In appreciation of Ives and Psalm 90

I’ll have many musical highlights from my 2022 Tanglewood residency — the soaring shouts of the chorus in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, finally feeling comfortable enough with pronouncing the Russian in Shostakovich’s Third, and the double bass entrance in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that almost brings me to tears every time I hear it before we sing. That said, the most musically satisfying part of the weekend will be our performance of Charles Ives’ Psalm 90 as the prelude to the Beethoven Ninth on Sunday afternoon.

The piece itself, written in 1924, is primarily choral, accompanied by an organ, three racks of bells, and a gong. As a modernist composer, Ives is known for experimenting with polytonality, polyrhythm, and tone clusters… so I won’t lie, I was trepidatious upon learning it was on the program. A casual first listening verifies that, yes, many parts sound cacophonous to an ear expecting predictable cadences and chord progressions. In general, I don’t gravitate to modern pieces that revel in dissonance and gimmicks, and at first glance, Psalm 90 feels like one of those – obscure and intellectual just for the sake of being outrageous and challenging. But I read that Ives claimed this piece was “the only one of his works that satisfied him.” It took immersing myself in it to better understand its laudable cleverness and layered meaning.

First off, I’m a sucker for tone painting, be it lions leaping and worms crawling in Haydn’s The Creation, or the galloping horse in Schubert’s Die Erlkönig. Here, Ives even goes so far as to preview on the page who the musical dramatis personae are. The C major chord is “The Eternities;” a heavily dissonant chord is “God’s wrath against sin,” then followed by some mysterious chords for “Prayer and Humility,” and finally a quiet passage for “Rejoicing in Beauty and Work.” That low C from the organ plays throughout the entire piece, representing God’s constancy (and a great anchor for pre-tuning our tougher entrances.)

A-flat major on the bottom, then C minor, then E-flat major, then G minor…

Throughout, words like anger, wrath, destruction, and flood are accompanied by that heavily dissonant chord to communicate their accompanying ruin. But in preparing us for this piece, our conductor James Burton showed us that the notes in those dissonant chords actually have a very specific internal relationship. Take any three adjacent voices and they form a major or minor chord, laddering up by fifths. By the time you get to the top soprano note, it’s a half-step off of the bass note. Together it may sound like a mess, but it’s intentional and distinctive, and each voice can find anchors above and below to tune to and establish those resonances. Pretty clever, and it recurs throughout the piece despite the constancy of God’s C underneath it.

I underlined the words with stress to try and stay in time with everyone

In fact, what stands out about this piece is how unified and together the chorus must be, listening to each other, never being the first one in or the last one out. Take, for instance, the chanted verses. There’s no written pattern, no conducting… the chorus must feel the collective rhythm of the phrases and stay together. “The days of our years are three score years and ten…” in four beats… okay, go! It fits those verses: humanity musing and reflecting together.

Another innovative moment is in the middle of the piece, where the time between each note goes from 9 sixteenth counts… to 8… to 7, 6, all the way down to one, as the chorus further and further subdivides itself until we reach a giant cluster of notes (on “wrath,” no less)… then by 1 beat, 2, 3, 4, all the way back up to 9, we come back together and find unison. Sounds like there’s a message there, too.

There are other subtleties in the music too, like the verse about “from one generation to another… to another… to another.” The music gets quieter and “drifts,” like each generation inheriting from the previous but evolving… which again Ives notes in the text.

Out of this earlier recitation of chaos come the later verses, bringing us the others from the introduction: first prayer, then beauty. We basses chant on a C for almost the entire ending, mirroring the “God foundation on constancy” from before. There’s one mention of “evil” that sneaks in to interrupt the peace, like a bad memory briefly surfacing to interrupt one’s meditation… but the last few minutes of the piece construct this sublime ethereal beauty that hangs in the air as the chimes echo like distant church bells, with us getting softer and softer until the final peaceful Amen. It completes the journey of mankind causing our own downfall time and time again, yet pulling together to glorify the work we do as one. It’s a breathless experience that reaffirms my faith in humanity, that we will get out of the way of ourselves, each time I hear it.

James himself is conducting the piece for our performance, which has provided the opportunity to cue in specifically on his gestures and exhortations, rather than having to translate that to another conductor. I’m very much looking forward to sharing what should be a nice complement to the B9’s message of joy.

