Transforming the Chorus through Ravel

The textless, mystifyingly ethereal chord progressions of Maurice Ravel are bringing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus together in a way none of us really anticipated.

Daphnis et Chloé is one of two concert runs I’m privileged to participate in this 2017-2018 winter season. Instead of ballet dancers sharing the stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it will be us from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Now officially on the job for almost a year, our conductor James Burton shared some touching words with us before a recent rehearsal.  He explained that others have told him that wherever he’s conducted — and he has quite a curriculum vitae to his name — the choirs have a certain character to them that is distinctly imparted by his leadership… but that he hadn’t really achieved that yet with the TFC.  However, with the Ravel, he felt we were finally approaching how he wanted us to sound for the first time since he took over.

Part of the reason for that is that Daphnis et Chloé has no text to distract us.  Without us trying to stick the landing on German consonants, we’re left with aahs and oohs.  There’s no choice but to focus on the tuning and the quality of the sound we’re producing.  So to that end, he’s been encouraging us to find a nice choral blend, with instructions like, “Sing to the volume of the person next to you,” or riding us until we’re all making the same open /a/ vowel with the same resonance and color (“loosen your lower jaw,” “basses you’re too dark, bring the sound forward to make it brighter,” “think of the sound resonating both in front of and behind your head”).  He’s also challenged the “leaders” in the chorus (“leaders, you know who you are… and if you’re not a leader, you know who they are…”), asking them to pull back and do more listening than leading.  You have to understand, we’ve historically sung intentionally as ~120 soloists and “averaged to a blend” as part of our unique powerful sound.  We may know our parts cold but may not have internalized how we fit into the whole.  James is chipping away at that history in favor of this newer style, and it’s hard work for him and for us.

This be-one-with-the-group mentality is especially needed for this piece, because we are effectively just more instruments in the orchestra, instead of our usual starring role as a featured chorus!  Just listen to how you can sometimes barely tell the chorus is singing.  Since we have to think more like orchestra members, we already have to blend our entrances with other instruments and cross-fade with the orchestra dynamics — except, of course, during the impressive 3 minute a capella section featured in the middle of the piece.

One of James’s most profound comments was while rehearsing that a capella section:  “You are all singing the right notes, but you’re still not singing an A flat major chord.”  And he proved it by asking us to then sing an A flat major chord, which *was* in tune.  When we as singers get too focused on our notes and intervals (“okay, a major third up, then down a tritone, up another third…”), we lose the tuning with the rest of the chorus — and we hear it when he stops us and asks us to sing the chord by name.  For this piece in particular, we have to think in terms of chords.  James has been identifying mental stopping places where we should be thinking “this should sound like C major… this should sound like F# minor…” and so forth.  I can’t explain why this improves the sound so much, but it does.  For example, there’s a G7 major chord that always sounds like a tone cluster because each part arrives on it from a different direction… but once he had us think of it as a G major chord, suddenly this radiant sound burst forth that we’ve never achieved before, and that frankly I’ve never heard cleanly in any recording.

Though this is my first time singing the entire Suite, there are chorus members who have sung this piece ten times. I’ve been reminded by no fewer than three singers that “the BSO and TFC won a Grammy for singing this piece,” almost as if that exempts us from James’ criticism regarding our tuning efforts.  He’s challenged us with high expectations, and we’ve seen glimpses of it in rehearsals when we don’t resort back to our automatic pilot habits.  At one point he said, “Can you sense that we’re not singing this the way you’ve always done it?” and there was a forceful, almost grimacing “YES!” acknowledgement from everybody in the room.

Long-time TFC members who attended the Saturday Schumann performance, at the concert the week before this Ravel series, praised us for our diction, for our dynamics, for our tone, and for our focused singing.  But a few lamented wistfully that “it doesn’t sound like the TFC I know any more.”  I’ve witnessed this with so many leadership transitions: be it a new choral conductor, a new orchestra conductor, a new department head, or a new pastor, when there’s a new sheriff in town, the world changes.  It’s okay to mourn the past for a little while, but then you move forward, and as a follower decide if and how you’re going to embrace the vision set forth by the new leader.  And for the TFC, the Ravel represents perhaps another step in embracing a new vision of how a chorus should sound.


Starting Fresh with Schumann

“How many of you have sung either of these pieces before?” James Burton, choral director of the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, asked all of us at the first rehearsal.

Only a few knew the Nachtlied, and no one raised a hand for the Neujahrslied. “Wow – take a picture,” someone muttered. Given the breadth of choral experience and the longevity of many TFC members – some who’ve been singing with the TFC since its founding in 1970 – having a new, noncommissioned piece from an established composer is… well, it’s liberating.

So far in James Burton’s tenure, we’ve had to spend a lot of time unlearning old habits and erasing old markings. Singing conventions that John Oliver established, remixes of part roadmaps, and predefined dynamic and tempo alterations have almost been distractions during rehearsals. (We learned early on in James’ tenure not to interrupt rehearsals with questions like, “We always took an eighth rest out of this whole note, should we still do that?”)

None of that is present for these Schumann lieder. That means we get to discover these rarely performed pieces on our own terms, and collectively apply our musicianship rather than lazily relying on “how we’ve always done it.”

A great example was one moment in the first morning orchestra rehearsal, in the Neujahrslied. The chorus and orchestra come together in a series of solid chords after furtively creeping through a mysterious fugue. When we first performed it, it was… fine. Then Andris Nelsons asked the orchestra to hold back on the volume and play their part with long, sustained notes — call it un poco maestoso (a little majestic). He then asked the chorus to sing espressivo (expressively and dramatically), so that we would stand out in the foreground against this tapestry created by the orchestra.

