Podcast #2: Chris Reichert and Singing Barbershop

In this episode we explore Barbershop Quartets.  If you sing primarily in a classical chorus, like I do, you may not be as familiar with the ins and outs of Barbershop Quartets.  So for this topic, I interviewed a close friend of mine whom I’ve known for decades, Chris Reichert.  Chris has a lot of talents, but in the world of singing he’s a great interviewee because he’s made the transition from a capella singing to choral singing to Barbershop Quartet singing.

Here are some links to the full versions of the clips I included in this podcast.  Go check them out and enjoy the full songs!

  • The first ringing clip is 2 minutes into this YouTube version of No No Nora by “Four Voices.” As a bonus, it shows a running spectral analysis that highlights the amazing extra 5th tone created by the overtones.
  • The other ringing clip is 2 minutes, 41 seconds into this full clip of Stars and Stripes Forever by Acoustix.
  • The brief clip from Sure on This Shining Night, one of Barber’s Four Songs, comes from the Cambridge University Chamber Choir recording on the album Barber: Choral and Organ Works, directed by Timothy Brown.
  • The Foolish Over You tag is one of many downloadable learning tracks available at Barbershoptags.com
  • The women’s chorus singing barbershop style is a clip from the Sweetadelines.com YouTube channel, from the 2014 International Convention in Baltimore.  That selection was for the 3rd place finalists, the Harborlites Chorus, about 3 minutes into the clip.
  • When Chris talked about hearing amazing stuff at the Internationals, one of the performances he pointed me to was The Westminster Chorus, who won the 2015 International Chorus Championship.  This excerpt is from their performance of Seize the Day, from the musical Newsies.  Definitely go watch that, and then watch them do A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.
  • The comedic performances that Chris referred to was this performance by Main Street, whom he saw live at the International Competition.  Check out the full performance of “20 years from now”, where they take several modern songs and “barbershop them” here.
  • Even though the audio isn’t as good, I had to sneak in a Dapper Dan’s performance of Coney Island Baby.  Do yourself a favor and just watch the whole thing with video, below, because I just love the physical comedy that they interject into their performance.

Podcast #1: James Bagwell and the Mozart Requiem

Going into our performance of the Mozart Requiem with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in April 2017, I had the opportunity to interview our guest choral conductor, James Bagwell, regarding his preparation of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It became the subject of my first “Just Another Bass” podcast, which you can listen to below.

To hear the full recording of the Mozart Requiem Saturday night performance, from which the excerpts in this podcast are taken, go to the WGBH website and find their performances on demand — or just go to this direct link.

Unfamiliarizing Ourselves with the Mozart Requiem

If you spend many years singing choral classical music, you are destined to sing certain pieces in the repertoire.  The Brahms Requiem.  Handel’s Messiah (or at least the Hallelujah chorus).  The Verdi Requiem.  Carmina Burana.  The Mozart Mass in C minor.  These pieces, among many, are the chestnuts that form the framework of every “summer sing” — ad hoc local events where choristers show up, often with own scores in hand, to  rehearse a piece briefly before singing through it with professional soloists and piano accompaniment.  Those pieces work for summer sings because “everyone knows them.”

Next week I’m singing the Mozart Requiem with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  The Mozart Requiem is another one from that list.   I should probably be annoyed that I’m singing it again — except that like all those others, it’s such a damn good piece that I’d never turn down an opportunity to sing it in a professional setting.  But, just like the Brahms Requiem or Carmina Burana, there’s always an adjustment period because you think you know it so well that you should be able to show up and sing it, like another summer sing.  As one fellow chorister put it, “My favorite Mozart Requiem is one where you just join the choir to sing it memorized at the orchestra rehearsal, one day before singing it with them in the concert.”