Preparing the Britten War Requiem

Next weekend the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. My initial trepidation at taking on this modern piece – for the first time, for me – has been replaced with the familiar joy of being fully immersed in learning a choral work until you feel it in your bones. And given the situation in Ukraine, its inherent pleading for peace is a powerful statement for our times.

But first let me say, what a joy it is to be back to singing again, and at performances for the first time without masks since before the pandemic. Mind you, we could be singing a three part harmony of “row, row, row your boat” on stage and I’d still probably find it satisfying. Taking on this great work is all gravy.

If you’re not familiar with the Britten War Requiem, first understand that it’s fairly recent compared to other well-known choral requiem settings. There’s no classical Mozart or romantic Verdi here! Composed to celebrate the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral after its destruction in World War II, the piece premiered in 1962 in England, and with the BSO in 1963. Like many other 20th century pieces, it explores a lot of non-traditional, dissonant harmonies and chord progressions, including using “the devil’s interval” (a tritone) as a recurring motif. What better way to depict the horrors of war? And while you’re unlikely to walk out of a performance humming any catchy melodies, the complex effect of its many emotional, technical, and tonal layers has left many listeners overwhelmed by the experience.

Getting one’s arms around the piece was, at first, a chore. Just learning what connected to what, untangling the odder chromatic passages, and deciphering how on earth were we to get our next entrance from the preceding notes… it necessitated more than a few evenings at the piano or blasting Cyberbass, score in hand, methodically pounding out the notes and singing along. It was akin to intentionally getting lost in a new city until you learn how to get from here to there. Soon, the geography of the piece made sense – not just the flow of the six movements, but their connective tissue. Learning it became much easier with tips and tricks from our choral conductor, James Burton, who regularly pointed out hidden logic to the harmonies or framed the exercise of finding those chromatic entrance notes within an existing tonal progression. He’d have us convert staggered stretto entrances into block chords, or just sing the first note of succeeding sessions, and suddenly what was “how am I going to find that” became “oh, we’re just singing in G minor, down the scale.” He also relentlessly worked with us on deciphering the rhythms: syncopations, hemiolas, time signatures wavering between 3/4 and 4/4, 6/8 and 9/8, or 5/4 and 7/4… the distinctive elements of its unique sound.

As we head into our tech week and begin working with the maestro (Sir Antonio Pappano) and the children’s chorus, I feel like I finally have the whole piece in my head. My score has pencil markings all over the place: circles and arrows to show me where to get certain notes, vertical slashes to help me keep track of the beat when time signatures change, and tips from James on how to approach sections. My pencil even yells at me to “Count!” and “sing longer” and even “Ignore Greg!” — the last because to my right is a Bass 1 who has sometimes been asked to double tenor entrances, which kept making me think I’d missed an entrance. More importantly, getting all the technical details down means we can start moving past them to the emotional content: the pleading of the Libera me, the fury and destruction of the Dies irae and Confutatis maledictis, the sadness of the Lacrymosa, the peaceful rest of the finale. Let me tell you, the moment in the quam olem Abrahae, after the chorus has sung about God’s promise to Abraham, and then the Wilfred Owen poem diverts from the Biblical story with “But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one” is just chilling.

We’re all looking forward to a great performance of this masterpiece and taking the audience on that emotional journey with us.

Rediscovering singing

So, it turns out I still like singing.

You may have thought that a given. Why would there be any doubt? Heck, I’ve got a whole blog dedicated to the subject, and decades of ensemble singing experience. So why is there a question?

Well, yeah. Turns out there was a question.

It had been almost 18 months since I had truly sung with a proper group of singers. That was back in December 2019, as part of my 22nd tour of duty with the Holiday Pops concerts at Symphony Hall.

One insidious aspect of the global switch to video conferencing is that it gave a semblance of normalcy to everyone’s ability to accomplish work. For white collar workers like myself, I could still attend meetings, exchange ideas, and finish deliverables, and a variable fraction of a second delay in the video feed wasn’t a big deal. As many aspiring chorus collaborators learned, that delay completely prevented any hope of collaborative singing. Try it yourself the next time you’re on Zoom — see how impossible it is to synchronize your clapping with anyone on the call. So while the rest of the world limped along, all live performances of two or more groups ground to a halt.

