Culture Feature Music even a grinch could love

The Children's Chorus of San Antonio defies stereotypes with the premiere of 'Then, Now, Forever'

Choral music is a funny thing. One of the earliest, most fundamental, and potentially most beautiful musical mediums in the Western tradition frequently conjures up images of bad church choirs and high-school assemblies. Even worse is the mention of a children's chorus: All those cute kids in productions that only parents could love. It's a sad fact that many an ensemble has used and abused some of the finest compositions in Western music history, and many a composer has wasted the inherent beauty and malleability of the human voice on mediocre scores. However, on May 1, the Children's Chorus of San Antonio just might challenge the stereotype when they close their 22nd season with the world premiere of David Brunner's new work, "Then, Now, Forever."

The San Antonio Children's Chorus Prelude Choir (7- and 8-year-olds) performs at the Landa Branch Library under the direction of Rebecca Jarvis. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The work was commissioned by the Children's Chorus in memory of Bob McCormick, founding tour director for CCSA, who passed away unexpectedly a little more than a year ago. Husband to CCSA Founder and Artistic Director Marguerite McCormick, he had been closely involved with CCSA since its inception. The CCSA board of directors decided to use a portion of the flood of memorial contributions that followed his death to commission a work in his honor. It's a fitting tribute to the man who coordinated CCSA tours to Carnegie Hall, Copenhagen, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and to Italy where CCSA performed at St. Peter's in Rome and at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, not to mention Venice.

Not quite the stuff of elementary-school recitals, is it? That's exactly the point. Founded in 1983 by Marguerite McCormick, CCSA has been nurturing vocal technique and musicianship among its members for years. "Our singers have achieved a fairly sophisticated level of musicianship," says McCormick, who always speaks of her singers with pride and respect. While she tends to downplay her own involvement, McCormick and associate directors Irma Taute and Rebecca Jarvis have developed a fairly consistent program for bringing children up, musically and vocally, through CCSA's five-level choir structure.

"There are some specific considerations when you're working with children's voices" says McCormick. They haven't yet developed their full vocal range, and to avoid damaging their vocal chords one has to work within a generally comfortable range. While this is particularly relevant for adolescent boys, who are going through dramatic voice changes anyway, girls' voices have to be protected as well. Teaching children how to use their voices is a big part of what CCSA is about. At the same time, the participants are exposed to a wide range of repertoire and musical concepts that contribute to their growth as musicians.

Working with David Brunner during the composer's residency, April 28 through May 1, will further broaden their musical horizons. Brunner is particularly well suited to composing choral works. Currently Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at the University of Central Florida, Brunner's reputation as a choral conductor has earned him invitations as a clinician to choral festivals and institutes throughout North America and Europe. His choral conducting and teaching runs the gamut from professional, university, community, and church choirs to public school and children's choruses.

When faced with choosing a composer for a work honoring her husband of 38 years, McCormick chose a colleague and friend whose musical integrity was matched by his understanding of children's voices. McCormick became familiar with Brunner's work through the Institute for Choral Music Education. This prestigious international conference for choral directors brings educators from all over the world together to improve their craft, and Brunner is frequently a featured clinician. Over the years, McCormick had been consistently impressed with Brunner's broad range of musical interests, his elaborate musical accompaniments, and his interesting choices and manipulation of text in choral settings that range from contemporary styles to traditional psalms and Latin American influences.

Based on a poem by Texas poet and sculptor Bill Worrell, the text of "Then, Now, Forever" is a Native American inspired meditation on life, death, and the loving, open spirit David Brunner believes should inspire both.

Brunner's San Antonio residency will commence with an April 28 live interview on Texas Public Radio's KPAC Classical Spotlight with host Randy Anderson at 11 a.m. Later that day, Brunner will be at the UTSA Music Department for a "Meet the Composer" event. In addition to working with the UTSA Chorus in an informal master-class setting, Brunner will discuss his compositional techniques and issues relevant to the music publishing industry with local composition students and faculty. This event is open to the public and will be held in the UTSA Recital Hall (1604 campus) at 1:30 p.m.

On April 30, Brunner will spend the day working in closed rehearsals with CCSA for the May 1 premiere of "Then, Now, Forever." Based on a poem by Texas poet and sculptor Bill Worrell, the text of "Then, Now, Forever" is a Native American inspired meditation on life, death, and the loving, open spirit Brunner believes should inspire both. Brunner's sensitive attention to text became especially poignant when he chose a few lines of Robert McCormick's poetry to close the piece. The work will be premiered by the two advanced choirs of the CCSA, made up of many of the young singers who knew Robert McCormick from their years with CCSA.

Taking full advantage of Brunner's expertise, and true to CCSA's emphasis on nurturing all of their young musicians, each of the five CCSA choirs will have an opportunity to work with Brunner personally and to perform one of his works during the May 1 concert. The program also includes works by Handel, John Rutter, Audrey Snyder, Paul Manz, Rupert Lang, Lee Kesselman, Brian Holmes, Gerald Cohen, and Paul Basler, featuring a variety of styles and texts ranging from Gregorian Chant to Baroque opera, from traditional Hebrew melodies to John Updike poems. Along with expert piano accompaniment, these young artists will perform with a string quartet, flute, tuba, and bell chimes.

This range of musical experience is central to the CCSA modus operandi of learning the discipline of meticulous practice and musical preparation, respecting both the intelligence and limitations of their singers. To accomplish this, CCSA is divided into five choirs based on age, vocal range, and experience. The Prelude Choir is the preparatory level for treble voices ages 7-8, where very young singers learn the basics of singing and are initiated into the practice of choral music. From there they progress to the entry level Junior Chorus for ages 10-13. The intermediate-level Choristers feature singers 10-15, as does the advanced Chamber Choir. The Youth Chorale is the advanced, mixed-voice choir composed of Chamber Choir alumni aged 14-18 with a strong musical background and full vocal range (the boys' voices have changed, the girls are more fully developed).

Apparently, the formula works. CCSA has been invited to be one of only six resident choirs at the 2006 Institute for Choral Music Education in York, England. On the way, CCSA will stop in Paris to perform and take in the sights. Meanwhile, they'll be settling in to their new home in the RADIUS building on Auditorium Circle, where they will offer monthly performances along with other resident performing arts groups. We've all been subjected to less than optimal choral experiences. The Children's Chorus of San Antonio is doing its part to minimize this unfortunate phenomenon by training new generations of singers to respect their voices and the vast musical tradition of which they are a part.

By Diana Lyn Roberts


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