By Anna Iliff
Twenty two men stand on the awards platform for the 2010 World Choir Games in Shoaxing, China, the world’s largest choral competition hosted every two years by various prestigious, choral-active countries. With arms wrapped around each other and tears streaming down their faces, UC Irvine’s Men in Blaque receive the news of a lifetime. They are World Champions.
They embrace, overcome with emotion and pride. The American flag rises before them and wild applause fills the air as the national anthem begins to play. Through their tears, they sing along, knowing that they, the Men in Blaque, have brought pride and honor not only to UCI, but to the United States of America. For the Men in Blaque, this is the summer of sweet victory. A summer of glory.
“Everything leading up to that moment was why it was so sweet,” said Michael Ushino, a 23 year old alumni from University of California Irvine pursuing a masters in choral conducting, and member of Men in Blaque. “We were the only American choir to win a title in the championship, the only group to raise an American flag. We were singing the national anthem with the flag being raised behind us and crying. It was a great moment. It was glorious.”
The Men in Blaque are an exclusive all-male a’capella group founded at the University of California, Irvine in 1996, and directed by the first American choral conductor to lead a United States choir to international fame in 1966 Professor Joseph Huszti.
Huszti carries a long list of awards and recognition from more than 40 years of choral conducting. Making a name for himself at the 1966 Llangollen Eisteddfod Choral Competiton held in Wales, Huszti was the first American choral conductor to win an international title, “Choir of the World,” for Bakersfield Community College. From then on, he was an international sensation, changing the way the world looked at American choirs. Yet having conducted top choirs in the United States, Huszti thought it was time for something new to hit UCI, and the Men in Blaque were born some 30 years later.
“Men in Blaque started in 1997 as a little bit of an accident,” said Huszti. “It was just a group of former students and guys that were on campus involved in the choir. We were originally 16 members and have progressed over the years to 22 official members. Now we’ve competed, won awards, and have made a name for ourselves. I would say we’re patterned after two of the world’s great men’s group. Number One: The King Singers. Number Two: Chanticleer which I would say is truly the top choir in the world today and we’ve already had one member of Men in Blaque who auditioned and sung for that group!”
The King Singers is a group of six men who sing entirely in a’capella. A’capella means to sing unaccompanied, without instruments. Instead of having a piano or full band play accompaniment to a familiar, brilliant melody, the singers provide the background music, often singing on syllables and phrases rather than words. Chanticleer is a world renowned, professional a’capella group composed of 12 male singers that sing in a variety of arrangements with some vocalists singing soprano, the highest, typically female, vocal part.
Yet, the Men in Blaque do not fall short of these professional, world renowned groups , having brought home three gold medals from the Sixth World Choir Games this past July, breaking the record of most first-place awards won by a single choir at the event. The Men in Blaque can now be seen as one of the most prestigious groups in the world, let alone United States—an honor very view American choirs have yet to achieve.
The World Choir Games is an annual, global singing competition that takes place in various regions of the world, bringing singers in troves from all over the world to compete for the envious Choir of the World title. To compete in this competition, choirs must undergo dedicated training and preparation before even sending an audition recording to the organization to be considered for further review.
The men sing in tight harmonies, which means parts clash and it is easy for an average singer to get lost, sing off key, or sing another section’s part. The music is extremely difficult with dark dissonance, jazz chords, and a gentle beauty—something nearly impossible to pull off without an extreme amount of effort and devotion to the piece. But, that is what the Men in Blaque are and it is what they love.
“We’ve done a lot of contemporary, a lot of Romantic music, a lot of spirituals—we like spirituals,” said Ushino. “It’s such a broad spectrum of extremely difficult music. In the past we’ve done renaissance music up to present day stuff—even your weird stuff. There are songs we’ve done that don’t even have tones anymore. We just make speech sounds, or a certain breath—sound phrases. It’s challenging, but it’s fun.”
The journey to China was not an easy one though. Immediately upon landing, the Men in Blaque faced a series of family tragedy and illness in less than 24 hours after their arrival in Shaoxing, China for the World Choir Games this past July. But, with the hard work and dedication, were able to succeed and gain an international victory.
(Lamb of God.)