Virtual choirs? We had been warned about their inability to satisfy the singers, but many of us, desperate for our singing fix, charged ahead with a few initiatives anyways. My wife and I gleefully jumped at the chance to be part of a few Holiday Pops virtual performances. We got all dressed up, rehearsed and rehearsed, set up the iPhone cameras, and had a good time producing satisfying solo recordings to be part of the composite performance. We recorded a few duets in our home. We fooled around with multi-track recordings of ourselves. We helped church choirs create virtual anthems, including Advent and Christmas performances… and I got a lot better at Final Cut Pro.

But it was not ensemble singing. None of it was.

When a part of your life disappears for so long, you begin to not notice it’s missing. Humans are good at adapting that way. We adapt to the new freedoms and responsibilities of life after high school. We adapt to the pain in our joints as we get older. We adapt to mask-wearing and extra sanitizing in a pandemic. We adapt to the loss of loved ones. In each case, we adjust to the new reality and try to retain memories of the old one. But like Chicharron’s final death in Coco, those memories fade if not renewed.

And so, like everyone else reprioritizing their lives in the pandemic era, I begin to doubt.

Did I like singing any more? It was a question I mentally asked myself now and then, once the opportunity was taken away. Might this be the right time to hang up the vocal cleats, and retire from the onus of rehearsal commitments? After all, it was rather nice as a family to not spend December 2020 playing schedule Jenga so we could rush back and forth to Symphony Hall and tag team our way through 18 holiday concerts. Not to mention having the summer free, even if travel was limited by the pandemic. Sure, the chorus has been an integral part of not only my life, from proposing to my wife on stage to tons of Symphony Hall and Tanglewood concert, but also my the rest of my family as well. But college was part of my life. Regular hockey and basketball games were part of my life. Various companies were part of my life. Life moves on.

Besides, singing at a high level takes constant practice to maintain, and extra work to catch up if there’s a hiatus. It’s like how professional athletes out of the sport for a few years can’t jump back in without a lot of training or rehab. Since singing is an avocation not a vocation for me, I don’t possess the time or discipline to maintain it on my own.

The pandemic permanently changed a lot of attitudes. Wearing masks during the winter now seems like a great way to avoid the flu. In 2019 I would have said that there’s no way I’d ever want to work remote full time; now we’re considering office/home hybrid schedules. Who needs movie theaters, 100+ cable stations, or live TV? Streaming services solved that problem. I could feel my attitude towards singing changing too.

On top of all this, as the chair of our chorus committee for 2020, my negative associations with the chorus grew as we faced month after month of no good news about singing in the future. All of the drama, none of the reward. The committee tried valiantly to plan virtual events to keep disaffected chorus members connected, because at some undetermined point in the future, we’d jump on the risers again. Hopefully. If enough people were left to do so.

I began to wonder if maybe I, too, was one of those disaffected choristers who didn’t miss singing so much.

Until last Sunday.

Sunday, ten friends, all of us experienced choral singers, assembled at a friend’s house out in western Massachusetts with a purpose. One of our number was getting married in a few weeks. With mask restrictions lifting and fully vaccinated invitees attending, he wanted a choral piece sung as part of the ceremony — specifically, this gorgeous arrangement of If Music Be The Food of Love by David Dickau.

All of us had copies of the music so we could learn notes on our own beforehand, to make the time together as productive as possible. Even then, once we sat in our semi-circle, we spent 5 minutes with our pencils going through the score together and agreeing on phrasing, breaths, dynamics, articulation, and divisi. We had a pre-recorded accompaniment, but someone had volunteered to conduct so we could watch her instead of guessing at timing ourselves. There was comfort in the ritual of marking up the score, like checking the tires for air and tightening the brakes before getting on that bike again.

And then we hit play, and started singing together.