This matter-of-fact correction, unwritten anywhere in the literal music itself, completely changed the character of that moment. It was like looking into an old Viewmaster and seeing a 2D slide jump to life in 3D. And that was just one adjustment in over an hour of adjustments, notwithstanding all the similar tweaks that James Burton put in place during the hour before we joined the orchestra. It was a completely engaging, satisfying rehearsal, basking in the expertise of learned leaders and a top-notch orchestra even as we contributed our part.

The result should be an enjoyable performance for audience members now going through the same process of discovery that we did, as these sumptuous pieces come to life.

Podcast #4: Belshazzar’s Feast with the TFC

In this episode, we commemorate a performance of William Walton’s composition, Belshazzar’s Feast, as sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus out in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in July of 2017, under the preparation of our new choral director James Burton and one of the chorus’s favorite orchestral conductors, Bramwell Tovey.  While I personally didn’t get the chance to sing this concert, I did get to spend the weekend out there listening to many of my friends in the chorus rehearse and internalize this piece, and give a phenomenal performance on that Sunday afternoon.

So to capture the love and joy poured into preparing this piece, on the weekend before the concert I interviewed four chorus members about the experience.  I’ve also included appropriate clips from the final performance.

I hope you enjoy listening to everyone’s insights as much as I enjoyed talking to them and witnessing their work that weekend.  My thanks again to Diane Droste, Joy Emerson Brewer, James Gleason, and Diana Gamet for taking some time out of their Tanglewood residency to talk to me.

You can hear a playback of that performance on website here.

Resurrecting Mahler’s Second Symphony

It’s that time again.  Time for Bass 2’s in the back row to bust out the low B-flats and the high G’s.  Time to explore a dynamic range that starts at pppp and ends at ffff.  Time for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to sing Mahler’s 2nd, the “Resurrection” symphony!

We’re performing this Friday, for the opening night performance of the 2017 Tanglewood season out here in the Berkshires.  As I write this, we have one run-through left before the concert itself. And I’ll make the bold claim that we’ll be more prepared to sing this piece than we have in perhaps two decades, thanks to the prep work by new TFC chorus director James Burton and BSO conductor Andris Nelsons.

Like my last experience unfamiliarizing myself with the Mozart Requiem, the Mahler is extremely well-known piece to our chorus, which means once again we’ve had to unlearn what we’ve previously learned.  I personally have found myself slipping into muscle memory and old habits if I’m not actively concentrating on being present, and singing what we’ve been taught over the last several rehearsals.  In this respect, one of James’s comments was particularly insightful — he suggested that if we weren’t actively taking part, we were “just singing along.”  Guilty.  In fact, I’d argue that a good portion of our chorus (myself included) has been “singing along” to familiar pieces for at least the last couple years, if not longer.

And what has he been teaching us, this time around?  New tricks for staying in tune during the a capella opening, like singing the e-flats and a-flats almost too sharp.  (James: “You’re playing this too safe.  You’re comfortably sitting back in the middle of the note and that’s why your pitch sags later on.)  Physical reminders, like “showing the audience your eyebrows” and various hand and body movements in rehearsals to connect our bodies to the music.  Enunciation notes so our German sounds like, you know, German — so that words like entstanden aren’t split up into three separate unnatural-sounding syllables.  Being aware of the other choral parts so that we tune to create a unified sound, rather than focusing solely on our own line.  The effect has been revelatory.

The preparation has not been without its minor conflicts.  Sometimes Andris will ask for something that seems to conflict with James’s preparation.  Andris may ask for a stronger legato, but James will remind us that we need our “gorilla accents” on each note.  (James had us actually making deep gorilla grunt noises in an earlier rehearsal to really emphasize the connection between our diaphragms and the marcato accents.)  Or Andris might appear to be asking for a darker sound from us, when James and our diction coach Livia Racz have been reminding us to keep the sound more forward in our mouths.  In cases like both of these the answer is frequently that “Both are right.”  The marcato should not sacrifice a sense of horizontal connectedness. The darker sound Andris wants is actually a deeper, more supported forceful call that doesn’t require going back into the throat to achieve.

Like the Busoni piece from earlier this year, it’s tempting to question why we spend so much effort for what is effectively less than 10 minutes of stage presence at the end of a much longer piece.  But the answer comes at every performance — that pouring out of your soul from the whispered choral entrance at the beginning to the total catharsis of the end, with gongs and chimes and brass and organ all combining to an apotheosis of gorgeous sound… it’s one of those life experiences that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.

Podcast #3: Daughters Discovered with Kristen Wylie

In today’s episode we explore a great feel-good story – especially if you’re a parent.  Who among us when singing, or when hearing your son or daughter singing, hasn’t at least daydreamed of that singing happening on a big stage, with audiences cheering, on some sort of national tour.  (Maybe you remember Susan Boyle?)  That’s part of the appeal of shows like The Voice, or American Idol, or the “Golden Buzzer” of America’s Got Talent.

Now what if Susan Boyle is a tween, and you’re her mom…?

In this session, I’m interviewing Kristen Wylie, a friend and actually a former coworker of mine.  She is the mother of two daughters: 12 year old Amanda, and 9 year old Katie, from Franklin, Massachusetts.  Her two daughters had been taking singing, acting, and dancing lessons, and really enjoyed performing.  On a whim while in New York, they joined several hundred other girls during an open call for the third national touring production of Annie.  Listen to the interview to hear their own rags-to-riches story, and maybe get a vicarious thrill for the next time you dream of your voice being discovered.

Here are some links to the clips I’ve included in the episode, if you want to hear more than just the clips:





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
  • The women’s chorus singing barbershop style is a clip from the 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.