesday night’s concert was that in each of those categories, they in no way eclipsed or outshone their hosts and partner performers, The Choral Project of San Jose. (If you haven’t yet heard of this incredible group, check out their international tours and accolades at www.sjcp.org).

The Choral Project of San Jose was founded in 1996 by a multi-talented young musician and SJSU graduate, Daniel D. Hughes. They have gone from strength to strength, winning international choral competitions, numerous awards, grants, development funding, and constantly stellar reviews for their recordings, performances, and inventive programming – all completely deserved. At Tuesday night’s concert I happened to sit next to a retired SJSU music theory/composition professor who told me that already as a freshman and sophomore, young student Daniel (who began studying both piano and composition at age four) was naturally way ahead of his classmates, so the professor tried to keep him challenged with full orchestral-score sightreading tasks instead of the normal class assignments.
Daniel discovered his career aspiration under yet another SJSU professor-emeritus who became his mentor, the famed choral conductor Dr. Charlene Archibeque. Fittingly, one of the major works on Tuesday’s program was the world premiere of a piece composed by Daniel Hughes in her honor – called “Legacy”, it was a moving, hauntingly beautiful work combining The Choral Project with the Canadian Brass.

Mr Hughes composed both the text and music of “Legacy” after seeing a television documentary about the life cycle of stars and “super-novas” that burn their brightest just before disintegrating into particles which in turn produce future generations of matter and life. Mr Hughes likened this to great mentors, artists and inspirational figures who share, teach and give of their gifts intensely, using their life energy and work to inspire the next generations. The quiet choral opening was gorgeous and kind of “spooky”, seeming to evoke the birth of the cosmos in sound. The climax of the piece featured three sopranos singing in very high tones with full volume, depicting the burning intensity and explosion...followed by eerie floating "space" when all of the instrumental accompaniment suddenly dropped away and the perfectly balanced choral parts were left quietly suspended, floating upwards in mid-air like a glider over a mountain’s edge….. creating, for the listeners, the unmistakable sensation that we were soaring in space like a slow-motion Star Trek on a particle of sound. All done with actual voices and acoustic instruments - no digital dials, or synthesized sounds so commonly used today to create similar (but not as soul-touching) results - it was rather amazing! (As was the huge standing ovation that the piece received, in the middle of the concert program). Kudos to Daniel Hughes for creating an audience-accessible modern composition for brass and choral ensemble with inspiring lyrics and evocative harmonies.
But Mr Huges also employs many other remarkable gifts in the service of The Choral Project concerts, and two of those gifts, especially, come to mind each time I think of Tuesday’s program:      
1.  He has an ear for the sound quality and blend of singers that is truly exceptional. Before attending this concert I had read numerous reviews of Mr Hughes that all commented on his uncanny ability to draw a highly professional vocal production and gorgeous blend of tones from even the most amateur and untrained singers. Having now heard this performance, all I can do is add my complete agreement to those comments. I would love to sit in on a rehearsal when they are learning new repertoire, to see if I can figure out what his secret is for inspiring such love, dedicated work, and – most importantly, I suspect – habits of refined listening (to each other), amongst his large and constantly growing ‘family’ of singers in The Choral Project.
2.  It is also saying something that his musical inspiration and quality results do attract many professional musicians who want to come sing with the group as well, in their spare time. But for the most part the 50+ singers are amateurs, although you would never have known it when hearing this concert. The blend of sopranos and altos sounded gentle and effortless, and the men, particularly in their close-harmony singing in several pieces, could honestly rival the Chanticleers or other male groups in their tone quality, pitch and seamlessness. In particular, all four vocal sections of The Choral Project gave the most beautiful performance of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria that one could ever imagine.   3.   In addition to the tonal blend, beauty and unity of attack that Mr Hughes obviously delights in producing from his singers, he must also enjoy using his highly creative mind to invent unique combinations of pieces that result in truly unusual and entertaining concert programs. Any concert producer should check out The Choral Project’s archive of past seasons and read the titles/themes of previous concerts over the years, or even just peruse the future ones for this current season, to get a feel for his creativity and insight – but also for his commitment to engaging and entertaining as diverse an audience as possible. 

