Music, Moving Invisible Internal Objects

During the rehearsal — not even the performance! — of the Mahler 2 symphony this morning, despite having studied the piece and performed it several times… there was a moment where I felt tears glistening in my eyes.  It’s in the 5th movement, during the “sunrise,” where the music swells and blossoms forward and hugs everyone and says it’s all right, it’s amazing isn’t it, there’s beauty and joy everywhere, you are loved.  (Here’s a clip, though as usual, a recording doesn’t do it justice.)

It reminds me of a great story from a welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, the pianist and director of the music division there.  He pointed out that the Greeks related Music and Astronomy, saying that while Astronomy may be about the relationship between large objects such as planets, Music “is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.”  He then told this story, which I’ve condensed here:

The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND […] We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. […]

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man was clearly a soldier — even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

[…] For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

I look forward to connecting with our audiences over the next few days.

The Enigma of Einfelde’s Lux Aeterna

My next concert series with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is two pieces: the triumphant joy of Mahler’s 2nd (“Resurrection”) Symphony, and an unfamiliar, lightly accompanied 2012 choral arrangement from Latvian composer Maija Einfelde.  I’ve already expressed my love for the Resurrection Symphony elsewhere on this blog, so this post focuses on the more mysterious offering from Einfelde.  It’s certainly off the beaten path for the BSO and our chorus — we don’t often perform contemporary pieces, or works by Latvian (let alone female) composers.

Here is the only professional recording I could find. It’s by the Latvian Radio Choir, for whom Einfelde originally composed the piece.  If you have 6 quiet minutes, it’s really worth listening to (though our choral director urges us to stop listening to this so we can own our own performance.)

To appreciate any piece, it’s always helpful to understand its context. Who is the composer: a church music director, a struggling loner, an underappreciated royal appointee? When and where was it written: during a war, at the start of the Romantic period, under a repressive regime?  WHY was it written – as a commission, as a protest, as a celebration?

Alas, this piece has very little written about it. One brief review of the recording describes Einfelde’s music as “often harsh and abrasive, such as her award winning work Pie zemes tālās (At the Edge of the Earth),” but suggests that her Lux Aeterna represents a departure with its “great power and depth.”  The write-up in the BSO’s program notes makes it clear that she’s an accomplished composer and artist from her awards and previous works, and that she’s benefited from the sophistication of Latvia’s choral tradition.  The notes accurately describe the piece as:

strongly tonal, its harmonies sometimes transparent, sometimes rich and dense under soaring melody. At the beginnings of phrases, the texture thins to a chantlike simplicity, allowing the words to emerge clearly before being woven into the contrapuntal fabric. The layering and repetition of the phrases in the sustained choral setting of this short text reflect the metaphor of eternal light.

That’s great, but what does it mean?  What is the emotional message that we are conveying to the audience?

Our former conductor, John Oliver, described the purpose of the conductor as

“to distill the soul of the composer, and give it the orchestra, chorus, and soloists so they can communicate it to the audience through the piece.”

In this upcoming week of rehearsals — assuming we achieve the compulsory task of getting the notes tuned properly — I expect James Burton will communicate that vision to us so we can deliver it with uniformity during each concert.  But until then, it’s left to us individually to pull emotional content from the piece as we internalize it.

Here’s where my head is.  Most Requiem movements about eternal light shining upon the dead are stable, hopeful, peaceful counterpoints to Day of Wrath judgments elsewhere.  Consider Rutter, Verdi, Mozart, Duruflé, Faure, Dvořák, and even the tumultuous Berlioz, all of which feature a change of color to tell listeners a glorious ascension is happening.  While the beginning of the Einfelde certainly shimmers; I hear uncertainty, concern, and maybe even desperation within that eternal light.  I hear prayers being offered as a plea, by disturbed mourners who aren’t convinced that their loved ones are at rest.  After the first two minutes of those questions, we get this amazing (and vocally challenging!) tone cluster of voices, with layers of complexity, undulating like a turbulent sea in the wind, and a pleading soprano line rising out of it.  It’s then, once we’ve made it through that unrest, do we reach a hollow, tentative acceptance, as if we’ve worked through the troublesome emotions of the first half of the piece.  Finally, and only at the very end, do we achieve a deep and satisfying consonance — reinforced by the low basses as we drop down to confirm a powerful C major chord, hidden until then, as if to say, “Shhhh… it’s okay.”

