The Colgate Scene
January 2007

A melodic residency

The Western Wind vocal ensemble, the fall 2006 Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation artists-in residence, sing for students in Georgia Frank's Imagining Jesus course. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Vocal ensemble offers unique instruction

Watch a video feature on the Western Wind's residency

In late October, the Western Wind breezed into town, a strong front settling in as the fall 2006 Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation artists-in-residence at Colgate.

The acclaimed vocal sextet -- which has appeared on NBC's Today show and on a Philip Glass film score, and whose radio programs are distributed on NPR and PRI -- spent four days on campus. They coached individual voice students, rehearsed with the Colgate Concert Choir and University Women's Singers for a joint performance during Family Weekend, and gave musical presentations in several classes.

Their visit was the brainchild of James Niblock, Colgate's choral director. As a small, mixed ensemble with an extremely eclectic repertoire and a strong focus on educational programming, Western Wind was an ideal choice for a longer-than-typical residency, he said, especially given this year's record-high number of students enrolled in the music department.

It was also a rare opportunity.

"It's not common for an ensemble of that ilk to agree to perform with a student ensemble sight unseen," Niblock said. "Their willingness to take their gloves off for four days, hang out with the students, and give them good hands-on coaching allowed me to center their visit around students."

"Often when we do a concert at a university we'll offer a one- or two-hour workshop," said countertenor William Zukoff, the Western Wind's executive producer. "But in this case, James had this grand design to bring us to work with the choruses, primarily, but also to expand into the interdisciplinary program. It's very neat."

The women's singers and the concert choir took part in rehearsals, each preparing to perform a piece with the guest artists that was composed by Western Wind member Elliot Levine at the Friday night concert. The professionals also gave a coaching workshop for student soloists who would take over their parts in those pieces during the university choruses concert the following weekend.

Classroom presentations included Georgia Frank's Imagining Jesus, and two music courses, Joscelyn Godwin's Music History I and Niblock's The Musical Experience, as well as Alan Swensen's Intermediate German.

Frank had always wanted to incorporate music into her course. When Niblock offered up the Western Wind, she jumped at the chance to invite them to class, where they performed everything from traditional European carols to African-American spirituals to Aztec songs that depicted various images of Jesus, such as an apple tree, a lamb, and bread.

"It was a breathtakingly beautiful program, and they provided commentary on each song that showed how representations of Jesus come out of many religious traditions and cultures," said Frank.

"The students have been very attentive and into things," commented tenor Richard Slade. "It's been a pleasure working with them." — RAC

The Western Wind vocal ensemble's residency culminated with a Friday night Family Weekend concert in the chapel, where they performed pieces with both the women's singers (shown here) and the concert choir. [Photo by Luke Connolly '09] In one of several workshops, the ensemble performed and discussed songs chosen specifically for Georgia Frank's religion class Imagining Jesus. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Delving into the music
Sophomore music major Amy Hill got to do something with the group each day, as a member of (and soloist with) the women's singers, as well as in both the music history and German classes. Here, she shares a bit of what she got out of her experience.

When you're performing a song, you have to interpret it -- really understand the words and the meaning -- to successfully capture the right mood. That lesson came through loud and clear at the voice students' master class with the Western Wind. Unsatisfied with a student's answer that "Vedrai, carino" (from Mozart's Don Giovanni) was about love, one of the ensemble members declared emphatically, "No, it's about sex! Every song is about sex, except for the `Ave Maria.'" This amusing moment was only one in a week of memorable workshops and performances that I was excited to be a part of.

The workshops were very interesting and helpful because of the many things each singer brought. One would talk about our intonation, another interpretation, others pronunciation, or our blending as an ensemble. The amount of feedback was a bit overwhelming at times, but it was great to have the different viewpoints, and to stop and think about things we hadn't gone over in rehearsal (or that hadn't quite sunk in yet).

It was also a pleasure to work with Elliot Levine, the composer of "Cum Essem Parvalus," a piece for chorus and sextet that the women's singers performed with the Western Wind. It was a rare opportunity and one that allowed us to learn many things about the piece itself, and not just its performance. Levine talked about some of the layering techniques he used; for example, over many repetitions of the word caritas (charity), a new melody emerges that is derived from a spiritual about helping the poor and needy. Knowing more about what was going on in the composer's head made the piece more interesting for me to perform. The workshop that the group held for the student soloists was also very helpful for the next week's performance, as we paid more attention to listening to the other parts and gaining cohesion as a group.

I enjoyed their performances the most, because of the group's wide repertoire and the way they talked about the songs instead of only singing them. Music is prevalent throughout many times, in many cultures, for many purposes, and the Western Wind members paid attention to and discussed the pieces' contexts, making them more relevant and interesting. In my German class, for example, they performed a variety of songs, from a 1300s piece in Old German, to Romantic Lieder, up to a WWII-era American propaganda piece by Kurt Weill written in torch song style. Hearing a musical presentation in a language class allowed me to experience a new aspect of the culture. I was also able to see how the language has changed; for example, I could pick out a few words and notice that some of the verb endings were different. Of all the different settings in which they sang, their performance at a luncheon in the chapel was my favorite. Although it had the least music of all of them, it led to a long and intense conversation about the evolution of sacred music.

Not only did we get to hear music to which we may not otherwise have been exposed, but we also got to learn about it and better understand it, making their residency a great experience for musicians and non-musicians alike. — Amy Hill

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