On Saturday, April 2, Maestro Michael Hudlin treated us to an evening of choral music with steelpan at Queen’s Hall, Port-of-Spain. Many concert-goers were happy to be back attending a live concert after two years of no performances.
The choir of 10 singers featured some well-known names in the classical music community. The 6-member Lydian Steel ensemble accompanied on several pieces.
Conductor Michael Hudlin is a strong leader, his conducting technique is very good, and he knows what he wants. Generally, the choir did a good job with the whole programme which ranged from contemporary classical a cappella works through unusual arrangements of spirituals to a glorious Handel baroque cantata. I must thank Mr Hudlin for introducing me to the setting of Psalm 22, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani’ (My God, why hast thou forsaken me?) by Hungarian composer Lajos Bárdos. The music is reminiscent of the styles of Zoltan Kodály (Hungarian) and Francis Poulenc (French).
At certain points in the concert, one could admire the detail of diction and the incisive rhythmic drive, and repeatedly, the obvious depth of vocal talent assembled for this event.
Several of the singers performed solos or duets. Of note was the duet Ride Up In The Chariot arranged by J Rosemond Johnson and performed by Samantha Stanislaus and Janine Charles-Farray, accompanied by Jessel Murray on the keyboard. This was the most polished work on the programme in its execution and performance craft.
Murray’s accompaniment on the keyboard throughout was impressive in its nuanced phrasing and sensitivity to tonal colour. It is rare to hear musicality at this level.
The programme’s signature work was Handel’s setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, one of the most challenging in the choral repertory. Executing something as difficult as Dixit Dominus was a feat of technique and endurance. Despite a couple moments of insecurity in the accompanying steel ensemble, Maestro Hudlin is to be commended for programming it, as challenging our musicians is the only way to improve their skills.
I will now offer some critical feedback in the spirit of guiding our talented younger generation on the path to excellence, especially since the program was titled ‘The pursuit of greatness’ and Mr Hudlin, in his programme notes, says, “We are to then be honest with ourselves and discern how we can do better.”
The issue that concerned me the most was the amplification of the singers and instrumentalists with an electronically superimposed artificial reverberation. Now, before you call me a purist, let me offer a few reasons why this is undesirable.
When you amplify your choir and instrumentalists you are relinquishing artistic control of the product. As evidenced when at one point the sopranos began at the requisite piano dynamic, but the sound operator judging this to be too soft, set the level higher. When the sopranos then effected a crescendo in the music, the climax of the phrase was too loud to the point of distortion. The sound engineer does not know the score as well as the musicians performing, s/he probably only heard it twice. Additionally, how are sensitive musicians able to develop their craft of interacting and responding to a dialogue between sections in the texture when someone who does not know the score is manipulating the levels? Classical music has a much wider spectrum of dynamics than contemporary or popular music. This dynamic spectrum is a quintessential part of the art and musicians are trained to control it themselves. By amplifying you are also contributing to the desensitisation of the audience’s listening ability.
Fellow musicians, can we please, please not mic classical music concerts!
Classical music is acoustic sound, and mic’ing removes all the naturally occurring harmonic overtones which is what provides an ensemble with its characteristic acoustical halo. When we speak of the ‘tone’ of a choir, to a large extent these naturally occurring harmonics enhance the tone. Remember as well that mic’ing amplifies everything, the good and the not so good. Every glitch will be glaringly amplified.
However, I was pleased that there was a very good audience, and that so many, both audience and performers, were able to experience some sophisticated works of music. I fully support Maestro Hudlin in his endeavours and look forward to the next event. Onward and upward!
Richard L Tand Yuk is the former executive & artistic director, The Princeton Festival,
former director of Choral Music, Princeton University,
former choral conducting faculty, Indiana University
Former Music faculty, Westminster Conservatory, Princeton