The Music Festival

Since I began my tenure at St. Ignatius College Prep, I have taken the Chamber Singers to this festival for several reasons: the quality of Adjudication and the level of musicianship by the participating choirs. In the almost 10 years of it’s existence, it has become the Bay Area’s premier choral festivals. I particularly value this summative assessment for not only my students but for me as well. To my knowledge, it is one of the only assessments that evaluate students and their teacher simultaneously.

NVCC Comments and Ratings 20Mar2015 by czullinger

I was tremendously pleased with the students work the day of the festival. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly pleased with their level of preparation throughout the process. I gave several formative assessments before the festival and those results were somewhat mixed. In the future, I could use the scoring rubric for the festival as a template for their own evaluation in those assessments.

What was most interesting is that the piece the students intrinsically favor the most from the set is their weakest piece at this particular snapshot in the music’s evolution. All things considering, I knew going in the Esenvalds was a stretch for this particular ensemble, not because they can’t sing it, it’s just that the composition simply demands more than this choir is capable of producing. They are a High School chamber choir of 28 voices, and when I first was programming this festival set, I was captivated by my colleagues College choir of about 32 – undergraduate and graduate voice majors – sized ensemble.

Yet again, this piece won their hearts over and they love so much to sing this piece. Looking back, and looking forward, I don’t think I have found the right standing order so they can really hear each other adequately. Also, it is very difficult to tune the water glasses and achieve a consistent sense of intonation with the chimes and choir. At the retreat when we first learned the piece, I had 2 performers per pitch on the tuned water glasses; we performed with only 1 on a part at the performance. Our intonation (tuning) was not our strongest component that afternoon.

William Byrd’s Sing Joyfully, on the other hand, is a perfect selection for this choir. This music is difficult, mostly because singers in the 21st century can’t instantly recall the ‘sound’ of music over 400 years old in the same way they can differentiate between the subtleties of Hip Hop. It’s just not in their ears. In the learning process, this requires a lot of patience and vocal modeling. Over the years, I have observed Renaissance music for high school students has – to some degree – been motivating for them because they just want to figure it out, kind of like a puzzle. There is also a sense of satisfaction when these mostly linear phrases lock  into vertical sonorities at cadential points along the way.

I also have been very cognizant of what it is the students are really trying to attain: a Unanimous Superior plaque or authentic music making and sharing. I really believe in the format of this particular choir festival. After the performance, each ensemble receives a 20 minute clinic from one of the Adjudicators in front of other students from participating schools. The festival focus has always been: Educational from the country’s top, collegiate choral directors and sharing choral music from exemplary High School choirs in the Bay Area (it is an Invitational choir festival). And yes, the performance is rated/graded (fortunately it is not ranked).

The students had some interesting thoughts about the experience that can be found here:

Letter to SI Chamber Singers, Fall 2014

In the spirit of “Dear People” the book by Joseph A. Mussulman that compiled letters Robert Shaw wrote to his choirs, I wanted to share some thoughts I had about this particular piece with the 2014-15 Chamber Singers in November 2014. At the end, there is a video of us performing the piece at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, CA on Friday, December 19, 2014.

Hello gang,

I sat in a soprano and alto sectional a few weeks back and was struck at the very simple question Ms Hollow, one of our vocal coaches, asked the gals, “what does Resmiranda mean?”. I came in towards the end of the sectional and it was obvious that they learned what the phrase meant (wonderful circumstance and/or happening).

I have been personally drawn to this piece and text for quite some time now. This recording we have is by a high school group my wife sang in when she was a senior in high school (Vintage High School Chamber Singers ’94). Her teacher eventually became my graduate school mentor – this is a great story in itself, but back to the story at hand.

There is No Rose is an English carol that dates back to the Middle Ages c.1420. The text is written in two languages: Middle English and Latin. Most fascinating to me are the marriage of musical elements with the rich allegories infused in the text. This idea of “little space” which is Mary’s womb, where heaven and earth meet, and how it interweaves the Latin of the Church with the English of the common people — as if interweaving spiritual and secular themes, symbolically, through the use of two languages. And finally, the phrase Transeamus or let us cross over is set to just about one of the most amazing clips of choral music around. Let us cross over. Where is it that we begin and where do we move to? Is the choral ensemble a bridge for all that is human and all that is divine?

