Posted by: Colin Britt | January 4, 2022

2021: A return to in-person singing, and more

If 2020 for the choral music world was like jumping off a cliff, I would argue that 2021 has felt like free soloing back up the side of the same cliff. We definitely made some tremendous strides towards a “new normal,” but as I write this the pandemic continues to close down theaters, concert halls, schools, and houses of worship. We have a long way to go.

Nevertheless, it was beyond thrilling to return to live singing again for many of my groups this year, and to even perform for an in-person audience this December. Since end-of-year reflection is a natural instinct for all of us, please allow me to share some highlights from this year:

In May, the West Village Chorale began in-person rehearsals back at our home at Judson Memorial Church. We required that each member be fully vaccinated, and decided to pre-record and then livestream the concert. This program, named “If I Can Sing” for a pivotal lyric in Elaine Hagenberg‘s “Refuge,” included works by Abbie Betinis, Johannes Brahms, Glenn Burleigh, George Harrison, Shireen Abu-Khader, Shawn Kirchner, Stephen Schwartz, U2, and Healey Willan. It was an emotional return to choral singing for so many of our members, and I’m thrilled at how effortless it felt to jump back in doing we love. Here is a clip of us singing “Nia” from the Nguzo Saba Suite by Glenn Burleigh:

In the fall, we began the year with our “new normal.” My students were all allowed back on campus at the same time, which was the first time I had my full ensembles together in over 18 months. Yes, we had to be masked, but when you’ve gotten used to rehearsing in alternating cohorts with 3 sopranos, a tenor, 2 basses, and no altos every other week, to hear a full choir again is … well, it’s music to my ears. We had a great first semester “back,” and we were able to rehearse for and perform a full concert back at our regular venue, the Rutgers University Voorhees Chapel, only days before the current wave of shutdowns began.

The West Village Chorale began our season with an in-person reading session in our performance hall, where we could safely distance all of the 50+ singers in this concert. Then, we followed a hybrid model of rehearsing for several weeks with alternating (but equally balanced) cohorts; Team Red Rainbows and Team Blue Unicorns really stepped it up this cycle! Our concert was a holiday pops program, and featured lively favorites like Sleigh Ride, The Christmas Waltz, All You Need is Love, Go Where I Send Thee, Mary’s Boy Child, and Carol of the Bells. We were joined this year by subtle cheetah brass, and we even had a few audience singalongs. I’m so grateful that we were able to have a live in-person concert after almost two years, and again that we managed to squeeze in this performance before the Omicron wave started. I look forward to sharing some of the videos from that performance as well.

Photo: Christopher Greenleaf

It was also an exciting year for premieres! First, on May 1 the Amherst College Choral Society, directed by my dear friend Dr. Arianne Abela, gave the hybrid double choir premiere (you read that right) of one of my newest works, “Unmute Yourself.” Arianne reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to write a piece for hybrid choir, where the in-person students could record together on campus, while the remote students would record themselves separately and then be edited into the final product. The concept of this piece had been swirling around in my head for about a year: the double meaning of the title, both a common phrase we said every day to friends or coworkers on Zoom, and a metaphorical, more abstract meaning we might say to ourselves about the injustices in the world, felt like a theme I had to explore. I worked with the college singers to come up with short phrases that they wanted to express and not remain muted anymore, and their words are set contrapuntally to the repeated chorale-like mantra. The final text, “I will not be silent,” was offered by one singer and felt like an appropriate response to the refrain. I’m thrilled both by the musical interpretation of this unusual composition and by Stephanie Tubiolo’s brilliant-as-always video editing.

Then in July, the New Haven Chorale gave the [fully virtual] premiere of another piece written for quarantine, “I sing because.” This was another piece conceived using words from the choir, this time responding to short prompts, such as:

  • I have lost ____
  • I miss ____
  • I have learned ___
  • I am thankful for ____
  • I sing because ___

This piece went through an extensive revision process, in part because my original intent – to depict the pandemic chronologically from the first days of the quarantine – ended up being a) really depressing to sing, and b) about 6 minutes too long. Once I began chipping away at the sculpture, the central themes of longing to sing together became clearer and more critical to the overall shape of the piece. The piano part, built around an unrelenting repetition of quarter notes on a single pitch, helps to convey the numbness and monotony of the early months of the pandemic, while the cello (played exquisitely by David Blasher) adds both warm reassurance and gnawing grief in pivotal moments. The final product, both conducted and accompanied by Dr. Ed Bolkovac and edited by Peter Robinson, is an extraordinary and very moving testament to the power of choral singing. I’m so grateful to the New Haven Chorale for commissioning this deeply personal and ultimately hopeful work.

In September, I got on a plane (for the first time in nearly 2 years) and flew up to my home state of Maine, where I got to conduct the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra in their performance of “One Day in September,” one of my earliest pieces (dating back to 2002!). This piece commemorates and memorializes the events of September 11th, 2001, and the piece was programmed on a special outdoor performance in Brunswick, Maine. It was a real treat getting to conduct this lovely orchestra, and of course any opportunity to get on a plane is a treat!

In early November, I got on a plane again and flew out to western Montana, where the Missoula Community Chorus under the direction of Dr. Coreen Duffy was preparing for their first live concert since the pandemic. The performance, titled “The Way Through,” featured the winners from the chorus’s competition of the same name from 2020, which solicited new works written during the early months of the pandemic. I am so honored and grateful that my composition How can we sing, written 5 days into the shutdown, was the first prize winner! An honorable mention was a piece I wrote for my students at Rutgers Prep that we never got to perform, titled “We will,” which again set words written by my students. Here is a brief rehearsal excerpt:

Rehearsal of “We Will” by the Missoula Community Chorus

I hope to share the performance recordings from both of these pieces, but it was such a powerful and soul-filling experience getting to hear both of these pieces sung live for the first time. Also, Missoula is beautiful!

This fall, I was commissioned by my former teacher, Dr. Patrick Gardner, and the Rutgers University Glee Club to write a setting of Hildegard of Bingen’s “O frondens virga.” The request was charmingly specific – a cappella, a chantlike melody over a chordal accompaniment, featuring some counterpoint, and then finally building towards a “rock-em, sock-em chord” at the finish. Borrowing from a technique of choral “piano pedaling” I first heard in Christine Donkin’s “Magnificat,” I kept the melody in the first tenor part while the lower voices sustained individual notes from the chant, creating a wash of sound. Then, the final verse builds in harmonic and contrapuntal complexity, before building to a radiant 7th chord on the final sunrise. I’ll share a recording of the performance later, but here is the dress rehearsal, conducted masterfully by master’s student Mike McCormick.

I have some other exciting things to share, most especially our new project choir Terpsichore Ensemble, but definitely the most important new thing in my life to come out of 2021: I became a father to a beautiful little girl!

All in all, for a pandemic year it ended up being a pretty exciting one!

Happy new year, everyone – I hope 2022 brings you health, happiness, and success!


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