Notes from Lynne Morrow’s December Cuba trip!

Cuba – Lynne’s 1st trip Dec 2012

I just spent the most amazing week in Havana, Cuba.  The journey started at SFO on Saturday Dec 15th; I flew SFO-Miami, arriving at 12:30am Sunday Dec 16th.  I was scheduled to meet my fellow dancers at 4:30am for checking in.

Composer Roberto Valera and Lynne

Composer Roberto Valera and Lynne

The paperwork and customs experiences went smoothly, as did the flight to Havana.  Once we arrived, we picked up our checked luggage (sniffed by military dogs) and headed to the exchange counter to get some Cuban currency.  Travelers use CUC’s, one of 2 Cuban currencies; the other, moneda nacional, is for Cuban citizens.  This different monetary system allows Cuban citizens to attend cultural presentations and purchase other things at a price they can afford.

The cab ride into Havana was my first glimpse at the motorcycles and 1950’s cars we’ve all seen in photos.  One of the first sites we passed was the huge Chinese gate over the road into the Chinatown area.  I stayed nearby in a “casa particular” on Calle Amistad near Neptuno, in the Viejo district, one of the oldest areas of Havana.  (There were other dancers in this, and several other casas nearby.  We all had breakfast and dinner together there.)

Sunday afternoon was spent walking around Old Havana, getting my bearings.  Many artists were at work in hidden studios down side streets.  Late evenings were also spent walking the Prado or down Calle Obispo, where Hemingway’s favorite, Floridita Restaurant, still offers their original Daiquiri.

Each weekday we had 3 hours of dance classes at the Narciso Mendez Dance Studio.  Our principal dance teacher, Daisy Perez, was a true master of many dance styles from the folclorico orisha dances to Rumba and Mambo.  The master singer with the drum ensemble was expert.  Class was taught in Spanish with very spare translations.  It was immersion for me.  The 3rd hour class was salsa, taught by Daisy’s very good assistant, Abel.  There were students of the academy who were there as our dance partners for class.

Daisy always started a new dance with an explanation of what all the movements of the dance mean. She also had the drum ensemble show the specific rhythms of the dance, having us clap the beats, then alternate to the rhythmic pattern.  This helped us internalize the music and learn the dances.

Collectivo (old car taxi)

Collectivo (old car taxi)

The rest of the days and evenings were filled with meetings and concerts.  I was constantly told about how things “don’t work” in Cuba.  I was extremely fortunate to meet most of the Cuban conductors and composers I had on my list for potential collaborations!

Tuesday evening I was invited to Digna Guerra’s concert of her 5 groups, which make up the Coro Nacional de Cuba.  I heard singers from 5 year olds to the touring adult ensemble.  Afterwards she invited me to attend a rehearsal on Thursday.  I left the venue to attempt my first solo taxi ride in the “old car” taxis.  These “collectivos” stop for multiple passengers going the same direction.  It was an adventure!

Wednesday afternoon, Erica Peng and I met with the composer I’ve wanted to commission for the PME Cuba Project: Prof. Roberto Valera. (Erica helped me greatly with telephone calls in Spanish and with translations at this meeting.) I have been writing to him since September and he agreed, days before I left, to meet us.  Prof. Valera is not only one of Cuba’s great composers, he is also the Vice President of UNEAC, the union of writers and artists of Cuba.  He was very interested in the project and has agreed to write a new piece (once we fund the commission).

I found that these high-level Cuban artists were universally impressed and supportive of the PME Cuba Project.  They all want to give me music and to collaborate!

Thursday morning, Digna Guerra offered to pick me up to attend her Coro Nacional rehearsal.  It was exciting to hear them preparing Mozart’s Requiem.  That day the electricity didn’t work, so they worked a cappella.  This is a fully professional chorus.  They rehearse during the day and some of them teach the younger groups. Their tone is beautiful and because they must memorize their music, she is able to completely shape the dynamics and phrases.  It is thrilling.

Before rehearsal I was introduced to another conductor whose name was on my list, Corina Campos.  Her group of 14 singers, Vocal Leo, wins awards for their singing and choreography around the world.  Ms. Campos is also the top professor of choral conducting in Cuba.  She escorted me back to our dance studio and invited me to her group’s concert on Saturday afternoon.   She also wanted to give me some music.  She offered to give PME a workshop in June on this music.

