. issue XVII : vii .

by barathron

. artist : 1969 highland springs high school choir .
. album : gloria 
.
. year : 1969 
.
. label : the custom fidelity company .
. grade : d .

Highland Springs Choir 69 Front

It was 1969 at Highland Springs High School, home of the Springers. I once asked a Highland Springs student what a Springer was. He eloquently responded, “It’s a dragon. In a skirt.” I later saw that the mascot actually wears a kilt, in a reference to the Scottish Highlands. The students and families of the 1969 Highland Springs High School Choir would have never expected a recording they made to have survived to the ripe old age of 44 years. They would have never expected an individual with no close connection to them or their school to listen to the recording. Yet that is exactly what I have done. They would also have never expected to have a critical review of their performance published, available for anyone, anywhere in the world to read. 44 years later, that is what I intend to do.

I was a band geek in school and then married a high school chorus director. Because of this, I know that many student performances are professionally recorded live so that they can then be sold to students and parents as keepsakes to enjoy. In my day, you bought an audio cassette of your concert. By the time I was in college in the 90s, we started purchasing CDs of select performances. Now, you have the option of CD and/or DVD, and I’m sure that Blu­Ray and HD download options will be coming into their own soon in this niche recording market.

I can almost assure you that there are no random, unconnected persons anywhere that happen to hold a tape or CD of any of my many student performances. Recordings like these are for sentimental value. Then, when you move on to a new recording format and throw out your old tape deck, they become one thing ­ trash. You don’t take them to a used music store to trade them in. You don’t sell them at a yard sale. You probably don’t even post to Facebook to ask if any old classmates have use for them. They simply go to the landfill. In this rare case, though, I paid good money (a dollar) for this student recording. The reason? The format is one that has created a market for obscurities, and is very near and dear to my heart: it is a vinyl record.

In 1969, the compact cassette was still in its early years and relatively few people had a tape deck. My guess is that it was quite a novelty to have a recording of any student performance at all. Enter “The Custom Fidelity Company” of Pasadena, California. Evidently, they could coordinate a professional recording at your event and have it pressed to an LP. I run across old records of local student ensembles such as this one from time to time that were pressed by Custom Fidelity. My favorite record store usually has some lying around. You can see an incomplete discography of Custom Fidelity pressings here. There are always some notes on the back of their albums about the technical processes they undertook in recording, and they seem to have taken pride in attempting to make a quality product. You can be certain that theirs is one genre of vinyl records that will not come back into production.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the record itself that I have does not perfectly match the sleeve. Both the school and director, the dashing young Mr. Emerson Hughes, are the same. The student roster of course may differ slightly if it was recorded in a different school year. Most obviously, the tracklist is different. I would have liked to have chuckled over “Aquarius” (listed on the album cover) and judged a variety of more “serious” pieces (such as a Mozart “Laudate Pueri”). The record I found inside though, contains only one work, split between two sides: the Vivaldi Gloria. It seems that sales must have gone well enough, and Mr. Hughes must have been impressed enough with the first record, that he allowed Custom Fidelity to hit him up for multiple recordings over his tenure at Highland Springs.

In all truth, it is impressive that a combined high school choir would undertake a work of this length and complexity, so it was not a total disappointment to find the mismatched record in the sleeve. Indeed, this seems to be a recording not by an auditioned, select ensemble, but by the combined elective choir of the school, making it all the more impressive. It can be very hard for a choral director to retain the attention and interest of a student ensemble over the course of the semester if they are working on only a single style of music, much less a single composer, 
and much much less a single work such as this! You can rest assured that this piece is all they worked on in class for months on end. Mr. Hughes was either a great salesman for the musical genius of Vivaldi, or the students were a very special group with a background in, and a love of, sacred classical music, or both.

If I were confined to a single word to describe the majesty and genius of Vivaldi’s most popular Gloria, I would choose “exuberance.” In a traditional musical setting of the Latin Gloria text, exuberance is arguably the artistic goal. When performing a Gloria, you are indeed shouting praises to an all-encompassing embodiment of perfect creative love. Despite the many shortcomings you would expect to hear in a high school choral performance, the Springers, under Mr. Hughes direction, manage to capture and convey that exuberant spirit of this masterpiece. From the first shouts of the word “Gloria,” the choir captures the essence of the piece.

