Today is the day of the Welcome to the US concert. The context is by no means as massive as the one a week ago, but still, this is a big concert. Why? Because of the program.
Otherwise, this is just another April concert. Kampin Laulu is a good choir, but it hardly creates waves every time it performs – in fact, our audiences tend to be on the small side. The venue is a nice hall, but nothing out of the ordinary. The only trump card (pun sort of intended) we have is what we are going to sing.
It is not so much the individual pieces, even if some of them certainly have been received exceptionally well by the singers. It is the whole, the thematic entity. I have noticed this before, especially with the ‘Birds’ concert I described last week and a concert with Kampin Laulu a few years back with the theme ‘War and Peace’. Somehow, the theme causes a buzz within the choir; a buzz that tends to result in word going out better. Choristers of good choirs are often very critical and even dubious of what they are about to perform and start believing that it will be good only when it starts sounding really good (which unfortunately often is only a few days before the concert). Ergo, they don’t start marketing the product until they believe in it, which is then too late to have any real impact. This does not happen as much with concerts with good themes. So it has to be the theme that the singers believe in!
I believe a good theme is actually more important to the choir than to the audience. When I sit in the audience, a theme is nice, but ultimately it is just supporting element. Even if I value a good theme, I still listen to one piece at a time. Perhaps I do cut a bit of slack because the theme arches over the individual pieces. But the ones who seem to benefit most are the singers of the choir. I think this boils down to the singers feeling ownership of the concert: they understand why they are singing exactly these pieces. A good theme engages the intellect of the singers and they have an easier time committing to the music (even to some pieces they otherwise might not especially enjoy).
Another creator of buzz, tension and the feeling of occasion is the ambition level of the program. There are two contrasting factors at play: a) big demands tend to get a big response, b) the tension caused by insecurity. The previous makes people prepare (practice!) better and the latter tests both the collective confidence of the choir and the confidence of its individuals. Not to mention the conductor:)
Another interesting feature of an ambitious program is that it affects the inner dynamic of the choir. According to one theory, all groups divide approximately 30-50-20, with 30% of the group being the leaders, the most skilled and dynamic individuals, 50% ones who manage well in the tow of the first group and 20% individuals who struggle to keep up. Think of this as an American football.
When the choir sings something easier or uses lots and lots of time for something demanding, the dynamic changes and the differences become smaller. Something like this:
When the ambition level is at it highest, the shape is stretched out most – and as you might guess, there is a limit to the stretch before the fabric of the choir is torn. My experience is that you need to avoid overly stretching too often and that you need to program in a way to allow for both forms of the ball. To develop, you need some periods with the American model and to stay intact and develop confidence, you need some European periods. Suitably enough, this Welcome to the US is definitely an American football project.
Ha, I was wrong: ambitious programs don’t necessarily lead to the ball staying American. At best, like today, the ball goes European by the time of the concert. It was stretched during the process, but returned to form at the end of it. That delighted me as much as the fact that the concert went well. I think I just learned something.
It was a wonderful experience conducting a huge piece like the Banks work. The scale is symphonic and that somehow deepens the emotional aspects of the work. I also loved the physicality of conducting the piece: staying focused for a long time, looking for the right tempi, the right gestures, staying ahead of the game and driving the performance forward. At the end I was moved, sweaty and dead tired.
It just feels like this ridiculous April just keeps getting better and better!
P.S. The weather is still nice, warmish and clear.