Holiday albums from Vancouver choirs
City choirs went to high-tech studios, old cathedrals, and European concert halls to record their seasonal CDs
You know it's December when the city's choirs begin infiltrating just about every performance venue imaginable, hawking their freshly minted Christmas CDs. Musica intima, the Vancouver Men's Chorus, and Phoenix Chamber Choir are three local groups with hot-off-the-press albums, each of which took its own approach to the complex and challenging process of choral recording.
musica intima (o nata lux)
When musica intima decided it was time to record its brand new Christmas CD, it didn't exactly take the relaxed route. With two shows scheduled a week apart in Montreal last February, the 12-member vocal chamber ensemble (in concert Sunday [December 14] at West Vancouver United Church, Tuesday [December 16] at Ryerson United Church, and December 19 at Christ Church Cathedral) agreed to spend the extra time churning out a sixth album.
“It was recorded in this beautiful old cathedral,” recalls baritone Peter Alexander. “There was lots of snow outside and the setting with the church really felt Christmassy—even though it was already February and here in Vancouver the cherry blossoms were coming out.”
The group didn't opt for a typical studio, explains Alexander, “because churches have a more live acoustic which is much warmer”¦.If we recorded in the studio, we would add that sort of warmth afterwards in the production stage. To actually have the real thing rather than the produced version is a lot more pleasing to the ear.”
Unlike a pop-music recording, where problem spots can be easily fixed by re-recording a small section, or “punching” in and out, recording a choir like musica intima is a different beast. “I've recorded popular music in the studio and I know how easy it is to pop things in and out here and there wherever you want, whereas with classical music it's a lot more difficult,” Alexander observes. “You have to find natural resting points in the music where you can sort of take a breath, pause the recording, and you can punch something else in if you need to.”
That meant for long, exhausting days of intense focus, he admits. But the group did find ways to relax during its lunch breaks: “We'd have snowball fights,” he says.
The music: A collection of sophisticated Christmas-themed works, including Eric Whitacre's Lux Arumque, that highlight the group's ethereal quality. Perfect for: Purists who turn their noses up at tacky Christmas-store displays. Available at: musicaintima.org/ or concert venues.
Vancouver Men's Chorus (Making Spirits Bright Again)
The latest CD offering from the 80-member strong Vancouver Men's Chorus is long overdue, admits conductor and artistic director Willi Zwozdesky. “We've been on this one for about three years,” he says. “What we've been doing is just going to CBC [Studio One] and recording a few tracks at a time, in January and February, following the Christmas shows”¦. It sort of helps to spread out some of the really big costs over a period of time.”
Unlike other choirs, who generally record singers and musicians together, the Vancouver Men's Chorus (in concert Thursday and Saturday through Monday [December 11, 13, 14 and 15] at St. Paul's Anglican Church) took a unique approach.
“Our process is pretty elaborate,” acknowledges Zwozdesky. “We spend a lot of time working with an overdub process which is quite different from what most choirs do”¦.We record the choir and our accompanist and our drummer, basically, and then we do separate recording sessions for each of the instrumental tracks, which gives us 100 percent control over issues of volume. There's no leakage: the sound of one instrument doesn't spill into the sound of another.”
Given the size of the choir, plus the musicians, Zwozdesky says it was important to ensure everyone could be focused during each three-hour session. “I like to do it in the daytime,” he explains, “when people are feeling alert and they're not tired, like in the middle of a weekend when they've really got a lot of energy and they're able to come out and really give their best to it.”
The resulting CD, the group's second Christmas recording, covers seasonal classics and newer songs in styles ranging from jazz, swing, and big band, to classical and sentimental ballads.
“There's a really hot arrangement of ”˜Deck the Halls', but really souped up,” enthuses Zwozdesky. As for his personal favourite track, it's “Jingle Bells”. “It's a very cool arrangement,” he insists. “It's kind of a salute to Barbara Streisand. It's hysterical and festive, and kind of makes you smile.”
The music: Well-loved Christmas favourites and newer classics-to-be. Perfect for: Christmas junkies for whom there's no such thing as too much tinsel. Available at: vancouvermenschorus.ca/ and concert venues.
Phoenix Chamber Choir (The Road Less Travelled)
The 26-member Phoenix Chamber Choir (in concert December 20 at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Langley and December 21 at Shaughnessy Heights United Church) killed two birds with one stone during its European tour in the summer of 2007. In addition to wowing audiences in Germany and the Czech Republic, it recorded its latest CD, The Road Less Travelled.
“We took a recording engineer along,” explains artistic director Ramona Luengen. “He recorded all the rehearsals and all the performances. We”¦edited from the best performances and put this compilation together.”
There were pluses and minuses to producing a live recording, reflects Luengen. “You don't have the opportunity really to say, ”˜Oh, that bar wasn't quite perfect, so let's record that again.' You tend to work in bigger chunks. So that's a bit of a challenge. But then you also have the excitement that you have from singing in a live performance, which you don't often get in a studio situation. So you sort of give up the idea of perfection for, I guess, more of a musical experience.”
The real challenge, she notes, is dealing with the changing acoustics from venue to venue, and unforeseeable noises. “You listen to each venue and you say, ”˜Oh, this is good,' but”¦then you have the bus noise or the pew falls or there's a cough. Always in the quiet moments. So that's a little hard to take.”
Luckily, says Luengen, her engineer was “a miracle worker” who managed to splice together different performances seamlessly.
Although it's not technically a Christmas album, Luengen feels the album, which includes the traditional hymn Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal and Knut Nystedt's Immortal Bach, can work as a seasonal celebration. “There's a great deal of reverence in the first three-quarters of the CD, and that is always, I think, a special part of Christmas,” she notes. “There's a sense of compassion that comes with the Christmas season, and”¦that is reflected in sacred music in general.”
The music: Complex 20th- and 21st-century choral works. Perfect for: Classical connoisseurs who have OD'd on carols. Available at: Concert venues and at firstname.lastname@example.org.