In one of my favorite fantasy novels, there’s a scene in which the heroine has to spar with a friendly opponent. It’s not a big deal for him, but for her it’s the first time she’s picked up a sword since a terrible ordeal that left her physically and mentally crippled, and unable to fight. She had gone through a long process of healing, and suddenly the moment had come upon her to find out if she could do it again:

“With the clash of the blades her mind seemed to clear a little. Her arm moved of itself, countering his first slow strokes[…] If this, then that. The elbow bent so allows the angle here – she met each stroke squarely. It felt as if she were learning all over again: she had to think about almost every move. More came back to her; she tried a thrust past his guard. Blocked: but he looked surprised. So was she. Her body moved less stiffly, the sword began to feel natural in her hand again[…] “Enough.” […] She felt dizzy with relief: she had not dropped the sword, had not run away, had not fainted.”

That’s what I was feeling. No matter how much I had practiced solo, or harmonized with my wife, it was nothing compared to following a conductor and going through the actions of staying in unison with your stand partner, tuning to the other parts, feeling out the rhythm together, and achieving a group consensus of how you would distill the soul of the composer for an audience. It quickly became familiar in an overwhelming rush of unlocked memories. And… we sounded gorgeous. The harmonies, the interplay of the overtones, the legato, the swaying movement of the phrases… it was an in-your-face reminder that recordings never fully capture live performances, that listening is no substitute for creating, and that an experienced group of singers can manufacture joy.

I got emotional. I had to drop out after the first few bars, and then when I tried to come back in on the second page, I got choked up again and had to gather myself.

The rest of the 90 minutes or so was us going about the usual process of turning 80-90% good into 95-98% good. Balance and dynamics issues. Missed notes and cutoffs. Finding better places to breathe. Agreeing on how long a fermata should be, given our tempo was dictated by the recorded accompaniment. Rediscovering those breathing muscles to stretch 4-bar phrases into 8-bar phrases. Given everyone’s experience, we could self-regulate enough to identify problems and implement solutions.

So now I’m all in again. The wedding in a few weeks will already be a cause for celebration: certainly for our friend’s marriage but also for the opportunity to be with 50+ people in one place. Now, we can add another reason: a first live performance in 18 months, and the dispelling of doubt about my love of singing. It may not be till the end of this year that we’re singing as a chorus again. But at the downbeat, I’ll be ready.

Happy 50th Anniversary, TFC

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the chorus I’ve called my home since 1998.

Right now I’m sitting here in our den, listening to a WCRB broadcast from October 2018. That night I was on stage with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus singing an Einfelde meditation, followed by Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (one of my all-time favorite pieces). Listening to the performance warms my heart… as did the virtual toast with 50+ past and current chorus members before the concert.  Together we raised a glass in celebration of all the chorus has accomplished in five decades.

The TFC is special to me. It’s where I met (and later proposed to) my beautiful Tangle-wife. It’s dominated my Decembers for 22 Holiday Pops season. It’s been the destination for countless “adult sleep away camp” summer trips, first by myself, then with my wife, then with our kids. It’s given me a musical focus and an outlet for the creative side of my brain. And this year, by volunteering as the chair of the TFC Committee, it’s become an even more integral part of my life. So the chorus’s 50th milestone can’t help but be a special occasion for my family. It would be a privilege just to sing one concert on stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall or out on the Tanglewood grounds… and now my “privilege” is showing, because I’ve lost count of the hundreds of times I’ve mounted the risers to make music with this ensemble.

Today is also a special day for many TFC members and alumni who came to the chorus through John Oliver, the founder of the chorus who led us for 45 of its 50 years, as it’s also the anniversary of his death two years ago. I’ve written extensively about John’s influence on all of us, and how much he personally meant to me as a gateway to choral singing, a philosophical muse , and a musical north star. Many of us owe so much to him for the guidance he provided, both musically and personally. We will always cherish his memory and an underlying foundation for the chorus’s spirit.

Now, under James Burton’s leadership, the chorus’s story continues. We are all growing musically and finding even greater fulfillment through our performances.  The chorus’s reputation is growing, earning us opportunities we’d never had before to sing unaccompanied (or lightly accompanied) on the Symphony Hall stage, or even on the main stage at the Shed.  As a choral unit, we’re pushing our envelope to achieve a precision and uniformity of sound, even when singing for what were once throwaway Pops concerts. The culture of continuous improvement is spreading. I have high hopes for what we’ll achieve in the next decade and beyond, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.

