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Reflections on FICA19

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Overall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha CliathOverall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath

I know I said I wasn’t going to be blogging until I’d written and presented both the papers I’m committed to in November, but I have some processing to do after last week’s extravaganza in Aveiro, Portgual. The event combined the annual Festival Internacional de Coros, hosted by Voz Nua choir, with the inaugural choral stream at the Hands On Symposium, running in parallel with piano and guitar streams. I was presenting a keynote at the symposium as well as forming one third of the jury for the festival competitions.

It’s the first time I’ve been directly adjudicating (as opposed to overseeing examination processes) for a few years, and it turns out that my handwriting hasn’t improved any in the interim. I endeavoured to be generous in my comments; I just hope I was also legible. I am sure the competitors will get in touch about anything that’s too cryptic!

Over the three days of competitions, I found a number of themes emerging in the comments I was making. These tell us something about the choirs who were competing; it also tells us something about how I was listening that week. My colleagues on the jury often commented on different things, though also with an internal consistency within their observations. This is why you have multiple adjudicators: there is always more available to be heard than one consciousness can encompass at once.

The themes I found myself coming back to repeatedly included:

  • Asking the inner parts to do more to support the sopranos when they went higher in their ranges. It is the job of the altos and tenors to be the wind beneath the sopranos’ wings. The stand-out performance that achieved this was to my ears Polifonica’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ in the Sacred Music class.
  • A related point was to ask the lower parts (basses in SATB textures, altos in female voice choirs) to add extra brightness to their sound as they went lower in their ranges.
  • Asking the singers to keep being generous with their voices even at very quiet dynamics. All the choirs had given plenty of attention to dynamic range in their performances, but sometimes this came at the cost of vocal freedom. Holding back vocally can come over as holding back emotionally, so we need to find ways to express musical intimacy/gentleness/secrecy positively, in the same spirit of giving that comes easily with more obviously outgoing expressive modes.
  • Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to know I was thinking a good deal about integrating the phrase boundaries into the musical narrative. When choirs did this well (such as Coro de Câmera São João da Madeira in their rendition of Duarte Lobo’s ‘Audivi Vocem’, or Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath’s of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ ‘Lux Aeterna’), you get the sense that it is the music that is breathing, rather than the singers.
  • The artistic possibilities of varying vocal colour. This is something that I found myself both commending quite frequently, and also asking for more of. We had some great examples of choirs setting up different timbral worlds for music of different stylistic flavours – Elektravocal’s Verdi, for example, or Cantairí’s Schumann. And we heard some use of colour change to sculpt musical narrative along with elements such as dynamics and articulation. Just enough, it turns out, to make me crave more: I felt we had had hints of whole new areas of artistic interest dangled in front of us, and my over-riding response to the festival was to come home feeling inspired to explore the new worlds of which we had been given a glimpse.

One more thing I have noticed when bringing these notes together. I wrote my list of themes on Sunday morning, after the final class of the festival on Saturday night. At that point, each of these points had all kinds of sparkling musical details attached to it in my memory. I came back to the list on Wednesday, by which time only a few remained. The hand-over from short-term to medium- or longer-term memory has a short window of opportunity, and once you’ve missed it, it’s gone.

Fortunately, whilst I may have lost a lot of the specific detail I was cherishing at the end of the festival, I have not forgotten what it feels like to be artistically motivated by the performances. But it is a useful reminder that there’s a reason I usually try and write up my thoughts after an event within 48 hours.

Right, that's all for now. I have more notes on this event, but they can wait for now - it was the musical bits I really needed to process. Regular blogging to resume in December, once I've got my next paper written and delivered. See you then!

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