Saturday, November 30, 2013

The ending before the beginning

Today is the last day of November, and also that last day of the liturgical church year.  I never really paid much attention to "church years" when I was growing up, most likely because I grew up Presbyterian, and they tended to stay away from observation of liturgy and church calendar events, other than Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost and Christmas.  It really wasn't until I started to attend a Presbyterian church where the pastor had received his education in Scotland, and brought some of his fondness for celebratory church days to our congregation.  Today, November 30th, is actually St. Andrew's Day, and he is the Patron Saint of Scotland.  So, on those Sundays around St. Andrew's Day, our pastor would get bagpipers and highland dancers to perform in the church courtyard between services.  And we'd give attentiveness to the lighting of the Advent Candles in church, and the sanctuary would be decorated with wreaths, lit garland, and a huge artificial tree.  

But it really wasn't until I started to attend a Lutheran church that I found out that the church has its own calendar.  And Advent just isn't the few weeks before Christmas.  Advent is the beginning of the church year.  I had mentioned in an earlier post about how the Presbyterian hymnals when I grew up were sorted by season, but not by the liturgical year.  So, you'd have all the Advent and Christmas hymns grouped together somewhere near the back.  It was almost as if they followed the calendar year, not the liturgical year.  Then, when I started to attend a Lutheran church, I became aware of the liturgical year, the emphasis on Advent, not JUST Christmas, the importance of Lent leading up to Easter, the Pentecost and how every Sunday following that the bulletin will say something to the effect "the 10th Sunday after Pentecost".  I felt such a draw to this observance of Holy Days and special seasons, something that I hadn't been a part of before.

I know many of my readers might not be into what we now call "traditional" worship, or they may not even be in a church.  I think that as many contemporary churches move away from traditions, they do keep some, but tend to let others go by the wayside.  Frankly, even as active as I was in traditional Presbyterian churches, there was no emphasis on the church calendar or the minor seasonal observances.  But now, I love them.  I love knowing that today is the last day of the church calendar year, and that tomorrow is the 1st day of the church calendar year.  And it's the first day of Advent, and our family traditions begin tomorrow: the lighting of the Advent candle; the placement of our nativity scene, but yet needing to be filled with the figures, who will join as Advent progresses; and our decorating.  

As we move into this new church year, I ask that we be aware of what Advent is about - a time of preparation, not just of our homes, but of our hearts.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, November 29, 2013


I must confess I have a love/hate relationship with rain.  For me, rain is best enjoyed inside with a fire in the fireplace, a cup of coffee or hot cocoa in my hands, and reading a book by that same cozy fire.  I do not enjoy being out IN the rain, particularly driving in it.  It was 5 years ago that we were in our accident, as we were driving to Lorrie's grandparent's for Thanksgiving.  The freeway was rain-slickened, and we were tapped by a spinning, out of control car, which pushed us into the center divider.  Thankfully, injuries were minor (Lorrie suffered a broken wrist), but her Tahoe was totalled.  Ever since then, I have a fear of driving in the rain.  Not so much a fear that I'll lose control, but a fear that it's the OTHER person that is driving as if it was dry, and will lose control and cause an accident.

But the good side of rain, that healthy, refreshing drink that our parched southern California landscape needs, reaps future benefits.  While most of the midwestern and eastern parts of our country are in snow, or deep fall, and green landscapes become brown and dormant, the opposite happens here: our hillsides become alive with green, verdant grasses, which eventually lead to wildflowers in the spring.  Gentle rains clean the air of all the dust and grime that float around.  Rains create that wonderful sound as they fall upon the awning, or off the rooftops.  And rain creates within me the desire to listen, to read, to refresh my soul with the written word or the sound of music.  It even asks me to slow down and enjoy a movie with the family.

So, come, rain.  Refresh our souls and our surroundings.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Christmas ALREADY!?!??!??!!

The talk seems to be going around everywhere.  It's on Facebook, at work, all over.  "Boy!  Christmas sure has started early this year!"  Yesterday, someone on Facebook even commented that the local "easy listening" station had already started Christmas music, to which my wife commented that it really WASN'T Christmas music, but holiday music with occasional warm and fuzzy references to the REAL meaning of Christmas.  And then, on Christmas Day, they stop playing the music.  And, yes, I am roughly paraphrasing.  But her point is that for most folk, and certainly for retailers, Christmas STARTS in October, and is DONE on Christmas Day!

