Once in a very great while, one attends a concert that immediately jumps to some imaginary, personal list of “Top Ten all-time best concert programs” and for many audience members of the packed, sold-out house in downtown San Jose’s gorgeous Basilica of St Joseph on January 28, this was definitely one of those programs- and performances! The ever-popular Canadian Brass were absolutely amazing in terms of musicality, inventiveness, technical prowess, choreography, charisma, programming, tone quality, ensemble precision, dynamics, tone colors, personality, and complete command of their artistry and audience - but another, equally amazing thing about Tuesday night’s concert was that in each of those categories, they in no way eclipsed or outshone their hosts and partner performers, The Choral Project of San Jose. (If you haven’t yet heard of this incredible group, check out their international tours and accolades at www.sjcp.org
The Choral Project of San Jose was founded in 1996 by a multi-talented young musician and SJSU graduate, Daniel D. Hughes. They have gone from strength to strength, winning international choral competitions, numerous awards, grants, development funding, and constantly stellar reviews for their recordings, performances, and inventive programming – all completely deserved. At Tuesday night’s concert I happened to sit next to a retired SJSU music theory/composition professor who told me that already as a freshman and sophomore, young student Daniel (who began studying both piano and composition at age four) was naturally way ahead of his classmates, so the professor tried to keep him challenged with full orchestral-score sightreading tasks instead of the normal class assignments.
Daniel discovered his career aspiration under yet another SJSU professor-emeritus who became his mentor, the famed choral conductor Dr. Charlene Archibeque. Fittingly, one of the major works on Tuesday’s program was the world premiere of a piece composed by Daniel Hughes in her honor – called “Legacy”, it was a moving, hauntingly beautiful work combining The Choral Project with the Canadian Brass.
Mr Hughes composed both the text and music of “Legacy” after seeing a television documentary about the life cycle of stars and “super-novas”, burning their brightest just before disintegrating into particles that in turn produce future generations of matter and life. Mr Hughes likened this to great mentors, artists and inspirational figures who share, teach and give of their gifts intensely, using their life energy and work to inspire the next generations. The quiet choral opening was gorgeous and kind of “spooky”, seeming to evoke the birth of the cosmos in sound. Three soprano soloists rose to the challenge of combining their beautiful voices in a high, almost shrill and discordant effect to powerfully create the musical climax of burning intensity and explosion. The Canadian Brass provided all of the harmonic accompaniment, with the only additional instrumentalists being Nick Mathiessen and Tom Wieske on percussion and Ruth Winter on piano (but shame on the venue organizers for providing a horribly out of tune grand piano to such illustrious performers – this concert was scheduled months in advance and there is no excuse for not automatically having the piano tuned before such an important event – this should be an assumed step for all churches or venues that want to host concerts, especially if they are receiving some of the ticket revenue!!)
Anyway, back to the topic at hand: my favorite moment of “Legacy” came after the ‘explosion’, when all of the instrumental accompaniment suddenly dropped away and the perfectly balanced choral parts were left quietly suspended, floating upwards in mid-air like a glider over a mountain’s edge….. creating, for the listeners, the unmistakable sensation that we were soaring in space like a slow-motion Star Trek on a particle of sound. It was amazing! (As was the huge standing ovation that the piece received, in the middle of the concert program).
