Blaine High School’s Concert Choir was briefly immersed in Mexican culture recently – both musically and beyond.
The 82-member auditioned choir last month debuted in concert two world premiere songs sung in Spanish, celebrating the musical traditions of Mexico.
The pieces were commissioned for the choir by the renowned and innovative choral group VocalEssence.
Novelli Jurado, a composer from Mexico, penned the a cappella works specifically for the Blaine group, tailoring the music specifically to its strengths.
Jurado was in town last month workshopping his compositions with Blaine choir members and director Sue Zemlin, adding last minutes touches to the pieces one day before they were to perform the songs in a public concert at a Wayzata church.
Jurado had been working with Blaine and two other Twin Cities high schools choirs since October 2012 as part of a cross-cultural exchange sponsored by VocalEssence in a community education program titled ¡Cantaré! (I Will Sing).
The program pairs Twin Cities youth chorales with composers in residence from Mexico to study the country’s musical heritage and to compose original pieces for the groups.
The high schools shared the spotlight with the 130-voice VocalEssence Chorus in VocalEssence’s ¡Cantaré! Community Concert performed May 21 at Wayzata Community Church.
The concert was the culmination of the 2012-13 VocalEssence’s ¡Cantaré! program and included music Jurado penned for VocalEssence as well.
Other schools spotlighted in the evening concert and singing Jurado’s original music composed specifically for their choirs were St. Paul Central and Hopkins high schools.
“It teaches students about the process of creating music and how culture influences the creation of the music,” Zemlin said about VocalEssence’s composer residency opportunity.
VocalEssence, under the direction of Philip Brunelle, was founded by Brunelle in 1969 as the Plymouth Music Series, an arts outreach program of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.
But the music Jurado wrote for the Blaine choir wasn’t your usual four-part – soprano, alto, tenor, bass mix.
Instead, Jurado, going for an optimal blend of ethereal sounds, especially in his piece about the sea, penned the song in seven parts, doubling up on the higher voices with a strong, single-line bass undercurrent.
Jurado’s visit last month to Blaine High School was his third time working with the concert choir as part of the ¡Cantaré! residency program.
He met with them for one week in October and another week in March.
The first time he listened to the group, learning about their ranges and strengths. He later returned to Mexico to write the compositions.
In March, Jurado braved a Minnesota snowstorm to return to Blaine High School to work with the students. He listened to their take on his songs and used the week to make changes. He once again returned to Mexico.
After practicing the pieces, Zemlin sent him a video via iPad and UTube (a private showing) of her choir singing the revised songs.
From afar, Jurado continued to fine tune the pieces in preparation for last month’s final rehearsal with students before appearing in concert.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Jurado told the Blaine students at a 7:40 a.m. May 20 rehearsal. He encouraged them to ask questions about the music, about Mexico.
A pianist, who started out playing drums as a child, Jurado has presented his compositions in Canada and concert halls of Mexico City.
His work has been broadcast on radio and last year his “Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra” was performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra of the National University of Mexico.
A rhythmic song
Blaine’s first commissioned piece, which opened the evening portion of the May 21 ¡Cantaré! concert is titled “Canto de Primavera” (Song of Spring). The song, composed in a traditional Mexican cultural style, suggests a Mexican wedding dance sound.
Students accompanied the piece with such instruments as bongo drums, a djembe (a large African drum) and a sonaja (a stick with bells), adding a driving rhythmic pattern to the tonal texture.
“In the first part, I take my own style of writing, combining it with choral textures and two soloists,” Jurado wrote about the song. “Then, a highly rhythmical and energetic passage follows, involving the chorus and percussion. …In the second section, a Mexican popular folk band style can be clearly perceived.”
The second piece commissioned for the Blaine choir, “En el Mar,” (In the Sea) was not only composed by Jurado, he also wrote the text.
“You can hear the sound of the waves on the water in the music,” Zemlin said, explaining to her choir the particular choral tone she was going after in rehearsal.
The choir obliged, exuding sounds of the calm and swelling of the sea, the waves crescendoing and gently ebbing, painting a tonal picture in this listener’s mind.
Zemlin’s choirs have worked with other choirs before, but they’ve done nothing of this magnitude, she said.
“This is an offer you can’t refuse,” she said. “To have music specifically written for your ensemble, having it done for your singers, it’s rare.”
Beyond the music
Working with Jurado was one of the better experiences she’s had, said senior Amy Loftness, who sang a solo in one of the songs.
“He brings a diversity to our choir and makes us aware of other cultures out there,” she said. “I think it’s so cool to make the music come alive and that he wrote it just for us.”
But Zemlin took the lesson beyond choral singing. During choir class, the group not only sang, they celebrated Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, a holiday in Mexico honoring those who have died.
The singers chose deceased people whom they would honor, discussed why they would honor them and what foods they would lay at a shrine for them.
“Their responses were spectacular,” Zemlin said. “It was something that we would never had done. We were learning more about each other and the world. It wasn’t about just getting new songs.”
Elyse Kaner is at firstname.lastname@example.org