Thursday night Alina Orraca’s Schola Cantorum Coralina gave a concert at the Cathedral.  When I arrived the chorus was lined up outside and I asked if Ms. Orraca was available.  I waited by the door and saw “a conductor” walk by and introduced myself.  She grabbed me and took me straight to the front of the church to sit.  Shortly afterward she, the chorus and her soloists began a wonderful performance of Saint-Saens’ “Christmas Oratorio” plus a Holiday segment of songs.  It turns out this was a nationally televised Holiday concert!  Very cool.

Friday night we had the opportunity to see the National Contemporary Dance Company at the beautiful Teatro Nacional in central Havana.  It was one of the last times that 3 of their core repertory pieces will be performed.  Inspired!

Saturday was jam-packed.  I started with a 2-hour singing lesson with Ariel, the master singer from dance class.  He was very generous, teaching me songs and chants specific to each orisha in the folclorico pantheon.  Next, our friend Luis Barberia (who came to sing at a PME rehearsal) took me and Erica to meet with an arranger friend of his who wants to send me some music for the Spring concerts.  He leads the band at the Trocadero Club.

At 4pm we went to hear Vocal Leo with Corina Campos.  They sang Cuban songs as well as some African American Spirituals. Ms. Campos gave me 2 songs, one by Vocal Sampling’s arranger, which she can coach in June.

Our last concert was at 6pm at the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis.  It was a very skilled chamber orchestra performing a wide range of repertory, including the beautiful “Concierto de Aranguez.”  The Basilica is a possible venue for a PME concert in June.

The next morning I departed for Miami, full of excitement and stories.

I look forward to returning to Havana with PME!


Heaven and Hell

The idea for this concert set came several years ago, centered on the music of Palestrina, representing Heaven, and the music of Gesualdo, illuminating Hell.  The sublime nature of Palestrina’s music and the agitated, angular aspect of the Gesualdo seemed like perfect matches for the theme.

A year ago, a conversation with composer Omid Zoufonoun blossomed into a fruitful collaboration.  We decided to embark on a groundbreaking commission project, pairing a traditional Persian ensemble with a traditional western mixed chorus. The texts, written by the great Sufi poet, Rumi, describe human earthly sorrow and ecstatic spiritual joy.  This work represents a realm that is between Heaven and Hell.

In the Fall of 2011 composer Michael Roberts became intrigued by the concept of Heaven and Hell and he offered a text that represents the Hell side with a shell of Heaven.  The Wonders of the Invisible World is excerpted from the 1693 writings of Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who documented the history of New England churches and what he considered to be the satanic encroachment of witchcraft in the Salem, Massachusetts community.

I hope that you enjoy this ancient music and these new works that illustrate Hell, Heaven and Earth.

Lynne Morrow (March 2012)

Exploring New Tonal and Linguistic Worlds With PME

As we work on the words and music in our “Heaven and Hell” set, I am getting whiplash alternating between sheer terror at the unfamiliarity of the Persian tonal and linguistic idiom, and unexpected pleasure in mastering new sounds and adjusting to different sonorities. Juxtaposing Omid Zoufounon’s settings of Rumi’s poetry with more familiar Renaissance celebrations and laments by Gesualdo and Palestrina, along with a contemporary setting of a little-known colonial American text, our rehearsals have been both unsettling and rewarding–but I believe the final result will be an exciting and satisfying experience.

Somewhat sheepishly I realize how provincial I am in my musical experience: I rarely have sung non-Western music in a non-European language, and I hadn’t realized how limited my comfort zone was until I was yanked out of it by this set. I’ve written about seeing familiar music (in my case Beethoven’s 9th) in unfamiliar ways, and I’d begun to see how important it is to me that most of the time I truly understood the meaning of the words I was singing–whether in Latin or German or French or Italian or even Russian, the stock in trade of much of our repertoire. Only when we sang in Finnish (thanks to our soprano Mari Marjamaa) did I have such a sense of being “at sea” linguistically, and even then that was only for a single song in a concert.

