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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Hello Goodbye*

The 40th country to check my blog--Columbia--did so today.  Bienvenidos! (5/17/16) UPDATE: Welcome to my reader in the Turks and Caicos Islands--41 countries heard from!

I was a member of the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club during my undergrad days.  While I enjoyed singing the Michigan songs and classical repertoire put in front of us by our directors (Leonard Johnson (assistant professor of voice) for three years, Dr. Patrick Gardner (Assistant professor of conducting) for the fourth), one thing I did NOT enjoy was some of the nonsense that made it more closely resemble four years of "Animal House" than singing in a top-flight choral organization.

Don't get me wrong. I dearly love many of the men with whom I sung in Ann Arbor.  Many of them are brilliant, distinguished in their fields, and would ring a bell if I mentioned their names to you. You may be asking, "where was the director in all this?".  The Glee Club was the oldest student run organization on campus.  The School of Music (later, the School of Music, Theater and Dance) supplied a director to the club, and I would daresay with mixed results.

Professor Johnson was a highly successful studio teacher who took over the club from Willis Patterson, also a studio teacher but with extensive choral conducting experience.  I learned to love singing from Professor Johnson, but found his leadership and conducting skill set to be lacking; when he was denied tenure in 1981, I wasn't surprised, but was decidedly in the minority among club members who opposed the change.

On came Dr. Gardner in the fall of 1981. He had finished his DMA at the University of Texas-Austin, where his doctoral work included study of a piece for gamelan and male choir (or so I heard). He was only 27, and it was exciting to work with him from the get-go. Gone were so many of the Duey pop and light classical arrangements. In their place were actual pieces originally written for male chorus.  He got us in the habit of really studying the lyrics and finding out what we were singing about.  The pieces weren't always loud or boisterous or rich in harmony.  Some, like Song of Peace by Persichetti and Halsey Steven's setting of Christina Rossetti's Remember Me, were by comparison skeletal, their harmonies and melodies deceptively simple (but NEVER simplistic).  Wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but I thrived on it.

Fast forward about 30 years. I go to hear Measure for Measure at the IMC conference at Rutgers (which I did and thoroughly enjoyed) but before I left, I had the great pleasure of hearing an excellent high school male chorus from Pennsylvania.  They performed not only music from the western canon, but from non-western sources as well.  It was their last piece, an extended work on the subject of Nelson Mandela, with which I took issue, and what will be the heart of the second half of this post.

I've noticed a trend over the last ten years--it may be longer--of choral composers writing music for texts that are decidedly activist in nature. To wit:

1) a composition for male chorus called "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed". Movement titles include "Officers, why are you pointing your guns at me?", "I can't breathe", and "What are you following me for?", This piece was presumably meant to honor black men who were killed by police officers.

2) a composition for male chorus purportedly in honor of Nelson Mandela, the last movement of which includes singers holding signs and chanting for rights for various groups. The performance of this piece that I attended had the conductor encourage the audience to stand and sing along (to music wholly unfamiliar to us)

3) A composition by a world-renowned composer who, in his program notes, noted his disdain for former president George W. Bush

In all three cases these were school-related groups. I have to wonder if the students were given the opportunity to freely express their dissent on the content of these pieces to the extent of being able to opt out of performing these texts. Given what I know of these groups, I'm inclined to think that there was considerable pressure on any who dared express a minority opinion, be they students, parents, or others in the academic community.

The UMMGC, some years after I graduated, adopted a slogan--"Tradition, Camaraderie, and Musical Excellence". When I was in the club, we frankly nailed the first two, and the third, well, if it happened, it happened (the year with Dr. Gardner notwithstanding--he was a strong personality and an excellent conductor). We rested on our laurels way too much, and I feel like the music suffered as a result. If it were up to me, I'd reverse the order on those three attributes and let the last two appear as a result of the first--but that's just me.

plus ca change...

So why did I name this post "Hello Goodbye"?

Because at this point in my life I'm not certain that I want to continue my association with the UMMGC. That would shock several people I know to their foundation, but I need to know. Is this obsession with the current political correctness, progressive attitude, and social activism in choral music going to continue, where we engage in a pissing contest over who can be the most "daring"?
The mind reels.

Lennon and McCartney for the Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, 1967