Honestly, I truly believe this is music. It is a vehicle, a bridge, for all that is divine and all that is human in the hopes that in the center we catch a glimpse in either direction. There are pieces of music out there that are simply transcendent for me. Occasionally, an ensemble emerges through days of interviews, hours of auditions and of course time spent with one another that are capable of not only re-producing what’s on the page – musically and vocally) – but are open enough to peek into all that is possible from the page: You are this ensemble.

You all have the potential to unlock the mystery of this piece and share with your audience. Having said that, it does require note/rhythm accuracy, attention to phrasing and all the musicality that is required by any piece of music, but it also requires a vulnerability, a clear picture of how this piece sounds and feels when it is right in you. There is No Rose is one of those pieces that helped me confirm that this guitarist wanted to stand in front of choirs and make music with one another. Those stories my wife shared with me my first years teaching, and this particular recording helped me conceive what is possible by a group of people who are drawn to a) the collective effort b) those in the world that think and feel.

Listen: SI Chamber Singers on iTunes

I’m actually quite pleased with this project which is a culmination of some very special years with my students from the St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers. The CD is a culmination of choirs that features songs recorded in venues from around the world! A majority of the tracks were recorded on the 2nd “In the Footsteps of St. Ignatius” European choir tour at the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa Maria in Tolosa, Spain.

St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers

Preview songs from Listen by the St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers on the iTunes Store

What I really do for a living

west-side-storyThis spring I am lucky enough to be music directing West Side Story. If I were to take away the pillars of American Musical Theater from this book: Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and an apprenticing Stephen Sondheim (if one can even imagine that), you’d have just another book musical. But as you know, there’s really no way to do that. One has to acknowledge that West Side Story is simply one of those shows that is a cornerstone of American Musical Theater. Show Boat introduces to the world what a book musical could be, Oklahoma establishes that choreography is as compelling as the music and acting, and then there is West Side Story. The sun sets on this chapter of the history of the book musical as the curtain opens for West Side Story, which is considered by some a culmination of the highest artistic achievement from each structural component of a musical…

And this spring, I get to conduct the damn thing…

I want to share my thoughts and experiences during the journey of this behemoth of a project. One observation I can begin with is that for the book’s sheer artistry the music is astonishingly straightforward and indeed doable. I am sharing with you at the point in the production after our sitzprobe, which on most accounts was a success. This music to me seems to fit or locks in a way other shows I have conducted in the past have not accomplished.

One final thought: maybe the ideal examples of this art form are the most simple in their construction and presentation. Don’t get me wrong; this book is not for the faint of heart! There are passages in this score that will continue to elude me for quite some time. However, in its complexity, there is a simple beauty that the authors must have foreseen in those first days when choreographer, composer, lyricist and playwright came together and decided to create this masterpiece. I think most of us can say, we are all better for it because of their ideas and the creative spirit.

WSS Directors

Creative Team of West Side Story. The ‘giants’: Harold Prince, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents

Again – this is the beginning, sort of. I decided to start this chronology at the point in the journey when instrumentalists and singers/actors came together. Tonight’s rehearsal adds the choreography with the show, which for some IS the sheer genius of this work. A colleague told me once – think of a musical as a wheel. There are several cogs in the wheel that enable the wheel to turn. Music is just one cog…

Good Friday Tre Ore Service

I was director of the Motet Choir at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, California during Holy Week in 2013. I had the opportunity to collaborate as music director in a Tre Ore Service on Good Friday that, in addition to a series of reflections on the Seven Last Words of Christ, projected famous works of art which were paired with a musical response.

Here are the images and musical pairings from this poignant and powerful service I had the privilege to be a part of several years ago. The titles of the musical reflections and images are links:

  1. Click the musical selection first (which will open in a separate tab),
  2. Go back and click the image while listening to the track,
  3. or browse in a way that suites you the best.