- Kevin Mikhail H. Gomez
Reclaiming the art and purpose of choral music
A screengrab of an ad for the award-winning Ateneo Chamber Singers, who are scheduled to perform at The Theatre at Solaire on January 14.
(Article image on homescreen is that of Prof. Joel P. Navarro.)
As a rejoinder to his October 2016 essay on the Philippine choral scene, Kevin Mikhail H. Gomez posed three questions to distinguished music educator Joel Navarro. Considered “one of the Philippines' most esteemed choral conductors,” Navarro has been sharing his talent for some time with young musicians at the renowned Singapore Bible College. His insights:
How would you describe the Philippine choral culture in the 21st century?
I have not lived in the Philippines for the last 16 years, so I do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the entire Philippine choral situation. What I do have, from stories gathered from Facebook posts by former students, colleagues, and announcements on the Philippine Choral Directors Association page, stories gathered from colleagues through the years, and from reports coming from those connected with the National Music Competitions for Young Artists, are the following impressions:
a. There is a strong, prevalent, and widespread culture of and passion for choral competition.
This is not surprising. Competition remains to be a giant carrot for choirs wanting to gain recognition, and inspire a culture of hard work, perseverance, and focus. Competition gives a sense of identification with the established choruses by singing the very same repertoire these established choruses have sung. Many choristers find competition, and winning in competition, one of the best ways in giving them accomplishment, status, amelioration, and empowerment in the face of emotional rejection, poverty, loss, national or personal despair, lack of social connectedness with their peers.
In one sense, competition has democratized the choral art in opening egalitarian undertakings for amateur choirs to be known and recognized for their singing skills. In a greater sense, competition has minimized the choral art because choirs are being trained to hone their sound--a good thing in itself--and only their sound. There is hardly any appreciation for the nuances of the composition, the structure and lexicon of the musical composition, the understanding of the texts, and the expansion of the musical vocabulary by way of musical knowledge, history, theory, and performance practice. The choral movement remains largely an amateur movement, and many choristers still do not know how to read music.
b. There is a big population of gifted but woefully untrained choral conductors winning compeitions.
Choristers come from all walks of life. Choristers who have beautiful voices are easily admitted into choirs. Arguably, based on my own experience with university choirs in the Philippines, only 10-25% of the choirs are note-readers, far less if choruses are formed from community choirs, and from private and government choirs.
Many who lead these choirs have had experience with outstanding choirs, are gifted, but have received little musical training aside from those experiences and knowledge received as autodidacts. As these self-taught musicians become more successful, there is a notion that music training is not needed in order to win competitions. Winning has become the be-all and end-all of the choral experience. What the situation has bred is not only this false sense of entitlement of conductors who are themselves successful. It has also resulted in a vacuous understanding of the discipline, art, compositional and historical knowledge, and analytical work needed to perform music of all the ages.
c. There is an abysmal proportion of choirs and conductors doing large works, versus those doing only small works.
If it is only a question of resources, then it is a flimsy one. Many works are now in the public domain and are available in the internet. A growing number of composers have made accessible arrangements of their large works doable for choirs, chamber instrumental ensembles, and organizations of limited means. While purists may revolt, there is nothing that should prevent any well meaning choral organization to perform large choral works with a minimum of instrumental forces. One simply has to be more imaginative and creative in performing works such as those of Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms with a pipe organ, harp, and percussion. I have seen tasteful performances of Faure's Requiem with synthesizers playing keyboard reductions of string, winds, and brasses. With the right performing space (cathedrals, resonant halls), these choral masterworks can be viable expressions and valuable learning experiences for the choir and the conductor.
In a choral sense, ours is a nation of sprinters, not long distance runners. We prefer short works over large masterworks. We do not have the mental ruggedness to accommodate deep and sustained learning of large choral works which will stretch our capacities for analysis, understanding, and performing works of such a large scale. Surely, this must be reversed. Education is the only way these conductors can study the great minds of these composers.
d. Much of our choral repertoires are still about entertainment, rather than about social or spiritual transformation.
Repertoires tend to be a hodge-podge of choral favorites, rather than those chosen with intentionality and purpose. Song titles need to be chosen carefully in order serve a cohesive theme. It should provoke the audience to think, wonder, change, and ameliorate the human condition.