Every Sunday—rain or shine, holiday or special occasion, the Men in Blaque meet in AITR 196 in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts—a vast room with tiled floors of white, navy, and gray. The walls are tall and lined with bulging canvas gray sound pads which enhance and control the acoustics of the room, making it the perfect place to rehearse and record. The room is modest, but when the Men fill the room, it is nothing short of majestic as sound fills every inch of the room.
Looking around the room, the members of Men in Blaque are a strange sight with several strapping young men mixed amongst several elderly men—one of which is wearing a back brace after a recent surgery. Richard Paul – pastor at a Lutheran church. Some are serious and some are silly—including the director, Professor Huszti. The Men in Blaque come from all different walks of life including several members who are teachers, music majors, managers and CEOs, and sales clerks. Many even have degrees in music, conducting, and voice performance. But the one thing that unites these 22 men is their love for producing beautiful music.
They begin the afternoon with one of the most difficult contemporary Mass’s written of all time: Mass for Double Choir, composed by Frank Martin in 1922. Traditionally a composed mass is broken up into several movements, allowing the participants to undergo a catharsis when recalling the sacred Latin text. Kyrie. Gloria. Credo. Sanctus. Benedictus. Agnus Dei.
I arrive as they begin the last movement, Agnus Dei—Lamb of God. The piece begins like a death march, revisiting the scene leading up to the Crucifixion. The words are strong, harsh and monotonous, like footsteps. Gradually the volume increases and passion bursts through—a plea, a cry for hope. A soft moan of prayer. There is a beautiful chaos as each part sings with a new rhythm, overcome with emotion. It is tender, and bittersweet and almost hurts to listen to the words,
(Lamb of God)
qui tollis peccata mundi,
(You who take away the sins of the world)
(Have mercy on us)
Dona nobis pachem .”
(Grant us peace.)
The sound fades away into nothingness. There is silence, and it is finished. A smile creeps across Huszti’s face.
“Stunning. Absolutely stunning”
He claps his hands and barks at the men to rearrange themselves for the next piece—Mikado’s “Valentine.” The men are preparing for their upcoming concert, the Valentine’s Day Celebration, one of several annual events they hold each year. As couples fill the seats of the UCI Winifred Smith Hall, the Men in Blaque will serenade with sweet love songs throughout the ages, from renaissance and baroque to modern day ballads like the Beatle’s “Michele.” Although the performance is months away, the men spend countless hours rehearsing to perfection. Now the men stand in alternating parts, high, low, high low and a scruffy, young, bearded man steps forward and bellows:
"His object all sublime
He will achine in time
To let the punishment fit the crime
And make each pris’ner pent
A source of innocent merriment."
His eyes are fierce with intensity, and he makes long, fluid gestures with his arms. He sings with authority and power, a leader amongst the group. Behind him, the men feel inspired, and decide to poke fun at their companion’s grandeur. With little warning, they have conspired and join together in a kick line behind the soloist, laughing heartily to the barbershop tune. Huszti has stopped directing and stands behind his music stand with a big grin across his face. Jacob Rekoon, the super-star bass that nearly cost him and the Men in Blaque the Choir of the World title brings tears of joy to his eyes.
On the night before the first performance of the World Choir Games, Jacob Rekoon, a 20 year old vocal performance major remembers waking with severe stomach pain, keeling over beside his hotel room bed and asking his roommate for help. Together they made their way next door to consult with the World Choir Games medic. Jacob was having an appendix attack and was to be rushed to the hospital immediately.
An ambulance arrived on the scene and whisked Rekoon away, driving recklessly through the streets of Shoaxing to get to a hospital an hour away from the competition venue. But for the Men in Blaque, Jacob’s sudden illness had deeper implications. Their secret weapon and soloist, would be in the hospital for evaluation while doctors decided whether to operate or not. Rekoon spent three days in the hospital, missing the competition entirely, and having his solo given away to the talented Nehemiah Chen. Despite the group missing their talented, young, showstopper, the Men in Blaque managed to take home three world titles at the World Choir Games.
“Gorgeous,” shouts Huszti as Rekoon steps back into formation, looking satisfied with his praise. Tears well in Professor Huszti’s eyes. His protégé has returned.
Jacob’s expression gives away the fact that he knows he is impressive—a choral super-star, but a delicate balance of humility holds him back from ever admitting it. Still, he knows, and there is a thick air of confidence all around him.
