Day 25-29 - Cambridge & Riga
Day 25 - January 31, 2016 - Cambridge
On this day, I was making one last trip up to Cambridge. This was my last full day in Great Britain and I wanted to really get enveloped into the music culture one last time. I was more excited about today because I was going to get to listen and observe a choir that I have been idolizing for the last couple years...the Trinity College choir. They are the choir in the University of Cambridge that most resembles a professional group. And that's exactly what they were.
Stephen Layton runs a choir exactly the way I would. He wastes no time with chatting, has a little fun, and points out a mistake blatantly, and directly to the person if he knows who it is. The big change is he is very soft spoken and it can be really hard to hear him. But it's incredibly focused because the choir must always be listening and paying attention to truly hear what he's saying and make the changes necessary. I got to hear them practice their typical sacred music and then they moved to the front of the sanctuary and started singing some choral jazz music, which was so much fun for me to hear. Pieces like It Don't Mean a Thing and Dancing Cheek to Cheek. I had a lot of fun watching Stephen come out of his shell a little bit and dance around while the choir performed the piece with exemplary musicianship.
Stephen Layton is one of the most well known conductors in Europe. Anyone who is in the choir world knows his choirs and knows the work he produces. And I understand why. One thing that surprised me about him is that he is not the strongest conductor, he's just really advanced in the rehearsal process to create the sound he wants his choir to adapt to. And he's so specific in his musical notations that the phrasing and dynamic contrast is captured in the first few minutes of learning a piece. Plus his focus on diction is something I really appreciated. I could understand every word of every song, even the ones that were in a different language. I had the best time watching him work and watching the choir hang onto the every last word he said.
Another fun thing I got to do in Cambridge was actually meet with a choir member of King's College who is from Minnesota originally, and attended Concordia College, which is considered one of the 4 big Lutheran Schools in America (Pacific Lutheran University, St. Olaf, and Luther are the other 3). His name was Sam and he was filling me in on the life of an American student in Cambridge. He got his undergrad in Choral Music Education and is now getting his Masters in Choral Conducting. He had nothing but amazing things to say about the college, but he also informed me of some things to realize a an American studying in Europe and in Cambridge specifically. The curriculum is intense and although the conducting curriculum is for beyond beginners, the theory and analysis is so advanced that no school in the states could prepare you well enough for the academic knowledge you will need to have to make it in Europe. He explained how challenging that was for him and he still feels behind in those specific classes. They also don't provide teaching certifications when you get your degree in conducting. Which means if I got my masters in Cambridge, which would only take me a year, I would still have to come back to the states to get my teaching certification to conduct at a school in the states. It really put it into perspective at how realistic or unrealistic it is for me to pursue choral conducting in Europe. I definitely have a lot of thinking to do.
After being in Cambridge, I met Jennifer's son, Lee in the heart of London. He was meeting me in the city to take me to a very exclusive club. Lee is a writer and producer for film in LA and has made quite an amazing living in the states after growing up in London. He became a member of an exclusive club that all the A list celebrity actors, musicians, directors, etc. go to to escape the crazy fans and paparazzi. After a 6 month application and interview process, he was finally accepted into the club and goes to these clubs all around the world. They are called the Soho House and he took me to the original one in London. It was amazing walking in and saying what member I was meeting there. They treated me like true royalty and the waiter even thought I was a celebrity because of my "pleasant face". Well if that didn't make me feel good, I don't know what else would.
It was amazing getting to see how the celebrities truly unload. In the basement floor there is a huge media room where stars of new movies will do small preview nights where they will show the new movie they are in before it's released in theaters. These people of luxury really do live extravagant lives. It was nice to get a feel for it for an evening. You can't take any photos or even really have your phone out, and you can't talk to anyone that isn't someone you're already friends with. This is to assure that celebrities won't be bombarded with meeting new people all the time and can just unwind. There also isn't a strict, fancy dress code like most other clubs would have. People are encouraged to dress casually to give it a chill club vibe. I had an amazing time and am so grateful Lee took time out of his crazy life to show me a taste of his lifestyle. I was exhausted returning to the house to pack to get ready to leave for Riga the next day, but so grateful for the memories, experiences, and people I enjoyed during my time here in London.
