As the city of Cincinnati continues its incredible renaissance by reclaiming historic neighborhoods, redeveloping long neglected public lands, and renovating the most spectacular collection of Italianate architecture ever seen in the United States, one was struck this past week by the presence of thousands of visitors, and hundreds of choirs, as the city hosted the World Choir Games. The U.S.A. has never hosted this so-called “Olympics of Choral Music”; but the “Queen” city was given the nod, and has much of which to be proud! A well organized crew of volunteers and professionals steered, entertained, and hosted this complicated event with the help of smiling (truly) Cincinnati Police, and of course many a local celebrity and politician vying for face-time on local and national television, and as emcees for concert presentations. We do this for Sports, so why not the Arts?? (So far, so good!)
I took in a concert last night (July 8, 2012) entitled Energy of Youth, in between my own rehearsals for La Traviata with Cincinnati Opera. It featured the Cincinnati Children’s and Public Schools Honor Choir, the Farnham Youth Choir (Great Britain), and the Guangdong Experimental Middle School Choir (China). Being an Ohio boy myself, I was pleased to walk about town and listen to how much folks were enjoying this great city…triple digit heat notwithstanding. They gave this recession blighted local economy a great financial boost at shops and restaurants, and provided in return some real musical magic of the choral variety. Packed theaters, performing arts halls, and major-event arenas are proof positive that this annual (not every 4 year) affair has “legs”. With over 20 categories, the awards are many; there are opening and closing ceremonies; and the traditional hoisting of flags for winning countries. (So far…still so good!!)
Onto the concert:
It seems that choirs are not just ‘singing choirs’ anymore, at least not in the traditional sense…no way! The choirs of today (at least all the youth choirs it seems) must now be “show-choirs”. They dress in full-regalia costumes or uniforms; utilize props and sophisticated choreography…or at the very least, sway in time to the music or display a sort of free-style movement during their presentations. Almost all use clapping hands, snapping fingers, stomping feet, thigh slaps, and more. Forget those old-fashioned choir robes and standing still as you harmonize…nope, this is not “your father’s old-time choir”! This is its 21st Century grandchild…or great-grandchild, as it were.
Remembering that last night’s concert was a ‘youth’ offering, I do not want to get too critical. Unfortunately, the Farnham Youth Choir (2nd on the program) fared the worst. Their rhythmic clapping was out of synch, their voices were out of tune (not unusual–but still not pleasant–for an “upper-voice” choir of about 40…roughly 36 girls and about 4 boys of varying age), and their conductor David Victor-Smith’s choice of repertoire was questionable for voices that would no doubt have been experiencing jet-lag and exhaustion from travel and sight-seeing…not to mention the incredible heat and humidity. But hey, this is the big-time…and no excuses are valid in this rough and tumble world of show-business. We now live in the age of Glee, where all production numbers must be perfect each Thursday!! All in all, they were well received and fairly impressive…but better luck next time.
The Cincinnati grouping (in first position) were the local favorites, of course. With home-field-advantage, they brought the crowd to their feet with an almost too long program of close to 30 minutes. Hand held bamboo-like poles pounded out rhythmic beats, fingers snapped, hands clapped lustily; bodies swayed, and two fine young members even took a turn at solo lines (delivering them beautifully). Robin Lana directed the group with ease and dignity, as did Rollo Dilworth, a specially commissioned composer and guest conductor, who assisted with two encore arrangements of his own, but continued with a too long, ill-chosen ‘encore’ of the encore Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. (A true pro knows when to leave the audience wanting more…not giving them too much while they are already standing in appreciation of you.)
As we saw in the 2008 Olympic Games, the Chinese can proffer the ‘Best Show on Earth’. But is it really necessary for the Guangdong Experimental Middle School Choir (who closed the program) to don their youth in rhinestone bodices, multicolored waist sashes, headpieces, separate dance wear, and decorative umbrellas, just to sing a choral piece??? Do we need the over-choreographed dance-break to actually enhance the choral singing??? The answer seems to be ‘YES’, because without such accoutrements, their choral skills and musical selections, while solid, were not that interesting…gold medal designations aside. I am beginning to wonder as to what criteria these panels are adjudicating upon. Finally, while I am a huge visitor to China (some 12 trips now)–actually I thoroughly love it there; I really am beginning to be bothered by certain ‘ethics’ that sometimes seem to be at play. I can never prove it officially of course (and the Chinese would never allow tampering of this sort); but for a Middle School Choir, I surely detected what seemed to be almost adult participants mixed into this group. Perhaps the “experimental” part of the Guangdong Experimental Middle School Choir, is to determine how the choir will respond with young adults in the mix. Perhaps their definition of “Middle School” is different than our own, or perhaps my reflection is simply mistaken and/or out of line. But I just don’t get it; the Chinese are a powerful, disciplined, highly educated, innovative people. I love their culture, determination, and drive…but really??? This seemed like “seeding” to me; but I stress once again, that this was simply an observation as I sat in the audience. (I reserve the right to be proven in error on the above, and form no accusations proper.)
“So far, so good” now comes to an end:
I subtitled this Post…But where are the attorneys? Do you wonder why?? I’ll tell you why! The Cincinnati choral contingent sang works entitled:
Praise the Lord
Holy is the Lord
I heard the word Hallelujah, and Alleluia more times than I could count! I heard God referred to as ‘male’ in gender!! And these words were sung by a PUBLIC SCHOOL choir!!! A school that has been sanctioned by the State of Ohio, and which no doubt receives Federal tax dollars!!!! We have something called “Separation of Church and State” in this country, and it would seem that this type of ‘religious conformity in song’ is in direct violation with some of these beautiful students’ rights to this separation. If they didn’t wish to sing the words as selected by their director, then they would have likely been disallowed from participation in this event, right???!!!!! Did the school have these talented, perhaps unwilling, school children or their parents sign waivers or releases?? Were they interviewed as to their religious beliefs, or non-beliefs??? With so many attempts to erase religion and prayer from our Public Schools, all I want to know is this: Where are all the ACLU attorneys on this one??? Better hurry-up and get in there…these kids looked like they were having way too much fun singing, and believing in what they were singing!! You had best get to the gate…you have a chance to make big names for yourselves. Imagine…bringing down the World Choir Games, and being able to set policy for future vocal/choral repertoire that is to be sung by participants from the United States of America!! How did you miss this one??? And just in case I am the first to plant the idea in your mind…”Your Welcome!!!!” (Tongue firmly planted in cheek!!)
P.s. Congratulations to Charles Eversole (a schoolmate from Baldwin Wallace University in Berea Ohio), whose world renowned Singing Angels had a spectacular showing this past weekend!