Right now our chorus conductor du jour is the esteemed James Bagwell, who has the unenviable task of getting singers who are on cruise control to grab the wheel.  The good news is that, through a series of four two-hour rehearsals, he’s done just that.  With techniques such as asking everyone to pulse each note or sing everything staccato, he’s forced rhythmic sloppiness into the light.  (“Don’t fall in love with your voice, fall in love with the rhythm!”)  He’s given us our own copies of the score with his markings on it, so we know what he wants for consonant cutoffs, accents, and phrase-shaping.  He’s moved quiet passages from piano, to pianissimo, to his goal of “pianissimo with intensity.”  He’s asked for senza vibrato — “don’t think of it as punitive, even though it makes sopranos angry” — to fix tuning and make us use it more deliberately as an ornament.   After sing throughs, he repeats moments as duets, so basses and altos echoing each other, or tenors and sopranos who have a similar theme, can listen and adjust.  He once stated that he wanted us to become “the world’s largest string quartet.”  Finally, he arranged seating so that no one is sitting next to someone singing the same part – and has successfully argued for Andris Nelsons to keep us hashed.  That’s scarier for the few people who haven’t sung the piece before (and there are several — everyone has a first time!) but welcomed by veterans.

The result is that for the first time that I’ve sung this piece, I feel like I’m actually listening more to the other voices than my own part.  That’s always a sign to me of mastery in any group setting, from World of Warcraft raids to cooperative board games – the Matrix moment when you can escape the tunnel vision on your role, and see how everything fits together.  To my ears we’re coming across as a more unified ensemble, with the playful interplay of counterpoints much more pronounced in fugal passages.  I’m taking on complex runs of sixteenth notes by listening to the half measure of sopranos beforehand and interlocking with their rhythm rather than insisting on my own timing.  I’m imagining interjections as a call and response to other parts who precede me.

One might argue that I should be doing these things for any piece, and I would agree. But when you know any piece of music well – be it a choral chestnut, piano sonata, favorite Hamilton track, or The Star-Spangled Banner – you take a lot of things for granted.  Many of us could walk onto a stage and sing the Brahms / Verdi / Mozart Requiem tomorrow and give a high quality performance.  Finding that focus, though, by having some details to pay attention to, can elevate the performance to that next level.  Andris will undoubtedly change some things as he distills the soul of the composer in his own inimitable fashion, but now we are awake.  And we are prepared precisely because we have unfamiliarized ourselves with the piece.

Why Do We Do It?

I made the Tanglewood Festival Chorus roster for an upcoming small concert run.  It’s a little known piano concerto by Ferrucio Busoni that has an all male chorus.  It’s no surprise I made the roster, because they literally accepted anyone who said they were available and wanted to do it.  And as I studied the piece over February break in Florida, I could see why they didn’t have a lot of takers:

  • The chorus sings only in the last 8-10 minutes of a 70 minute piece.
  • The piece is rarely performed, because the piano solo is very hard, the orchestra is huge, and it’s hard to get together a chorus just for that last little bit.
  • The piece is not particularly loved or critically acclaimed.  It’s tonal, at least, but certainly not as remarkable as other choral works.
  • Our rehearsal schedule involves four trips into town before two daytime orchestra rehearsals and a Friday afternoon concert, meaning lots of work and home schedule disruption.
  • Each trip is 1-2 hours of rehearsal, for about four minutes of singing.  So not counting travel time, we’ll basically average more than an hour of prep for each minute, before the orchestra.
  • One of the composer’s goals was for the chorus to be almost invisible, just another texture added to the orchestra.  In fact, usually they’re an off-stage chorus.

Pretty bleak, eh?  Those were the thoughts rumbling in my head as I traveled to the very first rehearsal upon returning from vacation.  Why do I do concerts like this?  Why do any of us do it?

Over the course of those three rehearsal and tonight’s piano rehearsal with Maestro Oramo, I’ve reflected on the answers to that question…  because, wow, there are a lot of them.  Why do we do it?  Because:

  • The piece actually is very beautiful.  (You can hear the part we sing in on YouTube here.)
  • All men’s choruses are fun.  Especially when we get to sing hashed so we can truly blend with each other.
  • I get free voice lessons and German diction lessons from musicians Who Know This Sort Of Thing.
  • I’m an extrovert who loves being on a stage, and who loves being around people I don’t see as often.
  • I love any activity that involves a group of people working together to achieve something they couldn’t achieve individually.
  • It’s yet another opportunity to be in “flow” when you know the music so well that you are completely in the zone, immersed in everything around you, enraptured.
  • Everyone else at these rehearsals wants to be here too.  There’s no glamour in being in this piece.  So everyone in the chorus wants to make great music.
  • For that victorious moment at the rehearsal with the conductor, where he looks up after about 30 minutes of work and, slightly stunned, says, “Actually I…. I’m really, really happy with this,” and dismisses you early.