Day 28 - February 3, 2016 - Riga
Latvian State Choir
Conductor - Miras Sirmais
My first choir I was observing on my time in Riga was the Latvian State Choir. They are one of the 2 main professional groups in Riga. I met with their production manager, Ieva and she helped me with getting settled and figuring out what projects they were currently working on.
The choir was strictly doing Latvian works by Latvian composers. Their centennial is coming up in 2018 and they are celebrating by having a huge music festival displaying the 85 composers that have composed choral music in Latvia since establishing their independence from Russia in 1918. They also hope that by 2018, there will be 100 composers writing choral music in Latvia. I think they can do it with the exemplary musicians they are producing here in Latvia.
They had a beautiful sound, especially in the men's section. I actually thought the women's intonation was a lot more breathy than I would have expected from one of the top choirs in Latvia. They sing strictly straight tone, and I was able to hear them practice all Latvian choral works. I was even introduced to the music by Selga Mence. He is a very famous composer in Latvia and teaches composition and conducting at the Musik Akademie. He also was the one that taught composition to Eriks Esenvalds. The piece they were working on at this rehearsal had a Latvian tribal sound to it but at the same time very contemporary, just like most Latvian works.
The sopranos had a very bright sound, which worked when it was just the sopranos singing. They have a great blend as a part, but I thought they stuck out in tone from the 3 other parts. The other 3 parts encompassed the dark, rich tone that I expect from a Russian choir.
Every person in this choir has made music their priority since they were 5 years old. They went to a music specialized school and attended the Musik Akademie to specialize in a particular music career. Singing in this choir is their only job. They have made their career by singing in this choir and make enough to make a good living.
They had amazing control when it came to singing soft but I wish I could have heard more in their maximum volume. With a 35 person choir, I expected a bigger sound in the forte sections of songs, and I was surprised to hear them holding back so much. Obviously the rehearsals are in Latvian so I could never understand exactly what the conductor was asking for unless he sang an example of what he was wanting to hear from his choir.
I was really impressed with the men's section, mainly because of their blend. There wasn't an overpowering in the tenors section, and the basses truly were the rumbling foundation of the entire choir. I have never heard a sound quite like it from a group of basses. It was very easy on the ears. Also, the entire choir could've sang acapella for 10-15 minutes, and never gotten out of tune. I couldn't believe how well their intonation was. Maybe that explains the light tone in the women's parts...
All in all it was a great start to my choir experience in Riga, but little did I know this was just one of MANY amazing choirs I would hear in this small, but musical city.
Youth Choir "Kamer"
Conductor - Janis Liepnis
That night I had the pleasure of observing the Choir "Kamer", an amateur youth choir based out of Riga under the direction of Janis Liepnis. Janis was very welcoming of my arrival and had copies of music for me to observe during my visit. The choir hand singers from their late teens, probably to their late 20s. The choir totaled to about 35 singers, most of them being women. But the males were very strong with the group they had. I even met 2 men who were American that were singing in the choir.
Ben was the first American I met. He is from Baltimore and currently attending the University of Latvia studying Russian Literature. He sang in school back home and found the Choir Kamer to keep his singing up. He was a tenor.
Chris was the other American I met. He was from Ohio and had gotten his Masters degree in Choral Conducting from Northwestern. He was currently studying with a conductor at the Musik Academie in Riga. He had been eyeing the Baltic Choral Traditions for a few years and knew he wanted to pursue conducting here. He is also 2nd conductor for a couple amateur choirs in the city. It was amazing to hear his journey to living in Riga and he absolutely loves it. I also loved being able to speak to people who spoke English really well! That has been a struggle since I got here.
I then spoke to the conductor, Janis, for a couple brief minutes and he explained the musical experience behind the choir. To my surprise he exclaimed that most of the singers were not good sight readers. They had not studied at the music specified schools growing up and most of them were not attending the Musik akademie. But he could've fooled me because not only did they read their mm music impeccably, but they all had such a strong vibrant tone that I found to be more pleasant to the ear than the Latvian State Choir (I know I sound crazy saying that, but it's true!).