Although he has a soft spot, Huszti can be fickle. He is undeniably strict and demands excellence from his students.
Unlike a typical college choir, the Men in Blaque are expected to arrive to rehearsal warmed up with their vocal parts ingrained in their heads. When the group meets, they practice for three hours straight, with only one short break. This intensive singing can be extremely hard on the voice of an inexperienced singer, or one who has simply failed to properly warm up before rehearsal. Huszti will stop a piece at a moment’s notice if he hears just one voice out of tune, and he isn’t afraid to single anyone out. If it happens in a performance, Huszti will point, consciously or not, at an individual which is a signal that they’re singing wrong. He is subtle though. When he wants the men to watch their pitch, he lifts his left index finger slightly, while conducting simultaneously.
The men joke of Huszti’s demands. There are three original sins against Professor Huszti that are grounds for being kicked out of the group: not being prepared, showing up late to rehearsals, or not showing up at all—regardless of the circumstance.
“We’re expected to be ready to sing when we get there,” said Ushino. “Huszti treats it like a professional group. If you don’t show up, you’re out. Don’t show up to a performance? You’re out. No excuses. I mean, yes. There are some excuses like—my mother is dying or I’m in a car accident. Absolute emergencies. I think the only excuse that granted missing a performance and still staying in the group was when Jacob was in the hospital. The people who join Men in Blaque are all on the same standard. We are all aware of the expectation before we join and that’s why we have that year long probation period before we’re allowed to be Men in Blaque.”
While some parts of rehearsal resemble something like organized chaos, when the Men pull their efforts together and deliver a piece of music it is nothing less than stunning. Strong, beautiful, and gentle sound fills AITR 196 every Sunday afternoon when they work through their upcoming performance set.
When Huszti is pleased, there is a sweetness in his expression. His eyes close as he embraces the sound, his arms move freely, and his lips purse. In those moments he is just a humble, old man full of delight.
“Working with the guys is a whole different animal,” said Huszti. “The basic tenants are the same—good music at a very high level, you try to keep the excitement in the quality, you try to sing in the correct style, you try to create good vocalism. But there’s just something about the men’s voices. It’s a great group of guys.”
(Lord, have mercy.)
The hot, humid summer weather of China basking in the downpour of rain greeted the Men in Blaque as they landed in Shoaxing, recalled Ushino. As they made their way out of the airport and onto the charter buses that would lead them to the competition housing, the sweat clung to their clothes and exhaustion travelled quickly. They were hit with a miserable wave of heat against splashing, fat rain when things took a turn for the worst.
It is in times of trial and tribulation that we rely on each other the most and it is in these moments the Men in Blaque bond deeply together. Not even 24 hours after landing in Shoaxing, China for the opportunity of a lifetime did tragedy strike. The eldest and founding member of the group, Richard Paul, a tall, white haired, bearded man received the news that his mother had passed away. As a long time Lutheran pastor, Paul was comforted by prayer and his fellow Men in Blaque.
There was a sigh of defeat amongst the men, who gathered together around their friend and mentor on a day that should have been so sweet, but in a moment was crushed with sorrow. Banded together, it was decided a memorial service would be held in honor of Mrs. Paul.
“Other than Huszti and my own grandfathers, he is a grandfather to me,” said Ushino. “He’s always been incredibly supportive. He’s always been there for me. When we found out his mother died, all of us we felt for him. It’s one of those moments. We all came together as a family. We went through the competition and before every performance we’d have our little huddle and we would say ‘we’re doing this for Richard’s mom.’”
A lone church stands in the water city of Shoaxing, known formally as St. Joseph’s. A beautiful and ornate building filled with 22 bodies that entered solemnly. Whether it was the elevated emotional level of being in a foreign land or a spiritual release that occurred cannot be certain, but as the men stood all around the sanctuary singing a tribute to Paul’s mother, tears fell in troves. Overcome with emotion for the loss of a loved one and concern for a friend, like brothers the Men in Blaque came together in a beautiful song of remembrance.
“You can just imagine the emotional level we were on,” said Ushino. “Everyone was crying. We were all just…crying. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen 30 grown men cry, but that’s what was happening in that church.”
“I’m fluent in Huszti-ism.” –Mike Ushino.