Because of the global pandemic, we did not get to celebrate the 50th anniversary as originally planned, with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers as quasi-Easter vigil service out at the new Tanglewood Learning Institute. Like many other events during the pandemic, no doubt it’ll be rescheduled so we can more properly mark the moment. But until then, the broadcast performance, the toasts, the shared memories and reflections, and our “happy 50th” cake will suffice!



Don’t want to leave “On Leaving”

This weekend we are performing Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony again, as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s efforts to record the full cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. But the piece I’m more looking forward to luxuriating in is Grigorjeva’s “On Leaving,” a mostly a capella modern composition influenced by 15th-17th century traditions of Russian polyphonic singing and sacred poetry.

You may not be familiar with this composer – I sure wasn’t. Galina Grigorjeva was born in Ukraine in 1962 but now lives in Estonia. Her works often highlight polyphonic layers and Slavonic sacred music, and “On Leaving” is no exception. While the piece briefly features a tenor soloist, a flautist, and some triangles, it is primarily a showcase for the chorus, given its pervasive atmosphere of ancient monk-like chants. She sources the text from prayers in the Orthodox church service book, “[…] on the Hour of Leaving of Orthodox Souls” and “On Burying Lay People.” Though the text is Russian, it might as well be Latin; it has underlying meaning but functions more as a vehicle for the sustained harmonies and interwoven rhythms.


Mechanically, the piece demands a massive amount of concentration and intelligent breath control. It’s been a long time since I’ve counted to 8 for double whole notes in a piece, but long quasi-measured phrases call for it several times. Our conductor, James Burton, warned us today not to be fooled by so many white notes — producing them (and handling the breathing) cannot be boring. Each sustained note has to have a direction and a meaning within the local phrasing as well as the overall direction. He’s worked meticulously with us to make sure we are vertically tuned and aligned, that our counting and cutoffs are crisp, and that when we breathe, it’s with intent and purpose.

The combined effect of these opulent, sometimes discordant arrivals is the creation of an astoundingly beautiful meditative space. Even in the more somber parts, the beauty shines through; James described them as “like a dark cloud covering the sunny day.”

img_6235The second movement in particular is challenging (except for us basses, who have the luxury of holding pedal tones throughout). Parts overlap in rhythms of 4’s, 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s to create this many layered buildup of individual phrases stacked like warm covers on your bed in the winter. It reminds me very much of the second half of Part 7 of the St. John Passion by James MacMillan, a composer who also favored melismas and stacks of voices at different related rhythms. In both cases, the singing complexities lead to a transformative effect that’s hard to describe. It overloads your brain so that you stop perceiving individual lines and exist instead inside an expanded head space.

One other note worth mentioning. In our final piano rehearsal, we reached a moment where the chorus fused tightly together, as if we broke through the copious notes and adjustments and aligned to express the piece as a unit. It was exhilarating to finally reach “flow,” not just for this piece but as a chorus as a whole – the last time I felt that strongly was during the Pizzetti prelude performance two summers ago. James praised us for it afterwards, momentarily dropping his focus on technical fixes to encourage us to search for that moment again in performance. And personally, I love that we got far enough past the technical corrections to earn some coaching on how to distill the soul of the composer. There is a spirituality that this piece can’t help but communicate. We are going to change at least one audience member’s life when they witness this piece. I’m looking forward to it.

(We’re performing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday evenings, though the Grigorjeva piece is not on the program Friday night.)

Peace on Earth

I’ve never been so physically affected by a piece as I was by listening to a stunning performance of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. 

This Sunday marked the closing concert of the Tanglewood 2019 summer season, and per tradition, it included a rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth enjoyed by all.  But that piece was prefaced by a first: the chorus singing on the Shed stage unaccompanied, with our chorus director James Burton conducting.  It was a reprise of Friede auf Erden, the closing number for the Friday prelude concert that I had missed. I was determined to hear it up close. So I waved my chorus pass in the faces of ushers and grabbed a good spot in the back row seats.

The piece is unrelentingly challenging for a chorus to sing — so much so, that Schoenberg was forced to write an instrumental accompaniment to support initial chorus performances. The tonality of the piece is constantly swirling, in complex voice leading dances that literally measure by measure transform from one harmonic space to the next. Triads are superimposed atop other triads.  A note that’s the third in one chord suddenly pivots in context to become the fifth of another.  The recurring word Friede has a theme that’s an odd but distinct juxtaposition of major chords.

