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Simple Gifts - an article about the acappella Heinz Chapel Choir

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  • John Deamer
    [I thought you might find this great article of interest. John Goldsmith is my brother in law. He and his wife have sung with Robert Shaw for several years.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 25, 1999
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      [I thought you might find this great article of interest. John Goldsmith
      is my brother in law. He and his wife have sung with Robert Shaw for
      several years. This story is from the Pitt Magazine. jd]

      "Simple Gifts

      Like sausage and legislation, it's better to enjoy a Heinz Chapel Choir
      concert than to watch how it's made. No, there's nothing unseemly or
      untoward about choir rehearsals, just a lot of...weird stuff.
      Imagine, if you will, a collection of 50 casually dressed students
      gathered at the front of Heinz Chapel. There's talking and laughter
      before the re rehearsal begins. Several students approach choir
      director, John Goldsmith, mostly with scheduling questions - "I won't he
      here on Thursday," or "I have to leave early for my  midterm." (Time
      and scheduling problems are an occupational hazard. Choir participation
      - - four-plus hours a weekearns just one credit so the singers are here
      because they want to be. Despite the work, membership is coveted; these
      singers are the best of a field of 150 from the annual audition.)

      Goldsmith brings the group to order. On his command, the strangeness
      begins. The three rows of singers turn sideways, grab the shoulders of
      the person to their right, and begin a one
      minute massage. When the massage is over, they start a hand-chopping
      motion. All the while Goldsmith is singing different exercisesa
      high-pitched vocalization that alternates between
      NOOOO! and YOOOO! followed by a falling guttural sigh that sounds
      vaguely sexual. Then the choir does some neck rolls and vigorous
      shoulder shakes, yawning exercises, then some weird facial expressions,
      and just about when you think you've walked into the wrong room, the
      group starts its scales.

      There's a piano nearby, but Goldsmith rarely uses it. Everything about
      the Heinz Chapel Choir - even tuning up - is a cappella. Goldsmith -
      himself an accomplished countertenor - sings the pitch, and the choir
      practices scales in whole- and half-note intervals. This instrumentless
      tuning is Goldsmith's own creation. Technically, it's called "ear
      calibration warm-up," which develops "tonal memory" to help the choir
      maintain a "stable key center." What it means is that the choir will
      sound the same - meaning good - at every concert.

      And the choir has been sounding good for a very long time - 60 years and
      counting. What began as 30 students singing at the Heinz Chapel
      dedication in 1938 has become a choir of international renown. In
      addition to fall, spring, and Christmas concerts on campus, the choir
      also performed last summer in Europe, something Goldsmith tries to do
      every three years or so. This year's tour was special - they performed
      at Sainte Chapelle in Paris - only the second choral group invited to
      the noon concert series - as well as participated in the 700th
      anniversary of the Barcelona Cathedral.

      When asked about the audiences in Europe, Goldsmith holds up two hands,
      fingers spread apart. "Ten standing ovations." he says. smiling. "Nine
      concerts. 10 standing ovations." He hastens to add with justifiable
      excitement, that the choir's first-ever compact disk, recorded at their
      appearance in Bordeaux, has just been released.

      Although the logistics of transporting and housing 50 studenls can be a
      nightmare, an a cappella group has one advantage: traveling light.
      Goldsmith carries with him a single A-note tuning fork- all the group
      needs to get itself in sync. (Such convenience permitted an impromptu
      performance of "O Magnum Mysterium" in Notre Dame Cathedral.) And
      because the music is memorized, Goldsmith says, the group can
      concentrate on subtleties - the tempo, the dynamic level, the shape of
      the music within the group, not as individuals. Though each program
      features a few soloists, the focus is on unity. Unlike many choirs,
      Goldsmith does not separate the voices - sopranos on one side, altos on
      the other. "I don't want the tenors to sing with the tenors," he says,
      "I want them to sing with the choir."

      There is, however, an exception. At this rehearsal, Goldsmith has
      arranged the choir, by voice, in a horseshoe around the first few pews
      at Heinz Chapel. They are practicing "Epitaph for Moonlight," an
      avant-garde piece that includes whispers, humming, and oohhs and ahhs
      that circle the chapel like quadraphonic stereo. It is a tremendously
      difficult piece, requiring split-second timing and perfect pitch. As the
      sounds shift from one side of the choir to another, a singer cups his
      hand to his ear like a radio announcer, keying on his upcoming cue.

      The practice takes a while, as Goldsmith interrupts to make a correction
      or ask questions. ("Do you cut out so soon?" he asks the sopranos- not a
      correction, but a genuine question. To direct a choir whose membership
      changes with each graduating class means experimenting with
      arrangements. What's written on a musical staff may not work with this
      staff of students.) Once heis satisfied, they run through it again - and
      again.

      Next on the agenda is Stephen Foster's "Nelly Bly." To the novice
      listener, the choir sounds faultless, but Goldsmith hammers away at thc
      final coda, asking, encouraging, cajoling the group to, well, fix
      whatever seems to be the problem. Finally he finds the flaw: "Say 'Nelly
      Blah,' not 'Nelly Bly.' If you say 'Bly' you'll never find the chord."
      Sure enough, this subtle correction does the trick, and the group moves
      on. What's striking about each rehearsal is the professional discipline
      - - a willingness to practice very difficult material, sans piano, sans
      pitch pipe, trusting only in one's mates and one's own voice.

      By the time the concert comes around, Goldsmith and the group have
      survived countless corrections, revisions, new arrangements and
      rearrangements. They're now before a standing-room only crowd at Heinz
      Chapel, armed only with their built-in instruments, their wits, and
      their well-rehearsed memories

      And perhaps it's the barrenness, the stark simplicity of presentation,
      that stirs the audience - that stirs any audience, in Pittsburgh or
      Bordeaux or Barcelona. These are naked voices up there, no synthetic
      accouterments, no false amplification, as unadorned as the day God made
      them. Even the most spare songs - " Simple Gifts, " for instance, or
      "Shenandoah," songs heard hundreds of times - take on a new and
      different meaning here, as if heard for the first time. The audience,
      warm and generous in its applause, seems to sense this. Perhaps there's
      something innate in our reaction, an appreciation of the authentic,
      unguarded young mortals before us, transformed if even for a moment into
      a single harmonic unit, testimony to the possibilities of the human
      voice.

      As the last note is sung, the crowd is deeply appreciative. Goldsmith
      bows and acknowledges his singers, who smile. It's hard to tell, even in
      the intimate space of Heinz Chapel, if these young men and women know
      what they've done, know the places they've touched- not just in Spain or
      France, but some interior space inside the audience, where the memory of
      this afternoon resounds in perfect pitch.Mark Collins

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