So I see this stand alone Lux Aeterna, bereft of any Dies Irae to play off of, as bringing its own narrative conflict by representing the stages of grief.  The opening is denial and anger. The tumult in the middle is the bargaining and depression.  The ending, however, is too powerful to be a passive “this sucks” acceptance of grief; to me, it’s a more active decision to absorb the grief, incorporate it, and move forward with life.

We’re all looking forward to getting lost in this tapestry of sound… before settling into the risers each night to await the final movement of the Mahler.

Finding Triumph in Haydn’s Nelson Mass

Our final choral performance this weekend is Haydn’s Missa in Anguistiis, known more commonly as the Lord Nelson Mass.  Of the 14 different mass settings Haydn composed, this one is considered his greatest — in fact, his biographer calls it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition,” though my vote would be for The Creation, which he had just finished writing.

Haydn started writing the “Mass for Troubled Times” at a time of intense fear.  In 1789, the terrified public knew that Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.  (One effect – his patrons stopped paying for wind players, so he was down to only strings and a few hired trumpets and timpani!)  The opening Kyrie, in a dark D minor, echoes this public mood.  By the time the piece was first performed, however, Britain’s Lord Nelson had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat – and when the work was performed in Nelson’s honor during his visit in 1800.  Since then, the piece has been more about the triumphant victory over that menacing opening movement, as D minor becomes D major in the later, more celebratory movements.  And with the smaller orchestra, it means that our smaller roster is more than adequate for the sound – we’ve had double this chorus size for pieces like the Mozart Requiem before.

Our conductor for this piece is the 91 year old Herbert Blomstedt.  We can all only hope to be as active as Maestro Blomstedt at that age, given he’s conducting 90 concerts a year. in venues around the world.  His devout lifestyle is all well and good, but as a chorus we wondered coming into the week of on-site rehearsals at Tanglewood: would this be like Boston’s beloved Harry Ellis Dickson conducting Holiday Pops in the twilight of his career (i.e., “don’t watch him, watch the first violinist”) Any concerns we had were quickly abated when he took the podium and immediately began shaping our sound.

Maestro Blomstedt’s strong opinions ran counter to many of our initial musical instincts. For instance, he is vehemently against vibrato in the chorus, especially in the upper voices, making it vocally challenging for our sopranos to hit those high As and Bs. His rationale is that senza vibrato produces stronger harmonies, and allows the soloists to stand out over our tapestry of sound.  He also favors rhythmic intensity over natural melodic lines, urging us to add marcato stresses — for instance, we now heavily break up the syllabic Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son motif in the first movement rather than the legato shaping we had been rehearsing.  I personally find it harder to maintain the lighter, cleverer sound that one expects with any Haydn classical-era piece when we’re pummeling the rhythm this way, but as basses we’ll continue to fight to be more about rhythmically intensity (and less about elephantine plodding).  Blomstedt has also created great things with special moments in the piece, like taking the chorus way down during the text of cum sancto spiritu so that “the spirit” (a flautist playing a lilting tune) is audible as if it were a flute concerto for about four measures.  He is always about driving the tempo forward, even barking at some BSO second violinists (“TEMPO! KEEP UP!”) at one point in the orchestra rehearsal.

