Hot on the heels of a triumphant European tour, Chanticleer, Musical America's 2008 Ensemble of the Year, takes its extensive nationwide education program to new heights this month with its first National Youth Choral Festival. The festival, which takes place between March 26 and 29 in Chanticleer's hometown, San Francisco, will bring together twelve high-school choirs comprising 416 student singers from across the country: five choirs from the Bay Area, and seven from as far east as Woodbridge VA and as far west as Honolulu HI.
During the four-day choral immersion, the visiting choirs will interact closely and intensively with the members of Chanticleer, who will coach them in all areas critical to the choral art. The climactic event on March 29, "The Singing Life", will feature Chanticleer and the choirs in a day-long residency at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, where the choirs will be given the opportunity to perform individually on the stage, and to attend vocal master-classes led by mezzo-sopranos Frederica von Stade and Zheng Cao. That evening, all twelve choirs will come together with Chanticleer and von Stade for a gala concert under the direction of the group's music director, Matthew Oltman. The program includes the American premiere of Annonciation, a cantata by French composer Daniel-Lesur, and a not-to-be-missed monumental performance of the Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, one of the most popular choral pieces of the 20th century.
Below, Matthew Oltman, who sang as a tenor in Chanticleer for ten years before becoming its Music Director last season, discusses the festival, which he describes with great enthusiasm and a twinge of trepidation as "the biggest thing Chanticleer has ever done."
A Conversation with Matt Oltman, Music Director of Chanticleer
It's now countdown time for Chanticleer's first National Youth Choral Festival, which will take place in the group's hometown, San Francisco, March 26 to 29. How are you feeling about it?
Bringing this festival together has been an enormous undertaking. The logistics are somewhat mind-boggling, involving more than 400 students from as far away as Hawaii and Atlanta in a huge array of activities and events. There are so many different components: individual choral master classes, many hours of rehearsal, vocal lessons for individual student singers with members of Chanticleer, public master classes in solo singing, classes for students and directors in the fundamentals of the choral art, and even a little time to explore our wonderful city. On the final day, each of the participating choirs will perform individually on stage at Davies Symphony Hall; in addition to those morning performances that day, there will also be a public master class led by Frederica von Stade and Zheng Cao, as well as our dress rehearsal, not to mention the big evening gala performance! I will also put together an honor choir (comprised of 24 auditioned singers) to perform one piece _ a madrigal _ in the way that Chanticleer does. That is, they won't know what the piece will be until we rehearse it, and they will have to learn it and perform it on their own: without a conductor. On top of this, we have put together a 40-piece orchestra of high school students, drawn from the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose youth symphonies: the very best players from throughout the Bay Area, playing together for the first time. Somehow, amidst all of this activity, we'll all have to make time for 16 hours of rehearsal for the gala show!
Chanticleer has always had an ambitious education program, and working with young singers is an ongoing part of your activities, but this festival is on an entirely different scale.
Yes, it's no exaggeration to say that this is the biggest thing Chanticleer has ever done. It has involved literally every aspect of our organization and its administration: me, the group's music director; our Director of Education, Ben Johns; the entire ensemble; the staff; and the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, which has helped us to make this event free to the participating choirs. For months, the students have been preparing for the trip, blogging about it, and talking it up in their local newspapers. Many of the participants have told us this is the most exciting thing they've done in their high school choral careers. Chanticleer is always extremely busy during the holiday season, when we tour the country with our holiday program, but this festival has kept us even busier than that because there are so many pieces and so many individuals to bring together at once. Christmas we know all about, but this is something completely new.
What are you hoping to achieve with the program you have put together for this festival?