As we grapple with Rumi’s poetry we have had the benefit of Omid’s expertise and his circle of family and friends, as in our first rehearsal we recorded the poems spoken by Omid’s mother, following along in our binders as the beautiful susurrating sounds jumped off the page. As she read we could all hear her love of the poetry, as well as see the affection amongst the family as they quietly clarified points in Farsi to each other–altogether a moving experience for me. From unexpected vowel sounds, like the “a” in “vaz” sounding like “at” and not “father,” to the softly struck “kh” in “khosh,” a little like the “ch” in the German “Nacht,” but unusually-for-us at the beginning of a word, we were occupying a new linguistic universe. We are still working hard to own and present these texts convincingly, even though at first we not only didn’t know what words meant, but didn’t know where one word left off and another began.

The tonal system requires adjustment as well: it’s one thing to intellectualize that there is a special symbol for “A-double-flat,” which is not actually double flat, but really a quarter flat, between A-flat and A-natural, but it’s another thing to try to sing that scale in a mode that I’ve never heard of, tilting my head like a dog hearing an unfamiliar sound. Sure it’s kind of like blue notes in jazz, but not where I was expecting. Yet that first evening we had the benefit of hearing Omid’s dear father demonstrate why he is considered a virtuoso among Persian musicians, as he treated us to too-short solos on his violin, his sure command of the instrument contrasting with his slightly frail appearance. Once our tech guys programmed an electronic keyboard to play the blue-Persian notes, our accompanist Kymri could scoot over from the old-fashioned piano and join in the fun.

Rhythmically there are challenges too: we must inhabit a 7/4 time signature not in the way we might have done in the past (1-2 1-2 1-2-3) but the other way (1-2-3 1-2 1-2), just different enough to cause some light chop in the rehearsal flight path. Yet here again we’ve had the benefit of a little help from Omid’s friends: a couple of weeks ago he introduced the percussionist Shahab Paranj, to give us an idea of what we’d be hearing at concert time. I have to confess that when he first started playing this frame drum, the Daf, with its tambourine-like elements, I was a little skeptical as I saw a strange faraway look in his eye as he started; within fifteen seconds our eyebrows were rising and jaws were dropping as he smoothly moved into dazzling accelerating runs using fingers and thumbs and shakes to bring out a ridiculously rich palette of extra sounds and ornaments. OK then, I thought, this is gonna be cool, and I started to understand why he looked as if these rhythms were taking him to another place.

The more I listen to our work in rehearsal, and tune in online to the suggested background study on Radio Darwish and other Persian-music sources, the more aware I am that here’s an arc to it, a sense to it, that I am learning to appreciate. That’s a great thing to feel and to share, and it’s one of the great things about PME. Likewise, it’s great to work with Omid, who freely admits that this large-scale collaboration on this type of music with a conventional choir is pretty unprecedented, and who is so open and un-diva-like about every aspect of our work together.

Usually the first half of a rehearsal focuses on the Persian, and then we turn to Gesualdo and Palestrina’s settings of love and jealousy, misery and elation, their familiar sonorities and avant-garde-for-back-then chromaticism reinforcing how much I rely on my expectation and listening experience to guide my reading. My first real enthusiasm listening to non-pop music came when I got hooked on an LP of Gabrieli’s Canzone, and I found myself transported by the harmonies and polyphony, floating from my living room in suburban San Jose to the Renaissance churches I had been dragged to as a kid. Here too, a connection: the ex-stasis of Rumi’s devotees, the dervish tapping into forces outside the normal plane–these strike me somehow as connected to what the Renaissance composers knew, the Neoplatonic acknowledgment that music is a tool for making the soul receptive to the divine as well as the diabolical. Hence the debates on whether music was a tool for good or evil that continue to this day.

Rounding out the concert we received an addition a month ago from a local composer whom we’d worked with before: Michael Roberts’ The Wonders of the Invisible World, belying its benign title, evokes a hellish period in American history, when the dream vision of a prominent leader led to the deaths of scores of suspected witches. As our director Lynne set the context for us before our first read-through, Cotton Mather’s text, derived from his own dreams, testifies to Satan’s forces invading and controlling the souls of this newly formed outpost of America, and the intensifying rhythmic accelerations capture the hysteria of an irrational mass movement in chilling yet musically exciting ways. Although evidently Mather later backed off of his reliance on his dream visions to try and convict suspected evildoers, for me this piece offers a compact yet eloquent warning about the dangers of demagoguery and unreason. Hell reigns on earth when reason is overridden by fear or political agendas….

