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Dirty Stain - Bach Collegium's Mozart Requiem

As mentioned, The Bach Collegium's performance of Mozart's Requiem was almost extraordinary.

Two aspects of the concert were consistently annoying.

One was the vocal color of the chorus and the other was the quartet of soloists. These two elements are connected.

The connection is the style of singing in period performances. The style is to remove the natural vibrato of the voice and force it to sing with a straight tone. At times this creates a thin, strained tone that can be unpleasant.

I have to admit I'm not sure why this is considered the appropriate approach to early music.

In "early music" this style is effective and can be stunning in a piece of music by Victoria or Monteverdi. I find no merit in singing Mozart in this style.

Image

Mozart says: "Please don't sing my Requiem in ugly straight-tone voices."

The quartet of soloists were all from out-of-town. The soprano and tenor were from Los Angeles, the mezzo-soprano was from Chicago and the baritone was from The East Coast.

The Bach Collegium is a local ensemble and has no business flying soloists in from across the country. This type of activity drives me nuts.

The biographies of the soloists were impressive but the sounds coming out of their mouths were average to mediocre to terrible.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker was average. Baritone Mischa Bouvier was mediocre. He claims to be a baritone but sounds more like a lazy tenor.

Soprano Claire Fedoruk and tenor Pablo Cora were terrible. Neither had any concept of legato singing and both struggled with pitch. Their voices were tiny and boring.

If you're going to bring in out-of-area soloists, they better be fantastic. These soloists were not and it stained an otherwise flawless night of music.

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As mentioned, The Bach Collegium's performance of Mozart's Requiem was almost extraordinary.

Two aspects of the concert were consistently annoying.

One was the vocal color of the chorus and the other was the quartet of soloists. These two elements are connected.

The connection is the style of singing in period performances. The style is to remove the natural vibrato of the voice and force it to sing with a straight tone. At times this creates a thin, strained tone that can be unpleasant.

I have to admit I'm not sure why this is considered the appropriate approach to early music.

In "early music" this style is effective and can be stunning in a piece of music by Victoria or Monteverdi. I find no merit in singing Mozart in this style.

Image

Mozart says: "Please don't sing my Requiem in ugly straight-tone voices."

The quartet of soloists were all from out-of-town. The soprano and tenor were from Los Angeles, the mezzo-soprano was from Chicago and the baritone was from The East Coast.

The Bach Collegium is a local ensemble and has no business flying soloists in from across the country. This type of activity drives me nuts.

The biographies of the soloists were impressive but the sounds coming out of their mouths were average to mediocre to terrible.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker was average. Baritone Mischa Bouvier was mediocre. He claims to be a baritone but sounds more like a lazy tenor.

Soprano Claire Fedoruk and tenor Pablo Cora were terrible. Neither had any concept of legato singing and both struggled with pitch. Their voices were tiny and boring.

If you're going to bring in out-of-area soloists, they better be fantastic. These soloists were not and it stained an otherwise flawless night of music.

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Comments
14

It's a pretty stupid way of doing things. It's not like we're in Barrow, Alaska here. In a region of 2.5 million people, twice that if you consider Tijuana, there are enough singers to cast an event like the Requiem. Hold some auditions, for crying out loud, make the auditioners sing exactly what they'd have to sing at the concert. Hiring resumes from across the country is not wise.

Sept. 20, 2011

i agree with Joaquin

Sept. 20, 2011

While I don't disagree with Mr. Harris' or Joaquin's comments about hiring local singers, I must say one thing in Mr. Valenzuela's defense. All four of the soloists have appeared with the Bach Collegium on previous occasions, in one case numerous times. So their voices were well known to the director, and he was not simply "hiring resumes." Like them or not, Mr. Valenzuela knew exactly the sound he was going to get.

That being said, while Mr. Harris is certainly entitled to his opinions on vocal performance (and I do share his assessment of the tenor), I think this kind of snarky, vicious commentary is uncalled-for, and damages the critic's credibility.