Ultimately, though, the answer is this: Music is my religion.  The chorus room is my church.  And the concert hall stage is my cathedral.  I’ll take advantage of every opportunity to worship that I can.

Learning to Accept

When I was young and had just started exploring classical music, I had a tape of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I played to within an inch of its life.  I loved the word painting and rollicking cadenzas, the cheerful harpsichord that put the movement in the movements, and the contrasts in tempo and tone from one season to another.  Recently, remembering how much I loved that recording, I went to get a more modern equivalent from iTunes.

I couldn’t — wouldn’t — buy one.

I listened to excerpts and all of them were different.  This one was too fast; this one was draggy.  Another version’s okay, except the violin is doing something crazy that I don’t recognize.  The harpsichord isn’t even playing arpeggios in this one.  I didn’t realize how much of that work is left up to the interpretation of the conductor and the soloist and the continuo.  I couldn’t accept that my version was not the version — even if it was the version for me.  Until I accept another interpretation — or figure out where that tape came from — I may never buy a recording!

Which brings us to the Tanglewood concert that my wife and I are participating in next weekend, where we’ll be singing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and the popular Carmina Burana by Orff.  (You know Carmina, even if you think you don’t… it’s everywhere. )  The Ravel isn’t an issue for me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever sung it, let alone memorized our small contribution, so I have had no preconceived notions… just a fear of knowing when to ahhh and when to ohhh, whether a 5/4 measure is next, and how long the rest is before our next entrance.

Carmina Burana, however, is a problem.

I’ve performed Carmina Burana in four concert runs now, twice from memory.  Some chorus members have many more.  My wife and I even have our favorite version — the time we both sang with Rafael Frübeck de Burgos at Symphony Hall.  “FdB” has a very specific vision for the piece which we embraced.  He really distinguishes his version, thanks in part to some quirky tempo changes — for instance, how he asks the chorus to almost ashamedly gossip-sing about the “errant brethren” and “dispersed monks” while In Taberna, or the sudden switch to double-time to create the “bursting out all over” lover’s fast heartbeat in Tempus es iocundum.  He truly gives it that bawdy, irreverent character that it needs.  I have a recording of that performance, and it’s my gold standard for the piece.

And that … that makes this particular performance much harder.  Now we’re singing it with a new conductor, whom we’ll meet next week.  And, we’ve been prepared by Betsy Burleigh, one of the chorus directors auditioning to replace John Oliver after his retirement last year.  Betsy’s intensity contrasts dramatically with John’s more laissez-faire style, and that’s been an adjustment for the entire chorus.  My “aha” observation is that in rehearsals, our chorus likes to learn, but doesn’t like to be taught.  John concerned himself more with the character and tone of our singing, and figured we’d work out most of the details on our own or with the conductor.  (He also generally hates Carmina Burana for its bombast and general lack of subtlety.)  Betsy prefers to establish an agreed-upon baseline landscape of diction and rhythm.  Once we have consensus on those boundaries as a chorus, we can then maneuver however the conductor wants to shape the piece.  Adding to the cognitive dissonance: since Carmina Burana is a weird mixture of Latin and German, there’s debate for each performance on whether a word like “quod” is pronounced /kwohd/ or /kvot/.  Betsy delivered a comprehensive and internally consistent pronunciation guide, but it disagrees with what most of us have previously memorized. So she’s had to deprogram us from old habits with some very detailed drilling.

Frankly, we could probably use the drilling, because that uniformity of sound and diction hasn’t really been a hallmark of our chorus over the last decade.  I can’t remember the last time we took a piece apart this thoroughly and then reassembled it.  We held five pre-residency rehearsals instead of the usual two or three – and we’re not even technically memorizing for this performance.  Sure there’s been grumbling, but by the final rehearsal we sounded so much better than the initial one, that I think it was worth it.  Betsy challenged us not to mail it in.  Once we learn to accept that, and accept her, and accept that there’s no John or FdB here, and accept that the chorus is transforming into something new…  then we can return to inspiring a picnic-crowded lawn.

