“Doubling Up In Eastern Washington”

by Reginald Unterseher
, R & S Chair for Men's Choirs
On February 8, 9, and 10, two choruses from cities 150 miles apart sang an ambitious program of masterworks for double chorus featuring Poulenc’s “Figure Humaine,” the Mass in g minor of Vaughn Williams, and works by Schumann, Palestrina, and Mascagni.

Spokane Choral Artists, usually a group of 12 led by Max Mendez, expanded to 16 to match the same number from the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, whose numbers range from 16 to over 80, depending on the project that Justin Raffa, MCM Artistic Director, is presenting.

Both groups include many music educators. Twenty-one of the thirty-six singers in the combined chorus teach music, from elementary school through college, or as private voice or piano instructors. Some knew each other before the process, but for many it was their first meeting. Besides singing together in the limited joint rehearsals, they stayed in each others’ homes and shared a few meals together.

Justin and Max are both members of Male Ensemble Northwest, as am I. I asked them a few questions about the genesis of the project, the process, and the results.mcm

What gave you the idea to take two choruses from cities two and a half hours apart and do a concert of double choir music?

MAX:  Justin approached me about a performance centered around the Poulenc “Figure Humaine”.  Since this is a double chorus piece, it seemed appropriate to explore creating a program of all double choruses.  After some research we were able to create a program of double choruses that gave a great deal of variety and was very exciting.spokane

JUSTIN: I am always looking for new opportunities to collaborate with other artists and organizations. The prospect of doing an all-double choir concert with one of my colleagues’ choirs seemed promising. Max has become a good friend, and I saw his ensemble as the equivalent of my Tri-City based Mid-Columbia Mastersingers in the Spokane area. His group is fairly new and seemed a good partner for this project. MCM has also had limited exposure in the Spokane area, and vice versa with SCA in Tri-Cities. We foresaw that both ensembles would benefit in multiple ways from this collaboration. Fortunately, Max is also as ambitious as I in programming and was willing to embark on a journey to prepare one of the most difficult works ever written for double chorus!       

How did you go about choosing the literature?

JUSTIN: I had considered programming Figure Humaine for some time and wanted that to serve as the concert focus. It seemed appropriate to choose literature around it that would bring balance to the program in terms of language, style, history, and difficulty for the choir, knowing that Poulenc would take a tremendous amount of time to prepare. Figure Humaine is a dark and brooding product of 1940s France, so we needed additional rep that would bring emotional and aural variety to the listener. Max and I first researched titles individually, then made decisions together, including who would conduct which piece. Palestrina Surge Illuminare Jerusalem and Schumann Vier Dopplechorige Gesange (need umlauts) were Max’s suggestions, and I was completely unfamiliar with the Schumann pieces! I also had to negotiate with a patron who had won the opportunity to choose a piece for MCM to perform at our last fundraising event, which led to the Mascagni. This patron is a huge opera fan, particularly Italian opera, so the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana fit both his musical preferences and the emerging all double choir program concept. Choralnet was also a great resource to explore double chorus options.

MAX:   I just started listening and going through scores.  I was very intrigued by the dark images of the Poulenc and term “chiaro scuro” stuck in my mind.  I knew the Poulenc was the scuro, so I wanted to find the chiaro for the program.  I felt that is what the Palestrina and the Schumann provided.  The Vaughan William’s Mass in G-minor is a quintessential composition for double chorus.
Rather than mix the two choruses half and half, you chose to have each chorus sing one of the choruses. What challenges vs. advantages did this present?

MAX:   One advantage from SCA’s standpoint is that we were familiar with each other and challenges like blend was easier to achieve because of this familiarity.  

The biggest challenge was rehearsing without the opposing chorus.  Although this forced us to really learn the music for both choruses.                

JUSTIN: by having each ensemble learn only one chorus part per piece, we minimized the amount of material we had to prepare. In essence, we each only had to learn 50% of the material on the program, so the workload was evenly distributed between the two groups. Additionally, since we were only 16 singers per ensemble, having to cover a minimum of 8 parts across two choirs on every piece seemed a stretch. It was a smart choice to keep 4 singers per part and just learn either choir 1 or choir 2 for each piece. At least it was that way at first!

The biggest challenge was having to work on pieces later in the rehearsal process, especially Poulenc, where the other choir played a critical role in providing pitch content to the next choir. It’s quite different having to take pitch from real human voices as opposed to a piano, especially when the harmonic language is as complex as Poulenc! When the two groups finally rehearsed together for the first time, it took a while to become acclimated to the sound of the other group and trust that we were there to help each other!        

On the weekend before the concert, the two choruses met and sang together for the first time. Part way through that Friday evening through Saturday rehearsal period, Dr. Bruce Browne spent several hours working with the combined choruses. How did that affect the process of bringing the two choruses together?
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JUSTIN: Having a neutral, outside guest conductor work with us helped the two groups take the next step in terms of listening to one another and working together. Max and I obviously bring a certain bias to our groups, and they are used to how we do things and how we communicate with them. Bruce has some of the best ears around and has the ability to clearly communicate to singers both how to sing beautifully and in tune at the same time. He is a genius at working on intonation with choirs in such a manner that doesn’t generate anxiety amongst the singers. He is also a master of language and can discern the slightest shades of vowel colors that affect blend and intonation. Bruce played a pivotal role in the success of this collaboration by taking our groups to the next level of performance. Both singers and conductors alike learned much from Bruce’s work that weekend.

MAX:  Bruce has great ears.  I would characterize Justin and myself as young but ambitious conductors.  Bruce was able to bring in a great expertise and help us fine tune many details in the program.  He also provide Justin and I a chance to listen to both ensembles.  I was able to listen to the MCM ensemble, which I was unfamiliar, and Justin likewise with SCA.  I felt like both ensembles benefited from Bruce’s input and the rest of the rehearsals went very well.               

What was the response from the choruses and the community to the concerts? Are there plans for more joint concerts in the future?

MAX:    The response from both the singers and our community was fantastic.  Our singers were excited to sing a challenging program, but also there was a great chance to connect with new singers.  The networking that went on during our rehearsals and homestays, turn into connections that will continue for years to come.  From a community standpoint, it was amazing to hear the feedback from our patrons.  They were excited for the programing and the chance to hear another group from out of the area.  I find that SCA thrives on the act of collaborating.  From it’s inception, we are a conductorless group.  That in itself relies on collaboration within the ensemble.  We have also collaborated with North Idaho College’s Jazz Ensemble to perform some works for jazz band and traditional choirs.  We are looking forward to a continued relationship with MCM.               

JUSTIN: Folks were absolutely thrilled! We did a concert survey and received a record number of responses. People were moved by the music and the collaboration between the two groups. We attempted to enhance the audience experience by experimenting with different choir placements in the concert venue, and survey results confirmed our decision. Max and I did a pre-concert talk together, which deepened the audience’s appreciation of the program and the details surrounding a collaboration of this caliber. Nearly every survey response encouraged us to do this again, and Max and I are already brainstorming future projects, including a possible Bach St. Matthew Passion in the fall of 2014. It was great to meet fellow choral singers from another community and have the chance to make music together. We particularly enjoyed the opportunity to sing at a church with beautiful architecture and history in Spokane!