They were working on all kinds of beautiful music, most of it being music by Latvian composers, singing in Latvian and English. But they did have a couple German pieces by Bach and Brahms. He claimed the music they were singing by Bach was strictly to show the audience at their next concert that they have technical skill and knowledge. Then they wow them with their gorgeous contemporary Latvian pieces. I heard songs by composers, Andris Dzenitis, Selga Mence, Peteris Vasks, Gabriel Jackson, and Imant Ramnish.
I had a fun time watching the choir be expressive while running through songs. They were sitting but always moving the upper part of their bodies too create and establish energy and momentum. I hadn't seen much of that in Europe since I got here, so it was nice to see something I would encourage my choir to do. The entire choir sings in straight tone, an expectation of all Latvian choirs. The sopranos had quite the piercing sound that I personally enjoyed very much. The entire choir also had a loud volume, even for a small amateur chamber group, and had no sense of breathiness in their tone.
When singing in Latvian and English, Janis asked for very bright vowels, especially from the tenors. This was to keep their pitch from falling flat and to keep the sound in the high range remaining effortless. They achieve this sound by showing their teeth and spreading their vowels out. I was surprised at how well that technique worked for this choir's sound. Janis seemed like a counter tenor when he sang examples. I was quite impressed with his vocal control and being able to easily convey it to the choir.
One thing I found very interesting was the relationship between Janis' conducting and the choir's speed. Janis likes to conduct a little ahead of the beat and the students are just a tad behind his conducting. It keeps the momentum going, the energy high, and the sound lifted and preventing the tone from falling flat. I thought it was an interesting tactic to conducting because in most choirs, that would be very difficult to achieve, but the students read his conducting very easily. I also don't know if this is intentional or accidental, but I still found it to be interesting and quite impressive.
One part of their singing that proved their voices were young was the complication of singing true pianos on closed vowels and humming. Sopranos were being challenged to hum on a high G at a pianississimo. That is very hard for young singers and it definitely showed. But the fortes as a choir were quite glorious! It truly overpowered the small room they were rehearsing in. And it made my ears ring, which when listening to a choir, is the best feeling in the world!
When working on rhythmically complex pieces, I noticed a lot of teaching in being ahead of the beat. It's a simple concept but can be difficult to execute. I noticed in their Latvian piece by Selga Mence, that the rhythms were incredibly challenging. Each part was individually doing something incredibly syncopated that never truly matched up with the other parts. The singers were truly on their own. I was impressed with their ability to live out this technique and master yet another technical challenge that many choirs have trouble doing.
The choir had such a huge sound, I was shocked to hear how their tone and technique changed when working on the Bach. Everything was light and bouncy, just as it should be when performing a Bach motet. It was just such a quick, vast adjustment to how they were singing previously, and although they still needed a few reminders on how to achieve this new sound, they picked up on it fast and the fugal interpretations were dead on, in my opinion.
Janis also explained to me that these singers are not used to singing older music like Bach and even Brahms. They truly are contemporary choir singers and stick to singing works by Latvian composers. This consists of free singing, chromaticism, and big jazz chord concepts. The phrasing also seems so automatic for these choirs when singing their traditional Baltic style.
I had a blast sitting in on this choir and see what the students my age are singing. I was so impressed with their ability and beautiful voices. And Janis showed great hospitality. That wraps it up for Day 28!
Day 29 - February 4, 2016 - Riga
Latvian Radio Choir
Conductor - Kaspars Putnins
Current Project - NEOARCTIC - A Chant Opera
Composers - Andy Stott (British) & Krists Auznieks (Latvian)
Director - Kirsten Dehlholm - Hotel Pro Forma
Incredible contemporary sound. Some revolutionary jazz sounds. The choir consists of a very piercing straight tone so the Jazz cluster chords really line up tonally. This is their 3rd project with this director and the Hotel Pro Forma. Today I got to witness them pre recording some of the parts to use for the actual opera premiering in Riga on August 26 of this year. And then they travel to Copenhagen where it will be premiered there. Then they will tour throughout Europe and possibly the states during the 2017 year.
