January 28, 2014
Once in a very great while, you attend a concert that immediately jumps to some imaginary, personal list of all-time best concert experiences. For me, The Choral Project of San Jose concert on Tuesday, performed to a packed audience at San Jose’s gorgeous Basilica of St Joseph, was one of those performances. The renowned Canadian Brass were absolutely at the top of their game but they in no way outshone their hosts.
The Choral Project of San Jose was founded in 1996 by a multi-talented young musician and San Jose State graduate, Daniel Hughes. It has gone from strength to strength, winning international choral competitions, awards, and consistently stellar reviews.
Hughes was also the composer of one of the works on Tuesday’s program, Legacy, written in honor of his mentor, choral conductor Dr. Charlene Archibeque. It was a moving, hauntingly beautiful work for which Hughes composed both the text and music.
Hughes’ inspiration was, unusually, a television documentary about the life cycle of stars, which discussed how they burn their brightest just before disintegrating into particles that in turn produce future generations of matter and life. Mr Hughes likened this to great mentors, artists, and inspirational figures who share, teach and give of their gifts intensely, using their life energy and work to inspire the next generations. The quiet choral opening was gorgeous and spooky at the same time, seeming to evoke the birth of the cosmos in sound.
My favorite moment of Legacy came when the instrumental accompaniment suddenly dropped away and the perfectly balanced choral parts were left quietly suspended, floating upward in midair, like a glider over a mountain’s edge, creating, for the listeners, the unmistakable sensation that we were soaring in space.
The only moment of the piece that didn’t succeed was the combination of overly shrill soprano soloists, which was rather painful to the ears, out of tune, and out of place amongst all the previous perfection. The Canadian Brass beautifully provided the harmony and instrumental accompaniment, along with subtle percussion and piano. (Shame on the venue organizers for providing a horribly out-of-tune grand piano — this concert was scheduled months in advance and there is no excuse for not having the piano tuned before such an important event.)
But Hughes also has an exceptional ear for the sound quality and blend of singers. He has an uncanny ability to draw professional vocal production and gorgeous tonal blend from amateur singers. Professional musicians dosing with the group,in their spare time, but for the most part the 50+ singers are amateurs, although hearing this concert you would never have known it. The blend of sopranos and altos was gentle and effortless, and the men, particularly in their close-harmony singing, sounded fully professional in their tone quality, pitch, and seamlessness. It all came together in the performance of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, which was as beautiful as you could imagine.
Hughes creativity results in unusual, entertaining concert programs. Collaboration with groups like the Canadian Brass is one indication of this propensity. Each group had a chance to shine in sections of the program, alternating with an unexpected variety of pieces that they performed together. The concert also opened in a surprise fashion, with the Canadian Brass members (Christopher Coletti, trumpet, Caleb Hudson, trumpet, Bernhard Scully, horn, Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone, and Chuck Daellenbach, the only remaining founder of the group, on tuba, but also acting as a wonderfully hilarious emcee) marching in to a New Orleans-style slow march, single file, from the back of the auditorium, wearing their trademark white sneakers. The group’s charisma, technical skills, ensemble, excellent arrangements, and tone quality brought out the absolute best in each piece. In addition, their charm and inventive choreography made the concert incredibly fun. And the Basilica of St. Joseph, an architectural and acoustic marvel, made the concert even more special.
Both The Choral Project and the Canadian Brass had a ball, and it showed. I suddenly recalled a quote that one of my piano mentors had scribbled to me on a slip of paper before my first concerto performance: “Play for the joy of playing, and touch heaven with your gift.”