Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

Dedication.

This week I came across a fascinating exploration of the history of King Arthur’s England. There is so much myth and legend surrounding our dreamy esteem of this perfect man that I’ve often wondered if he really existed.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy the knights in shining armor adventures, and one day hope to rid my inhibitions, dress up as a medieval knight, and accompany my wife to a Renfaire (a common American festival that revives many periods of history and fantasy into an entertaining exhibition complete with audience participation, jousts, mead and glass blowing, etc). But until that day arrives, I’ll just basque in the occasional archaeological documentary and fantasy movies between Bourne, Matrix and Darling Buds of May reruns.

Apart from the fact that the author Francis Pryor totally debunked the majority of English history (such as the Venerable Bede‘s account, the lack of invasion, and the existence of King Arthur as anything but a real person), one of the most fascinating aspects of his study was the development of the English language. Although basically Germanic, much Latin, French and Celtic has been adopted as much through fashion as through settlement. Apparently.

Words like stylish, abdicate, aid, and desire all derive from Latin whereas trendy, abandon, help and want are Germanic.

And this got me thinking…

My first two compositions in my new Psalm Composition Project were both dedicated to specific people. Dedication. What does that mean?

According to Merriam Webster (American English), dedication means:

  • a devoting or setting aside for a particular purpose.
  • a name and often a message prefixed to a literary, musical, or artistic production in tribute to a person or cause.
  • self-sacrificing devotion.
  • a ceremony to mark the official completion or opening of something (as a building).

According to Oxford (British English), dedication means:

  • the quality of being dedicated or committed to a task or purpose: his dedication to his duties
  • the action of dedicating a church or other building: the dedication of a new city church
  • an inscription or form of words dedicating a building, book, etc. to a person or deity: A faintly engraved inscription or dedication. The hardback edition contained a fulsome dedication to his wife.

And according to Macquarie (Australian English), dedication means:

  • the act of dedicating.
  • the fact of being dedicated.
  • an inscription prefixed or attached to a book, etc., dedicating it to some person.

(Not that regionalization will matter much longer: each country’s Google sites [Google.com, Google.co.uk, Google.com.au] are displaying the same three dictionaries, so it won’t be long before we have a truly universal English language).

Clearly, dedicating a piece of music to someone is a commonly accepted practice amongst English-speaking cultures. I like to think that when I dedicate my music to someone, it is a actually combination of the definitions above: a devotion, a commitment, and an act of dedicating.

But a dedication to whom?

In my case, I like to dedicate my music to people who are important to me; People who have had a significant impact in my life. The first piece in this psalm composition project was dedicated to Gregory Ruffer, a peer whose honest feedback actually prompted the development of the project in the first place… that’s a pretty important and significant impact!

The second piece was dedicated to my college friend Jim Stretton, who through the years has helped me appreciate orchestral brass instruments. He was also one of the first people in my adult (post high school) life who extended kindness by inviting me to sublet a room in his house-share. It was the first time I moved out of my parents’ home and another significant and important event in my life.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown with fans after a concert

Chatting with fans after a concert

However, in that same piece I also demonstrated my gratitude to many other individuals who have helped me understand and appreciate low brass instruments. Several probably don’t even know it, but I was paying close attention to them, their playing skills and techniques, and I was listening.

As I embark on the third piece in this project, a piano solo, to whom will I dedicate it? One idea: some of the most important people in my life today – those who like my music, support my activities, and loyally read my posts & emails. For want of another term, my Fans! If you consider yourself a fan, please watch the video at the link below and afterwards select one of the opportunities to have my next composition dedicated to you. Seriously!

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stephenpbrown/i-will-dedicate-my-next-composition-to-you

 

Les Miserables the movie

I’m a fan of “Les Mis” the show. Overall assessment of the movie is good – I liked it and I liked that so many of the audience were directly affected (meaning, audibly sobbing or laughing).

Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) – bravo!
Anne Hathaway (Fantine) – well done.
Russell Crowe (Javert) – completely ruined the film. (Sorry Russell!)
Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) – she hit the high notes!
Samantha Barks (Eponine) – terrific. Really.
Isabelle Allen (Young Cosette) – really good singing and acting. A pleasant surprise.
Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche) – brilliant.
Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier) – acting brilliance shone through the terrible interpretation.
Borat (Thénardier) – should stick to what he does best: staying off the big screen. Must’ve been a ploy to make the movie attractive to his unique audience.

The cinematography was unnecessarily disruptive and the sound was awful. Sit at your desktop computer or TV surround system and unhook the bass booster before turning the volume down by 1/3.

Did I say that overall I like the movie? It was a very good effort well worth the ticket price.

Ask A Conductor?

Two years ago two of my dear Tweeps @mcmvanbree and @laceyh started an awesome day of musical questioning. Including myself, Lorin Maazel, Sasha Makila, Vladimir Ashkenazy (through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Twitter account) and a whole host of others, the general public got to ask us Conductors from all over the world… whatever they wanted!

It was challenging and exciting at the same time, yet experts such as Mike Seal and Kenneth Woods provided much insightful entertainment and I look forward to their participation again this year, too.

This year’s event will be on Wednesday, December 12 YOUR LOCAL TIME. That means, the ‘day’ could last up to 48 counted hours!

Anyway, click on this link to see details, including the specific link and hashtag to use when asking your questions:

Ask A Conductor Day 2012

Then spread the word, line up your questions, forward this page, and post, post, post the event everywhere. This really is your annual opportunity to drill us baton-wavers and ask some great or simple questions!

DO IT.

 

 

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