Choir struggles with Zoom rehearsal issues, makes best of it for in-person winter concert.
The Willamette University Music Department presented a Winter Choir Concert on Feb. 19 at Hudson Hall. Conducted by Director Chris Engbretson and accompanied by Pianist Honey Wilson, it featured performances from both Voce and Chamber Choir. The treble voices of Voce, who meet to practice for one hour three times a week, performed Daniel Gawthorp’s “Sea Visions” collection consisting of the pieces “Dawn,” “The Sea Bishop” and “Night,” as well as Eric Whitacre’s solo piece ‘The Seal Lullaby,” and finally an arrangement of Marc Shaiman’s “Hail Holy Queen.” The soprano, alto and bass voices of the Chamber Choir, who meet to practice for an hour and a half three times a week, performed segments 1-4 and 6 of Caroline Shaw’s “To The Hands,” Erik Esenvald’s “Stars,” and a fascinating arrangement of “Luk Luk Lumbu” by Budi Susanto Yohanes.
A lot of the concert was practiced during the quiet period, and Willamette’s choristers never found an ideal form of practice during that time due to some of the students being in Hudson Hall while several others joined via Zoom. This hybrid model created a challenging environment which Engbretson described as “students spread all throughout the hall…they can’t actually hear each other really well. Synchronicity is really challenging, and all of those joining remotely are getting the audio that’s going through Zoom which means it’s always a little dicey.” [These comments are highly reminiscent of ones he made for a previous The Collegian article last year during the height of the pandemic.] Engbretson also noted that for the DAS (Distinguished Artists Series) concert, before Caroline Shaw arrived they had nine rehearsals planned, two of which were canceled because of [MLK events on campus], and the other seven were performed in a hybrid model. The on-campus rehearsal held on Jan. 31 with Caroline Shaw was the first time the entire choir was able to be together this semester.
The winter concert featured Shaw’s “To the Hands,” and some highlights of that collection were the third and the sixth movements in particular. The third, titled “Her Beacon-hand Beckons” included gasps of air, which Shaw depicted as both a formation and accumulation of energy that arrives at a sort of explosion, which is a form of word-painting “that’s evocative of that emotion,”stated Engbretson. Engbretson also mentioned that he and the students had never seen that notation before, that it wasn’t a technique they had ever used, and that “it was very powerful to evoke that feeling of just desperation and energy that you [sort of] don’t know….what to do with it.” The sixth movement “I Will Hold You,” as prefaced by Engbretson at the concert, is a very meaningful one regarding suffering in the world. When asked about this, Engbretson noted that the choir, unfortunately, couldn’t perform the 5th segment at the winter concert because it didn’t work with the piano and other technicalities, but that the 6th segment is a smooth follow-up to the 5th which, as seen in the DAS concert, included the choir reciting statistics of displaced people around the world during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis as well as them generally singing the piece. He elaborated that Shaw paints this “world of real suffering, pain, uncertainty and violence and then it’s immediately followed by this cocoon of sound…it’s really effective composing.” The text later on, in that same movement, states “ever ever will I hold you, ever ever will I enfold you,” and Engbretson commented that she cleverly enables all these notated rhythms underneath the words to “fold over each other…a really effective form of word-painting.”
“Stars” by Esenvalds was a very creative highlight of the concert which featured the use of wine glasses to make sound by running one’s fingers over the rim. Engbretson noted that the choir had only 6 rehearsals to memorize “Stars” and “Luk Luk Lumbu.” When asked about how the idea behind “Stars” came about, Engbretson noted that the students had practiced it prior to the pandemic with his predecessor (Wallace Long, former Director of the Chamber Choir) and said that because Engbretson and the students have, “great dialogue back and forth,” when he asked them if there were any pieces that they would like to perform, there was a resounding desire for the Stars piece—especially considering it is his last semester at Willamette University. Engbretson mentioned that Long went shopping for these wine glasses and even tested them out at the store. The students took sharpies and wrote a rough line around the wine glasses, and when it came to his job of tuning the glasses, it was a matter of getting to the drawn line, then using a tuner to empty and fill it until it had the right kind of intonation.
The chamber choir’s final performance, “Luk Luk Lumbu,” was a song written in the language Osing from the Banyuwangi region of Southeastern Java. Engbretson noted that it’s evocative of the gamelan techniques which is a “cool instrumental ensemble in that part of the world” that uses a metal malleted instrument, something similar to a marimba or xylophone but made of metal alone, and it has a “really beautiful shimmery sound which is a result of very deliberate quarter tuning of the instruments.” In learning “Luk Luk Lumbu,” Engbretson noted that there were two big challenges. When dealing with foreign languages, they use transliteration (the process of transferring a word from the alphabet of one language to another) and also incorporate the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) which “was a really valuable learning experience for the students because IPA is a language that we use in the professional world all the time...used universally even in speech pathology or linguistics,” he stated. The next big challenge was the rhythmic components, given that it’s a highly rhythmic piece that involved “unpacking what looks very intimidating and realizing that it's a lot of pattern and repetition.” He chose the song because he thinks “it’s a piece that isn’t performed enough…it’s exciting” and also because he was thinking of the programming perspective, where he always wants to build, “something that’s artistically satisfying and fun to do, but also has some sort of pedagogical benefit” and that for this particular piece, it not only provides his students with a better chance to “brush up on rhythm and get better at reading IPA,” but also gives him a way to “train the students so they have these skills that when they go out into the professional world such that, for example, if they sang with a professional choir and they got a list of IPA for a piece written in a different language, they would feel comfortable reading it.”
Despite some of the challenges they experienced at the beginning of the semester, choir is back to practicing and performing in-person. Their next performance is entitled “Crossings“ and will be held on Sunday, April 24 at 3:00 p.m.