My wife was raised as a Lutheran. Now, for many of you reading this you might associate Lutheranism with churches that do a lot of bake sales or progressive dinners, or women that knit blankets to give away, or perhaps Garrison Keillor and his comedic references to Minnesota Lutherans.  But when when I say Lorrie was raised Lutheran, I mean RAISED Lutheran - not with the external trappings that comedically accompany the Lutherans, but with the sensitivity to liturgy, hymns, and what is called "The Church Year".  I grew up Presbyterian, which, due to its austere Scottish roots, never paid too much attention to liturgy or the church year.  So, for me, becoming a Lutheran also meant embracing this wonderful idea of following a church calendar year, of observing certain church "holidays", and understanding this cycle that, as C.S. Lewis wrote, stays the same every year, but changes every year.  The church's calendar year starts on the 1st Sunday of Advent, and if you ever look at a Lutheran hymnal (I never saw this in the Presbyterian hymnals) you will see that the first hymns in the book are Advent, then Christmas, then Epiphany and so on.  They are in a chronological order based on that church calendar.

As a family, one thing we have begun to focus on more is to have our household decorations mirror the Christmas season.  We set up the outdoor decorations on the closest weekend to the 1st Sunday of Advent, which means I'm usually putting them up Thanksgiving weekend.  The first household decorations that come out are the Advent Wreath, which we light weekly while doing readings that are for Advent.  We also bring out our Creche, or what is commonly called the "nativity set".  With the nativity set, however, we have another Advent tradition.  We set up only the manger scene, without the people or animals.  Then every Sunday in Advent we light a candle and do readings together as a family, and then we add something to the creche.

In addition, we see the decorating of the house as preparing the house for Christmas, just as we prepare our hearts for Christmas, and so this decorating reflects our inner preparation.  The Christmas tree usually goes up a week before Christmas Day, and we decorate it as a family (although I know from personal experience that the kids get bored quickly and we usually have to call them back to help!)  Christmas Eve is filled with church and getting gifts secretly wrapped.  Christmas Morning is family time with a traditional breakfast. But for us, we observe that older tradition that dates back to pre-retail consumerism.  We make sure that Christmas is not just a single day, but as a period of time.  You know that song "Twelve Days of Christmas"?  It speaks of Christmas starting on the 25th, but it continues until January 6th, which is the traditional observance of when the Magi (3 Wise Men) came to the baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  On that night, that last night of Christmas, the 2 Wise Men are placed into the creche.  They actually taken a "journey" through our house, starting in the farthest rooms and each day, moving closer to the creche.  Epiphany is also the last night I keep our outdoor decorations lit (and we are the last on the street to do so).

So as we approach this Advent and Christmas season, with the snares of retail commercialism, let us really focus more on the Reason for the Season, the birth of Jesus.  Let us decorate with joy, give of ourselves, and sing loudly (or softly) about the coming of the Christ Child, and finally, sing of the Birth of Jesus.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Robert Shaw, choral conductor

I felt it was necessary to add "choral conductor" to Robert Shaw's name in the title, since when you Google "Robert Shaw" you invariably get the late great actor known for "Jaws", "The Sting", or "From Russia with Love".  But this post is about Robert Shaw, the choral conductor.

But he was so much MORE than that:  Shaw was a choral innovator.  And I attribute this to the fact that he did not receive a formal education in choral conducting, or any formal musical education.  He was actually studying to be a pastor.  But he had within him the love of music, particularly choral music, that had been  instilled in him by his parents.  I often feel that many who do study formally get locked into their instructor's ideology of how to perform, and then they never really deviate from that.  Of course, many do not: they go on to a self-inspired level of excellence, and then THEY become the new instructors and innovators.  But Shaw was, from the outset, an innovator.  His path was simple: singing as a child and youth, then in the Glee Club at college, then leading the Glee Club, then discovery by one of the renowned choir directors of that time.  That led to his forming his own choir, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and finally, discovered by the exacting Arturo Toscannini, for whom he prepared a choir for the famed and demanding maestro.  Shaw went on to Cleveland under the great George Szell, then to his own fame in San Diego and finally Atlanta.  But it was Shaw's grasp of digital recording and the new media of the 80's, CDs, that fully brought his masterful choral approach to the general public, even though he was known and widely respected by the musical, and particularly, the choral world.