It’s always tempting, for these well-known chestnut pieces that could be sight-read at a summer sing somewhere, to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the musical ride.  Between conductor James Burton’s prep work, and Blomstedt’s urging, we have the luxury of not having that luxury.  That means we can take it off autopilot and really dig into the music, focus our concentration, bring to bear our copious notes scribbled in our scores, and shape its direction to create a performance that can make an audience sit up and listen.

Exploring the Pizzetti Requiem

Our upcoming Friday night Prelude performance at Tanglewood is a pretty spectacular collection of a cappella choral sacred music.  The backbone of the program is Pizzetti’s Messa di Requiem, a hauntingly beautiful setting of chant-like melodies that have been a joy to internalize and sing.

The Choral Scholar’s well-written (and rather exhaustive) analysis of the piece explores more of its historical context, including a lot on Pizzetti’s influences. Born in 1884, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s career was primarily as a conservatory teacher, rather than as a prolific composer, though he was responsible for several choral works. As a frequent music critic, he held disdain for 20th century compositional trends such as those introduced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, advocating frequently for a return to the Renaissance traditions of great Italian composers.  In 1922 he was commissioned to write this Requiem during a period of personal transition: his wife had died unexpectedly, and his 16-year tenure at the Istituto Musicale in Florence had come to an end.  “I was in such an emotional state,” he reflected later, “that I became overwhelmed by the tremendous immensity of the text,” as he contemplated his beliefs and sought comfort in choral expression.

Given his preferences, the style of the music is described as neo-Renaissance and neo-Medieval; it’s not hard to imagine monks in some forgotten time canonically chanting these plainsong melodies. But unlike most early music, it’s also dramatic and expressive: the dark, gloomy Dies Irae with its hollow theme; the sudden magical appearance of major keys in several places to represent heavenly light or salvation; the glorious expansiveness of the Sanctus; the pleading of the Libera Me.  Coupled with a shifting landscape of counterpoints and imitations — and choral textures ranging from the simplicity of unaccompanied basses to the extravagance of a heavy 12-part three-chorus anthem — and we have our hands full as a chorus trying to capture the soul of this composer.

Each rehearsal we’ve had so far has followed a similar pattern.  When we start out, perhaps with a read-through of one of the movements, I’d confess that the chorus sounds like we’re each strongly representing our own parts.  And then slowly over time, we become less of a collection of individual voice parts and more of an ensemble. Our conductor James Burton has smiled as he points this out: “I can see you listening to each other.”  And we’re getting faster at that; I’d say it took 30-60 minutes during our initial rehearsals last month, and about 15 minutes before we congealed into a unit yesterday.  It’s a tangible difference in our sound and collective approach.

With the vertical harmonies this piece advocates, our ears must continually attune to the chords we’re creating together.  The structure of the music requires constant mental awareness of balance, like a delicate pyramid of circus acrobats.  Often one voice part is clearly the lead actor while the others provide the staging, though dynamically it may only be mezzoforte vs mezzopiano.  Rhythmic intensity is the only way to avoid languishing through the rising and falling chants and losing tempo.  And since we’re unaccompanied, it’s easy to lose pitch on some of these descending lines, so our scores are littered with tiny up-arrows over notes in the greatest danger of going flat.

All this makes it sound like a pain in the butt to sing, but nothing could be further from the truth.  To create this magical sonority is a welcome challenge of not just our individual talents but also our ability to sustain a cohesive purpose in our choral communications to the audience. Throughout James Burton’s tuning of mechanics and technique has been an undercurrent of effort to align our intent behind each moment of the piece.  Capturing glimpses of that in each rehearsal has been nothing short of exhilarating, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with a wider audience on Friday.

Letters to the Editor

Today the Boston Globe printed a Letter to the Editor that my wife and I wrote in response to their front page article about our chorus.

The letter reads:

Your article on James Burton and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was disappointingly one-sided.  Your quotes from choristers came mostly from those who have left the chorus, all of whom are naturally hypercritical of James Burton’s approach to this transition. The article suggests that their inflammatory language (“snarky,” “rude,” “insulting,” “condescending,” “toxic”) is representative of the chorus’s reaction as a whole.