Food for thought as we continue our progress through 2012 in all its glories!

John Stenzel, March 2012

An Affair to Remember

The PME Fundraiser was a wonderful success thanks to all
the incredible volunteers.  The Fundraiser committee put in a
lot of time ensuring that everything ran smoothly. The food was delectable, well thought out and beautifully delivered
The invitations and signage were darling, the silent auction bountiful and clean,
and the appetizer passers and the raffle dudes divine. Everyone pitched in: the bar
was well organized and filled with wonderful wine and sparkly,
the cookies yummy, but I didn’t get enough, and the clean up was quick and relatively painless.
And last, but not least, the music was top shelf: the effort from every singer/player was lovely and
hit the mark, the programming was inventive and well-paced, and the intros short and sweet.
Thank you all for making such a memorable evening.
I value each and every one of you.
Fundraiser Committee Chair

A Very Special Birthday Celebration

The December 3rd open rehearsal concert of Dave Brubeck and American Poets was truly a memorable experience for me!  I’m a new Californian, and this is my first season singing with the Pacific Mozart Ensemble—what a lovely group of talented and genuine people!  This was also my first experience being part of an open rehearsal, so I was eager and curious to see what this was all about.

When the ensemble walked into the auditorium at the Crowden School of Music in Berkeley, we were met with a warm and enthusiastic audience that swelled to fill the hall!  Extra chairs had to be retrieved from other rooms to accommodate all of the faithful PME fans, including quite a few first-timers.  As a performer, I really appreciated the way the audience seemed to be “with” us throughout such a varied program.  It was so much fun to watch them connect with the different pieces—their faces and body language looking thoughtful during Langston Hughes’ Dream poetry, cozy during Iola Brubeck’s Autumn In Our Town, and even tickled with the hoe-down feel of Wendell Berry’s The Wheel.

Our dynamic director, Dr. Lynne Morrow, used the open rehearsal format to invite the audience into the creative process by providing context about the pieces and composers, and even demonstrating some of the creative liberties that the close working relationship with Dave Brubeck has allowed.  This included an adjustment to the onomatopoeia of the sound of falling leaves that floats among the melody of the Autumn tune.  Sopranos had to be on their toes to demonstrate both the rearticulated “Flutter, flutter, flutter,” and the more languid “flut—ter,” spread across the same notes.

A very special moment of the evening took place just before intermission, with a touching video clip of Dave and Iola Brubeck expressing their gratitude and support for this project, and wishing everyone Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.  The audience then joined the choir in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday, and we all cut into some birthday cake to celebrate Dave Brubeck’s 91st, which was on December 6th.  It has been so special to be a part of a project that is close to Dave’s heart.

Friends and family were on hand to help with many aspects of the open rehearsal, including ticket and CD sales, cake cutting, set up, clean up, and so much more.  On behalf of the PME, I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to all of you who made the open rehearsal such a success.  We look forward to your continued support as we move on to the next phase of this project—recording the CD on December 17 and 18!

Musically yours,

Shannon Ciston, PME alto

PME, Brubeck & American Poets

Right now Pacific Mozart Ensemble is working on 24 pieces of music written by Dave Brubeck and getting them ready to record in Skywalker Studios in December! I am privileged to be one of the singers for this project and would like to give some insight on what the music and the rehearsing process is like. The songs were composed musically by Dave Brubeck with the basis of poems as lyrics written by American poets such as Langston Hughes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wendell Berry, Robert Penn Warren, his wife Iola Brubeck, and himself. All 24 of these compositions are unique entities that bring the poetry to life and Pacific Mozart Ensemble brings the music alive in singing them. You see, it is quite a beautiful circle that the poets, Dave Brubeck and PME are completing and to have such a wonder recorded is going to be a remarkable gift for all to hear!

