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Spira in Vaasa

After a period of abstinence after the April blogging, here I am again. I thought I’d report on two choral adventures in May. The first of them is Spira Ensemble at the Vaasa Choir Festival that takes place around Ascension Day. Even though very few people celebrate the feast, it is still a day off. And as it is a Thursday, many take the Friday off and make it a pre-summer break of four days. Not a bad time to have a choir festival. Especially as the weather is ridiculously good – we have gone from waiting for spring to arrive to summer arriving in a matter of days. It is almost up to 20 degrees and nature is exploding into summer mode.

We have a 20-minute set this evening in the opening concert and a concert of our own tomorrow evening. I am looking forward to excellent performances. We know the music and we have a good group on the tour. Last Sunday’s rehearsal was calm and the choir sounded really nice. The voice distribution is a shade top-heavy (11-10-7-8), but the guys are solid and the sound is well balanced.

The choir is still quite young, founded in 2013. It all began from a question an ex-singer of mine from Lyran. She asked me if I would consider conducting a choir of Lyran and Akademen alumni if she put one together. I thought the whole idea seemed completely unrealistic and agreed believing nothing would come of the initiative. Three weeks later she called me saying she had 30 singers.

The original idea was to work in periods to allow for singers who wanted to sing, but could not commit to a weekly rehearsal (pretty much all the singers are in those hectic years of young families and careers). At first, all the singers came into the choir at the invitation of the board. This meant the group consisted of friends who had earlier sung years together – albeit in male and female choirs. In all honesty, Spira was initially a group of friends that wanted to sing together. There was a clear sense of ambition, but there were no great aims or goals – just a will to sing good music together.

Even after the choir was ambushed by success (especially the Grand Prix at the Tampere Vocal Music Festival in 2015) and our methods, recruitment means and rehearsal frequency have changed a great deal, something of the initial raison d’être remains. There is a calm in the soul of the choir, which I believe comes from the sense of friendship. The choir is a little bit American in spirit: it expects good things to happen and receives these with open arms.

Spira rehearses one weekend day (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and one evening per month. To compensate for having so little time together the choir emphasizes preparation. (Don’t they all? And most often with not too much success.) Spira has attempted to do all it can to encourage practising outside choir time, especially with sectionals and a brilliant concept: octet rehearsals. The choir is divided into smaller groups (of ca. 8 singers) and these groups rehearse together before major events. And even though individual preparation could be even better, there is a stronger ethos in Spira than most other choirs I have conducted.

Spira’s real strength is the quality of the singers’ voices. There are so many natural, free-flowing and pure voices that the sound of the choir is almost by necessity beautiful. Which brings me to a favourite subject of mine: the instrument of a choral singer is the voice. Just as an orchestral musician is ultimately a violinist or oboist and not a generic orchestral musician, the choral singer is a singer, not a generic choral musician, let alone a generic musician. Yes, there a many, many demands specific to choral singing, but the instrument one has to master to be a good choral singer is the voice. Actually, we need to understand that choral singing on the highest level is, if anything,  more demanding than solo singing, even when it comes to mastering one’s voice. And before we have choral singing on the highest level, we will not fully be able to appreciate the wonders of the music – just as we need fully professional orchestras to be able to enjoy orchestral repertoire to the full.

I will be adding to this blog post over the next two days. Follow our exploits in Vaasa in realtime (or almost)!

***

Nice, short rehearsal in a lovely space (ballroom of Town Hall). Sounds crisp and nice.

This Town Hall was built in the late 19th century. Its building was delayed because of the processing of a complaint that claimed that ‘The task of the city is to uphold order and economy. The acquisition of a ballroom is neither.’ How little times have changed.

The building’s claim to fame is that six of the ten Finnish senators held their meetings in the Town Hall during the spring of 1918. Four senators had left Helsinki before the battles of the Civil War began and two more managed later to flee to Vaasa. As the Senate was de facto the government of Finland, power lie for a few months in Vaasa (about 400 km North-West of Helsinki). Once the white side side came out victorious, the senate relocated back to Helsinki.