Sept. 21, 2011

I understand that these are not first time soloists with BCSD...which in my opinion only exacerbates the situation.

I'm not sure I was being snarky. I was more frustrated than anything else because the rest of the performance was so magnificent.

In my opinion what damages a critic's credibility is calling terrible okay, mediocre good, and average great. I think bringing in out-town singers requires them to be great. I don't care if it's SDO, SD Symphony, Lyric Opera, The Old Globe, or CCT, if they bring in artists from across the country I'm going to expect them to be better than local performers.

There were zero great singers in the solo quartet. Had the singers been local, I certainly would have been more forgiving.

Thank you for engaging with a comment SanDiegoSinger. It is always welcome and I am grateful.

Sept. 21, 2011

While I will not deny you your say in the matter of the recent performances of BCSD’s Mozart Requiem, I find it a absolute atrocity that you decided to go to such lengths to ridicule it in part 2 of your review, after being rather complimentary in part 1. In looking at your review at a closer level, I want to point some inconsistencies that even the average reader would pick up on. You mention that the BCSD chorus as being “thrilling” and “confident and clear.” You went as far as saying you “rarely get the chance to hear a chorus that is composed exclusively of competent singers.” But yet within a day you place under Mozart’s portrait "Please don't sing my Requiem in ugly straight-tone voices." Which part do we believe? Your biggest complaint of course was of the soloists. While I don’t disagree with everything you say, (being a critical judge myself as a vocal coach) I personally find it appalling that you went to such lengths (or with no effort at all, apparently) to remotely describe your opinion of their voices in any objective manner whatsoever. Every professional singer deserves to be heard and critiqued in a manner which will be helpful to them and the reader of your review. You decided that the soloists were essentially a bunch of out-of-town barnyard animals who didn’t warrant EVER being heard by the San Diego audience. Is this what you are trying to convey to us? Apparently, being a singer yourself (from what I can surmise online), I’m surprised you would go to such lengths to negate their hard work, whether you liked it or not. Do you want to be called “average,” “mediocre,” “terrible” or “lazy?” Couldn’t you find better words to describe what you felt? One aspect you truly proved your lack of knowledge was regarding “period performance” - yes, lack of vibrato is a “trait” of it, both in instrumental and vocal production of earlier rep, it is not “forced” as you describe it. Many musicians, especially in choral settings, whether it be Josquin or something newly composed last week, aim to control this factor to bring multiple layers of color. That same color, which apparently blew you away in the Sanctus, you inconsistently described as a “strained tone”.
While BCSD’s namesake is “local” to you, the rest of the country would consider it a national group whose performances are focused in the Southern California region. How many basset horn players do you know in the San Diego? - none. This is not a critique on SD, which I love, but Mr. Valenzuela has the choice to hire anyone who can convey the his artistic vision. Perhaps SD didn’t have the soloists (instrumental or vocal) he was looking for, or more practically, they were not available? Perhaps more “locals” should audition for Mr. Valenzuela. The soloists he chose, while not to your taste, fit his current vision. And they were hardly average, mediocre, terrible, OR lazy. There is a time to be critical, and then there is just being plain nasty. You erred on nasty.

Sept. 21, 2011

sms9798 before we get started, I just want to say that this is a conversation I would enjoy having with you. The online format can make tone challenging so please understand that I'm not trying to be argumentative. I am taking the time to try to clarify some of the points you've made.

One of the overriding goals of my writing this blog is to raise the average patron's awareness of what great singing is. Sometimes that means pointing out examples of singing that I don't think is great.

I had to break this up into three replies because of the character limitations.

"In looking at your review at a closer level, I want to point some inconsistencies that even the average reader would pick up on. You mention that the BCSD chorus as being “thrilling” and “confident and clear.”

