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Monday, March 29, 2021

Flight of the Concord

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Here’s a piece I wrote about a youthful vocal ensemble that made its debut recording for the Dorian label in 1999. This wasn’t written as liner notes, and I can’t recall where it was intended to land, if indeed it was used anywhere. So I share it with you, along with a recommendation that you seek out and listen to this recording.


BEAUTIFUL VOICES SOUND GOOD ALMOST ANYWHERE, but place them in one of the world’s finest concert halls and the effect can transcend all expectations. As the Concord Ensemble stands in a semi-circle on the stage of the Troy Music Hall, in a once-prosperous manufacturing city near new York’s Hudson River, they sing to an auditorium of empty seats, facing a pair of microphones.

Over the course of the past few hours, the microphones had been aimed and re-aimed countless times. Now they stand near a tall stepladder a few feet from the Music Hall’s high stage. Dozens of yards of black fabric muffled the balcony and orchestra seats when the ensemble arrived to begin the recording tests; now it’s gone, removed to give a brighter sound to the ensemble.

“It’s just you and the room and my mics,” says Craig Dory, co-founder of Dorian Recordings and designer of the microphones. “But it’s still going to take us a while to decide the best setup.” He paces the stage. “Please sing out as we’re doing this – don’t mark. And don’t worry about the noises you might hear. If the hall creaks or a truck goes by, we may be able to remove that. All you have to do is sing.” He pauses and grins. “This is going to be very intensive. You will want to hate me. You will discover that I’m a big, lovable teddy bear.”The six men comprising the Concord Ensemble were in Troy at the end of February to
make their debut recording as winners of the first Dorian/Early Music America Recording Competition, having surged through a pack of 80 entrants. They met two years ago at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where they were part of the larger Pro Arte Ensemble.

“We decided to get together to read through some music for fun,” says tenor Pablo Corá, “and without the pressures of academic life. After the second or third time we decided we had the kind of sound we really liked, which  made us want to get together and sing some more.” The six are gathered for a late breakfast in a Troy café near their hotel.

Each of the young men – they’re all in their twenties – was pursuing a different major at the university, and collectively they boasted wide variety of music performance experience, from classical ensembles to jazz and rock bands. Yet they found a common ambition to hit the early-music world with a sound that will be identifiable as theirs alone.

“One thing that makes us unique is that we all have different backgrounds,” says Lincoln Hanks, one of the group’s three tenors. “Two of us have degrees in choral conducting. I have a degree in composition.” Hanks teaches theory and composition at Pepperdine University in Malibu, and recently received a commission from the Dale Warland Singers.

“Lincoln is our resident composer,” says Corá. Has he written anything for the group?

“Informally. Nothing very serious.”

“But we’d like to do 20th century music,” says counter-tenor Paul Flight. He has sung with the Waverly Consort and conducted the premiere in 1995 of Ronald Perera’s opera “S,” so he’s already been moving back and forth. “It takes the same skills as early music.”

“The ensemble sang a piece by Libby Larsen last year,” says Hanks. “She coached us for the performance, which was a lot of fun. It’s called ‘Billy the Kid’ and it was written for the King’s Singers, but evidently they didn’t know how to handle the folklore part of it, which we managed to do pretty well.”

“There aren’t many groups like us,” Corá observes, “and I don’t think any of them have the kind of sound we imagined for ourselves. The King’s Singers, Ensemble Clément-Jannequin, the Tallis Scholars – all have individual sounds, but none of them are distinctly American.”

Daniel Cole, the ensemble’s bass, jumps in with an explanation: “I think we sing with more voice and body in our sound. We don’t try to say, well, ‘Early music is supposed to sound like this.’ We say, ‘What’s the best sound we can find for this? And what’s the most musical?’” Cole moves between choral and operatic singing, and had just won the New Jersey district finals for a Metropolitan Opera audition. He’ll spend the summer with the Netherlands Opera.

They still look bleary eyed from last night’s ordeal, but they’ve still got energy enough to kid one another. The waitress, who sees only six rowdy boys, looks worried.

