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Dr. Javier Busto (Spain)
John Pamintuan (J): Hi Javi. How are you?
Javier Busto (B): Hello, friend John. I hope your health and yours is excellent. We are well, now.
J: I want to ask you something. I am writing an article in a magazine for the Asian Choral Association and a particular topic: what do the jury expect from your choir during a competition.
Is it possible for you to write a few words, about your experiences adjudicating in Korea, Japan, and Taipei, listening to the Asian choirs and what you wanted to hear from the technique or repertoire, or any other you might think of?
B: I am sending you what the competition juries think to judge a choir.
“Juzgar a un Coro”
B: My pleasure!
Karmina Šilec (Slovenia)
John Pamintuan (J): Karmina! How are you?
Karmina Silec (K): Thank you, I'm excellent.
J: It's been a long time.
K: Yes, yes. What for, are we doing this?
J: You saw the Facebook photo from Susanna yesterday. You commented.
J: We are forming the Asian Choral Association.
J: So, we are launching next Friday, and we also have a magazine.
K: (nods her head)
J: For the first issue, there is one topic: What the jury expects from your choir during a competition.
J: And, of course, you know, who is the most famous female jury from all across Europe? Karmina Silec. Only Karmina.
K: Ja, ja, ja. (while laughing from my buttering up)
J: So, I want to ask you. Specifically in 2018, you were in the jury in European Grand Prix in Maribor.
K: (Looks to the ceiling) Okay... was I?
J: Yeah, yeah.
K: I don't remember, but ok.
J: The choir that won there is the children's choir from Indonesia.
K: Yes, yes. Now I remember. Ja, ja.
J: Can you tell me your impression?
K: Oh well, it's quite a while, but I was very much impressed in technical skills that young people performed and showed us. And when all intonation, rhythmical, and this kind of basic musical technical things were done and accomplished, they actually raised the level of performance into artistry, so, they really performed with musicality. They communicate excellent with audience, and among themselves. I think that "why they were so highly-praised from the jury," was because they didn't stop on this technical perfection, but they also managed to go beyond that, and I think that's what I, as a jury always look for: performers are actually artists with personality, with creativity, and with communication.
J: Wow, very nice words! Now, in contrast, you have also been jury in Singapore with the amateur choirs.
K: (Agrees) Mm hmm
J: Of course, it is not European Grand Prix, but there are also good choirs there. How do you compare?
K: Well, having been in Singapore for quite several times, I can say that I have very good insight into Singaporean culture of choir music. For me, this was one of the best experiences ever in my life as a jury member, because what Singaporean choirs do is really amazing! Number of international level choirs is so high that you can't imagine that they are really trying to do things very well from an educational point of view, and there so many who are reaching further on. I think they are trying to have new repertoire, trying to have contemporary music in quite a high amount of percentage, and I think if Singapore is going in a way which I remember (I haven't been there for quite a while), this is excellent choir culture, from my opinion.
J: Okay. I think your mind now is pregnant. I ask you one question, bam! bam! bam! this artistry flows (because she seems to have said the words in one breath!)
K: I'm sorry (laughs)
J: All of this artistry comes out from you in this short interview (it was electrifying, and at 8 in the morning!). It's a really nice time to ask you, because you have so many ideas.
K: Thank you.
J: My final question: what do you think are the points that the Asian choirs can still improve on? Based on your experience listening to these choirs in many competitions, do you think that these Asian choirs have already reached your Carmina Slovenica standard?
K: First of all, I would not compare at all with Carmina Slovenica because I think this is another thing. But I would say that Asian choirs, they are very privileged, because, in this time, they managed to keep collective experience which is a little bit more difficult maybe in European culture, because here (in Europe) is so strong individuality. Asian choirs are good also because they can keep the number, and working discipline. And homogeneous operation within the choir is so excellent, well, that's why they are good in everything, in what they do.
But, maybe, they can improve a little bit the way how they understand art and aesthetics of our time, because sometimes, I can see that they are leaning into direction which is a little bit, for my opinion, too much of sweet pop aesthetics. Not thinking of other ways of expression, and language they use is too much into one direction sometimes. It's excellent, but it does not represent all emotions and the broadest range of being human, what we are. It's too much into the nice. Is it clear?