Before the concert, I had experienced only brief flashes of the piece through some additional rehearsals that our conductor had arranged during my previous residencies.  He intended them as a jump start for choristers singing in this residency, but non-participants like me could join in. Those sing-throughs reminded me of the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. As the parable goes, since each can only feel one part of the elephant at a time, they can’t truly explain or understand the whole beast. In those rehearsals, James often broke the piece down into two to four measure chunks, and walked through the extensive theory behind the phrases in each part. Here the basses were in one tonality, but pivoted two measures later to a related tonality as flats became sharps.  The sopranos get their entry note here, from this tenor note there; the altos and basses should target tuning to this perfect fifth like so, because they’re leading the way for the other voices to turn the dominant into the new tonic, and so on. James patiently (and excitedly) talked through the harmonic logic like a magician showing an apprentice where to hide the foam balls to make the trick work. I walked away from that with an appreciation of the complexity of the piece… but I only got to feel the trunk and the tusks.

With translation in hand, I sat with rapt attention and quickly lost myself in the piece. An MRI on my brain would have shown it lighting up all over, trying to keep pace with the harmonies, but also suddenly appreciating the powerful story being told. Divorced from the clinical this-then-this nature of the rehearsal segments, the totality of the piece consumed my cognition. At the warmup, James told the chorus singers that above all, they should move the audience. Fully concentrated on what I was hearing, I was subsumed by the emotional subtexts and subtleties that I had no idea were buried in the twists and turns of the harmonics. Somehow James and the chorus were bringing them out.  My invisible internal objects were fully connected as dissonant counterpoints became dramatic storytelling.

Then, at the closing lines of the piece…. how do I explain this? As the powerful choral forces climaxed and came into alignment with a brilliant D major finale, my shoulders started uncontrollably heaving.  There were no tears in my eyes, but my upper body just sort of began convulsing as if I were sobbing.  I felt so shaken by the enormity of the anti-war, somewhat naive message of hope: denouncing the complexity of our world and its faults, the bloody swords and shameful behavior of its population, with angels pleading for us to return to the Peace on Earth message they proclaimed at the Nativity, and us unable to get there on our own… but that some day we will get there, and that peace will once again be glorious. I was overcome for a few moments by the beauty and futility of it all right before the applause started, and then as the applause died I had sort of an aftershock as I returned to our family’s picnic spread.

To my wife, and all the other chorus members of that performance: all the hard work you put into perfecting those chromatic turns, aligning vertically with other parts, chanting text in warmups together, and pushing to get that last 5% of performance perfection… know that it was worth it and you achieved something monumental.  I can’t speak for what Beethoven-loving Romantic-era-craving audience members thought of it, but I was deeply moved. Congratulations.

Suffering, oppression, and struggle

Russian Soviet Army Fur Military Cossack Ushanka Hat (Black, 60 (L))страданье, гнет, and борьба!  The Russian words for “suffering, oppression, and struggle” sum up the Russian gestalt, as my good friend the Crazy Russian Dad confirmed. (He also suggested the chorus buy and wear these Ushanka hats, but alas, I don’t think they meet the summer dress code.) That is the world we’re entering as our chorus finalizes its preparation to sing Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony on Friday evening at Tanglewood.

Both our Russian diction coach (Olga Lisovksaya) and BSO conductor Andris Nelsons spoke to us about the Soviet legacy, since both grew up under its shadow. They recounted the brainwashing in schools insisting that Lenin was the country’s god and savior. The two implored us to get past the distasteful propaganda-heavy text and sing the music for what it was. But honestly, I didn’t think that was too hard. Every time we sing a piece we are acting, whether we’re pleading to be spared God’s wrath, gluttonously worshipping false gods, or sadly bidding farewell to our maimed star-crossed king.  Heck, for Holiday Pops, Christian chorus members sing joyful Hanukkah songs and Jewish chorus members sing reverently about the Nativity. Is this that different?