“Ah, yes. His Huszti-isms. They’re my favorite.” –Jacob Rekoon
Professor Huszti is a man of great wisdom, a mentor to his students. In the midst of rehearsals he has been known to spout off his tidbits of wisdom affectionately known by his students as “Huszti-ism.”
“I would say it’s fairly common for us to quote a parable from the Book of Huszti from time to time,” said Rekoon fondly. “Some of the older guys will say they’re firm believers in Huszti-ism or that they’ll take a page from the Book of Huszti. He’s just a smart guy who’s very funny.”
It is clear that the Men in Blaque look up to professor Huszti in a way most students would not. To them, he is a man who has changed their lives and made them who they are today. Through intense rehearsals with tough love and occasional words of encouragement, to reach Huszti’s expectations is a huge accomplishment and honor to the members of Men in Blaque.
“I would say I worked with Huszti for 30 hours a week when I was in undergrad,” said Ushino. “I consider him my mentor, my teacher. I hope he considers me his student because he, more than any other professor or teacher in my life, has changed my life dramatically. Seriously, Huszti grabbed the person inside of me and yanked it out.”
One reason the men love professor Huszti is his unconventional methods for teaching confidence and self awareness. When Ushino was in his freshman year, he first met professor Huszti for voice lessons. “He would make me do crazy stuff,” he said. “I would have to stand on a desk with two music stands in each hand, swinging them around while singing German opera. It’s crazy—but it works! He makes you do something so ridiculous that when you get off the desk, put down the stands it feels natural. His whole motto is making you uncomfortable. He likes to say his whole purpose on this earth until the day he dies is to make you uncomfortable.”
When I asked Rekoon to describe a typical rehearsal with Huszti he said, “It’s basically to make you as uncomfortable as possible all the time. If you’re uncomfortable as you can be you’ll be stretching and growing the most. That’s his philosophy.”
“There’s a lot of movement and him constantly bombarding each member with things to keep them on their toes,” he said. “He’s aware of every little thing that’s going on because he’s been doing it for so many years. He doesn’t want you to be inhibited. If you’ve got the pipes, then you just go for it.”
Huszti-ism speaks volumes amongst the group. His wisdom has carried on and been ingrained in the Men in Blaque’s daily lives so much that students like Rekoon and Ushino find themselves adopting his philosophies as their own.
“He’s 73 and he still knows more than anything I’ll ever know because he spends every moment of his life typing to get there, wherever ‘there’ might be,” said Ushino. “But, now I’ve learned that without beauty life isn’t worth living. And that’s not me—that’s what Huszti has taught me. I can’t tell you what beautiful is to you but what I want, and what Huszti wants, is for every student to discover that beauty. This is why I want to be a choral director—because of him. He’s changed my life and so many other people’s lives. I see kids my age and younger, just out there to get the A, get out, get a job, and go into the system. I can’t do that. Not after what I’ve experienced with Huszti.”
-- One hour interview with Prof. Huszti
-- One hour interview with Jacob Rekoon
-- 45 minute interview with Michael Ushino
-- 15 minute interview with Wendell Ballantyne
-- New U article about MIB winning title in China
-- Youtube Videos of performances in China
-- Attended UCI play “Abraham and Isaac”— world premiere with Men in Blaque
-- Attended UCI Choral Festival featuring Men in Blaque (30 minute performance set)
-- Attended Men in Blaque rehearsal (3 hours of observation/recorded singing and practice)
-- UCI mention of Choir of the World title on UCI website
-- Prof. Huszti mention as 1st American conductor to bring U.S. championship title in 1966 on Conducting website
-- Six hours of observation of Huszti conducting Men in Blaque and Chamber groups
-- Facebook fan page
-- Chantecleer website
-- 7/26/10—recognized by school for winning awards at World Choir Games in China over summer -- 7/22/10-- http://www.interkultur.com/news/show/champions-concert-at-the-6th-world-choir-games/60c8206920/ article highlighting set lists at World Choral Games
-- 9/28/10-- http://www.newuniversity.org/2010/09/entertainment/here-come-the-men-in-blaque/ Article documents World Choir Games victory, possible interview lead—Kenneth Haro, accounts for scheduling on trip, rehearsals, and performance highlights
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