As I have mentioned, Shaw was an innovator.  As I have listened to his recordings over countless hours, I have heard things that seemed to me to be unique amongst other choral recordings I have listened to.  For one thing, Shaw was first and foremost a choral director, and approached even his orchestral work with choral sensibilities.  For example, his phrasing and expressiveness of the Atlanta Symphony is almost choral-like, with definitive areas of "breathing" and arching phrases.  And when you listen to a Shaw recording of any major choral work, it is first a CHORAL work with the orchestra in a supporting role.  Many choral recordings by noted and brilliant conductors, with rare exception, don't do that.  In addition, as I have listened more and more I have heard things that are so subtle, yet had to have been carefully and meticulously rehearsed by Shaw.  As an example, I started to hear how sustained notes of any value (1/2 or whole notes) seemed to be energized at the beginning of the note, then taper off that energy ever-so-slightly as the note ended.  However, it never lost the overall energy or volume.  It was like a gentle swell on the ocean that comes and pushes the boat slightly, but never rocks it, so it's barely perceptible.  When I had the chance to discuss this with a former Atlanta Chorus member, she said he did use a technique that he called elliptical, where the note is arched, just like phrasing is arched.  I am not sure if other choral directors have adapted this subtle technique, but from my limited professional experience, I know it wasn't rehearsed in the choirs I've sung with.  So, to me, this illustrates one of Shaw's choral innovations.

Shaw was also an innovator in the dawning of the digital recording and CD age, taking home multiple Grammy awards for his Atlanta chorus recordings on the Telarc label.  These were awarded not only for the technical mastery of the Telarc engineers, who took choral, organ and orchestral recording to places it had never been before, but also for the musicianship of the ASO and the Chorus, and Shaw himself.  Shaw embraced the new digital technology and created masterwork recordings of not only the "standards" such as the Brahms' "German Requiem" but also little-known works by Hindemith and other 20th century composers.  Even after he retired from the ASO, he began a long association with Ohio State University and the Quercy Institute in France, producing wonderful intimate recordings of Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Britten and works of Ravel, Debussy and Argento.  He returned to Atlanta on occasion to record and perform with the chorus and orchestra he'd nurtured.

Shaw was the champion of not only the choral masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert, but he commissioned works by Bernstein and championed American composers, a concept that continues with the large choral groups in Los Angeles and here in Orange County, but also with the smaller groups as well, such as the Choral Arts Initiative, a new and exciting group made of young, highly trained singers.

Shaw's legacy cannot be underestimated, and for those of us who have a passion for choral music, his is a powerful influence.  For me, as a choral musician, I cannot fathom the technique he used, but I have studied papers on his warm up techniques, and have chatted with a few singers who were with him and verified certain of his concepts that he'd utilize in rehearsal.  But mostly I try, as a singer and a burgeoning choral conductor, to try to establish a choral sound that is a blend of what I've heard in Shaw's recordings, tempered with my personal experiences singing, with the ultimate goal of achieving the unity of choral sound that he established: smooth crystal sopranos, verdant altos, bright but not loud tenors and rich, deep, but not buzzing basses.  Every choral piece I hear I do so through the ears of my own Shaw experience.

Soli deo Gloria.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The cost of music

The other day I was thinking of something that I have long been bothered by: why is going to a classical music concert so darned expensive?  And the more I thought of it the more I realized that at one time, the Church was the place for musical performance and it was often free.

I am not so naive to think that a concert by the Pacific Chorale, one of the most prestigious choral groups in the country and based here in affluent Orange County, can sell tickets for next to nothing.  I am aware of how much it costs to rent the new Segerstrom Hall ($250,000 as John Alexander mentioned during the 2011 Choral Festival).  The Pacific Symphony is a contracted orchestra, so I'm sure that the cost for that is also steep.  There are the core, paid members of the Chorale, as well as the costs associated with putting on the concert (the programs, singer perks, etc.), and then there is the overhead of the Chorale, from the rent of their offices, salaries, and other costs just to make the Chorale stay solvent.  I do not know the budget for the Chorale, but I'm sure it's close to a million dollars a year or more.  They do receive donations and grant funds, but I would assume that ticket revenue is not the major source of their funding.  But still, for someone of limited means, $25 for a cheap nose-bleed seat is an expense that one cannot always afford.

When I was single and sang in the Pacific Chorale, our prices were more moderate at $18 per ticket, and I could afford to purchase tickets for family and friends (I also received at 10% member discount).  But now, with a single income, kids, and other family expenses, that $25 for cheap nose bleeds seats is steep.  But what really surprises me is when smaller groups that don't have the overhead, salaries, or direct costs related to a performance, also charge $25!  Or when one of the local liberal arts universities also charge $25 for a ticket.  There is one private university here in Orange County that charges that price for tickets, when the venue is owned by the school, the musicians are non-paid students, and the only paid folk are the instructors and the staff needed for the event.  Why on earth, then, do they charge a high ticket price?  That really concerns me.