“When we started to record,” Cole continues, “Craig said he wanted more sound on the bottom. Then we realized was that we were taking it easy because the hall acts as a natural amplifier.”

Flight: “Once it’s night, the hall is cooler and you get more reverb – ”

Corá: “It’s like a different hall at night. You really hear your voice carry, and you’re lulled into thinking you don’t have to work as hard. We’re spoiled in Indiana, because there are two or three spaces where we sing that are very resonant. And we do most of our rehearsing in a hallway outside of the music library.”

Flight laughs and adds, “People come by and throw money.”

“And you know what?” says Cole. “About a week ago, I noticed some faculty members rehearsing in the same space. They’re trying to find our secret.”

“We’re trying to make something, a sound, that’s blended but also rich, individual but also unified,”says Flight. “That sound is very hard to achieve. That’s ultimately what we’re after.”

“And that’s what took a long time last night, to get that sound.” Tenor Daniel Carberg is a onetime jazz musician who now also performs with an ensemble called Apollo’s Voice, which recently concertized with Kathleen Battle. “Sometimes we had individual voices sticking out, affecting the blends; another time the sound had a wash around it and we weren’t getting any of the details.”

The others nod and offer more insights, speaking in a murmured cacophony. Carberg smiles and declares, “We want to conquer the world with our sound!”

PABLO CORÁ BEGAN SINGING as a child in his native Buenos Aires; he moved to the U.S. study voice at Ithaca College, then traveled to Indiana to pursue a doctorate. Like others in the Concord Ensemble, he divides his performing between early music and new works. “The program we’re recording is adapted from something we put together for the Bloomington Early Music Festival last summer, a program of Spanish Renaissance music.

“There’s at least one mass in all of our programs, then a bunch of secular pieces, or pieces of a sacred nature that weren’t necessarily written for the liturgy. The musical tradition in Spain at that time was so rich and varied that there’s too much to choose from. We were discussing ideas for cover art and wondered what painters you would find in Philip II’s chapel. As it turns out, some of the painters were Flemish, some were Italian, some Spanish . . . It was a rich and varied artistic community.”

The program includes the mass Dum complerentur by Thomás Luis de Victoria, motets by Victoria and Cristóbal de Morales, and several villancicos by Juan Vasquez. Tonight’s session will continue work on the mass and then move on to Morales.

Upstairs in the Troy Music Hall, Dorian’s engineering booth is a large closet, decorated with strategically placed foam sound bafflers. At one end, black Waveform speakers sit atop concrete blocks; facing them is the recording rig (digital Nagra, DAT decks, racks of custom modules) and engineer Joe Korgie. Beside him, producer Tina Chancey studies a score, a microphone within reach. She has just interrupted a take. We can hear the stage creak as the singers relax.

Chancey activates the microphone and says, “Take it from 136 to the end. I want another crack at that nice low stuff. This will be take 59.” She switches off the mic.

Even in this high-tech huddle, where you expect everything to sound wonderful, the voices of the ensemble float in the middle of the room with an ethereal quality. They’re singing the “Gloria” from the 16th-century mass “Dum complerentur” by Thomás Luis de Victoria. The section finishes with a beautiful sustained chord, and then the music hall adds a whiplike crack.

“Take 60.” Astonishingly, incredibly, the hall cracks again at the same moment, revealing the impishness of such antique surroundings. “It’s the dry heat,” Chancey explains. “Those old floorboards go crazy.”

In fact, it’s the wood that makes the hall so special. Built in 1875, the hall itself is the top floor of a building that now houses the Troy Savings Bank. Artists through the decades have declared it a favorite performing venue, among them Fritz Kreisler, George Szell, and Fritz Reiner. The wooden seats lack any padding, and are old enough to still sport wire holders for collapsible top hats.

Take 61 provides a good, quiet finish. Take 62 covers the entire Gloria again. Then it’s a ten minute break. The singers leave their semi-circle to head to the dressing rooms for fruit and water. As they return to the stage, one of them finds his way to an upstairs box, shrouds himself in a curtain and intones, gloomily, “You’re getting nothing for Christmas!”

