To the outer world, they're known as the Davis High School Madrigal Singers – a 32-member a cappella choir known for high vocal standards.
They can be distinguished by their clear sound and by the Renaissance-period costumes that the singers wear at performances. Commitment is a hallmark of the group, and this is reinforced by the many hours each performer has to rehearse – and the fact that singers design their own costumes.
The group, led by noted music educator Karen Gardias, recently came by The Bee to sing a selection of holiday songs. In our "Creative Drive" series, the staff talks with local artists about what inspires them.
The Madrigals' performance revealed a poised group of teenage musicians with an innate sense for a cappella music, be it the polyphony of the 16th century or the fresh musical ideas of the 21st.
Over the years, the group has won the top prize at the 2000 Prague International Choral Festival and taken the top chamber choir award in the 2006 International Eisteddfod Competition in Llangollen, Wales.
See and hear them at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Davis High School, 315 W. 14th St., Davis. ($6 donation). Call (530) 757-5400 or go to www.madrigalchoir for details.
We spoke with longtime director Gardias (16 years at the Madrigals helm) about this vocal ensemble, which has graced the Sacramento region's scene since 1966.
What is the Madrigal Singers sound?
We aspire to have a warm, rich and pure sound. That is so important to me, and that is one of the strengths of our choir. We gain so much from a yearly workshop with Chanticleer, so we try a lot to be like them.
How competitive is it to get into the Madrigals?
We have probably 75 students that try out for 10 and 15 spots. It is more competitive for girls than for boys. But I turn boys away, too, unfortunately. We started an advanced treble choir seven years ago, which was really great because that gives another outlet for girls to audition to a choral group, and that group has created its own identity now. So now we have three audition choirs at the high school that includes a jazz choir.
Why do you perform in costume?
Because it's our identity. When people see us coming they know who we are.
Is it tough losing your most experienced singers to graduation?
It's a challenge for the veterans and myself because two months before graduation, we're at our peak. And then we get a new crop of singers and we're trying to be cohesive while training all the new students. Consequently, it's a challenge for all of us to know that down the road we will sound great … but in August or September it will always be tricky.
How do you choose the music you perform?
It's based on the audience, and it also depends on what time of the year it is. I'm trying to develop a well- rounded musical education for the students with different genres and stylistic traits, and touching on all the basic elements of music. So we are working on intonation and rhythm and timbre and all of the various elements that go into creating a piece of music. We don't only sing madrigals or Renaissance music because if we did it would be seriously limiting to our students' education.
How differently do you approach a cappella music as opposed to accompanied music?
The basics all have to be there. But challenges occur in both areas. The a cappella is a little bit more challenging since you have to hold your pitch more carefully. Surprisingly enough, once they start doing a cappella music, it's actually a little more challenging to sing with accompaniment because of the timbre of the piano. There you are also dealing with the challenge of getting the accompanist to understand that he's there to support the choir.
How did your version of "Deck the Halls" get a hip-hop twist?
It happened a number of years ago. Former director Dick Brunelle started it. We had been doing the regular version, then one day at rehearsal one of the boys decided that they were going to do this and we all went, "OK," because that song is the very last piece we sing for our madrigal dinner. So it is little bit more upbeat than usual.
What's your approach to the early music of Palestrina and Monteverdi as opposed to contemporary composers like Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen?
The difference is that we have a little more freedom with Monteverdi and Palestrina in comparison to the modern ones. For me the difference is that there is more polyphonic music coming out of the Renaissance period than what we are seeing with music right now. I look at Monteverdi and Palestrina as the pioneers of their time in harmony. Lauridsen and Whitacre are so current that everyone can grasp them and hold on to the music.
Can you learn to be a good singer, or are you born with it?
You can definitely learn to be a good singer. Don't let anyone tell you differently. I also teach at the junior high so I have brand new singers who have not sung before, and one of the first challenges is just matching pitch. Trust me, the challenge is with boys and I think that is because girls end up singing a little earlier than boys.
After studying arrangements, do you reconstruct what is described?
I do. I take a piece of music and I look at all the elements that I need to be addressing, whether it be intonation problems with certain intervals or more rhythmic problems. Then I go back and I bring out the most important part of the music, and to me the text is an extremely important part of that.
I think it is amazing what composers have written to go along with a text. I mean, you look at Palestrina and it is so obvious that he takes the most important parts of the text and creates all these beautiful notes over one syllable because he believes it is the most important part of the text.
So I look at that and I look at how to create all those creative dissonances, and I build on those dissonances. And that helps to resolve on the consonances.
Call Bee arts critic Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071.