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Choral Music Review

Hinshaw Music's Celebration XXX Workshop & Concert

August 6, 2004 - Raleogh & RTP, NC:

On August 6, the day after a strong cold front moved through the Triangle producing the most pleasant weather since early spring, I attended "Celebration XXX," Hinshaw Music 's choral music workshop, at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in RTP. Begun by Don Hinshaw in 1974 the fall after the startup of the Chapel Hill-based music publishing business, the workshop has been held annually for thirty years. The main feature of the workshop was the introduction and singing-through of some 72 pieces of music from the now-vast Hinshaw catalogue; several of them were conducted by the composers who wrote them.

Celebration XXX was completely booked. Four hundred participants filled just about every available chair in the large meeting room assigned for the workshop. Most of the people I talked with were singers in church choirs who had come to broaden their experience of choral repertoire and to have the experience of singing under the direction of composers like John Rutter, Allen Pote, and clinician William Carroll, who is now Hinshaw's chief music editor. Many of the attendees were church and school choir directors looking for new material to sing and fresh inspiration from some masters of the art. I met people from Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina and saw many friends who are outstanding choral and church music enthusiasts. The attendees were from central Eastern-seaboard states, mostly, but I heard that there were people there from as far away as New York.

Most of the music I heard on Friday (the workshop continued until 12:30 Saturday) was pretty straight-up church fare, a bit on the square side. There were many hymn-tune arrangements, but all (and I mean all ) displayed evident quality in the craft of composition. There were some surprises in harmonic development and rhythmic daring here and there: notably, Howard Helvey's gorgeous, renaissance evocative motet, in Latin, "O Lux Beatissima." Unfortunately, not many church choirs will venture to sing a piece in Latin despite the rich sounds that language allows a choir to make. You can always print the text translation in the bulletin and allow the choral sound to produce a worship experience that can go beyond words. Another notable piece was David Schwoebel's "From All That Dwell Below the Skies." Rhythmically inventive but not difficult to sing, this anthem would be well worth a little extra time in preparation. It has a very nice descant, a congregational participation part, and optional handbell parts.

Another standout feature of the workshop is exposure to several different conducting styles. William Carroll, the primary clinician at these workshops since Don Hinshaw's death, has a very comfortable and easy-going conducting style, and it was obvious that he believes singing should be a pleasurable experience - for the singer and the hearer.

When John Rutter took the stand, the room lit up. His effervescent personality, sprightly sense of humor, and whole-body conducting brought life to his music and to all the workshop participants. In places where the music called for it, he virtually danced. His hands, snapping at the wrist, spelled out a precise beat in the rhythmically lively passages and were gracefully smooth in the more legato passages. His conducting style inspires good things when choral singers lift their voices.

Allen Pote, a growing significant voice in American choral music - he is now a full-time composer living in Pensacola, Florida - conducted the next set, which included six of his own outstanding compositions. His understanding of choral sound from inside out (and all around) provided the workshop participants with an experience that will make them all better singers and directors on return to their home choirs.

It was the joy of this reviewer to spend some time with John Rutter, probably the most performed and most recorded composer of the last twenty to thirty years. His relationship with Hinshaw Music goes back almost the beginning of the company, and he calls his relationship with Don Hinshaw "very special." Rutter's Requiem was published by Hinshaw in 1985. He said he thought it might receive one or two performances and was delighted when Don Hinshaw agreed to publish it. Today, it is clearly a favorite in this format around the world; it is often compared with Fauré's Requiem as an example of serene, transcendent, and comforting music.

Most choral music is sung by volunteer amateur groups, thus imposing on the composer the need to avoid overly difficult or complex writing, according to Rutter. On the other hand, composers of opera can include the most difficult and challenging music they dare to write since opera singers are professionals and are paid to get it right. Guess what John Rutter's ambition is for his next large project - that's right, an opera. The libretto is not set yet, but it is my impression that some ideas are simmering away just waiting for the composer to free up some time from his busy schedule and find the necessary quiet for those ideas to gel and get written out. We must wait with hopeful anticipation.

For a modest fee that participants almost totally recoup in the music handouts and other fringe benefits, Hinshaw Music delivers a bargain and a treasure. Next year will be Celebration XXXI. Bravo!