The Choral Project has also developed many successful collaborations with other artists and organizations, and I suspect that Tuesday evening’s first concert with the Canadian Brass ensemble will not be their last together. Each of the two groups had a chance to shine in ‘solo’ sections of the program, alternating with an unexpected variety of pieces that they performed together, including the “Legacy” work that Mr Hughes composed for the occasion. 

The concert also opened in a surprise fashion, with the Canadian Brass members (Christopher Coletti, trumpet, Caleb Hudson, trumpet, Bernhard Scully, horn, Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone, and Chuck Daellenbach, the only remaining founder of the group, on tuba but also acting as a wonderfully hilarious MC) all playing in slow Gospel/Dixie style as they marched in, single file, from the back of the audience, wearing white sneakers and an immediate charisma. They performed, throughout the evening, in a range of pieces and styles that almost gave the audience a mini-history of brass quintet repertoire as it progressed from 1500s through 2014. Their combined technical skills, articulation, ensemble, excellent arrangements, and tone quality all brought out the absolute best in each piece, but even more than that, their charming personalities, interaction with the audience, and clever choreography, using every inch of their ‘stage’ space, made the concert incredibly FUN.

Throughout their combined works with The Choral Project, The Canadian Brass beautifully provided all of the harmony and instrumental accompaniment needed, and the program also featured locally-based professionals providing well-balanced, subtly nuanced percussion and piano...But shame on the venue organizers for providing a horribly out of tune grand piano for any concert, let alone one involving such international performers – this concert was scheduled months in advance and there is no excuse for not automatically having the piano tuned before such an important event – this should be an assumed step for all churches or venues that want to host concerts, especially when/if they are receiving some of the ticket revenue. 

As a venue itself, the Basilica of St Joseph in downtown San Jose is an architectural and acoustic marvel with a round dome area in the center that offers heaven-sent potential for singers or brass players, in particular. Each of the Canadian Brass members had spectacular solos, of course, but part of the added enjoyment for the audience was watching each performer "bathe", and revel in, the sound quality and luxurious “reverb time” that standing under this dome area could produce.

The performers (both The Choral Project and the Canadian Brass) all had a ball, and it showed. Six standing ovations at the concert, countless shouts of audience approval after each piece – but none of that even adequately reflects the fun and the sheer joy that they shared and created with classical music. I suddenly recalled a quote that one of my piano performance mentors had scribbled to me on a slip of paper before my first concerto performance: “Play for the joy of playing, and touch heaven with your gift”. I am sure that they did.

Reviewer Donna Stoering (donnastoering.com) is a Marshall Scholar, concert pianist, solo vocalist, composer, choral conductor, music-television producer and international music festival director who has been Artistic Ambassador for both the UK and USA, an Artist in Residence at Oxford University, and guest performance/pedagogy coach at numerous music conservatories worldwide. She is also the founder of the global Listen for Life movement (listenforlife.org) which is reviving the power of music worldwide through a growing international family of music listeners, performers, educators and producers.

To our LFL Blog followers: this blog entry and concert review was written in late January 2014 but it has recently come to our attention that due to technical problems, the post was never actually published for public viewing.  We apologize to The Choral Project, the Canadian Brass, and our readers, for this unintended delay. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Slavyanka "Roots & Branches" concerts

Listen for Life recommends for this weekend 
(Friday May 31st, Saturday June 1st, Sunday June 2nd):

Slavyanka Celebrates 34th Anniversary with special “Roots and Branches” concert series!
Slavyanka’s exciting new Artistic Director Irina Shachneva has created an fascinating program titled “Roots and Branches” that will feature a wide range of new choral pieces for Slavyanka,-- from ancient chants to modern works by Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky and including the American premier of “Death and Life” by contemporary Moscow composer Valery Kalistratov.