Indeed, from the get­-go, we experience the choir’s very best quality, and it persists throughout the entire record. It is their surprisingly accurate intonation. They truly have a wonderful sense of choral harmony. This single, well­honed skill really carries their performance throughout the record, making it all quite listenable. Many of the singers must have either had a background in choral singing through experiences in their house of worship, or had been receiving private voice lessons, or both. I would be interested to learn of the prior musical training that brought them to this point.

Unfortunately, also from the very beginning, we experience the defining flaw of their performance: their diction. Particularly, their Latin consonants are quite incorrectly formed. When singing the Latin word “Gloria,” it is advisable to “flip” the letter “r,” almost as if pronouncing it like the letter “d.” This choir, however, sings an Anglicized “r,” drawing out the consonant and ruining the Latin text. This type of mishap persists throughout the record. The only person that I can really pin the blame on is their choral director himself, Mr. Hughes. They certainly seem capable of learning whatever he throws at them, and would have undoubtedly learned the Latin pronunciation correctly if they had only been taught it correctly. Some grace may perhaps be given for a possible lack of concern for foreign language diction in their era of music education. Another possible cause would be Austro­Germanic influence on Latin pronunciation, sometimes called “Viennese Latin.”

One factor that somewhat tempers any stylistic mishaps is that this Gloria had only come into common use 30 years earlier during a 1939 festival. This may come as a bit of a surprise with the popularity this work enjoys today. It is very common to hear the Vivaldi Gloria performed and broadcast, especially during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Most modern listeners will find at least parts of the Gloria familiar. The piece was written in the early 1700’s, but went unnoticed for centuries. So, perhaps there was not yet a strong general stylistic consensus about this piece in choral music in 1969. Even so, the pronunciation on this record doesn’t hold up today.

Vivaldi actually wrote this Gloria for an orphanage of very talented girls, coincidentally making this high school performance somewhat similar in nature. Interestingly enough, that Venetian school that Vivaldi wrote many pieces for garnered its students from wealthy patrons. The girls were the illegitimate children that the men had by their mistresses. The unwilling fathers sadly cast the young girls out, while sending sizable sums of money to pay for a good education for the girls as their inequitable penance. This tuition evidently allowed the school to secure none other than Vivaldi himself as their court composer.

Although the piece is written for choir and orchestra, here it is accompanied by pipe organ. There are few high school string programs even today that would be up to the task of playing this piece with orchestra, and I dare say that you may actually find some string groups in present-day Henrico county that are actually capable of this setting. The organist here is either an incredibly talented student organist … or an adult accompanist who is ill-prepared or lacks some skill and musicality. The first example of the organist’s poor musical interpretation shows up at the end of the first movement; he chooses staccato notes rather than a more portato gesture.

The recording itself is audibly semi­professional, although some defects could be due to the age and condition of the record I have. The pressing itself looks quite nice with a handsome gold label and apparently good finishing and tooling to the vinyl. There is, though, quite a bit of either surface noise and/or tape hiss on the record.

All four parts are very well balanced, denoting strength in all four of the voice parts. One common weakness of high school choirs is the propensity not to carry energy all the way to the end of the musical phrase. This choir has no such problem, carrying all the way through the very last note of the phrase. This demonstrates peculiarly good use of breath control. Their instructor, Mr. Hughes, has not “dumbed down” the music by doing things such as altering tempos in order to help them make it through the phrase more easily either. While their tone quality is still that of a younger choir, their voices sound surprisingly mature for high school. One would hope that they are not altering their voice in any unhealthy or destructive manner in order to achieve this sound. In listening, it is evident why the director would have wanted to capture this choir’s performance.