Kudos to Daniel Hughes for creating an audience-accessible modern composition for brass and choral ensemble, with inspiring lyrics and evocative harmonies. But Mr. Hughes also employs many other remarkable gifts in the service of The Choral Project concerts, and two of those gifts, especially, come to mind each time I think of Tuesday’s program:
1) He has an ear for the sound quality and blend of singers that is truly exceptional. Before attending this concert I had read numerous reviews of Mr Hughes that all commented on his uncanny ability to draw a highly professional vocal production and gorgeous blend of tones from even the most amateur and untrained singers. Having now heard this performance, all I can do is add my complete agreement to those comments. I would love to sit in on a rehearsal when they are learning new repertoire, to see if I can figure out what his secret is for inspiring such love, dedicated work, and – most importantly, I suspect – habits of refined listening (to each other), amongst his large and constantly growing ‘family’ of singers in The Choral Project. It is also saying something that his musical inspiration and quality results do attract many professional musicians who want to come sing with the group as well, in their spare time. But for the most part the 50+ singers are amateurs, although you would never have known it when hearing this concert. The blend of sopranos and altos sounded gentle and effortless, and the men, particularly in their close-harmony singing in several pieces, could honestly rival the Chanticleers or other male groups in their tone quality, pitch and seamlessness. In particular, all four vocal sections of The Choral Project gave the most beautiful performance of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria that one could ever imagine.
2) In addition to the tonal blend, beauty and unity of attack that Mr Hughes obviously delights in producing from his singers, he must also enjoy using his highly creative mind to invent unique combinations of pieces that result in truly unusual and entertaining concert programs. Any concert producer should check out The Choral Project’s archive of past seasons and read the titles/themes of previous concerts over the years, or even just peruse the future ones for this current season, to get a feel for his creativity and insight – but also for his commitment to engaging and entertaining as diverse an audience as possible.
The Choral Project has also developed many successful collaborations with other artists and organizations, and I suspect that Tuesday evening’s first concert with the Canadian Brass ensemble will not be their last together. Each of the two groups had a chance to shine in ‘solo’ sections of the program, alternating with an unexpected variety of pieces that they performed together, including the “Legacy” work that Mr Hughes composed for the occasion. The concert also opened in a surprise fashion, with the Canadian Brass members (Christopher Coletti, trumpet, Caleb Hudson, trumpet, Bernhard Scully, horn, Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone, and Chuck Daellenbach, the only remaining founder of the group, on tuba but also acting as a wonderfully hilarious MC) all playing in slow Gospel/Dixie style as they marched in, single file, from the back of the audience, wearing white sneakers and an immediate charisma. They performed, throughout the evening, in a range of pieces and styles that almost gave the audience a mini-history of brass quintet repertoire as it progressed from 1500s through 2014. Their combined technical skills, articulation, ensemble, excellent arrangements, and tone quality all brought out the absolute best in each piece, but even more than that, their charming personalities, interaction with the audience, and clever choreography, using every inch of their ‘stage’ space, made the concert incredibly FUN.
And one could tell that they were also having fun, celebrating the musical gifts they had been given to share, while also enjoying a very special experience that evening because of the special venue Daniel Hughes had so wisely chosen for this particular program. The Basilica of St Joseph in downtown San Jose is an architectural and acoustic marvel with a round dome area in the center that offers heaven-sent potential for singers or brass players, in particular. Each of the Canadian Brass members had spectacular solos, of course, but part of the added enjoyment for the audience was watching each performer revel in the sound quality and luxurious “reverb time” that standing under this dome area could produce, for the joy of their own ears as well as ours.
They (both The Choral Project and the Canadian Brass) all had a ball, and it showed. Six standing ovations at the concert, countless shouts of audience approval after each piece – but none of that even manages to fully refulect the fun and the sheer joy that they shared, enjoyed, and created with classical music. I suddenly recalled a quote that one of my piano performance mentors had scribbled to me on a slip of paper before my first concerto performance: “Play for the joy of playing, and touch heaven with your gift”. I am sure that they did.
Reviewer Donna Stoering (donnastoering.com) is a Marshall Scholar, concert pianist, solo vocalist, composer, choral conductor, music-television producer and international music festival director who has been Artistic Ambassador for both the UK and USA, an Artist in Residence at Oxford University, and guest performance/pedagogy coach at numerous music conservatories worldwide. She is also the founder of the global Listen for Life movement (listenforlife.org) which is reviving the power of (classical) music worldwide through a growing international family of music listeners, performers, educators and producers.