Elegance: The Alterio Choir of Bogor, West Java, is among choirs who brought magic to the competition.
If you think you need to be Harry or Hermione and attend Hogwarts School to learn about magic, you are dead wrong.
There was magic all around the Bandung Institute of Techology (ITB ) International Choir Competition from July 25-Aug. 1. I had the honor to serve on a jury with Jonathan Velasco and Mark Anthony Carpio (choir conductors from the Philippines), Wong Su Sun (a well-known Singaporean opera singer), Carl Crossin (the director of Adelaide Conservatory of Music, Australia), Dr. David Hughes (an American conductor) and two generations of Indonesian sopranos, Catharine W. Leimena and Aning Katamsi.
I admire the decision of ITB to invite (and trust!) a composer to take part as a judge. Yes, the majority of my works involve the piano more than the human voice as my main instrument. However, if I started to sing I’d scare even the tiniest creature around me.
Participants were judged on many criteria: technique, the art of blending their voices to create “colors”, depth of musical ideas, understanding of form and harmonic progressions as well as solid construction of the song performed.
The latter criteria were my particular focus. After that, it was pure music.
I have always said that the human voice is the best musical instrument on this planet, and last week I was vindicated again. Incredible works of music were wonderfully performed during the week and spoke directly to the audience’s hearts, such as Hope, Faith, Love, Life by Eric Whitacre, We Beheld Once Again the Stars by Z. Randall Strope or Indra Listiyanto’s choral arrangement of the Sundanese folksong Bubuy Bulan.
Follow me: Conductor of Brawijaya University of Malang choir in East Java leads her team.
One thing I noticed was a relative dearth of “substantial” music programmed by the participating choirs.
There was much good choral music to be heard, but sometimes it didn’t automatically deserve to be called good music.
Some good choral music exploits choral techniques to its limits by using sound effects, hoquetus
and antiphonal techniques, for example.
However, many composers forget that technique is simply a means and not an end. Truly great music still lies in the basic elements of harmony, melody, rhythm and the composer’s craftsmanship.
Whipping the spirit: Participants of the Bandung Institute of Techology (ITB ) International Choir Competition perform the Pecut Sapi (Cow Whip) dance as they sing.
Special effects (which can be highly attractive and fascinating) — no matter how virtuoso they
can appear — don’t necessarily have a power to communicate with audiences.
I would mention another thing, as a composer and as an Indonesian. There were so many choral arrangements of traditional folksongs that were so “un-Indonesian” performed last week.
I firmly believe that a composer should keep in mind the roots and tradition of the folksong when creating a new arrangement.
So many folksongs have had their original melody and character blurred by arrangements that are more suited for an ersatz Broadway musical or even a jazz club.
Worse still, some could be part of a Jamaican rhumba bar or a flamenco show in Seville, changing places in just a matter of seconds!
This problem, I believe, lies in a lack of musical knowledge and not so much from the composition (I should say arrangement) technique of the arrangers. I hope it is not a national identity crisis of our arrangers and composers.
In high spirits: A male choir sing their best in the festival held from July 25-Aug. 1.
Over the course of the week I talked with several composers to analyze the folksong arrangements of great composers of the past and present, such as Hungarian Bela Bartok or Australian Peter Sculthorpe. I advised people not to imitate what they have done but to simply learn how the great masters did it.
Attraction and entertainment should not be the main goal of a piece of art.
Depth and honesty of expression, a well-defined character and artistic quality are more important.
Apart from those minor shortcomings in programming and arrangements, this prestigious biennial competition contributed many positive things to contemporary classical and choral music.
Two things stood out: The performance of the Philippines Madrigal Singers (who were chosen as the 2009 UNESCO Artist of Peace) and ITB’s successful performance of the world premiere of my piece Stanza Suara, the first piece written for choir and orchestra involving musicians playing the traditional angklung bamboo instruments of West Java.
Traditional outfits: Participants wear traditional Batak North Sumatra costumes while singing a folk song.
When ITB commissioned me to write a piece for the inauguration of the festival, they specifically asked me to use traditional instruments. Angklung have never been involved in “western classical” music. From the first note I wrote I intentionally didn’t integrate the West Javanese musical elements in my music.
I wanted to write my own piece of music not a Mahlerian pastiche orchestration of West Javanese tunes.
Problems arose when working with the angklung players, since they were not used to reading music or following the (classically-trained) conductor’s gestures.
The piece turned out to be complex to rehearse and perform, due to the different ways that the orchestral musicians, choir singers and the angklung players of perceiving music, but conductor Indra Listiyanto managed to do a great job in uniting.Most importantly, she made Stanza Suara a solidly-constructed piece.
I was very impressed with the Philippines’ Madrigal “Madz” Singers. The Madz peformed a full concert of virtuoso pieces.
I personally did object (though certainly the public did not!) to a couple of “circus” pieces that amazed the audience, such as the shallow game of percussive-like sounds by the Canadian Murray Schaeffer “Gamelan”.
It sounded like anything but a gamelan. The composer even got the Balinese mode wrong!
I was glad to discover some valuable gems such as De Profundis by the Philippines composer
John A. Pamintuan which is a virtuoso (compositionally speaking) passacaglia.
However, all those pieces were performed exactly as they were demanded: in a highly musical, artistic, virtuoso and amazing way with great and refined taste and with continuing sharp focus on minute details.
Pick us: Participants dance and sing in a competition.
They are performing again in Surabaya on Aug. 7 and in Jakarta at Usmar Ismail Hall on Aug. 10, and you’ll certainly regret it if you miss them.
Although the Philippine Normal University Chorale (PNUC) finally won the Grand Champion of this prestigious event, I would like to mention the high artistry and achievements of Indonesian choirs that won gold medals.
We certainly are proud of Paragita Choir’s both female and male choirs. These students at the University of Indonesia both competed separately to win the first prizes of their category ... and then competed with each other in the final round to acquire the Grand Champion title!
Also noteworthy were Agria Swara Choir of the Bogor Agricultural Institute, the University
of Tarumanegara (IPB) Choir with their conductor Angela Astri Soemantri (who I as a jury member voted for the Best Promising Conductor, and am still believing it), the Gita Smala Youth Choir of Surabaya and the St. Angela Youth Choir of Bandung with their conductor Roni Sugiarto, who at last won the Best Promising Conductor.
They have won medals in other choral competitions abroad during the last years, and surely will keep on doing so in the years to come.
Truly great music still lies in the basic elements of harmony, melody, rhythm and the composer’s craftsmanship.
— Photos courtesy ITB International Choir Competition (www.fpsitb.com)