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Choral Connect '19 - a meaningful exchange of ideas

Last month, 85 of New Zealand’s choral directors came together in Wellington to exchange ideas and develop their art at the NZCF Association of Choral Directors’ biennial Choral Connect convention. Peter Watts, a member of the ACD national committee since its inauguration in 2010, wrote this report on Choral Connect.

From the first call of the Mihi Whakatau to the last dying note of Bob Chilcott’s Canticles of Light in the final concert, Choral Connect 19 was packed with glorious music and meaningful exchange of ideas. The 4-day conference, held at St Mark’s Church School in Wellington, brought together choral directors and educators from throughout the country. There were 80+ delegates, 11 presenters and tutors, and 9 choirs involved in the conference. That mix gave us a wonderful blend of styles and possibilities to consider, as we continued our explorations into the world of choral music.

The purpose of the conference for most delegates was to hone their conducting skills, and there was plenty of opportunity for that, with daily conducting strands catering for all levels of ability led by Karen Grylls, Jono Palmer, David Squire and Andrew Withington. I was able to visit all of these groups and was pleased to see delegates totally engaged in the business of learning from their tutors and from each other. An innovation this year was a parallel strand for collaborative pianists to work on their skills. Rachel Fuller led this group and the pianists assisted with accompanying the conducting strands under Rachel’s direction. In addition to this work, Rachel presented a fascinating plenary session “Not JUST an accompanist” in which she opened our eyes to the huge part a skilled collaborative pianist can play in choir training.

Each day started with a Vocal Pedagogy session taken by Catrin Johnsson. We all found these sessions one of the most important parts of the conference as, in addition to warming up our voices each morning, Catrin explained many of the important things choir directors need to know to help their choirs to make better, “more beautiful” sounds.

Central to the week were the sessions taken by the International Guest Clinician, Elise Bradley, who was there with her Toronto Children’s Chorus (TCC). It was fascinating, in Elise’s plenary session, to hear her views on choral sound and the influence of vowel quality, and to have it so well-illustrated with recorded examples and live examples from TCC. We were to hear TCC singing on many occasions, as they acted as one of the choirs for the Masterclass sessions which were held each day, they gave a mini concert on the first night, and a major presentation on the final night. The stamina and concentration of these young singers, in the middle of a strenuous tour, was phenomenal. We all learnt so much from them and appreciated their amazing professionalism. The masterclasses taken by Elise Bradley and Karen Grylls were an opportunity for more-advanced conductors to work with experienced choral singers. There was plenty to learn for conductors of all abilities in watching these sessions and seeing what worked well and what didn’t work so well.

In another of the plenary sessions, Megan Flint had us really challenged trying to combine reading of rhythms and melodies with time names, solfège and hand signs. The fierce concentration in the room was palpable, but it was easy to see how useful these techniques could be in teaching musical literacy through choral singing.

During the afternoon there were optional sessions: open rehearsals, special topics and repertoire reading sessions. Sadly I wasn’t able to divide myself into three so couldn’t get to all of them, but the ones I attended were thoroughly absorbing. Brent Stewart presented “Efficient and engaging rehearsal strategies for the community choir” and they were fascinating. I left feeling that my inner geek had been thoroughly catered to. It was great to watch the New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir (NZSSC) rehearse under their new director Susan Densem. Susan had the choir totally engaged and worked in a wonderfully collegial way with Assistant Director & Accompanist, Brent Stewart, and Assistant Director & Vocal Consultant, Rachel Alexander. That session left me hungry for the concert the following evening. Other sessions in this time were taken by Julie Wylie, Megan Flint and Mark Stamper.

If all of that wasn’t enough, there was also the daily conference singing with Karen Grylls, a fabulous conference dinner on the first night, and three wonderful evening concerts. For the dinner, the school hall was transformed into a starlit wonderland, with food to match! The concerts gave us great opportunities to hear choirs of all types. Thursday evening, titled Choral Kids, showcased Schola Cantorum from St Mark’s Church School directed by Anya Nazaruk, Lyrica from Kelburn Normal School directed by Nicola Holt, and Wellington Young Voices directed by Mark Stamper. All choirs demonstrated excellent choice of repertoire to suit and to extend their singers. Friday evening’s Choral Connections concert featured three adult choirs from Wellington: The Tudor Consort under Michael Stewart, Inspirare founded and directed by Mark Stamper, and Supertonic founded and directed by Isaac Stone. This was an evening of wonderful contrasts, from austere Renaissance motets to classy arrangements of contemporary songs, all tackled with authenticity of style and conviction. Then on the final night we all gathered in St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott Street where, in a packed church, we were treated to compelling performances by TCC and NZSSC. The grand finale saw these two choirs join with all the conference delegates in a performance of Bob Chilcott’s Canticles of Light. This was prepared by Karen Grylls and directed by Elise Bradley, with Michael Stewart (organ) and Brent Stewart (tubular bells). The angelic voices of TCC sounding out from the gallery, while the remainder of the singers sang from the opposite end of the church, created a fascinating spatial palette of colours.

A bonus for all participants was the opportunity throughout the conference to browse and select items from the late Guy Jansen’s choral library. Books, CDs and countless scores were available, and many delegates took the opportunity to enlarge their own choral collections with these wonderful reminders of Guy and of his immense contribution to choral music in New Zealand.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the whole conference was the “connect” part . So many of the delegates commented on the importance to them of connecting with new people, reconnecting with old friends, and connecting in a real way with the art of choral conducting, which we all strive to understand better. Special thanks must go to all the presenters I have already mentioned, but especially to the Wellington host committee who, under Rosemary Russell’s able leadership, created a wonderful atmosphere in which to appreciate the intense four days.

If you weren’t there this year, be sure to get to the next Choral Connect in 2021.