In the end, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to sing the praises of fate, lust, springtime, and drinking heavily… regardless of whether I successfully shake off the instinct to rhyme crescis and dissolubilis with the English word “peace” instead of “hiss.”  We’ve been here before: that jarring cognitive dissonance when faced with a new interpretation happens every time.  And we’ve had guest chorus conductors shake us out of complacency for the Brahms Requiem, and we’ve had conductors take us for wild spins too.  Learning to accept is hard.  Leadership changes are hard.  But complacency won’t get us to the sort of memorable performance that makes me save a tape for decades.

The Promise of Singing

On Friday, John Oliver conducted his final prelude concert as the leader of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus before his retirement.  The next to last piece on the program, Copland’s “The Promise of Living,” was the perfect tear-jerking valediction that pretty much summed up our time with John over the last 45+ years.

John-Oliver-final-preludeThe piece itself, if you’re not familiar with it, is a song of thanksgiving.  It speaks to the promise that every community can be strengthened through the love of its neighbors.  The text suggests that our raison d’être for living, growing, and ultimately ending our time in this world is “labor and sharing and loving.”  Its message is that we can best show our thanks to the Lord by lending a hand, working with our friends in the fields to “bring in the harvest.”

Friday’s performance was masterful and powerful, even with the normal orchestral accompaniment reduced to two pianos.  Frank Corliss, our former rehearsal pianist, even made a cameo as he joined current pianist Martin Amlin.  (I half-expected Phyllis Curtin, Seiji Ozawa, and James Levine to walk out at the end as a sort of “This Is Your Life” surprise movie ending for John.)  The moving music coupled with it being John’s performance meant some singers were fighting through tears while singing; in fact, many of us chorus members not in the prelude concert were dabbing our eyes as well.

You might call the piece John’s personal creed.  John has made it known in rehearsals before that he’s not particularly religious, but that he still relies on his sense of wonder about the world — especially when he needs us to convey that wonder in pieces that touch on the divine.  To some degree, you can’t sing great choral works, born out of their composers’ faith, without reaching inward and touching one’s own connection to Something Greater Than Us.  In this great Huffington Post interview with Michael Levin, John reflects on how his spirituality and emotional nature helps him connect to music.

I’m still a spiritual person in the sense that I get up every morning and am in awe of the universe, including the evils of our world. And I wonder, like anybody else does, how did this happen? I am not a religious person in the sense of organized religion. I fell out of the church when I was about 24 and was never tempted to go back again […] And I’m a very emotional person. I’m known to have my voice break up when I’m telling the chorus something. I said that to Phyllis Curtin recently. And she said, “Of course you are. You can’t be an artist without being very emotional.”

So to some degree, “The Promise of Living” feels like John’s parting advice to us.  Just as one of his other favorite pieces, the Brahms Requiem, is decidedly sacred but shrugs off any particular liturgical setting in favor of a more secular humanism, Copland’s work, capturing the vernacular of the Midwestern American spirit, echoes a faith in relying on those living with us now over any supernatural intervention.  In essence: our lives are made better by loving each other, looking out for each other, and sharing the work between us – and that is the path to “peace in our own hearts, and peace with our neighbor.”  As the chorus itself faces uncertainty, staring into a future sure to bring changes through the leadership transition, John reminds us to “keep planting each row with seeds of grain,” and Providence will take care of the rest.

I’d even go so far as to say that this song is the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s personal creed — if it were possible for an entire organization to hold a belief.  “For many a year [we’ve] known these fields” of the greens of the Tanglewood lawn.  And we “know all the work that makes them yield” the music that we spend countless hours memorizing and internalizing separately, so that when we come together for a residency, “ready to lend a hand,” we can work together to “bring in the blessings of harvest.”  Sunshine or rain, we bring in the grain of another successful performance — and we do it together through a shared purpose that transcends any social cliques that form here and there while we enjoy our time out in the Berkshires.  When we’re on a stage together, whether it be Symphony Hall, Ozawa Hall, or the Koussevitzky Shed, we do so with the promise that sharing our hard labor and connecting personally with each other, with John, with the composer’s soul, and whoever’s conducting, will create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

So “let us sing our song, and let our song be heard.  Let’s sing our song with our hearts, and find a promise in that song.”  The Joy (Freude!) of Beethoven’s Ninth may be what the TFC is most known for, having performed it almost every summer for the last four decades.  But in our hearts, that Joy comes from what John Oliver has indelibly stamped on our characters.  The promise of living — the promise of singing — is the opportunity to continue working together as a community to create great music.  Nothing will ever change that.