Their sound is incredibly balanced. There is 1 voice per part and I can't even imagine how hard it is to stay in tune. There are even parts where men and women are repeating the same phrases in unison for over a minute. The complexity in something you think would be simple is truly mind blowing. And they do it with effortless ease.
There are usually 24 people in a choir, but for this project they are only using 12. I can't believe the knowledge that each individual singer has about analysis and holding onto their own part in music that is truly clustered, chromatic, and sometimes whispered, shouted, and rhythmically breathed. The composition is truly revolutionary in the world of choral music and of course, opera.
I had a chance to actually meet the composer of most of the works. His name is Krists Auznieks and he is originally from Latvia. He sang in the Riga Cathedral Boys Choir as a child and got into jazz piano at the age of 10. After years of improvising on the piano, he wanted a bigger challenge so he went to study composition at the Royal Conservatory in Haag, Netherlands. He has been revolutionizing jazz compositions by writing through composed music with unique chords, technique, and melodies. He is now studying to get his masters in composition from Yale. He's worked with American composers, his biggest role model being Daniel Yang.
Krists' compositions for this opera are truly unique in their own way. He's truly testing the limits of the voice and using it in so many instrumental ways.
The recording process is so intense and quite specific. Most of the time it's one small group of parts at a time. Sometimes an individual voice has to record by themselves. Sometimes it is the whole choir. But they are never doing more than a page at a time. They do this to avoid the sound of page turns during the recording.
The opera itself is known as a chant opera and consists of eclectic choral music as well as electronic projections and light installations to create the image the music is trying to portray. Silhouettes of singers will be used to create shadows and texture in the sets. The opera is quoted as such:
"NEOARCTIC is an evocative, poetic, and alarming music performance on the Anthropocene - a new geologic epoch, defined by unprecedented human disturbance of the earth's ecosystems. NEOARCTIC is an artistic statement.
NEOARCTIC looks at a planet in flux. Independent of scale, microstructures merge into global processes. There is a connection between melting ice, dust and mud - a connection between respiration, turbulence, temperature and chances.
NEOARCTIC looks at the ruins and the rising of the modern industrial civilization. Runs and extinctions, new life forms and new landscapes. Symbiotic relations in a modern world of complexity. A wave of making and unmaking is creating new possibilities. The dystopian and the utopian are fusing, and a new sense of amazement at the wonders of the Earth is required. The processes, the structures and their forms as interplay are the subject matter of NEOARCTIC."
The 3 pieces I heard them work on today were "A Song for Temperature", "A Song for the Respirations", and "A Song for Minerals".
The text for "A Song for Temperature" is:
The text for "A Song for the Respirations" is:
The white lung
The blue lung
The black lung
The green lung
The crimson lung
Sighing, gasping, hissing, sucking, blowing
The aqua lung
The steel lung
The text for "A Song for Minerals" is:
Raw material for a new crown
Luminous and radiating
Fluorescent and poisonous
Wrested from the yielding ground
To be paraded from deathbed to deathbed
The words are not the focal point of these pieces. They are just one small section amidst vowels, rhythmic breathing, shouting, humming, whispering, and distinct dynamic phrasing and contrast. It is all meant to seem as one sound, creating the imagery that song is trying to describe. It's truly magical from an outsider's perspective watching this opera come to life.
I had an amazing time observing this choir and was fortunate to get some time to talk to the conductor himself and one of the composers. They even asked my advice on the pronunciation of certain English words, which was fun (Gasping and Lung, just in case you were wondering!) I was even gifted a couple of their CDs, which I CAN'T wait to listen to when I get home! Meeting this choir has been an AMAZING experience!
Riga Dom Boys Choir
Conductor - Martins Klisans
Ok, I have one compound word to describe this choir - MINDBLOWING! Now to describe a little more about them.
This is one of the most legendary choirs in Riga and truly showcases how musically advanced Riga is in choral singing. The Riga Cathedral Boys Choir is made up of 36 boys all from the ages of 8-12. What first truly caught my attention was one the conductor walked in and was ready to warm-up their voices, the boys stopped their chatting and playing around and were ready to get to work. Their level of discipline was truly so strong that I have never seen anything like this in the states.