The variety of styles and sentiment that is encompassed in Dave’s music is marvelous ranging from quiet and pensive to hopeful, childlike and upbeat. There is swing, bits of gospel, jazz, classical and many other genres exhibited in the songs. Rehearsals with PME are a joy for several reasons. Lynne Morrow, our director, is great at getting everyone in the group to get down to business and work diligently and efficiently while at the same time keeping the spirit of the rehearsal light hearted and fun. The members are all passionate about singing and music, which is extremely important when working on a project like this. Lastly, with each sequential rehearsal there is noticeable improvement to the songs and the musicianship of the ensemble as a whole. This is exciting because it means that when it comes time to record on December 16th and 17th, we will surely be prepared and feel comfortable singing this music – Which will make for a stellar end result!

We will be having an Open Rehearsal on December 3rd for those who are interested in seeing us sing this amazing music just 13 days before it will be recorded in Skywalker Studios! It will be a pleasure to share what everyone involved has been working hard on. We hope to see plenty of people there and tickets can be bought through the website at There is passion, careful thought and generous musical energy to be heard and appreciated! Thanks to all who contribute to this project whether by writing, composing, singing, donating or listening.

Jeffri Lynn Carrington, Participating Soprano

Double Chorus Mass – Frank Martin (1890-1974)

In the 1990’s when I worked as a computer programmer in Oakland I would spend lunch hours in the excellent music section of the Oakland Public Main Library. Trolling around in there, discovering something interesting was always a possibility. This particular time I was looking for a larger work to conduct on a PME concert. I was the assistant and I wanted to conduct something that was new for me. I’d been aware of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s more thorny mid-century works, using Arnold Schoenberg’s techniques of composition. So, I was expecting something like that when I came across this “new” work: a double chorus mass, unaccompanied.

Those descriptors made me pick it up: double chorus meant more “meat” for the singers, unaccompanied meant it wouldn’t hurt the budget and I was curious about a sacred choral work by this composer.

When I started reading through it there in the library I was amazed to find an incredibly beautiful and intricate piece. Layers of melismatic lines intertwined with each other, while the meters shifted underneath the gorgeous harmonies.

When I got the piece home, I was even more rewarded by what I heard. Each movement had a different sound and feeling. Some research yielded a poignant fact:

“Martin wrote the Mass in 1922 when he was a young man. In the following years he moved away from his tonal compositional language to one more like Schoenberg’s. But he loved the Mass so much that he refused to publish the work until 1963, a time when it wouldn’t be criticized for being tonal.”

I find this music to be profoundly affecting, at a cellular level. When I hear it, it changes me.

The two best moments in our encounters with the Martin double chorus Mass may be:

  1. That very first read-through, when we all got to hear it for the first time.
  2. The enormous Albi Cathedral in southern France, where, in 1995, we sang the entire Mass as part of a Sunday service with 2,000 parishioners in attendance. I’ve rarely had such an enlivening conducting experience as THAT one.

Lynne Morrow, Artistic Director

Amy X Reflects On Her PME Commission

Composer Amy X Neuburg reflects on the process of composing “Circle of Lullabies: songs for children and planets born and unborn,” commissioned by Pacific Mozart Ensemble.


Amy X Neuburg

Even after all these years in the music world, I continue to be amazed and edified by the creative process. A new opportunity, a specific assignment, or a combination of freedoms and limitations can all direct one’s efforts in unexpected, delightful ways. Through this collaboration with PME, I have created a work unlike anything I had imagined until I sat down to do it.

In the program notes below, I explain how the subject matter of Birth and Renewal inspired a whole domino effect of ideas. But beyond that, I found working with PME embodied so many of the things I feel are important in this life. CHALLENGE: My abilities were stretched and tested in a way that surprised me — thinking after a long career of songwriting that writing for a chorus would be easy, but in fact it was humblingly difficult! EDUCATION: I was fascinated by the learning process of the chorus, and I thank them for allowing me to attend rehearsals, observe, and contribute. I learned so much about working with large groups, score notation and presentation, and the many intricacies of composing for chorus. PEAK EXPERIENCE: Hearing “Circle of Lullabies” amid the unique acoustics, swirling staircases and dripping rain inside the Anne Hamilton tower was an experience I will never forget — not to mention the accompanying group stay at the rather unbelievable Isis Oasis, replete with emus and ocelots! CAMARADERIE and new connections: PME is a wonderfully congenial group of people with beautiful voices, who clearly love to sing, and who embraced my quirky music with patience and enthusiasm. I look forward to more work in the future with Lynne and this talented ensemble.