Add together the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham and Rodney Wynkoop, the Capital City Girls Choir, the Greensboro Youth Chorus, organist and composer Robert Lau, composers David Schwoebel, Allen Pote, and John Rutter, and much, much more, all in a free concert, and what do you get? A large church sanctuary packed with people, with standees along the outer aisles and extra chairs set up in the lobby, served by CCTV. And that was just the beginning, on the evening of August 6!

The annual "A Celebration (of music) Concert" - this was the thirtieth - was open to the public at Edenton Street United Methodist Church on the coolest evening in several moons.

The first half of the concert included Robert Lau's Wedding Suite for organ, played by the composer. It is a collection of somewhat familiar classical wedding pieces, arranged and made nicely accessible by the composer. Anthems by David Schwoebel and Allen Pote, both invigorating and rousing, were sung by the VAE under Wynkoop's superbly controlled leadership; these and other works on the program were reliably accompanied by organist (and pianist) Monica Umstaedt Rossman. Rutter's "Christmas Lullaby" did not seem as fully prepared as the previous two works - rehearsal time was limited - but has the typical Rutter charm - sweet, gentle, and warm.

Rutter conducted two of his more recent anthems before the intermission break. The second of these, "Arise, Shine," is, I think, one of the finest things he has composed to date. It has drama, rich harmony, unexpected turns, and depth not seen in many of his earlier works. Dare we hope for more in this vein? The VAE responded to Rutter's conducting with intensity and infectious excitement.

After intermission, Rutter led the two youth groups in the utterly charming "Magical Kingdom," a through-composed piece with equally charming text by the composer. Most of the children kept their eyes trained on the conductor/composer in rapt concentration throughout this half of the concert. They turned their pages at the right time but seemed rarely to look down at the music. They were exceptionally well prepared by Fran Page, director of the Capital City Girls Choir, and Ann Doyle, director of the Greensboro Youth Choir.

Then Rutter led the combined forces listed above, augmented by harp, woodwinds, string bass, a small percussion array, and piano in Mass of the Children , his most recent extended work, which is a very interesting piece. It employs the ordinary of the Latin Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei) with added text from Thomas Ken, William Blake, and the Book of Common Prayer. Conceived as a sort of "day in the life" by the composer, it begins with a morning hymn by Thomas Ken (1637-1711) and closes with an evening hymn and doxology from the same source set to the familiar Tallis Canon. The work ends with a prayer for peace - Dona nobis pacem - fading away in a quiet ending as though ascending like incense to the heavens above.

It is, all in all, an impressive opus, yet still it was my feeling on this second hearing that some of the pieces don't quite fit together as a whole. For example, the baritone and soprano solos at the beginning of the Finale, impressively sung by Patricia Philipps and William Adams, are beautiful but seem just a little out of character to me. The Kyrie, especially, and other parts of the Mass suggest the influence of Rachmaninov, one of Rutter's favorite composers. The dark Agnus Dei hints at Penderecki's St. Luke Passion . (It was a cool night, but it was warm under the lights, and the choristers were obliged to stand on steps and risers; one child fainted, briefly interrupting the fourth section.)

Some of the children's portions of the Mass sounded derivative of Rutter's earlier work, i.e. so familiar as to be somewhat less interesting. It is my hope that Rutter will recall again his boychoir experience of singing in the world premiere of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and aspire again to the greatness I believe he has in him, rather than repeating earlier successes.

Those who were at Edenton Street UMC on Friday night surely left feeling satisfied and very happy to have been there. It was a scintillating and extraordinary event in the Triangle, perhaps not to be equaled any time soon.

For photos and sound clips from this performance, courtesy of Mark Manring Recording and Photography , visit http://www.manring.net/recording/photos/Hinshaw_Celebration_8-6-04/ [inactive 8/09].

And with thanks to TriangleSings! , we provide these links to archived interviews with Rutter conducted by Ken Hoover that were broadcast on WCPE on 8/15/04:
On Rutter's working relationship with Don Hinshaw (7:26): http://www.wcpe.org/preview_interviews/Rutter01.ram [inactive 2/10]
On Rutter's Requiem and future plans (6:21): http://www.wcpe.org/preview_interviews/Rutter02.ram [inactive 2/10]