J: Yes, very clear. Thank you very much for your words. I promised you, it's only a 10-minute interview, and now (looking at watch) it's 10 minutes (laughs).
K: Okay! Please stay in touch, and let's do some talks some other time.
Jonathan Velasco (Philippines)
John Pamintuan (J): Hello, sir Jojo! How are you?
Jonathan Velasco (V): Hi!
J: How have you been busy these days, these weeks during lockdown?
V: The past three months, I have been... well, I have tried to busy myself with several virtual choir projects of the Ateneo Chamber Singers (ACS). I think we had about three, there's still one going on. And also, I have taken violin lessons from the University of the Philippines College of Music Extension Program. So, we just transferred online, I mean the lessons. I'm not giving lessons, I'm TAKING lessons. I'm a beginner in violin, so that's something new for me. Otherwise, there's no choral work, because it's not allowed.
I've been trying to keep busy because it's so difficult if suddenly you're attacked by boredom in the house and the time stretches too much. So, one tries to keep very busy.
J: But beginning next week, I hear that the government will allow mass gatherings in the Philippines. Will you start with your choir rehearsals next week?
V: I don't think so. I think my choir has released information that we will not start face to face rehearsals until a vaccine has been found, or, that it's really, really safe, because my choir members are not so young (giggles).
V: It's very... it's very... it's too dangerous.
J: It's very risky.
V: Yes, very risky, specially, yes.
J: Okay, so I called today because I want to ask you some things. You have been invited for so many years as a jury, not only in Asia, but also in Europe, and other parts of the world. So, you have this very wide range of experience listening to Asian, as well as non-Asian choirs. I want to ask you: as a member of the jury, what do you expect from a choir during the competition?
V: Uhm, you know, even if the competitions are quite varied in terms of the choirs joining them -- there are competitions where you will find the choirs to be very high-caliber, because they are chosen before entering that competition, and there are competitions where the choirs are... the standards are not so high because anybody can join that competition, or that category -- so, even with these varied levels of the choir, the adjudication process is... well, it boils down to two basic things: judging them technically, and judging them artistically.
One would expect a certain level of technical ability in a choir when it comes to intonation, etc. Also, from the artistic aspect, you would see the interpretation of a certain piece, being done correctly or incorrectly (laughs). And aside from these two factors, there is of course the sense of over-all performance quality -- so, how did the choir perform as a whole? how did it affect you, or how did it strike you, with their performance, also with their over-all sound, and all these things.
With these criteria set, these are more or less the standard version for adjudicating everywhere, EVERYWHERE, as in everywhere.
But there are differences, of course, for example, there is the folk category that is quite difficult to adjudicate, only because the choirs that join here have different... they come from different cultures. So, what is beautiful for one culture, may not be beautiful for another. And there you are as an adjudicator, and you have to say, "this will win first prize because this (musically) looks more beautiful (?) than the other one (?)" It's really not so good practice to judge the folklore, but, since the sponsors are asking for it, then one has to adjudicate. But it's really very, very difficult.
Aside from that, for the other categories it's quite simple. it's just that the number of choirs are a lot (laughs) so, that makes it a little interesting because sometimes the category would involve several days, like three days. Then you will have to say, "a choir from a third-day presentation, is it better not better than a choir from the first day?" These little things make life as an adjudicator more interesting (laughs). I think those as the standards for adjudicating everywhere.
J: Wow, thank you very much for that very thorough explanation.
J: Now, I want to ask you a second question. Twenty years ago, we were in a team in the Ateneo College Glee Club, where you first ventured as a conductor joining an international competition. And also, it set history, because you won in all of the competitions that we joined in. Well, WE won in all of the competitions. But of course, that was twenty years ago, and now, twenty years later, you are laden with much more experience. If you would look back to how we did our performance before, what are the things that you think you can change, to improve our performance, based on your experience now as a jury in many competitions?
V: It has something to do with... number one, with programming. Because we were all, as they say in German, "jung und dumm" (young and stupid) (laughs), we were, or I was, maybe we were, in the choir also, we were trying to impress, rather than express. We chose pieces according to their degree of being so impressionable upon the judges, that they would be shocked that we could do these things, etc. It was always trying to impress, and now I find myself doing music that is more for telling the world, or the audience: this is what we want to contribute in terms of music; this is what we want you to hear because we come from a different culture; and this is the culture from the southern part of our country, not because it is impressive, but because it is very musical, and I think we should perform it for you.
