Saturday, March 7, 2009

Oklahoma City, OK

We're here for the American Choral Directors' Association National Convention, a biennial event that is this year a celebration of ACDA's 50's anniversary. The organization's HQ is here in Oke City, hence the convention is here this year as well.

First, the important stuff...the weather's been great :) It was in the mid-80's when we arrived on Thursday. Pretty windy, but that's to be expected (remember how the song goes?!). I'm in a hotel in "Bricktown," an entertainment district with hotels, ball park, and a San Antonio style river-walk. It's a short hike to the convention center for sessions, and another ten minutes to the Civic Center Concert Hall for most of our performances.

Second...the concerts, always the interesting part of these events! Each choir gets a 30 minute slot, and concert sessions usually have 4 choirs in a two-hour block. The first day, we heard a group from Great Britain, "Voces8," made up of only 8 singers...six guys, and two women. Interesting way to slice it up, since usually the really top choirs are equally balanced men/women, or all one way or the other. They sang a mix of things, but by the time we arrived, they were doing their "pop" set.

Thursday night, we saw an impressive performance of the Vaughan Williams "Dona Nobis Pacem," alongside a new work from Dominic Argento, "Cenotaph." From an afternoon session I attended featuring the composer, I learned that a cenotaph (literally meaning "empty grave") is a sort of remote grave marker...think the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, for example. Collecting poetry from WWI poet (and Wilfred Owen mentor) Siegfried Sassoon, Sara Teasdale and others, Argento has created a haunting, effective 30 minute work, if one that is a bit hindered by its consistently moderate tempo. The chorus we heard sing these works was comprised of multiple collegiate and community works, with nearly 300 singers. They had an impressive sound.

Today we heard some really fine groups, including a choir from Lawrence University (WI), a Texas high school choir conducted by identical twin brothers (!), a lively all-female group from Venezuela and a very fine professional group from Incheon City, Korea. They wore beautiful silk outfits, women in light/royal blue, men in a beautiful deep purple. They were probably one of the best groups we heard all convention...they opened with a Korean language piece arranged by the conductor, and their set also included a recent work by US phenom, Eric Whitacre, "When David Heard." The ovation was strong and sustained, and well-deserved.

Friday morning we attended a special "Peace Event" arranged by ACDA. Taking place at the former site of the Murrah Federal Building, the event featured Conspirare, a Texas-based professional group led by Craig Hella Johnson. Johnson's artistic vision is incredible and eclectic. A few years ago, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir performed his setting of Bette Midler's "The Rose" interwoven with the familiar "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." The event was simply one of the most meaningful things I've ever experienced. As we arrived on site, the morning sun was warming the still-damp ground, and the three churches which surround the site all had their bells pealing. Entering the site, we were immediately surrounded by music, including a beautiful musical jumble of chimes, gregorian chant, and fragments of Durufle's "Ubi Caritas," sung by individual members of the choir in their own, individual tempi. As we angled around the reflecting pool for a place to stand and observe, we noted a troupe of college age dancers, all clad in black. Their slow, measured movements throughout the ceremony added a rich visual counterpoint. Along with the dance there was music ("Requiem" by Eliza Gilkyson, written after the Indonesian tsunami, and "Peace Like a River," sung by all in attendance), and spoken words, read by Eric Whitacre and Anton Armstrong (and others), and by us. One particularly touching moment was our responsive reading of a Hebrew Union Prayer Book litany, "We Remember Them," which was recited back and forth while instrumentalists played a Bach chorale. The music, along with the dancers, pantomiming in turn tragedy, grief, comfort and peace, was simply yet stunningly effective. In fact, Brian (Butler grad student, and my roommate for the convention) and I had to leave off singing a couple of hymns when the throat-lumps got in the way. Through the whole thing was the warm, golden early-day sunlight, and the beautiful sounds of the morning birds chirping in the trees planted among the memorial "chairs," (each of the 180 glass, metal and marble chairs bears the name of a victim of the bombing). Maya Angelou's words helped close out the event:

...We shout with glorious tongues the coming of hope.
All the earth's tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
We look at our world and speak the world aloud.
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:
Peace, my Brother;
Peace, my Sister;
Peace, my Soul.

That morning, with that many people standing and singing and chanting and weeping, together...there may be hope for us after all.