I'm trying to construct an event that will be as unforgettable as possible for the participants. A lot of that has to do with taking the students as close as possible to the music. Each of the pieces on the program has its own little drama around it that I suspect will really draw in the singers. For example, we'll be giving the American premiere of Annonciation, a cantata by French composer Daniel-Lesur, and the son of the composer will be coming to introduce and discuss the piece. We'll have mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao helping the students with the Chinese pronunciation of the winning piece from our most recent student composition competition: a piece by a talented young Taiwanese composer named Yi-Wen Chang. Composer Michael McGlynn will be Skyping in at 5 AM Ireland time to help everyone with their Gaelic. For a high school singer, reading lots of black dots on scores isn't always the most exciting thing to do, but interacting with composers will create a much more memorable experience. Working with a legendary singer like Frederica von Stade, and getting to walk onto the stage of Davies Symphony Hall for the first time, is going to be something unforgettable and monumental for them.
You mentioned Skyping. With so many students coming from so many places, how have you utilized technology in your preparation for the festival?
Virtually everything we're doing has been facilitated by technology in some way: We've sent scores over the internet to our students; Yi-Wen is going to introduce herself to the singers with a video that she is sending to us as a Google doc; we've sent out recordings of texts being read by native speakers in .mp3 formats; and I've already mentioned our use of Skype when connecting with Michael McGlynn in Ireland. Our education director has been working directly with many of the students thanks simply to his ability to email them. We're even going to have a cell phone and Twitter break during the final concert itself, so that the students as well as the audience can communicate about their experiences in live time.
Besides working closely with composers and professional singers, what other aspects of the festival will be particularly memorable for the participants?
Well, one important element is that for the gala event they will not be sitting with their own choir members. Instead, they will be distributed in quartets and quintets made up using combinations of singers from different schools so that they can bond with each other, learn from each other, and, I hope, even make lifelong friends. I hope that this kind of interaction will instill in them a love of music that will last for the rest of their lives. It's why we're calling this last day of events "The Singing Life."
This has already been an incredibly busy season for Chanticleer. How does the group find time to do such a huge festival in a season that includes so many performances across the country and abroad, not to mention the dozens of educational activities that Chanticleer does as a matter of course?
I don't think anyone can say that Chanticleer is sitting around resting on its laurels! We just finished an enormous Europe tour, as well as appearances at two American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) conferences, where we led workshops for around 700 choir directors. At two concerts for these conferences we sang for a total of more than 3,000 choral directors and students and it was an extraordinary experience. But this has been a real breakthrough season for our educational program. Being active in the grass roots of choral singing is very important to us, and that's what these programs _ including the many day-long Youth Choral Festivals that we do across the country _ are all about. The festival this month in San Francisco is the pinnacle and the crowning event of ten years of focused energy in the educational arena, which is an ever-growing part of what we do.
When you see the huge audience for the television program "Glee," do you think there's a huge potential audience out there that hasn't discovered Chanticleer?
While the singing they do on Glee is a different style of singing from what Chanticleer does, the experience it touches on is the same. It's all about what people can get from being in a choir: the experience of sharing and interacting and building the trust you need to have with your fellow singers if you want to reach your potential. You have to give of your heart and your soul, and you have to do a lot of hard work, but if you do all of this, the reward is tremendous. At its core, I believe this is the message of Glee _ and it is the message of our educational program as well.
Anything else you want to add?
I want to underline again that we're making little mini groups of singers for the big group that will perform at the gala concert, instead of having each participating choir singing in their usual configuration. Doing things this way makes me (and probably some of the singers) nervous, because individual singers will need to be more independent and work outside of their usual group comfort zone. But sharing and exchanging and bonding through the music itself is an integral part of the experience, and this will be both an overwhelming responsibility and a priceless opportunity for a young singer. I keep thinking about and remembering myself in high school. I attended big choral events that were incredibly exciting and created life-long memories _ and I didn't even have the added adventure of traveling thousands of miles to a place like San Francisco! Knowing what is in store for these singers, I can only imagine what it will be like for them to come here and meet and work with singers their age from so many different places.
Chanticleer's First National Youth Choral Festival
March 26-29 in San Francisco
Includes "The Singing Life", a day-long residency at Davies Symphony Hall, which concludes with an 8 PM performance by Chanticleer and 416 high school singers from across the country and San Francisco's Bay Area.