This symphony, however, is odd. The composition includes some “abstract music” with unusual layering effects. It was commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.  Shostakovich himself didn’t like the results, calling his 2nd and 3rd symphonies “completely unsatisfactory,” as he struggled setting the words to music.  The piece itself is rarely performed, unless a group (such as the BSO) decides to do a Shostakovich cycle. In fact, our choral scores were assembled just for us: the Cyrillic transliterated, the music photocopied, the pages spliced together from disparate parts. 

Having somehow dodged performing Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, I finally had to learn how to pronounce Russian consonants and vowels that don’t exist in the English language (hint: it’s all in how you palatalize your tongue). I learned to be a good little Soviet who can sing the praises of Ленин and his revolution. 

If you’re listening this Friday night, here’s what to expect during these 20 minutes. The first section reportedly represents the chaos before order emerged, as clusters of instruments compete for attention. Then, there’s a meditative section described by Shostakovich as depicting a child killed on the streets. After that, more funky music including some beautiful solos.  And then the triumphant propaganda of the Oktober Revolution by Lenin, jarringly introduced by (I kid you not) a factory siren. In fact, Andris and the orchestra are still debating whether the siren should go full blast or stop at an F# for us to tune to.

While it won’t go down as my favorite Tanglewood performance, it’s been fun to lean into the role of devoted proletarians. At one point, Andris told us he didn’t think we were capturing the fervent adoration of the cult of Lenin when we shout his slogans before the finale, so he gave us this direction in his halting English: “I haven’t partaken of this, but… you know that new cannabis store that opened by the highway, with lines of cars around the block? Act like you’ve been there.” That’s right, baby… we’re high on Lenin this Friday!

What to expect in this Verdi Requiem

If you’re a Verdi Requiem fan and are attending the performance tonight (or listening to it on streaming), what should you expect from a performance led by Andris Nelsons?

It won’t be the wildly varied performance led by Maestro Montanero at Tanglewood six years ago. Nelsons is steady and efficient with his tempi, with predictable accelerandos and allargandos, taking space where it’s needed without luxuriating in the gaps.  He lets the Verdi’s composition bring the drama, rather than indulging in it himself.

It won’t be the deliciously dramatic affair six months before that, led by Maestro Gatti, with his choral tricks to help us achieve the effects he wanted. In the prep work, Nelsons presented very few wacky innovations or interpretative variations to make the piece his own. Sure, he wants to evoke terror and desperation in the Dies Irae, to evoke solemn prayer in the Agnus Dei, to evoke tragedy and loss in the Lacrymosa, and a sense of wonder for the Great Amen to close the second movement. That’s all good in my mind — these choices aren’t revolutionary, they’re true to the Verdi Requiem.

In other words, what you should expect is a well-executed, traditionally realized, solid performance of a piece for the ages.

A few places where fans of the Verdi Requiem may notice something special:

  • Vertical tuning. This is an area that our choral conductor James Burton always emphasizes, but I think it makes a noticeable difference in the a capella sections. It’s the mentality of “don’t just sing your note – listen to the other parts and tune to a B-flat minor chord,” or “as the root, you’re the fifth of this inverted chord, basses, so tune it higher.”
  • Stronger marcato on the Dies Irae moving parts.  Nelsons took extra time with the descending voices, and the orchestra parts that double them. He wanted to ensure that in the iconic Dies Irae chant, they swing through with stronger weight at the end of the phrase.
  • A deeper Libera me chant. The one innovation that Nelsons gave us is something I’ve never seen or heard before in six concert runs. He asked any basses who could go down the octave during the restless chanting in the opening of the final movement to do so… and not to restrict ourselves to pianissimo. It certainly gives it a weightier, darker sound.

As for the soloists, I’m a big fan of Ryan Speedo Green, and the gravitas and power he brings to the bass part. The four of them have strengths and weaknesses, and were still learning to be an ensemble together during their first run through on Friday. Hopefully they’ll earn more praise than criticism in the inevitable reviews.

Choir dynamics and hula hoops

Performing a piece like the Verdi Requiem is an exercise in extremes. To meet those extremes, the chorus must stay closely connected — a tough exercise that’s reminiscent of a frustrating hula hoop team building exercise.

