Posted at 9:14 AM on August 3, 2005
by Brian Newhouse
A music festival is just like any other human endeavor in that there are hits, misses, and a surprise or two. Here’s the tally sheet as the Symposium closed today.
Choir singing has its longest and richest history in the English-speaking and Nordic countries. No wonder then that these areas sent us the week’s best overall groups. The Americans (youth choirs from San Francisco and New York City and a really good college group from the University of Louisville) did us proud. But for sheer perfection, first prize goes to the Norwegians. At the end of the Symposium, people are still talking about the Oslo Chamber Choir and the haunting tunes from the fjords they concocted a week ago!
The final afternoon concert today was an absolute bust. Two of the three choirs were fine—we’re going to skip names here—but the third… As my mother would say: Oh my. At one point in a particular piece it seemed as if the whole thing was going to fly apart. The choir was spinning off vital hardware left and right. There goes rhythm, now pitch—oops, now it’s ensemble. It was like watching your worst performance-anxiety dream unfold right there onstage, the one where you forgot to come to the rehearsals and the wrong music’s in your folder. The only thing missing was the inevitable I’m naked fiasco. Two thousand people, who can sit breathlessly still if they want to, coughed and squirmed and gave a damningly polite golf clap and the choir fled the stage.
If you love choral music, two new names to watch, one way to the north and one WAY to the south. The first is the Winnipeg Singers. Their program of nine pieces was all contemporary Canadian music and I put a star by each. The Singers had gorgeous voices and power to rock you back in your seat, but then they could rein it all in and sotto voce the sweetest tune to make you lean forward and not miss a note. Their conductor, Yuri Klaz, is a recent Russian immigrant and took over the choir only two years ago. Up there on the prairie he’s doing something very right.
I took notes on every choir and every piece of music, and as I look back in my Symposium program booklet there’s only one page that has the word “Wow!” written across the top. No one knew—I sure as heck didn’t—that there is any kind of choir tradition in the Philippines. But the San Miguel Master Chorale came onstage last night and blew the doors down. Thirty-eight voices with all the polish and sophistication of the late Dale Warland Singers, but with repertoire and vocal techniques that tap deep Filipino tribal roots. Fabulous odd rhythms, guttural chants, exotic prayer calls—all of this interwoven into the most beautiful bel canto singing a Western ear ever wanted to hear. They’re the nugget of gold I found here in Kyoto and that I’ve dropped in my pocket as I turn and head for home.