More often than not, repertoires are crafted to showcase the beauty of the human voice, the virtuosity of the choir, and accomplishments of the choir in competition. There is a sense of choir-centeredness. I have often stated that the choir is only a finger which points its audiences to the moon of its gazings. There is art which causes us to revel in its beauty. That has its place, too. However, choral art, in my view, cannot stop there because it must give the audience something to aspire for, if not the excellence of the craft, then towards the message the choir is communicating with all its being.
2. How does it differ from the past?
After the turn of the 20th century, when the Americans landed our shores and established educational centers around the nation, there was much performing of large works in the churches. Anthematic literature in the Philippine Protestant Church (please read my chapter in Anne C. Kwantes's book Chapters in Philippine Church History) was of a lofty and well-crafted nature. Church choirs were formed in great abundance. Substantive choral anthems were sung. Now, only a few churches in the Philippines have choirs. These churches have been taken over by contemporary Christian music which employs a band and some lead singers singing into microphones.
During the early 60s until the turn of the millenium, university choirs steadily grew in competence and repertoire, thanks to the generational impact of the NAMCYA, the upsurge of choirs going into international competition, and the rising tide of schooled choir conductors.
In spite of these encouraging trends, much of the choral repertoire was staple to a lot of choirs. Tried and tested choral works consumed much of the repertoire. Little came by way of new compositions, and especially new commissions.
This changed for the better after the millenium. More choral compositions emerged, mostly from composers which had some working knowledge of the choral art form. Degreed composers found their compositions to be less accessible to less pedigreed choirs due to the high level of difficulty and the esoteric nature of some of their works. This moderated to a better level of accessibility, however. Outstanding choirs continue to commission new works of high artistic value from known art composers in the Philippines.
3. If it changed, how so?
In the church music scene, for one, the change in trends is far more obvious. The shift into contemporary worship music in Protestant church music, so called praise and worship music, is widespread. Only a few churches have choirs which sing choral anthems and lead in congregational hymns.
Secondly, there appears to be far less of a shift among Catholic churches where the influence of Vatican II still pervades. Catholic congregations still sing congregational hymns, mostly in unison, but are occasionally led by choirs which cantor certain verses.
As regards choral literature performed in the churches, Protestant church choirs by comparison, if they still do exist, sing more nuanced choral literature, even if contemporary, than their Catholic counterparts. With exception of special Catholic weddings where the top choirs are hired to sing more sophisticated choral literature, part-singing in Christian and Catholic churches, in general, has declined.
Outside of church music, in educational and community centers, in private and government offices, choral singing has become almost like a sport. Choirs in these sectors become much more active when a competition is presented as an opportunity for promotion, recognition, and camaradie. The influence of show choir performance idioms, such as those found in the TV series Glee, has drawn some choirs to abandon more classically oriented choral literature.
One of the brightest trends is a rise in choral arranging and choral compositions which highlight traditional musics from the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. Whether or not these arrangements or compositions are appropriations of these self-contained expressions of music, choirs' attention to their heritage has received more momentum.
In conclusion, there are still many gaps to be filled in the Philippine choral movement. With the help of the Philippine Choral Directors Association, the pioneering efforts of the National Music Competition for Young Artists, and the patronage of the National Commission for Culture and Arts, creativity and diversity have become the major recipients in the movement. What is sorely lacking is a change in attitude and focus. Conductors need to have proper musical training to understand music theory, practice, history, composition, counterpoint, score analysis, and choral literature in order to have a broader understanding of music they are performing. To work on choral sound alone is a great disservice to the art, and to the composers whose masterworks remain unreachable to many amateur conductors because of their inertia, negligence, sense of entitlement, and misshapen ideas about what choral music is.
Finally, choral conductors need to be active movers and shakers of society. Choral music does not have to be always for entertainment. If it is to redeem its historical role as animator of worship, as a shaper of societies, as a bridge to ennoblement and the empowering of human understanding and harmony, then it must reclaim it with energy, purpose, and drive. Only then can Philippine choral music rise above its current predilection for entertainment, self-service, and self-glorification.
"May the blessing of the rain be on you—
the soft sweet rain.
May it fall upon your spirit
so that all the little flowers may spring up,
and shed their sweetness on the air.
May the blessing of the great rains be on you,
may they beat upon your spirit
and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there many a shining pool
where the blue of heaven shines,
and sometimes a star." -- An Irish Blessing
(Mr. Gomez is a Conducting major at the University of the Philippines College of Music.)