Verdi, embracing the Italian stereotype, composes everything over-dramatically using severe contrasts. (You can almost see him wildly gesticulating with his hands about how loud or how soft he wants each section to be.) When first performed, critics said his Requiem was too much like one of his operas instead of a sacred piece. Look at any part of the score and you’ll probably see the chorus told to sing either pianissimo or fortissimo.  Sometimes even ppp or fff.  Sometimes even ppppp!  And even then there are internal gradations… it may say pp in one phrase, but then say düster (darker, more melancholy) or “a little less so” or some other direction in color or tone to show yet another contrast.  And don’t get me started on the subito piano moments when you suddenly drop from loud to an intense quiet.

Loud is relatively easy for a choir to do together. The tricky part is to not oversing and to listen to each other rather than “leading.”  The conductor then balances the orchestra volume (because when it’s orchestra vs. chorus, the orchestra can always win.)

But quiet… quiet is another matter entirely, especially given the heavy orchestral scoring which often features lots of brass.  It’s way too easy to sing, as some have jokingly called it, mezzofortissimo.  Yeah, you know this is supposed to be quiet, but hey, I can barely hear myself over others, so maybe a little louder… a little louder… until those dynamic contrasts are washed away by a middling volume.

It reminds me of the hula hoop team building exercise I mentioned. Now when I say “team building,” what I really mean is “team shattering,” because the first stage of the exercise usually devolves into everyone yelling at each other. Everyone stands in a circle and holds out pointer fingers, and a moderator balances a hula hoop on them. The goal is to lower the hoop as far as possible, without it ever losing contact with a teammate’s fingers. In practice, what happens is the hoop keeps getting higher and higher because you always feel like someone else (the singers next to you, the orchestra) is going higher than you, and you feel compelled to correct for it.

The only way to successfully get the hoop lower is to work together, to trust that others are doing what they’re asked to do, and to communicate and coordinate clearly.  What a coincidence – that’s how to maintain a pianissimo against the desire to produce a louder sound.

During our chorus’s initial piano rehearsal of the week, it felt like many of our pp‘s had become mp’s and that we weren’t getting enough contrast. But by the first orchestra rehearsal, we achieved the feat of being told we were too quiet for one passage. (The solution was not to sing louder; rather, Andris Nelsons held back the orchestra even further.) We have plenty of other places, however, where our mezzofortissimo is showing. That means more ensemble work needed before Saturday to get that hula hoop moving in the right direction.


The Half-Blood Prince’s Verdi Score

When you’ve sung the Verdi Requiem several times, including a few times with the same choral score, your score starts to look like it belongs to the Half-Blood Prince.

Harry Potter fans will recognize the reference. In the sixth book of the series, Harry accidentally ends up with a beaten-up Potions textbook from someone called “The Half-Blood Prince” that has all sorts of scribbles in the margins and strange recipe modifications. He soon learns that if he follows the annotations, he outperforms classmates who are going strictly by the book.

My score has notes from past me’s scattered throughout: circled notes in tricky passages, eyeglasses warning me when to watch for a new tempo, pronunciation reminders, emotional tones to convey, explicit phrasing indicators, dynamic corrections, and other modifications inherited from previous conductors who had reached some areas of consensus for how the piece should be performed.

This is not without its disadvantages. The helpful quarter-rest out given to you three choruses ago to let you tackle the next fugue strongly may not be what the current conductor wants. So you have to be judicious in deciding what scribbles to keep and what notes to erase.

The danger of all this – as it was to Harry Potter in the books – is trusting the notes too much, and falling prey to the sense of complacency that comes from having sung a piece many times. Yes, I could walk in without rehearsals and sing One must always be hungry for more. One must always improve.

Just as a good actor knows his lines but a great actor knows everyone’s lines… or how a good team leader understands his role, but a great team leader understands how to bring out the best of each teammate’s abilities…  a good chorister knows his part down cold, but a great chorister knows not only his notes but also how he relates to the other parts.

Our conductor James continues to ask us to focus on vertical alignment and listening to each other.  That means knowing that third of the chord or the fifth of an inverted chord needs to be a little sharper.  Or that the women and men in the Lacyrmosa movement dance around each other as countermelodies.  Or that our opening theme should be strong in each fugue entrance but then fade into the tapestry afterwards. It’s those sorts of advances that take us beyond what’s on autopilot and lets us truly live each performance as if it were our first.

That’s what I’m striving for from this performance.