You see, at one time, there was music in our schools, with fine orchestral, choral and even bell choir programs.  My mother in law and wife are products of that level of musical sophistication in their high school.  But with so much cuts in funding for education, the Arts and Music programs that have suffered.  Or, in order to keep the students engaged, the choral program makes the music more pop than classical.  In either case, the quality of the music suffers.  And so our children and young people don't develop a love for the music.  And they don't go to concerts.  And even if they were interested, they'd be hesitant to pay the student ticket prices since it's still high.

And then the Church, which used to have music programs with choirs and highly educated choral directors, have found that they cannot maintain that level of sophistication due to the growth of popularity of contemporary worship.  The budgets for these programs dwindle as more folk seem to be drawn by guitars, keyboards and drums, rather than an organ and a 40-voice choir.  So, the church no longer put on concerts of sacred classical works (like the "Faure Requiem") because they don't have the singers or the resources for such a work, unless it's a large church.  And it used to be that those kinds of concerts were done with "free-will offerings" to help defray the expenses of the concert, or tickets for only $5 or $10 each.  However, most of the expense for these concerts are covered in the church's budget, because they were thought of as a ministry or outreach to the community.

It seems to me that the arts, particularly classical music, is in a dilemma that they don't know about.  They cannot maintain or grow an audience if they price themselves out of that audience's financial means.  They court the wealthy to donate, be on the board, and host lavish parties with valet parking.  That gets the affluent in the doors.  But it doesn't get the general  public.  They cannot see to do concerts for free, or at least for a minimal charge.  Until they do, they are losing out on a broader audience that WANTS to hear them sing or play, but simply can't afford it.  I also wonder if they do it intentionally: make it such that only the wealthy or those with no major financial entanglements can come to performances.  They sell to a narrow demographic because they know that demographic will pay for the privilege to hear them sing or perform.

Again, I'm not so naive to think that some of the larger groups can have such a community outreach, but they really should.  There needs to be outlets of high quality music, be it smaller groups with small orchestras or a capella, or just piano.  There needs to be a way that those with limited means can attend a music performance, rather than just watch it on YouTube.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Travels with Father – an introduction

As I reflect upon my dad at this time of year – our favorite time to travel – I realize that I was so fortunate to have had a father who knew the West as well as he did, and helped educate his sons in the history and geography of that area.

Actually, for many years my dad and I did not get along at all.  He was literate, well educated and self-educated. He had majored in art and photography and minored in physics.  His mind was brilliant.  So, here I was a young kid, not interested in the least in reading and education.  We did not talk much with each other.  I did not help with household or yard chores.  But in 1969, things did begin their slow change.  We went, for the first time, on a family trip.  Before that it had always been my dad with my brothers or his parents.  But in April of 1969, we rented a camper and set out for a trip to the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce. 

Along the way I discovered the joy of the open road.  I sat up front as much as I could, or deposited myself in the part of the camper that overhung the cab, giving me an unfettered view of the road.  I was in my element there.  A couple of years later we took a major trip, going all the way to Minnesota to see my uncle.  Along the way there was the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, the Big Horn battlefield, Mount Rushmore, and mile upon mile of open 2-lane highway.  I hogged the front seat next to my dad as much as I could, gazing out the generous front windshield.  Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota were all in front of me.  After that was a trip to Flagstaff, Arizona in another rented motor home to see where my brother, Jim, had decided to attend college.  It was our last family trip.  My oldest brother, Donald, was off to New York to work on his masters and doctorate at Columbia, and my other brother was to start the 5-year plan at NAU.  Dad retired and we moved to San Clemente.  He spent the first two years of his retirement landscaping the backyard of their home, and building a studio for his art business.  I had started high school with the same lack of enthusiasm that I had displayed all through elementary school and junior high.  Dad, to say the least, was not pleased.  And when I was not at school, I was in front of the TV watching endless hours of junk.  Read?  Not no your life, even if it WAS an assignment.