The Civil War was the undoing of Toivo Kuula, whose statue stands outside the Town Hall here. Kuula, who was born in Vaasa, died in a totally unnecessary way, in a drunken brawl in the aftermaths of the war. The argument that took place almost to the day 100 years ago, is said to have been over whose composition to a patriotic text was better, his or Sibelius’. As a result of the argument, Kuula unfortunately joined the ranks of brilliant composers who never made it beyond 35 years of age. We will sing one his most magical works, Siell’ on kauan jo kukkineet omenapuut, in a couple hours time. Talk about the right time and place.

***

The opening concert was of good quality and the four appearing groups all sang well. I wasn’t all that delighted with our opening, but after that all was good. Especially the Kuula was excellent. The tempo was just right and it all felt natural and logical. So, all in all, it was a good day.

***

Lecture on rehearsals done. If you want to know what I spoke about, scroll back in the blog post list to the posts on rehearsals from April-May 2017.

I always feel a little uneasy lecturing to conductors. I really don’t want to be arrogant or condescending. Conducting is so difficult that everyone struggles with it almost all the time and I have often been irritated by lecturers who seem to think they have just invented the wheel. So I try to keep a low profile and point out time after time that if I have learned something about the art, it is through thousands of hours and almost as many mistakes and failures. This time, I am at ease. It was a small audience and there was sufficient dialogue to ensure I wasn’t lecturing von oben.

After the lecture I had a meeting with some local choral association actives about a coming Song Festival (2021). How I got mixed with this project, I am not quite sure. I think you might find the explanation here. Anyway, it was a good meeting and we seemed to be on the same page.

It is the loveliest of days. it is about 20 degrees and the skies are clear and blue. I am not sure I would want to go to a concert on a day like this. Let’s hope we have some audience this evening.

***

The concert was a success. Beautiful church, a big, appreciative audience and the choir at times sang incredibly well. There was a freedom in the music-making that was the most rewarding thing for me. It feels almost like following the music to unknown places instead of making it go somewhere. Music must be one of the finest things that this universe has produced.

And now this:

•••

Late evening, short night and now on the train back home. A very good, short tour.

I normally say that you don’t learn that much from success. It just makes you happy and gives you confidence. But I sit here wondering if something could be learned from his trip. Why did the concert go so well yesterday? If I understood that, would I be able to replicate the process in the future?

The most apparent factors are that the choir is good and it really knew the music well. And I think that covers most of it. In addition, the acoustics of the church were definitely on our side. A few of the singers also commented that the way they were placed was exceptionally nice. I did notice that the voice parts of the male voices seemed to stand in tight bunches a little separated from each other – maybe that isolated them in a positive way: they heard each other and just had the other voice parts as reference. This would match my ideal state-of -things when singing in a vocal ensemble. I don’t so much want to listen to the other voices as be aware of them and use them as a context for my own singing. This is, in my experience, only possible when everything is going really well. When things go even a little bit pear-shaped, you have to switch on to listening to the others in a completely different manner and try to fix whatever is not working. And the non-pear-shaped criterion was certainly met yesterday.

One thing I also heard many people commenting on was a sense of flow. I believe this was made possible by the fact that we had already been on the road together for 36 hours before the concert. We had already had a performance that went well and had spent time together. The social cohesion, being isolated from the everyday aspects of the singers’ lives and being immersed in the music prepared the choristers mentally for the concert in a way that is really difficult to achieve in normal circumstances. Could one go on a retreat the evening before the concert? Rehearse a little, spend time together and relax; get away from everything else?

Even if the retreat idea is impossible, I will make a mental note to self: it is really important to have a rehearsal very close to the concert. Not only in order to make sure all the music is in good order, but allow for the mental preparation that can improve both the way the choristers experience the concert and the end result.

The next report post will be of the CCF tour to Germany in a week’s time. Now, a little R & R.

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