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.

Thoughts after a successful reaudition

It’s been over a month since I got the gratifying news that my 21 years of service with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus would be extended at least another two years. A month is enough distance from the excitement, relief, and sorrow to reflect on what this means.

I don’t take this for granted. Though many more cuts to the membership happened in the first year, cuts did happen, and it’s hard not to see those members leave without pondering how I would feel and what I would have done. I told myself I would have finished out the summer and gone right back and re-auditioned next year, but those bold words are easier from this vantage point. I know it must hurt.

Those auditioning could receive renewals of up to three years, but I think my two years was quite fair given how it went. I know I’m pretty good at providing what our conductor James Burton is looking for. But I also know that I have a lot to work on, whether it be better breath control, tuning my ear to other parts, or finding that resonating ‘ping’ that sometimes eludes me. I’m improving how quickly I can achieve that alignment and get it right. I need to keep working until I can’t get it wrong.

I can also sense a confidence spreading across the chorus – a confidence that we belong. Until passing the re-audition, in the back of your head everyone wonders “does James want what I’m offering, or is my time here limited?” Once you’re through at least once, you’ve reaffirmed that you belong. At this point, everyone in the chorus has either passed a re-audition or was given three years right after the sing-in… so “we all belong.” It reminds me of when I worked for a company that started administering an aptitude test to all candidates before they were hired; those who failed didn’t even get an interview. They even asked current employees to take it as well. Though many proclaimed the process obnoxious, after a year of this, you knew that virtually everyone in the company had objectively demonstrated competence. It raised your trust. You knew you wouldn’t have to cover for someone, or be dragged down because someone didn’t have the ability to succeed.

That said, I’m reminded of stories about how newly elected members of the House of Representatives start thinking about the next election right away. I’ve got two years to build on my strengths and repair my weaknesses, so that I can go into the 2021 re-audition with even more confidence. Onward to this summer’s performances of the Verdi Requiem, another go at Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and a whole lot of Russian for Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony!

Good, not great – and now, the wait

All in all, I had a delightful (re)audition experience, even if my final performance was not as great as I wanted it to be.

The whole day, I felt like I had swallowed a potion of felix felicis — I was in an inexplicably good mood.  But as I traveled over to Symphony Hall, I could feel my heart rate climbing and the back of my neck sweating.  Thankfully, I had a good half hour plus to warm up and try to physically calm myself down.

What I learned… is it’s very different to sing under those physical conditions!  I could feel some elements of my technique slipping, and I missed a few full breaths that left me  scrambling for air at the end of two long phrases.  I acquitted myself on my solo selection despite those issues, and I did fine on the slower-than-expected-tempo prepared piece (except for a very unfortunate part where I mangled a word, and that threw me for such a loop that I got ahead by a beat – still not sure how I did either of those, but I reset and soldiered through to the end.)  I was pleased with my sight reading: even if my breathing was terrible and I had to stop once in each piece, I thought I got intervals and dynamics and rhythm pretty darn well for reading.  And the ear training?  A lot harder than what I had been practicing, frankly, but I think my solid music theory and my ear got me through it.  It was not my best possible performance — always more you could have done, right? — yet it was one I’m proud of.  I know my voice has developed significantly over the past few years, and despite the flaws I believe I showed what I came to show.

I may have fought off physical symptoms, but mentally I felt completely at ease.  That was in part because James Burton was more of a host than an adjudicator; he came bearing welcoming smiles and knowing nods, full of the same enthusiasm and energy he brings to rehearsals.  (Maybe because I was #2 on day 2; I hope he can sustain his gusto all the way to #8 on the final day of reauditions!)  They even arranged for the accompanist to come over to the practice rooms to run through my solo piece and get tempo and markings, rather than winging it within the chorus room — truly a luxury for an audition!  It was more than fair.  Maybe it was lingering effects of that luck potion, but it felt like everyone on staff wanted all of us to succeed.

I’m still bemused that, despite my confidence, the body still betrayed the mind.  Perhaps the next time I do an audition, I’ll heed a suggestion from a conversation with the assistant chorus manager: she’s heard of violinists who run up and down stairs before practicing for an audition, to simulate the shaky hands and pounding chest that often comes with the territory.

In the meantime, it’s a few weeks’ wait until the results are announced.  I’m thinking positive and expecting a three year renewal.  I would understand a one year renewal.  If I’m not renewed, then I think I’d still sing this summer and then plan to audition again.  I have too much left to sing.