My dad was born in the foothills of the San Juan range of the Colorado Rockies.  His father was a shepherd and eventually worked as a mason.  His mother had been a former schoolteacher.  They picked up their lives and belongings in 1922 and moved west to California.  I never can remember if dad said it took them 4 weeks or 4 months.  But they settled in the Pasadena area, where he excelled academically, and displayed the gift of drawing.  He attended Pasadena City College and the Art Center, where he learned the skills of illustration and drawing.  When the war broke out in 1941 dad saw many of his buddies go off to serve in the army or navy, but he was unable to do so because of his poor eyesight.  So, he did the next best thing.  He got a job at Lockheed Aircraft Company, and was put to work on the outdoor assembly lines for the P-38 Lightning fighter.  He got the singular honor of being a “rivet bucker” inside the fuselage.  He was the smallest man on the line, so it only made sense to put him in the small areas of the plane to assist in the riveting process.  After a short time there he was pulled off the line and placed in the top-secret program to help develop a jet fighter for the war effort.  Eventually he made his way to the art department, where his skills, patience, fairness and loyalty helped him climb the ladder, eventually to the manager of the department in the 60’s.  It was around this time of great stress that I began to be such a pain.  Our relationship was always strained, more from my lack of desire to learn than anything else, coupled with my sheer laziness.  His retirement didn’t help matters, because he was always around now, and able to see just how lazy I truly was.

But in the early ‘80’s, as I spent a rainy winter in dad’s studio, I discovered the joy of recreational reading, reading the apologetic books of C.S. Lewis, and the fictional novels of James Herriot.  Then it was the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  I read them all with great joy and enthusiasm.  Then I began to work, to make a living.  I began my long career in the printing industry, and area which dad knew well because of all his years in the graphic arts.  In addition, I was becoming interested in photography as a hobby and as a means of gaining additional income.  I had “apprenticed” myself to a local photography studio, and had purchased a high-end 35mm camera.  The ice of the years began to melt as dad and I became close.  He began to loosen himself of all the stress from his years at Lockheed just as I became more open to reading, to art, and to traveling. 

Our first vacation was a short one, although it was, for me, a long and enjoyable one.  It was a trip up to Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite.  Along the way were a visit to dad’s cousin Jean, and then a visit on the way home to his aunt Nell.  It was a time for him and me to just be together, to talk or not to talk, to observe the scenery, and to communicate through our own personal vision with our cameras.  As the years progressed we planned these trips with great care, deciding together where we’d go, where we’d stay, and the sights we’d see.  After I started spending time with a gallery in San Juan Capistrano that offered workshops, and the influence of the instructor’s more loosely and unplanned trips, our last few trips were more extemporaneous.  We knew the general area that we wished to go, but the day to day stops and shooting locations were unplanned, and hence, more magical.  Our last full trip together in 1994 took us to the Rockies, and to the ranches that his parents were at in the early part of the 20th century.  We explored the red rock country of Utah outside Moab, and discovered the beauty of that area together. 

We did take a few more shorter trips together – mostly long weekends.  Finally, I knew that he would not be able to continue the long trips with me, but we still had our time together.  He’d critique my work, help me in the darkroom – all activities that continued our relationship, and turned it from father and son, to friends and creative collaborators. 

The stories of our times on the road, the times we traveled together, the places we saw, are treasured memories.  Memories that keep him alive in my heart, and mind.  And memories that I hope to share with my own creative children.

Time to blog again

I realized that it's been nearly 2 years since the last time I did any kind of blog post. Mostly, I will confess, it's due to being on Facebook so much, and the ease of which I've been able to share my thoughts on there. But lately, as I've had certain things go through my mind, I've realized that Facebook is not the optimum medium to share some of these thoughts. Plus, I'm now responsible for our blog content at work, as well as our social media, so writing is more comfortable for me. So, let me share why I feel it's time that I return to blogging.

The first reason to return to blogging is to express my thoughts about pursuing directing choral music.  This has been an ongoing process that has had its most intensive feelings during the last year.  However, the seed was planted back in 2007, after Lorrie and I left the choir at Immanuel Lutheran in Orange.  It was given a growth spurt 4 years ago when I saw an opening at a church in Orange for a Director of Music, and now, through my growing contacts in choral music, it is finding a voice (pun intended), and I wish to pursue it.  So, that will be one of my blog series.

The other blog series is about my dad, more directly, about the photographic trips we took together starting in 1985 and continuing almost non-stop until 1994. I had intended years ago - and had started - to write what I hoped would be a Jack Kerouac type of novella about our travels. But I have found that, since then, I have forgotten so many details that to try to make this some kind of short story, it'd be best as blog posts. My dad and I were very close towards the end of his life, but that was not always the case. These trips that we took were times of self-discovery, but more than that, they were times when he and I grew closer together as father and son, and more importantly, as friends.

So, I hope you'll read these posts, comment if you wish, and share with others.

November 2013