Reviewing the Reviews of Verdi’s Stabat Mater performance

Our performance of Verdi’s Stabat Mater last weekend was just about everything I hoped for.

As an individual, I fought off a lingering cold to deliver (almost) all my singing with the clarity and precision I was searching for.  What held me from an A+ performance were a couple voice cracks and a few breaths I had to steal during long, slow phrases.  I felt like I told the story I wanted to tell, from the misery of the opening note, to the terror of seeing a tortured son, to the hushed whispers honoring his desolation, to the privilege of standing by the mother, and finishing with the prayer for ascension to glory.

As a chorus, we had a strong connection with Maestro Tovey, with the orchestra, with each other, and with the emotional subtext of the music.  We missed a few things, certainly: we basses never made it back to the full supported sound we achieved in rehearsals for our exposed passage, and I was disappointed the chorus didn’t successfully pull back at the beginning of the big finale, to make it more special.  Nevertheless, we created some indisputably magical moments.

If you haven’t heard the performance, it is streaming at WGBH (starting at 15:30) where it should remain available until July 2016.

Aaron Keebaugh, of the Boston Classical Review had a very positive review:

To capture the emotion of this most poignant of texts, the singers lofted their lines with supple blend and pristine diction.

A few isolated phrases in the beginning of the work suffered from some untidy attacks, but as the piece progressed the singers’ confidence grew. “Vidit suum” was desolate, the chorus controlling the thin textures with delicacy to match the sweet melancholy of the verse.

Tovey coaxed weighty, determined playing from the orchestra to support the earth-shaking statements of the “Sancta Mater.” “Flammis ne urar succensus” exploded with power. But the most affecting moment came at the end where the phrases of “Paradisi gloria” seemed to float heavenward where they formed into chords of robust strength before tapering off to whispers for the final “Amen.”

It’s always nice when a reviewer validates what you felt on stage: the desolate vidit suum, the powerful moments, and the great crescendo at the end.  I concede Aaron’s point about a few untidy attacks at the beginning — we basses were not together in the first /kw/ of our Quae mœrebat entrance, though we did support it better than we had in some rehearsals.

Andrew Pincus of The Berkshire Eagle gives our Stabat Mater performance a brief mention in his write-up of the weekend as well:

John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, though perhaps too large for so intimate a piece, nevertheless sang it with opulence of sound and full devotional fervor.

While we’d accept the compliment, I think our roster of 120 singers is no different than the approach we’ve used for many similar pieces over the last several decades, so it’s more of a question of personal taste here.  Intimate 60-person choral pieces belong in Ozawa Hall or maybe back in Boston at Symphony Hall, where they won’t get buried by the Shed’s open architecture and the orchestra’s blazing passages.

Jeremy Eichler’s Boston Globe review only gives us a passing mention:

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang well, if with some tentativeness, in Verdi’s “Stabat Mater,” but the first half in truth belonged to the towering bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

He does compliment us later for our participation in the crowd scenes of Tosca.  In general, I’ve found Eichler to be not particularly kind to the chorus in his reviews, for whatever reason.  It may also be because in the Globe, he doesn’t have the space to devote to our blip on the program radar in an overview of the entire weekend.  I assume his reference to “tentativeness” was for the same “untidy attacks” that Keebaugh mentioned which I remember from the bass line.

Finally, John Ehrlich had wonderful things to say in his review for the Boston Music Intelligencer.  Here’s an excerpt regarding the Stabat Mater:

As with all of the late Verdi works, there was much to amaze the listener. […] The music is alternately anguished, terrifying, reflective, and ultimately noble, a masterful marriage of language and illustrative, emotional music. Tovey was alert to each twist and turn of the score, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus followed his every lead. The many exposed orchestral moments were, of course, elegantly essayed by the orchestra. Not surprisingly, the applause was a bit tepid at the music’s end. It is an unsettling work, to be sure. I wished the audience had accorded a bit more enthusiasm for this elegant performance.

While he didn’t specifically call out the chorus’s performance for the Stabat Mater, Ehrlich’s enthusiasm for the emotional roller coaster and the unsettling nature of the music is a clear indication that we succeeded.  We made that connection to the soul of the composer and distilled it for our audience to internalize.  A triumph indeed!