If you had dug beyond spurned choristers eager to avenge themselves by embarrassing the organization, you would have found many choristers who strongly disagree with these characterizations. We believe that James sincerely wants to make the Chorus the best it can be. He is a brilliant musician and communicates what he wants concisely. He makes singing exciting and fun, and many of us find rehearsals an absolute delight. While there’s consensus that the communication of audition results needs improvement, we believe the audition process and requirements are on par with what other choruses of this caliber ask of their singers. We enjoy singing with James as much, if not more than, any other conductor we’ve worked with.

Sincerely,
Jeff and Katherine Foley
North Reading
The writers have been members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus since 1998 and 2000, respectively.

My last post (“Transitions and Trust“) was an olive branch asking all of us to find a way forward. This letter, however, is a direct rebuttal of the original article’s portrayal of the situation, to inform bystanders who might otherwise believe it’s truly management vs chorus. It is not. It takes a lot to get me upset, but to see an organization which I care about, and can hopefully continue to perform with, get that unbalanced treatment publicly… well, it reminded me that unlike in other situations, there’d be no bravery in silence.  We decided it was worth the risks of alienating disgruntled members and any accusations of sycophancy. We’re not trying to convince other chorus members.  Most have already decided — they’re either looking for a way forward together or they’ve already “flipped the bit.”

Meanwhile, another letter to the editor appeared, in the Berkshire Eagle, from Ronny Feldman, a conductor and cellist with the BSO. Its conclusion:

…the choral director, James Burton, and the BSO management handled the new audition policy clumsily, with little regard to the consequences of treating devoted members so shabbily.

Dealing with orchestra members is the single most important responsibility of every conductor. A 300-member chorus is no different. I learned this valuable lesson at the beginning of my conducting career. James Burton is a seasoned, well-traveled choral conductor. He should have known better.

After digesting the first letter, readers may be surprised to learn that I completely agree with this letter. Don’t mistake my proffered praise of James’ conducting style, musicality, and character with a defense for the proceedings. As I detailed earlier, whether intentionally or not, the management team broke the group’s trust.  It’s just as Ronny Feldman described in his letter with his story about abruptly not re-hiring three orchestra members:

The decision reverberated throughout the entire orchestra. The relationship was never the same.

I’m hoping that, properly chastened in private and in the media, the BSO management team will take steps to correct these errors and rebuild the relationship between them and the volunteers who make up the chorus.

Transitions and Trust

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is going through the same sort of uncomfortable transition that all organizations do when there is change at the top.  And, as with any such leadership transition, there is pain.  Pain from those asked to leave the organization.  Survivor’s guilt from those invited to stay.  Friendships tested as the community fractures into those in favor of the new world order, and those opposed, and those who don’t want to pick sides and just want to get back to work… and everywhere in between.  In the hullabaloo, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many long-time members, who wanted to stay with the chorus but didn’t pass the re-audition, are hurting.  You have my sympathies. I know I may face the same situation next year after my re-audition.

Here’s the background, via some uncontested facts:

  • Most high-level auditioned musical groups require members to periodically reaudition to secure their continued participation in the group.
  • The founder and long-time conductor of our chorus, John Oliver, had ceased using the reaudition process during his final years running the chorus.
  • John Oliver retired.  After two years (and several candidates), James Burton was selected as the new head of the chorus.
  • About a year into his leadership, in the fall of 2017, James asked all choristers to participate in a “sing-in” by preparing and performing a short solo piece for him.  According to James, some people did well, some people did okay, some people did not do well.
  • Following the sing-in process, James reinstituted the reaudition process, with some sight-singing and music theory requirements beyond what John Oliver had asked for previously.
  • Dozens of choristers declined to reaudition.  Dozens more were told they did not pass the audition.  Those cut included several long-time members who have spent decades singing in the chorus and have many ties within the organization’s community.