That changed in me.
And that also would be one of the things that I would change if I were to program. I remember, in one competition that we did, we were included in the finals of that competition and they asked us, "what are you going to sing?" And then I had to choose on the spot. The choir volunteered, "oh, we could sing this... we could sing that," and I said, "No... because that's slow (laughs)," or, "that's boring, I think, for the judges, and we only have ten minutes to sing, and we have to impress." Impress, always impress...
So, if I were to change anything, I would probably change that: what do I include in the program, and how do I make the program-flow more interesting for us, singers, and for the audience.
One other thing that I would probably change, is the over-all technique of the choir. I think I had changed a lot from that time, that was around 2000, 2001. In the twenty years that has followed, I had changed every so often with regards production and how we do our singing.
I think it's always a process, being influenced by so many persons, and also being influenced by new research on the human voice. So, what for me was the vocal technique of 2000, might not be the same with what I think of how we sing now. I would probably be able to change that, and make it more... natural. If I look back to some of the sound production that we were doing twenty years ago, some of the voices were resonant but in an artificial manner. And now I know how to undo it, or how to change it so that the resonance will become natural, and not artificial.
I would probably change the over-all sound of the choir because of that... not really criticizing how the group sounded twenty years ago, because it really sounded magnificent (!) and I think that is because of the (counts with his fingers) age of the singers that time. They were young and they were like sponges. They absorb what you tell them; and they follow; and they listen; and they were one group. So, I think that was a very, very big advantage, but saying what I just said, I would probably change those things now.
J: Thank you very much. Now for my last question, in line with what you were saying about choosing more beautiful songs, more contemplative songs. If I were to bring my choir to a competition where you are in the jury, would you say that you will be impressed more, if I presented a more contemplative program than something "bombastic," something with a high ending, with a show of skill and force?
V: I actually don't really have that negative against "bombastic" pieces. The choir must really make sure that it's appropriate for the choir, or it fits them, or they could actually reach this, or they have the number of singers to divide, etc. Because if you find out that they cannot really do it, then it's useless. They have to choose pieces that fit them with regards not only to technical matters, but also even interpretative matters. I always say, "you know, the choirs in the Philippines, they choose Mendelssohn, a lot, but they don't choose Schubert, or some other composer." They don't choose them, why? Sometimes, we say, "oh, the Filipino voices lend themselves beautifully to a song by Mendelssohn (laughs) when it comes to the color and things like that. But with some other composers, the voices, and the harmonies would not fit."
Also, I would tell the choirs to really choose programs that are strikingly fresh in terms of composition. There are some choirs who always go on the safe side, and sing some songs that are too familiar so they repeat a lot of these songs. In the same competition, you hear this song maybe ten times and you say, "why do they choose the same pieces over and over again, when they could have chosen... there are so many pieces... even from the same composer, there are so many pieces, but they chose this same piece again and again.
And for the jury, although it shouldn't really matter so much... see, then you sing something that is so familiar, the adjudicators also know these pieces a lot, and they have their own biases and interpretation (they're just human, anyway) concerning these pieces. They might have done that; they might have listened to it a lot, etc. According to their perception of this particular piece, they will adjudicate... they will grade you according to that. Because that is what they are. That is their musical sensibility. So, I would really advise young conductors, or any conductor, to not choose pieces that are too familiar, or that is sung quite often in the competition circuit today.
Choose fresh repertoire. Choose repertoire that you think has not been heard for some time. Or maybe, commission composers to do new songs, but make sure to tell the composers what your choir actually needs. Some do the commissioning and they don't say, "oh, my choir is only 20, or my choir... they cannot reach A." Things like that. They don't tell the composers anything, and all hell breaks loose (laughs) when the compositions comes out and it is not fitting for the choir to sing.
So those are the things that I would probably tell the competitors.
J: Thank you very much for sharing with us today your profound thoughts on what you expect from choirs in a competition.
J: Okay, thank you sir Jojo, bye!
V: Thank you, bye!
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