While it is always a miracle to get the men of a high school choir to convincingly begin a piece of music or a movement, they certainly do so in the second movement, “Et In Terra Pax.” However, their tone quality is not as good as in other areas of the record, once they have had a chance to warm up and get their head in the game. It sounds as if they are singing more toward the back of the throat rather than achieving full resonance. The altos, however, first demonstrate their buttery and full sound with their soli entrance. It is during this second movement that the choir begins performing some quicker and more disjointed harmonic changes. Vivaldi was certainly ahead of his time with these harmonies — which may remind one of pieces as modern as Barber’s “Adagio For Strings,” written over 200 years later. These harmonies, however, don’t phase the students at all as they move through them with beautiful ease and interpretation. Contrapuntal passages are handled very adeptly, creating a beautiful contrast to their return to homophonic passages. While the tenors aren’t quite as strong as the basses, they certainly hold their own during their soli passages. On the slower movements such as this one, the organist sounds much more in control of the keyboard manuals and stylistically palatable.

“Laudamus Te,” however, is back to a quicker tempo, and the organist has some unfortunate fumbles here and there during the introduction. This movement features a duet that is very delightful. The soloists’ voices pair very well together ­- a great selection by their teacher. I picture them as the darlings of the choir that everyone loves and is friends with, but who knows. They have a wonderful blend and interpret the music nicely, other than some trouble at the end of one of the early phrases of their duet. In fact, the propensity of this choir to perform the music in such a stylistically appropriate manner (other than diction) makes me wonder if they had a model that they were listening to, such as a very good record played repeatedly in class. Remember that these are just high school kids. It is somewhat unusual for a choir to have stylistic prowess and subtlety of interpretation in all four voice parts due to the simple fact that a choir director can only sing convincingly in one or two voice parts when attempting to model musical styles. For most high school students, they really need to hear someone sing their part the way it is supposed to be sung in order for them to be able to emulate successfully.

This group is able not only to produce a sweet sound, but also to really have some fire when singing movements that call for it, such as the “Gratias Agimus Tibi.” One hallmark of young choirs is that the girls sing too sweetly and the boys too bombastically, but that is not the case here. The basses do, however, carry their part with the most gusto during this movement, pushing the choir forward. The slight fadeout at the end of the movement is odd unless this recording happened to be attended by an audience who forgot to hold their applause until the end of the entire work, as is customary.

As is often the case in high school choral programs, the women of the choruses are usually the standout soloists. The “Domine Deus” movement features a young mezzo who is without question the standout soloist of this record. It would be hard to heap too much glowing praise upon this likewise glowing solo. I would be surprised if she were not in her senior year when she performed this. Her voice is quite mature in tone, mainly a function of age. I would be interested to know what she did with music in her life from this point; she certainly sounds as if she could easily have pursued a career in music performance and education. Her rounded tone, her crafted phrasing, diction, vowels, and easy and tasteful portamento between wide intervals make for a truly delightful aria­styled movement. Since it is a slower section, the organist is able to create a nice canvas for her to paint her interpretation on top of. This solo would be more than good enough for any college or semi­professional performance of the Gloria. It is evident that she worked on it quite a bit. Sensitive musical treatment of this manner does not just happen automatically for a professional, much less for a high school choral student. The organist even ends the piece very nicely.

In the “Domine, Fili,” we experience an unfortunate rhythmic pitfall of many student performances. Sometimes a school choir director will only have so much influence over the accompanist, which may explain the shortcoming in this movement. Rather than playing a “dotted­eighth and sixteenth” march­style rhythm, the organist plays a triplet pattern with the first two notes tied together. In layman’s terms, that means that rather than achieving a crisp rhythmic feel, it has a “lilt,” sounding like music to accompany someone walking with a limp. It ruins the entire movement. Why? Because when an organist is asserting an incorrect rhythm
like this, it becomes impossible for the choir to sing the slightly different and correct rhythm over it. It is a lost cause, even though the tenors make a valiant attempt at putting it right. I am hoping that a student organist is at fault and that the director did not teach the pattern incorrectly. The movement could have been very nice, but alas, it sounds like the choir is paired with an organ grinder or a theater organ with a hand­pumped bellows.