I said rhythmically thrilling. Being confident and clear has nothing to do with vocal color. I did say it was a rare chance to hear a chorus of only competent singers. Hence rhythmically thrilling, confident and clear. The chorus, through no fault of their own, was out of balance. The balance was tenor dominant at times. As a rather loud tenor myself, it kills me to say that. The tenor soloist was singing the chorus parts and his tone cut like a knife. My guess is that the overall sound would have been better without him singing the chorus parts. I should mention that all the soloists sang the chorus parts but there was only one voice that stuck out of the choral texture.

Sept. 21, 2011

"You decided that the soloists were essentially a bunch of out-of-town barnyard animals who didn’t warrant EVER being heard by the San Diego audience. Is this what you are trying to convey to us?"

I did not decide the soloists were barnyard animals. I do claim they don't warrant EVER being heard by the San Diego audience.

"Apparently, being a singer yourself (from what I can surmise online), I’m surprised you would go to such lengths to negate their hard work, whether you liked it or not. Do you want to be called “average,” “mediocre,” “terrible” or “lazy?” Couldn’t you find better words to describe what you felt?"

Yes, I am a singer myself. How hard the soloists worked has nothing to do with anything. Do I want to be called average, mediocre, terrible, or lazy? Of course not. You're adding lazy to list but in context it goes with mediocre. To say a baritone sounds like a lazy tenor has nothing to do with anything except the quality of the tone. The quality of his voice sounded like a tenor to me. Since the tenor voice is the most difficult to produce on a consistent basis, he could be a lazy tenor pretending to be a baritone. I've heard similar opinions about singers as prominent as Fischer-Dieskau. Here are some better words. Average = pedestrian. Mediocre = fair to middling. Terrible = disturbing.

"Many musicians, especially in choral settings, whether it be Josquin or something newly composed last week, aim to control this factor to bring multiple layers of color. That same color, which apparently blew you away in the Sanctus, you inconsistently described as a “strained tone”."

What multiple layers of color did you hear at the concert? I did not once hear the chorus or soloists make a choice based on color. Of the soloists, I would venture that only the mezzo had a choice as to what color to produce, perhaps the baritone as well. The other two had glaring registration issues. By registration issues I mean they were both head-register dominant which is why their voices disappeared through the middle and lower ranges. It is also why their voices weren't interesting. There was NO color because the chest-register was nonexistent. We like to throw the "vocal color" term out there as if any singer can do it. Very few singers have developed enough of their voice to make a conscious choice of color. I'm not sure how to write a review that includes suggesting two of the soloists need additional voice lessons. To be honest, that is my opinion. They are afraid to sing the bottom and therefor their voices are underdeveloped. There is no evidence that Mozart wrote for singers who had registration issues. Some of his tenor music is more inline with Wagner and is consider appropriate for young heldentenors--the most difficult of the tenor voice types to produce!

Sept. 21, 2011

I think I understand what you're getting at if you're referring to the "buzzy", overtone quality that can be produced by a strong group singing straight tone. It can have a shattering effective when used in the proper repertoire. I agree with you there but Mozart's Requiem is not one of those pieces. Regarding the Sanctus and strained tone. I said, "At times this creates a thin, strained tone that can be unpleasant." The key part of the phrase being "At times."

"While BCSD’s namesake is “local” to you, the rest of the country would consider it a national group whose performances are focused in the Southern California region. How many basset horn players do you know in the San Diego? - none. This is not a critique on SD, which I love, but Mr. Valenzuela has the choice to hire anyone who can convey the his artistic vision. Perhaps SD didn’t have the soloists (instrumental or vocal) he was looking for, or more practically, they were not available? Perhaps more “locals” should audition for Mr. Valenzuela."

If BCSD is considered a national group, that's very impressive. Now find a venue to match a national presence and fill it with patrons. A national group means you consistently perform nationally or patrons travel from across the nation to hear you. Hence San Diego Opera's "International Season". Patrons travel from other nations (Mexico) to attend San Diego Opera performances. The point I'm trying to make is that if out-town-talent is brought in it needs to be great. The instrumentalists were great. The main difference between hiring orchestras and singers is the strength of the union. Point of fact: I know that some of the chorus volunteered and were not paid at all. Maestro Valenzuela does have the choice to hire whomever he pleases and I have the choice to say the soloist stained an otherwise excellent concert and that a local quartet would have been more appropriate--and you have the choice to disagree!