Concert Dates and Locations:

  • Friday, May 31, 8 PM, St. Marks Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Street, PALO ALTO
  • Saturday, June 1, 7:30 PM, Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church, 49 Knox Drive, LAFAYETTE
  • Sunday, June 2, 4 PM, Westminster Presbyterian Church, 240 Tiburon Blvd, TIBURON

Tickets available online, and at the door. Advance price $5 less!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Unlikely leaders", unite....

On this date - May 30th - in 1431, a young girl named Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d'Arc) was burned at the stake for being a heretic and revolutionary of sorts, after devoting her energy and passion in a courageous commitment to defend her people and culture against British invaders who were robbing her countrymen of their livestock and livelihoods. She was a very unlikely leader because she was poor, female and powerless in the eyes of the world that she knew - and yet, her own passion inspired all people to realize the oppression they were living under, and "armies" of people followed her lead and changed the culture for future generations in France.
Joan of Arc (image from Wikipedia)
I have always felt that Jeanne d'Arc is a great "role model" or "mascot" for all of our Listen for Life team members who share a passionate commitment to 1) defending the equal opportunity and presence of all nourishing music genres and styles on our global media channels/formats and 2) preserving music cultures by helping the music masters who have given their lives to a study of their traditions/instruments, but now struggle to support their families and villages.

Listen for Life is not a powerful media corporation and we are simply a global family of music listeners, performers, educators, and producers, working together to encourage people in all countries to be aware of the present situation in global music production, vs the inspiring music choices they could be making to enrich their lives......We are a global non-profit supported by donors and the work of volunteers - yet, we have so far managed to impact over 10 million individual lives of music listeners in 55 countries through our outreach projects, educational products, live cross-cultural programs, and unique music-media productions (400 hours of them and counting, to be exact.....)...

We hope Joan of Arc would be proud. And we invite all of you to join our "Global Band of Musicians"  - to inspire musicians to give of their highest potential and encourage listeners to change the channel - wherever they are.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Music....it's all about listening....

Arrived in Boston this week and have already been blest by great weather (expectations aside) and an exciting concert experience: 17 year old pianist George Li (who is rapidly assuming superstar status nationwide and abroad) performed the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra under its renowned  conductor, educator, author and motivational speaker, Benjamin Zander.

It was gratifying that a young pianist with such "technique to burn" would choose to perform a less "flashy" and more poetic work like the Schumann. Mr Li, a recent winner of the Young Concerts Artists prize definitely does possess a maturity of approach and performance well beyond his years. His interpretation of the Schumann was placed strongly on the more straightforward,  masculine end of the spectrum for this popular work. There were times I wished for more variety in his use of tone colors or phrase shapes/destinations, and I hope that in time he will become more sensitive to the nuances of harmonic colors or key changes, and their role in defining what makes any individual piece of music unique. But having said all of that, Mr. Li's performance of the first movement cadenza was possibly the best I have ever heard.

His humility (during numerous bows before a hometown crowd in a standing ovation) was gratifying to observe, and his performance of a slow, poetic Chopin encore was absolutely spellbinding and masterful. It had all of the tone colors and nuances that I had wished to hear a bit more of in the Schumann, so perhaps this confirms that his (or his teacher's) view of the Schumann is more "classical" than "romantic" and he perhaps chose deliberately a rather Bach-like robustness. This school of thought definitely exists, but having performed the work myself around the world and coached it in masterclasses of maybe 14 or so music conservatories, my own personal belief is that without a more sensitive alternation of gentleness, light and phrase destinations, the Schumann concerto can get very repetitive in some passages despite its greatness.