The organist momentarily redeems him or herself with a very tasteful entrance to the next “Domine Deus.” The soloist here sounds to be a true burgeoning alto, which is a rarity. Like the rest of her section, her tone quality is enchanting. The interplay of call and response between the soloist and the rest of the choir is quite nice. It is very easy for a young choir to get lost in the magic of their friend’s solo and fail to make a solid entrance when it come times for them to sing again. This choir has no problem whatsoever with that responsibility. They are there 100% to prop up their classmate musically with their supporting role, spotlighting the textual contrast Vivaldi has interwoven here. While this alto’s phrasing is not quite as refined as other soloists, her voice is strong enough to pull off the solo. And while her intonation is generally good, some larger intervals toward the end of the solo do her in a bit. Again, the consonants of the choir in “miserere” are awful. Even so, this solo is a lengthy and serious undertaking that she should be commended for.

The organist continues to play tastefully on the more recitative sections. I would venture to say that for a student ensemble that this “Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi” movement is the most difficult to begin. Not only is there subtlety of expression, the beginning harmonies are quite complex. It would amaze me if they had been able to “hear” their upcoming first note of this movement after ending the Domine Deus without help from the organist. As the music begins to take off, they again show some real conviction in a fiery passage, led again by the basses. This is a group of students who is not afraid in the least to express a forthright attitude when the music calls for it. They practically yell out their notes, and it works wonders.

The “Qui Sedes” features a different mezzo soloist. Mr. Hughes should be commended for finding opportunities to feature multiple soloists. Keep in mind that this is not a huge 200­-piece choral group. It is quite surprising that Mr. Hughes was able to either identify or cultivate multiple capable soloists for Vivaldi’s caliber of writing for vocalists. While this soloist is not as prodigious as the others, she performs quite nicely. She is very adept at the many runs of ascending melody. Her tone quality sounds heavily influenced by the popular music of her time. It sounds as though this solo may have been quite a reach for her, musically. However, her stylistic approach to the solo on the whole is very appropriate. Her phrasing and sense of line are very nice and seem intuitive.

The director again pulls no punches in tempo with the “Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus.” It is a refreshingly brisk reprise, setting up the “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” which the basses start off in a manner that would rival professional groups. This movement contains a massive amount of contrapuntal writing as the parts layer in. This is incredibly challenging for an amateur choir. It is the polar opposite of singing Christmas Carols. Voice parts are entering and exiting all over the place, almost as if they are fireworks shooting off and rapidly disseminating. Amazingly, the Highland Springs Choir sings this movement as if they were made for this musical moment. While this movement is certainly not the most popular of the Gloria, it is truly the crowning achievement of the record and worthy of commercial broadcast. Each vocal section holds its own. You can hear entrances clearly, and the important moving lines are brought out for the listener. That takes work to achieve ­ a lot of work. Furthermore, it is always wonderful to hear an ensemble who has spent just as much time honing the end of a piece of music as the beginning, rather than leaving it to chance and poor planning. The group ties up the Gloria in a slam dunk manner. Afterwards, the organist is allowed to play a postlude which he or she has put some good work in on as well. They even show a bit of interpretation in the phrasing, giving it some character.

So there you have it, as absurd as it may be; my critique of what many would likely call a 44-year old vanity record. I would be surprised if another copy of it were to ever surface. I’ve made it available via stream or download at the link I’ve provided below this article, complete with artwork. I would encourage you to give it a listen. While this group may not be the Robert Shaw Chorale, their record is a palatable introduction to Vivaldi’s
famous Gloria, as well as a curious little piece of local music education history. School systems in the Greater Richmond area (Henrico, Hanover, and Chesterfield) are known to have good music programs that compete with the lauded and resource­rich schools of northern Virginia. Perhaps this is early evidence of such local excellence in music education. Mr. Hughes may have very well taken this group to choral competitions, in which case they would have undoubtedly earned the coveted score of “Superior” from the judges, or whatever this top score was called in the late 60’s.

Speaking of scores, you may have noticed my grading of this record at the top of the article. I haven’t graded this recording as compared to other high school ensemble performances. In the context of The Rummage blog, I’ve put it up against every classical recording ever made, from Leonard Bernstein conducting his own music to Itzhak Perlman playing Beethoven. This is admittedly an unfair standard of comparison, and one that the musicians never intended to be judged by. Graded in this manner, I give the record a mere “D.” In the context of Secondary Education though, it is certainly an A plus, and an accomplishment that Mr. Hughes and his students, wherever they may be, can certainly be proud of.

Listen!

by Maron El-Khouri

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