Paul Flight laughs at the disembodied voice and explains, “We’re basically a bunch of 12-year-olds.”

PRODUCER CHANCEY CREDITS HER PRODUCING SKILL to twelve years of sight singing and other vocal training before she began playing the violin. As an instrumentalist specializing in medieval strings, she founded Hesperus and is a performing member of the Folger Consort. She also writes extensively about early music, and has produced recordings for Hesperus and many other ensembles. “I have to stay on top of them, but there’s only so far I can push,” she says. “When it’s nothing but you and your voice, you can’t be forced through too many hours of this.”

When she clicks on her microphone, it’s always to speak kindly, offer encouragement–and then point out whatever mistake prompted her to interrupt. “Pablo, on your entrance at 22, could you pick up the affect of the two guys on the bottom?”

The group just rehearsed – with tape running – a Morales motet, “Veni, Domine et noli tardare.” “I want to be sure that the ‘e’ sound in ‘veni’ is consistent throughout,” Chancey advises, and the ensemble sings it again.

Playback. The singers crowd into the engineering booth and sit or squat with the dejected aspect of prisoners awaiting sentencing. Korgie rolls the tape and almost immediately heads begin shaking, singly and in unison. But then there’s a moment when Flight lifts his head and declares, “That’s nice!”

“It is nice,” someone else echoes.

The segment finishes. “Maybe we all need to think about brightening our vowels,” says Dan Cole.

“And that ‘e’ in ‘veni,’” adds Flight. “We have to take care of that.”

An hour later, another break, and the group falls into combat ease. Two of them stretch out on the stage; the others huddle, saying nothing. “Do we have time for a long break?” asks Flight. Chancey shakes her head. Three days to go and the schedule is getting even tighter.

It’s all over by the following Friday. Corá left early to visit nearby friends; the rest of ensemble is gathering, slowly, wearily, one last time at the diner. “We got a lot done,” says Carberg. “I feel pretty happy. And we all stayed friends.”

Adds Cole, “Everyone was always very respectful of one another. When we got frustrated, it wasn’t at each other. It was at ourselves.”

How did the recording sessions compare with his expectations? “People in the group have recorded with Paul Hillier and with the Pro Arte Singers, but those were different. Those sessions were with a bigger choir. You have more room there to hide. This is the hardest recording session I’ve ever done. Seven hours a night over five nights for one hour of music. It’s certainly not as enjoyable as performing. You have to obsessive about intonation and about things not lining up. Tina did a great job. She stayed on top of us about intonation and balance and our work as an ensemble, which gave us the ability to concentrate on being musical.”

“Yeah, it was what I expected,” says Carberg. “Great, but grueling. Now I need to separate myself from it. I’m still too close. It’s too exciting. It’s exactly what I want to do with my life.”

Lincoln Hanks and baritone Sumner Thompson arrive and grab coffees. Says Thompson, “I knew what to expect from other recordings I’ve done, but we haven’t done this as a group before. In six months I’d like to hear it. Right now I don’t even want to hear it again.” Thompson’s degrees are in theology and music, and he also likes to sing opera. As an instrumentalist, he’s played percussion and electric bass with several rock and jazz bands.

“I knew it would be hard and intense,” Hanks says, “and I think it went well. I don’t know if Dorian realized how intolerant the hall would be of a quiet ensemble like ours. Extraneous noise was very intrusive, and messed up some good takes.”

 “And some of those pieces were just plain hard to record,” adds Thompson. “You’re really exposed.”

Paul Flight: “I’m looking forward to hearing the finished product. We have some fabulous things on tape. Also for posterity: many of those pieces have never been recorded before.”

They’ll be leaving for the airport soon, flying to Florida for a series of performances before heading back home to Indiana. A few days earlier, they were talking about plans for future recordings. Right now, they don’t want to think much about recording at all. But, says Flight, “You sure learn what kind of patience and maturity you have.” Adds Carberg: “And you learn to check your egos at the door.”

– 2 March 1999

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