June 30, 2011 Washington, D.C. was the first stop on my sixth concert tour with the Pacific Boychoir Academy (PBA). Year after year, this three-time Grammy Award-winning choir travels the globe, and I'm fortunate to join them as soloist. This year we head to Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. For our travels, I face the challenge of finding new ways to captivate audiences in singing some familiar pieces with veteran performers.
Before going abroad, the Music Center at Strathmore was host to our second concert of the tour - part of the Serenade Choral Festival in the Washington, D.C. area. Choirs from South Africa, Russia, Botswana, Indonesia, Canada, and Los Angeles shared the stage, so our set was short, but more than sweet. This year's tour repertoire consists of choral favorites such as the Allegri Miserere, Mozart Requiem, Tallis Lamentations of Jeremiah, Palestrina Tu es Petrus, and much more by Rachmaninoff, Wood, Whitacre, Gershwin, Hogan, and even the Beetles.
City Called Heaven was the first solo I sang with the choir this year - perhaps my favorite choral rendition of a spiritual, one that I learned under the tutelage of Josephine Poelenitz, the song's arranger, growing up in Chicago, Illinois. Nearly twenty years later, it was just as pleasing to sing as the first time that I experienced its power when performing the song with the All-City Elementary Youth Chorus as a child. This time around I worked on new embellishments and ornamentation for what is, to me, the songs third incarnation during my singing career. I've experienced it simply as a sad gospel song early on, later as a hopeful spiritual of deeper meaning, and now as an inspiring song of reflection on my ancestry, personal passions, struggles, and aspirations. I was satisfied to find a few ways to reinvent the telling of the story of a "poor pilgrim of sorrow" who is trying to make it to heaven.
A wonderful complement to this piece was the addition of the song, I Know I've Been Changed, which we first performed at Congress Hall in the capital city of the southern-most Baltic country, Vilnius, Lithuania. This song of redemption and praise sits very comfortably in my range, allowing for a great deal of improvisation, so I've taken to exploring small pockets of rests in which to add new inflections, sometimes to the harmony or text, and often to the rhythm, all targeted at keeping the choir and listener engaged and surprised.
In the same performance, following the boychoir's set, I switched to the classical style in performing the baritone solos of the DurufléRequiem. One of his most famous works, composed in 1947, the piece has an array of dynamic and emotional contrasts. Amid the Domine Jesu Christe and Libera Me, my lines rose from piano to forte F's, backed by the solid sound of the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, a few of its choir members, and the young men and boys of the PBA. This mass for the dead was more than rousing and was quite well received in concert. Now its full-steam ahead to Russia where I look forward to seeing the response of audiences in St. Petersburg and, later, Moscow. The tour continues to Estonia and Latvia as well, so I'm sure there will be many different types of audiences, venues, and singing experiences.
July 5 St. Petersburg, Russia was our haven for a few days. Having just performed three days straight, things are tough, but still fun, adventurous, and very musically intriguing. Our first performance took place in a church with some of the best acoustics that I have heard in years. I took advantage of this by singing and roaming behind the choir to demonstrate the concept of a lost soul wandering around alone, seeking salvation in the song City Called Heaven. The spiritual, I Know I've Been Changed is becoming a regular hit among audiences here, with longer than usual applause, often in unison. I found a few new notes and rhythms to incorporate, and ended with Wade in the Water - a Moses Hogan arrangement written for SATB with alto soloist, which I perform in the range for which it's written. It ends with an exhilirating high G which, in this space, resounded for several seconds.
Smolnii Cathedral, also in St. Petersburg, didn't have such great acoustics, but it was gorgeous nonetheless, and I believe our performance still pleased plenty. With the tenors and basses, I now often perform an additional American folks song - Down in the River to Pray - written here for TTBB with a fantastic bari line.
Our final Russian performance for a few days took place at a palace off the river. There I was challenged with singing solo outdoors in the garden of a palace, which went well, and after a seven hour bus ride to, Tallin, Estonia the next day, we again sang outdoors, though this time as a fourth of July celebration for the ambassdor and guests. Quite the honor, and a fantastic way to enter the country and celebrate our Independance Day abroad.
July 8 Kaunas, Lithuania is our new home for a few days as we perform in the a local music festival. Small towns are always the best - gorgeous settings, beloved historic venues, and often full houses! Our first concert standing room only as several hundred, if not a thousand plus persons filled the old church for our performance, entirely a capella and filled with energy. For this, our largest audience yet, I pulled out some new moves which I tried for the first time the day before.
Yesterday's concert in Riga, Latvia went just as well and, for me, was very emotional as I returned to the same city where I had sung as a boy 16 years earlier. With the American Boychoir, I remember singing in one of the world's most amazing acoustics - Riga Dom. We represented the country well in this epic gathering of the best choirs from around the world. I carry vivid memories of that tour and was excited to revisit this rich musical area.
Now as an adult, things have come full circle as I was asked, at the same cathedral, to conduct the Pacific Boychoir for a flash performance. We chose Hail, Gladdening Light, a dynamic double-choir piece which resontated through the Dom with the same gusto that I recall from my childhood. It's been quite a thrilling week, and there's still more to come as we wrap up the tour with two more concerts in Lithuania and a farewell by way of Moscow.