For the second half of the ambitious (and long!!!) three hour program, the BPYO was joined by assembled choirs and two internationally known vocal soloists, to perform Mahler's Symphony No2, "The Resurrection".
I was surprised by several things. First of all, the choice of soloists. To quote the BYPO's own program notes by David St George: "Mahler specifically stipulated that the singer of this song ["Urlicht"] use "the tone and vocal expression of a child who thinks he is in heaven". There was nothing inherently wrong with the vocal soloist(s) but those booked for this performance had very heavy vibratos and very "angst" ridden emotional portrayals that most definitely did not sound either childlike or heavenlike. So it simply seemed an odd choice of soloists if one wanted to follow Mahler's wishes.
The second surprise was the program itself - combining a very long Mahler symphony (which can often suffice as a complete concert program all in its own right) with a relatively long piano concerto.
Youth orchestras don't often play complete Mahler Symphonies, but especially not immediately following a performance of the orchestral parts of the Schumann Piano Concerto - which the BYPO players did to a very high standard indeed. So it was astounding that they had the physical stamina, let alone the mental or musical concentration, to continue with this lengthy and powerful Mahler symphony. The results were (rather understandably) uneven, but there many great moments, as well -  and I kept thinking how fortunate these young talented players were, to have this perhaps life-changing experience of learning and performing the Mahler 2nd, live, at such a young age.

And for the audience members as well - judging from mistimed applause that interrupted or rattled the young performers at times, it seemed that for a fair proportion of the audience of relatives and friends, this was perhaps also their first time experiencing this monumental work. So it was exciting to be there in the midst of it all, like witnessing a child's first taste of ice cream or an adult's first sight of the ocean. A young woman (maybe 19 or 20?) next to me was fidgeting constantly, flipping the pages of her program instead of reading it, while her boyfriend (?) next to her was totally rapt and obviously knew players on the stage - one could see him sort of vacillating between feeling sorry for his bored companion, or feeling regret for bringing her if she couldn't share his enthusiasm, or wishing he could find a way to help this powerful work to enter and engage her spirit. The Mahler 2nd has an undeniable power that sweeps all audiences to their feet, and this performance, especially by such young and exhausted players, was (almost) no exception.....with the one hold-out being that same young female next to me. She had the honesty to remain seated as a testimony to her bewilderment or boredom or dislike or all of the above. And I am sure Mahler would have approved of that honesty too.

An internationally known musician sat to my left, and her first comment afterwards was how much she would dearly love to create some serious cuts/edits in the Mahler 2nd, saying that orchestral musicians often discuss how amenable this particular work is for finding some relatively easy cuts without damaging the power or the overall message, due to its harmonic structure and repeated thematic segments. (Takers, anyone? ) Shortening the work would obviously make it less taxing to perform, whether by youth or experienced professionals. But the BYPO musicians did a very creditable job technically, with special kudos going to the cellos, the concert mistress, and the confident brass, horns, and woodwinds.

The main surprise we (the musician to my left and I) had both noticed was that none of the players seemed to be trained to focus on listening to each other as an absolute first priority of being an orchestral musician. Each section played its solo or part in its own rhythm and mood without any apparent understanding of how it fit into the whole or how it then dovetailed or answered a previous phrase played by another section. It could be that this was simply a symptom of the number of rehearsals a massive work like the Mahler would have required, and they needed to focus on technical and ensemble issues in the weeks that they had till performance day. One could tell that they all loved and trusted their conductor Maestro Zander to be the chef, take their individually prepared ingredients, and then produce the completed cake. But the BYPO is a tremendous youth orchestra and it can only get better, so one shares this suggestion in a positive way - listening to each other is a habit built in the first moments of the first rehearsal of any new work, whether easy or difficult, and it has to be insisted on and demanded by all beloved conductors. Training orchestras that succeed most in this one specific aspect - like the Shepherd School of Music orchestra at Rice under Larry Rachleff - are renowned for producing the top orchestral players of the next generation and the most riveting, "together" performances of any piece, by any age of players.

