Oh my goodness, ACDA. How I love love love love love ACDA! Every two years, the American Choral Directors Association hosts a nationwide conference somewhere in the U.S. (In 2011, it was in Chicago. In 2015, it will be in Salt Lake City. There are smaller regional conferences in the even years). Far in advance of the national conference, choral directors around the country prepare to submit recordings to be considered for performance. It is required to show three years of high quality music-making, and the recordings pass through rounds of blind hearings before ensembles are selected to be showcased to audiences made up of thousands of choral directors. This year, we are in Dallas, and this year, we (the Westminster Choir) are performing! It has been many years since the Westminster Choir has sung at an ACDA National Convention, and this is the first time the ensemble is conducted by Dr. Miller.
We flew out of Philadelphia early on Wednesday morning and arrived in time to visit the booths on the convention floor. I went with my friends and conducting colleagues Anna and John to a concert of international choirs, and the first piece by the first ensemble we heard (University of the Philippines Madrigal Singers) also happened to be the first piece I ever taught to my high school students (La Guerre by Clement Janequin – the naiveté of a first year teacher can be a beautiful thing.) When the concert ended, we headed back to the hotel for a relaxing evening. Perhaps you would be interested to know that among the many interesting and influential conductors at this particular conference, the first that I encountered, literally immediately upon walking through the doors of the hall, was Dr. André Thomas from Florida State University. If you have been enjoying this school year with me, you may remember that he was the artist-in-residence at Westminster this past fall, where he presented master classes on conducting and illuminating lectures on various aspects of the choral art. You may also remember that I lost my balance while trying to extend a music stand, fell backwards off the podium and landed face up on the floor when he happened to be visiting a rehearsal I was leading. He was so gracious upon our meeting here in Dallas, and his kind, slightly mischievous smile reflects a spirit enriched by a life of music.
Our second day began with an early call to the hotel lobby and a rehearsal at a nearby church. The singing was going very well, and we had fun rehearsing our Bach motet with new continuo players. Dr. Miller is time-effective: he encircled the players with the bass and baritone sections so the cello and bass players could absorb the articulation that the choir had so diligently rehearsed. We went through this process once before for our homecoming concert in January. Like then, when the rest of the choir was asked to audiate, we silently danced our parts and made some imaginatively accurate noiseless music.
Toward the end of our rehearsal, we had a little surprise planned for Jim Moore, who is the head of performance management at Westminster and travels with the choir often. He, along with Ryan Dalton and Anne Sears, are responsible for organizing the details of our trips, and the choir adores and appreciates these individuals. When we learned that Jim would celebrate his 50th birthday with us, we wanted to show our love. Jim had been a professional dancer with a ballet company in New York City for many years before his life eventually led to Westminster, so we arranged an impromptu ballet session. One of our members, John Irving, is a Texas native, and reworked the lyrics to Yellow Rose of Texas so they were all about Jim, and we pirouetted and whirled in ways only untrained dancers can. Justin, one of the tenors, was happy to pose as the centerpiece, and we ‘Swan Laked’ all around him. At the end of John’s new version of Yellow Rose, we broke into the special WC birthday song, complete with as many lines of harmony as there are singers in the choir. Jim grinned all the while, and when the spectacle was over he grinned and said he could tell which dancers had had training.
Our third day at the conference (today) was our first of two performances. We sang in the Winspear Opera House this afternoon, and the concert was tremendous. We opened with the Kyrie of Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Missa Alma Redemptoris, and followed it with Nunc Dimittis by Gustav Holst. Our program was limited to 25 minutes, so Dr. Miller held the applause after the Holst while the continuo players set for our Bach motet, Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf. During these three pieces, we were grooving! We know this music so well, it is in our bones and we are always finding new and subtle ways to affect articulation and phrasing and always continue to serve the music with our intellect and spirits.
The moments just before we go onstage are some of my most precious memories – when we are lining up and smiling at one another, people’s eyes are shining and their hearts are open wide. Yes, it is pretty warm and fuzzy but the joy is possible because of the amount of work that we have done together up to this point, and the focused rehearsal and sometimes challenging attention to detail. It was very rewarding to transfer all of this to an audience of people who love the choral art as much as we do – when we finished the Bach, there was a loud shout of ‘Brava!’ to accompany the applause.
After Der Geist Hilft was The Evening Primrose by Benjamin Britten, and there were a couple of moments in the piece where I looked across at the choir and saw the countenances of my friends deeply, seemingly impossible invested and reflective of the text. There was no sentiment, but more a sincere telling – almost like an objective narrator giving in to a story they don’t wish but are compelled to tell. It was stunning. Immediately after the Britten we sang The Heart’s Reflection by Daniel Elder. This piece touches something in people. The sounds and colors spun by the lustrous sonorities nudge loose boxes of memories, and when it is over I always feel a little sad but mostly thankful for music that can alter in this way.
Our final piece was an arrangement of Ride in the Chariot by our own Brandon Waddles. Earlier in the day, Brandon and I had an illuminating conversation about the roles of conductors and composers and how definitions are evolving as new and unpredictable catalysts constantly change the face of the music profession. As we gloried in his music to end our program, between the grins and gracious love I felt overwhelmingly fortunate to share in the beauty of this art form with 6,000 people who invest their lives in it every day, and for the keen, collective intellect that is its driving force.