Tomorrow is my re-audition day

Tomorrow, around 6:15, I’ll walk into the chorus room at Symphony Hall. I’ll smile and turn to the panel of evaluators, and confidently answer their question, “What will you be singing for us?” with “Roger Quilter’s Dream Valley, from Three Songs by William Blake,” and give each of them a copy. I’ll stroll over to the accompanist and hand over another copy, and quietly sing the first two bars to set the tempo. Then I’ll take my place, music-less, and smile as the opening notes remind me of the key. I’ll wiggle my shoulders a little to get comfortable as I tilt my head downwards, opening the back of my throat and keeping my larynx correctly positioned. I’ll remember to breathe from my upper lungs not just my diaphragms for full breaths. And I’ll sing with a knowing smile, while hitting the breaths and phrase shapes and dynamics that I’ve been practicing over the last 4-6 weeks. I’ll put to use the extra coaching I received from a master class and private lesson, and be in the moment.

Once completed, I’ll turn for my music folder and pick up the Finzi excerpt we were asked to prepare. I’ll come in perfectly on time and sing the three minutes of high and low music across several key, tempo, and color changes, with great cutoffs. I’ll finish on my final low note with another smile.

Then I’ll receive one to two sight singing pieces to work through. They’ll be unfamiliar pieces, but straightforward enough in rhythm with some tricky intervals and tonality changes. I won’t get them all right and that’s to be expected while reading a piece, but I’ll do well enough to be pleased.

Finally, I’ll tackle the ear training session, naming intervals, singing middle notes of major and minor chords, picking out 4ths and 6ths from established tonalities. I’ll treat it mentally as a game, just like the app I was using to quiz myself over the last few months.

I write all this down because this is my affirmation to myself. This is the visualization I’ve run through in my head each night and each morning. I can see the room; I can hear myself singing; I can feel the sense of triumph as I finish my solo selection. It’s always been important for me to set goals and to visualize success, and I walk into this re-audition feeling confident and secure. A part of me fears the Dunning-Kruger effect, where less competent people think they’re better than they actually are. But I know how much I don’t know, and how much better people who have studied all their lives are than me. I don’t aspire to be the best. I aspire to be better than I was, and good enough to sing another three years with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. We will see what tomorrow brings.

Sadness in choral music

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is the saddest choral music I’ve ever sung.

From the opening 20 minute movement, throughout most of the first half, it functions as a musical personification of a grieving mother before her dying son. And even the later movements, excluding the apotheosis and redemption of the final movement, all have an undercurrent of yearning and loss, representing the prayers of a supplicant asking to share the burden of her grief.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve sung many sad moments in lots of musical pieces.  The lament for Oedipus at the end of Oedipus Rex is sad, but in a less personal, Greek chorus sort of one-minute farewell-to-thee.  Every Lacrymosa of every Requiem Mass has its own brand of sadness, though they’re often tinged with fear, too.  And other Stabat Mater settings, such as Verdi’s, also try to capture sadness.

I’d argue, though, that most sad choral music is melodramatically, stereotypically sad.  It screams, “Look at us, we are SAD!”  Minor keys, wailing violin accompaniment, soaring melodies that decrescendo as the line lingers on the seventh of the scale before falling to a hushed cadence.

The Dvořák sadness is personal, not ostentatious.  It’s a crushing, persistent grief.  It’s a mourning that sees no future without more mourning. Its consolation is only by crying it out through nine movements before it approaches a sense of hope and redemption at the end. As I wrote about in my previous post, Dvořák had suffered through the separate deaths of his three children, two within a month of each other.  I’ve been fortunate in my life not to have lost any immediate family so far, but this is how I expect that to feel when it happens.

Next time you see me (or anyone singing the piece this week) in person, ask us to sing the opening lament by the soprano section.  It will break your heart.

To accomplish this effect requires a lot of precision, but without looking precise — the musicality still has to shine through the proper cutoffs and rhythms.  Our choral director James Burton has been reminding us of the important of shaping every phrase,  not just when the hairpin dynamics are explicitly indicated.  We’ve played with the balance of voices, as different parts take control of the melody or serve as the tonal foundation that others play around.  (That’s personally fun in the third movement, where the basses take command of the melody… though Andris Nelson’s deliberate tempo will be challenging for us!)  We’ve had mixed success capturing the dramatic changes in dynamics.  With all the things going on, sometimes it’s hard to remember that pp doesn’t mean “mezzoforte,” and that not all fortes are equal — we have to hold something back for those dramatic buildups or there will be no climax left for the audience at their peaks.

After an admittedly shaky initial piano rehearsal earlier in the week, though, we redeemed ourselves in the first full orchestra rehearsal last night with some magical moments.  We’re looking forward to bringing this emotional piece to life this weekend.