But back to the concert at hand - the gorgeous, elegant ambiance of Boston's Symphony Hall added to the "special-ness" of the occasion, and it is difficult to say whether the principal star was the pianist George Li or the courageous and generous players of this technically excellent orchestra in such a challenging program. The packed hall was full of truly ecstatic and inspired music listeners, and I heard several different audience members commenting as they departed that it was the best concert of the BYPO - and indeed of any they had attended anywhere -  in a very long time. In retrospect, it is really all about listening....the players listening to each other, audience members listening to something for the first time, a young but mature piano soloist inviting us to listen to every note as if it was a word.....music is special that way...and it's all about listening for the life and the message that lies within.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Being Present at the Creation - Part 1

Listen for Life Executive Director Andy Anderson and I are currently in Los Angeles for a series of tightly scheduled meetings, but yesterday we had the tremendous honor of being invited to attend a special Disney Concert Hall rehearsal of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, excellent vocal soloists, and some unbelievably strong dancers, as they developed together (under the brilliant creative direction of the renowned Peter Sellars) a new "theatrically enhanced" version of composer John Adam's latest opera work, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary".

We were attending with the very creative Houston-based arts impressario Arpad Lamell, whose brother, violinist and conductor Guido Lamell, plays in the orchestra. All of us were completely overwhelmed by the power, beauty, creativity, and deeply moving impression that the trio of John Adams, Peter Sellars and Gustavo Dudamel were able to bring to life as an artistic and spiritual gift for all peoples, now or in the future. At one point Arpad turned to me and said "I feel like I am personally witnessing the creation of the world" and indeed that is what it felt like and what I believe it will feel like, for audiences experiencing the completed performance as well, whether in California or New York or London or Europe - all locations that the tremendous and innovative LA Philharmonic players will be generously bringing this incredible piece and production to in the coming weeks. 
If you are going to be (or can get yourself) to ANY of those listed locations this month, and you can manage to somehow beg, borrow or steal a ticket (I know that many locations are already sold out) PLEASE please do all in your power to get there and experience this powerfully moving, inspiring and ground breaking production. 

I want to share more about this unforgettable experience -  but for now, I will simply link to a page on the LA Philharmonic website and quote a bit from their own ticket page.

"When the LA Phil premiered The Gospel According to the Other Mary in concert form last season, “it got a masterpiece that will be part of its legacy,” according to Mark Swed in his Los Angeles Times review. Just as the extraordinary El Niño was John Adams’ take on a Nativity oratorio, so The Gospel According to the Other Mary(now presented in a theatrical setting) is his dramatically robust vision of a Passion, with its text drawn by Peter Sellars from Biblical stories of Lazarus and Jesus, contextualized with excerpts from the memoir of social activist Dorothy Day and poetry by Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, Primo Levi, Hildegard von Bingen, and Rubén Dario.

Come for:

Fiercely free-thinking director Peter Sellars’ world-premiere staging of this important new work, which Dudamel and the LA Phil take on tour to New York and Europe."

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Slavyanka - Slavic Christmas concerts Jan 2013

TONIGHT! Saturday January 5th at 7pm! 

Listen for Life strongly recommends the Slavic Christmas concert by SLAVYANKA (http://slavyanka.org/).
St. John the Baptist Orthodox Cathedral,
900 Baker Street (at Turk), SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94610

In Russia and most Orthodox churches, people celebrate Christmas on January 7 -- December 25 according to the old Julian calendar. In keeping with that tradition, led by its exciting new Artistic Director, Irina Shachneva, Slavyanka and a select group of women singers will perform a festive series of “Christmas in January” concerts featuring sacred music for men’s choir and carols for men’s and women’s voices from Russia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia and Georgia.

This concert will be repeated on:
- Friday Jan 11th at 8pm in Tiburon
- Sunday, Jan 13th at 2:30pm in Walnut Creek
- Saturday, Jan 19th at 3pm in Oakland
- Sunday, Jan 20th at 3:30pm in Palo Alto
Full details at http://slavyanka.org/concsched.html