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!

Please… be our conductor!

Uh-oh!

I completely forgot to write a blog post this week! So, instead, here’s an entertaining video.

If you ever want to be a conductor, the best advice I can offer is to be in the right place at the right time: I hope you find a similar opportunity near you soon!

 

 

My first rehearsal with the Clearwater Chorus went very well this week, and I’m in the middle of composing a piece for solo harp, plus the usual projects and daily grind.

Mind the Gap!

Curved platform, straight carriage.

If you’ve ever been on the Tube (London Underground) you’ll be familiar with the phrase “Mind the Gap!” Not only is it announced as train doors open, but it’s also written on the floor in numerous stations.

To make it easy and efficient for trains to traverse the underground tube-like tunnels throughout London, some tracks are curved even in the stations. Therefore, the platforms are also curved. But train carriages are straight. Naturally, the center of each train carriage is the closest it gets to the platform but the ends of each carriage can be far away. For the sake of providing an efficient service, there is a gap.

By this time next week the world of classical music will have a terrific new resource that reduces the size of a similar large gap: A central concert calendar for classical music happening around Tampa Bay. This is a huge area with more than 4 million year-round residents, and what feels like an almost matching number of part-time residents (a.k.a. “snow birds”). With that kind of crowd spread over Florida’s largest metropolitan area it’s no wonder it can boast three regional performing arts centers and seven local performing arts centers.

There’s a lot of music going on around the Bay.

However, to find a concert you have to look at each venue’s website, or each performer’s website, or any one of the media sites that list hundreds of entertainment opportunities of which only a handful may be ‘classical.’ It gets frustrating. So here’s the solution: a new concert calendar website dedicated to the thousands of classical music fans who have access to Tampa Bay. And that includes you! Seriously, even if you don’t live here, have a winter home here, or have never even been here yet, it’s just a quick and easy flight from New York or a couple of hours from Orlando (think: Disney & Universal), but we have far better beaches.

As a truly loyal reader of my blog, I’m going to give you a sneak preview. Click here to take a behind-the-scenes look around the pre-launch site and as you do so, you may notice some gaps. (If you end up on the prelaunch home page, simply click your browser’s BACK button.)

Mind the Gaps:

  1. We need to encourage local performers and presenters to add their concerts. Have a look at March in the calendar view – it’s pretty full but that’s not everything.
  2. Some of the preview and interview articles are all ready for publishing over the next couple of weeks, although you won’t find them on the prelaunch site – just a Welcome article for now.
  3. None of the paid ads are active, yet. Classical music advertisers book spots by the week, so you’ll start seeing some ads after the launch.
  4. We do not have any concert reviews scheduled yet as the site needs to earn some income in order to pay for reviewers’ tickets.
  5. Your name doesn’t appear as a Partner, yet. During your site exploration did you come across the Partner page? That’s a list of people like you who like Classical Music and believe that this site is providing an incredible service. (If it works well, there are other cities that have already expressed interest in having me setup similar sites for them). The costs of hosting and running the site plus providing outstanding editorial content that is not influenced by ads, is pretty intense.

For as little as $1 a week you could help fill the gaps – especially those last two. Please click here to become a Partner of TampaClassical .com and you will be supporting a valuable service for the classical music industry. Seriously – we need to stick together in this day and age of massive distraction, and I hope you feel motivated to inspire the world through becoming a Partner. Or you could buy some ads!

Thank you.

Please visit TampaClassical.com/Partners now

 

Downtown

The first of my two favorite movements in my latest composition. It also happens to be the last movement actually written. “Downtown.”

There are many downtowns in the Tampa Bay area that could be represented by music: Dunedin could display a Scottish or bagpipe influence – after all, even their high school marching band has pipers! Or we could look to the very edge of Tampa Bay at Tarpon Springs, and include a Greek music influence. Certainly fun. Hoopa!

Clearwater, Tampa itself, Bradenton, Seminole, St Petersburg, Ybor, Egypt Lake-Leto, all have cultural influences from around the world, so the decision became tough. In the end, I decided to simply title the work ‘downtown’ and not make obvious clichéd references to cultures.

The piece is busy. It starts with a piano and marimba duet and the structure grew very quickly from there – an ascending sequence (rising pattern that repeats itself) but with different instrumental colors. A lovely little piano phrase keeps interrupting until eventually, everyone’s gone home.

Or so it seems. A pulsating backbone pervades the area with Tampa Bay’s nightlife preparing for the regular onslaught of visitors and locals alike. Songs burst from every nightclub and many restaurants, and the crowds grow in size and energy.

Unfortunately, like most great nights out that suddenly come to an end, the marimba & piano remind us that it’s time to go back to work. The grand finale of this movement wraps up with a full stop traditional ‘The End’ ending. It’s a fun movement.

Beaches and Boats

“Beaches and Boats”

The first movement in my new piece “Tapestry Tampa Bay” seems to sum up my initial impression of life here in Tampa Bay. There are beaches everywhere. There are boats everywhere. The latter is quite understandable bearing in mind that three sides of the St. Petersburg/ Clearwater area is surrounded by water.

The former was, well… unexpected.

The largest and most famous beach is Clearwater Beach. But that entire coastline is full of them. From Sunset beach in Tarpon Springs to Sarasota’s Siesta Key (#1 beach in USA) and beyond, there are miles and miles of soft warm sand. It is a grand spectacle and a luxury we have fully indulged in many times since moving here – especially the beaches on Honeymoon Island.

The opening of my piece reflects the grandeur of Clearwater Beach. Although wide and long, it doesn’t take too much time before one gets either lost or burned, so must retreat to safer quarters such as the Clear Sky Cafe. The same theme is used to demonstrate another beach just as wide and just as long – Indian Shores. Then another, less grand beach such as Caladesi Island (read more about this idyllic isle here). And other similar-sized beaches. Then there are the medium beaches and finally, a couple of spurts of tiny beaches such as the aforementioned Sunset Beach.

Marbel photographed by Melissa at Sunset Beach. There’s not much more to it than this.

So, it’s time for sailing. Although there are many, many more power boats than there are sailboats, there are still plenty of the latter, and my first experience on the waters of the bay was in a sailboat, thanks to our dear friends Dale & Barbara.

The flowing, smooth, calm swaying of gentle waves and a hot breeze across the cheeks is what follows in my music. There are some dolphin sightings as they pop up to say hello, but the music is clearly as peaceful and tranquil as sitting in a wind-powered water-glider in the hands of an expert.

Sailboats are popular in St. Peterburg.
Dale doing his thing.
Wild dolphins are frequent and friendly.

Of course, along the way we pass several small and private beaches along the Bay’s inside edges, so the music eventually combines the beach theme with the boat theme: “Beaches & Boats.”