The Mozart caption is from the editor. Previously, the Mozart caption advised me to stop complaining and sing it the way he wrote it. It's supposed to be lighthearted.

Thank you so much for putting in the effort to comment. If I were to write the review over, I would remove the phrase, "consistently annoying." That was not well thought out and was unfair to the chorus.

Sept. 21, 2011

critics have the right to be critical when the need arises... Garrett does that and did that....take it or leave it...he reports what his ears heard...u may disagree but he was not nasty...i read Garrett consistently and have never seen comments here from u before...

were u perhaps one of the singers Garrett spoke of???

Sept. 21, 2011

I can't speak to sms9798's identity, but I did participate in the chorus.

I'm not really going to comment on Garrett's critique, but I do want to put the scope of our ensemble in perspective, just for everyone's edification.

I will actually go a step further and say we are emerging as an ensemble with a global reputation:

  • Over the last 4 years, tracks of our music have been streamed online over 43,000 times across 67 countries

  • Our mobile apps have been downloaded in over 36 countries in 5 months. 44% (less than half) of those were for the US. Runners up include South Korea, Japan, UK...

  • We regularly perform in Los Angeles and we have toured, several times, to Mexico City.

  • We were reviewed in a publication based in La Coruna, Spain

  • Obviously, many of our orchestra members are from all over the country.

  • From time to time soloists - and yes, even chorus members - are pulled from other areas.

BCSD is in a growing stage, we are increasing awareness of our brand and reaching new markets. You can't go from a 100% local market to performing in Wigmore Hall with Emma Kirkby over night. You NEED to take stepping stones. It is absolutely irresponsible to be an isolationist and only use local talent.

You need to hire external musicians in order to grow. This may be a new concept to San Diego, but it is not a new concept to the rest of the country. Seraphic Fire, Conspirare, Simon Carrington Chamber Singers and many others I'm sure... all of these primarily choral groups are based in one area, but draw their members from all over.

We're in the 21st century now. Your area is no longer limited to how far you can walk.

I'm glad you enjoyed the performance, overall!

Sept. 22, 2011

Eric that's great info on BCSD!

I'm still going to push back a little.

By all means, bring in outside talent in order to grow. I'm not opposed to bringing in artists who are clearly superior. I like hearing great music.

Again, if the soloist had been incredible, or even above average, I would have been first in line to say so.

Why spend resources on soloists who may or may not be as good as locals? There are no travel expenses for locals. Local singers can be more flexible with the rehearsal schedule as well.

Here's what it boils down to. How does the BCSD handle feedback aka criticism? Did I make any valid points? If so, examine them and get better. Ignore anything you thought was over-the-top or came from a lack of knowledge on my part.

I admit I was too critical of the chorus. The major vocal imbalance came from the soloists singing the chorus parts--specifically the tenor soloist.

The fact that the soloists sang the chorus parts tells me that the local singers weren't even trusted to handle the chorus part on their own. Give me a break.

Sept. 22, 2011

i don't know if Garrett is a talented singer...but i read and admire his blog because he's a talented listener and i learn from him in a way that improves my ability to understand and have a more expanded feeling of the beauty of classical music and opera

as u can see from his comments here he's forthright...able to see the point of view of others and brave enough to really get into an indepth discussion of the performances of these kinds of musical works

i personally appreciate the READERS taking this kind of blog on

Kudos Garrett and READER!

ps...we can't give u a break Garrett cause that's only for that other kind of stagework

(break a leg) ;-D

Sept. 22, 2011

Thank you Nan!

Sept. 22, 2011

por nada tenor ;-D

Sept. 22, 2011

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