On a side note, the boys must not get very many female visitors because they would not stop staring at me as they walked in to rehearsal. And when Martins introduced me as observing the choir, the boys all stared nearly simultaneously, and I couldn't help but almost burst out laughing but it was so typical of young boys to be curious of any female that's new or unfamiliar.
The choir is made up of 1st and 2nd Sopranos, as well as 1st and 2nd Altos. The 1st Sopranos were going as high as a C7 in warm-ups alone and their scale work was so articulate and clean, it was better than women's groups in adult choirs I have heard.
They got started and the 1st 3 songs they were working on were all in Latin. Their dialect was so true to the diction and pronunciation of the Latin words and because they were actual boys, it sounded true to the type of choir that would've sung these arrangements during the time they were written. It's like I was flashing back in time to a Catholic Church with the castrati chanting and performing all the music for the service. It was truly magical for me as an American observer.
The conductor also treated them like true professionals. He would repeat a phrase until it was truly perfect and to his liking, which could take up to 15 minutes to perfect, and the students never swayed in attention and discipline the entire time. It really reminded me why I have always been so passionate about music education. These kids are in a music specialized school and will be pursuing their careers in music as adults. They have been taking private instruction and singing in choirs since they were 5 years old. Because of this education they are self-motivated, passionate, and self-disciplined beyond belief. They can play piano better than 3/4 of musicians I know in the states. I truly can't speak highly enough about this choir and Riga's school system. I wish there was someway that I could adapt this culture into the states. I know it's unrealistic, but you will never know what you can achieve unless you try your hardest to make it happen. If someone is passionate about it, change can be made, and maybe that is where I come in...we will see. I think it would revolutionize the young generations to come in the states and would break this "lazy phenomenon" that has overcome them.
I also loved watching them sing something in Latvian. They got so excited and had the most fun singing they pieces, as they were upbeat and challenging. These songs were also 4 parts instead of 2, which created such a BEAUTIFUL sound with a young group of boys. They also got to use their voice to imitate other instruments, which takes such a high level technique. I couldn't help but almost drop my jaw at the level of advanced musicality. This was the most impressive choir I have observed since I have been in Europe. I could've listened to them all day.
Conductor - Kaspars Adamsons
I was fortunate to meet up with the wife of the conductor before the rehearsal and have some coffee before the rehearsal. She was so friendly and so informative about Riga's musical culture and explaining to me what her choir was preparing for. I was so grateful to have someone to sit down and talk to. She seemed to be surprised at what I had observed about the choirs and the Latvian choral compositions and my thought about reoccurring themes. Nothing was negative but what Americans see in Latvian music can be a lot different than Latvians, because we aren't used to seeing notations and voicings in the pieces they write and perform. For example, I notice a lot of gorgeous tonalities and beautiful melodies, but also a lot of chromaticism in slight chord progressions and changes within the choirs.
Choir Sola was preparing for a Valentine's Day Concert that consists of fun musical theatre numbers, both based in America and in Latvia. It was fun to hear music that was actually familiar to me. The sound of the choir was very pure, straight tone, and strong. There were definitely more women than men, but this group is considered an amateur choir because not everyone is a professional musician or studied musician and they aren't getting compensated individually for their work. Only the choir as a whole gets paid for gigs and such so they can go to one international competition a year. They were doing pieces from American musicals like West Side Story, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Grease and composers like Andrew Lloyd Weber and ABBA.
This was a fun choir that I enjoyed listening to their reinterpretations of musical theatre in America. Their English singing and speaking was exemplary and I felt like I was home for a short period of time. On Monday I will return to their rehearsal and get to see them put all the songs together with the band/rhythm section they will have. I'm really looking forward to hearing all of this come together.
All in all it was a crazy busy day and so much fun and I was truly exhausted after 12 hours of music observation. But the choral culture in Riga is so rich and so well known and they are SO proud of their traditions. It's not hard to get completely enveloped in their passion and their traditions. Something I definitely wish I could take back to the states with me and adapt into choirs around the country.
Until next time, my family and friends! Miss you all!