These program notes explain a bit about how “Circle of Lullabies” came to be.

“When Lynne asked me to write a piece about birth and renewal, the first thought that came to mind was the warming of the earth and the eventual phasing out of human life, perhaps to be incorporated into some other form of energy. The second thing that came to mind was my own mixed emotion around never having had a child. And finally I was inspired by the larger picture of the work’s context — from the beauty of the space for which it was originally designed (Ann Hamilton’s concrete tower lined with spiral staircases, open at the top and with a small pool at the bottom), to the remarkable ingenuity of human beings and the “children” we will leave behind us in the forms of creations and knowledge, to a sense that the human voice — its sounds and stories — will always tie us to our history and our future. And so the lyrics of this song cycle are an attempt to weave all these ideas together into something that makes a little bit of sense. The ideas coalesced as I began to compose and found the music coming out quite sing-songy and childlike — appearing to me like a series of eerie but hopeful lullabies for a dying earth and the children that were never had. Many thanks to Lynne and the chorus for working closely with me to develop this song cycle — my first choral work.”

– Amy X Neuburg

Growing Up On PME

Acacia Quien, Alto

Acacia Quien, Alto

I was already a huge Beatles fan by age eleven, so when PME did a rendition of “A Day in the Life” in 1994, the choir earned major cool points in my mind. See, I have been attending the Jazz & Pop concerts since I was a little girl. My father discovered PME in the late 80s, and every year since then and until I left for college, my parents & I have been going to this consistently enjoyable spring show.

When I auditioned for PME at the dawn of the J&P season, I recognized at least half of the choir immediately. I could put names to the faces of the repeat arrangers and soloists, so to me it felt like these folks were either quasi-celebrities or adults from my childhood whom I already knew but who didn’t recognize me yet. Crazy, I know. I half expected Jim Hale or Kathy Longinotti to approach me and ask if I was indeed that scrawny girl in the audience every year in the 80s and 90s, all grown up. Yeah, that never happened.

From the first rehearsal I knew that this choir was no joke. These guys were serious about music, and they were good! Coming from the band world—a nebulous world of dimly lit, noisy bars, smoky casinos, and cocky horn players (singing along side 10 horn players can often feel like a competition), this was a new awakening. No one taking cigarette breaks? No musicians jiving each other, or the singer? No glasses breaking or obnoxious drunks? I knew that my ten year hiatus from choirs was officially over. I had finally found my musical happy home!

I also realized that my choir game was a bit down after all these years, and I needed to stand next to certain people (Polly, Kim–yeah ladies!) to get my sight reading and harmonic mojo back. PME moves fast, and, unlike the choir directors of my youth, Lynne Morrow doesn’t take time out of rehearsal to teach sections their respective parts. We are expected to know our stuff upon arrival, which means a combination of great sight reading skills and a bit of homework. I was officially in the land of real adults and it was intimidating.

However, I had never met a more friendly and supportive group of musical people in my life. Really! PME is unusual in its lack of snake-pit vibe that I’ve seen in other musical groups—the environment is so positive and encouraging, it’s extraordinary. The Pajaro retreat was awesome (see Kate’s blog), and I really dug that such hard work was accompanied by an abundance of quality food and drink. Great singers are great eaters, that’s for sure.

We finished our final concert on Sunday.  I was unfortunate enough to acquire a nasty cold for the first show, so although I sounded a bit like Janis Joplin after a doing some damage to a fifth of whiskey, I rose to the occasion as best I could and made it through without passing out. The versatility in the musical selection and styles of arrangement is amazing—each song is unique and beautiful in its own way. Because there is such a collective support system for risk taking, I am already considering arranging my own tunes for next season.

So I’m finally old (and mature) enough to be singing with my choir idols, and it feels fabulous! I have a feeling that I will be a PEEMER for a very long time, and I hope to see more young adults hope on the bandwagon and join this talented, disciplined choir full of awesome, supportive folk. So where my young choir dorks at?

Acacia Quien