From there, opinions diverge.  Did James Burton treat the cut choristers fairly?  Did he communicate the sing-in and audition requirements and rubric properly?  How high should the bar be for a volunteer chorus?  Were those cut shown the respect they deserve after contributing decades of their time and money to the organization? Why did he tell people not to worry last year when the Huffington Post asked if “a new broom sweeps clean,” if he was planning to remove so many members?

Rather than litigate the answers to these questions — given I have friends and fellow musicians on both sides of the issues —  I will instead point out what was lost in this entire process: Trust.

There’s a great business book by Robert Bruce Shaw called Trust in the Balance which talks extensively about the importance of trust when building successful organizations.  He talks about how easily trust can be lost, and that once a certain threshold of distrust is passed, every action and behavior serves to further validate the leadership’s untrustworthiness — it even becomes difficult for supporters not to question every action.  He says trust is built through three pillars: results, integrity, and concern.

James Burton and the organization have been strongly focused on the results pillar.  He has repeatedly emphasized his desire to achieve artistic excellence by making a world class organization even better.  As the conductor, he has defined ambitious performance targets and made decisions on how to pursue them, and many (but not all) singers have come to trust the results he’s achieved and the process he uses to get there.  He and the organization have also built trust by demonstrating concern: engaging with the chorus, building familiarity and dialogue, and showing confidence in our abilities.  But integrity, however, demands consistency between words and actions, and a level of openness that was not achieved through the re-audition process.  The callous form letter notifications and the sheer number of people failing the reauditions were alarming departures from  the reassuring impressions at the start of his tenure. None of the chorus members anticipated the depth of change coming until the snail mail notifications began arriving one by one in people’s mailboxes.

We’re in the middle of this trust deficit now.  Fortunately, many choristers I know have not crossed that “trust threshold.”  They recognize that mistakes were made, but can be corrected, and they continue to trust in James Burton’s leadership.  Many choristers I know have long since crossed the trust threshold, and no one can convince them that anything James does is good for the chorus.  Several of those choristers apparently went to the Boston Globe with their story, leading to the publishing of a terribly unflattering front-page article about the situation which I hesitate to even link here.  It’s filled with vitriolic comments from James’s most ardent detractors.  (Outlets such as the Boston Music Intelligencer presented a more balanced viewpoint.)

What do these articles do, besides helping to satisfy those determined to ruin the organization?  They further erode trust.  The Globe narrative is “management vs chorus,” which will increase suspicion and paranoia on both sides.  It impedes the open communication required between the two.  As a chorus member, I’m reluctant to talk to other chorus members about my opinion on the answers to those questions, lest I alienate another friendship.  It will take a while to work through all this with my peers… just like it has for every “Reduction In Force” layoff I experienced at other companies in my career.  These are not new problems for an organization in transition.  And they will fade over time.

Trust is a precious commodity; hard to win, easy to lose and lose fast.  The solution, Shaw advises, is to make a concerted effort to overcome that distrust, by eliminating trust-eroding practices, over-communicating intentions with uncharacteristic openness, and rallying around opportunities to demonstrate teamwork — in this case, our upcoming rehearsals and concerts.  If they can continue to realign actions and words, the management team can demonstrate its integrity and slowly win back the skeptics while preventing others from crossing that trust threshold.  And then we can truly get back to what we all want to do — outstanding performances of choral works with the BSO.

 

The Lotti Eight-Part Crucifixus

For this year’s Tanglewood season, I am fortunate to be on the roster for the second residency, which includes our chorus’s annual Prelude concert in Ozawa Hall.  The set of a capella pieces we are singing are a fabulous assortment of sumptuous harmonies, consonant and dissonant, all dancing around each other exquisitely.  The exquisite pieces will require diligent study, careful breathing, keen awareness of the other parts to tune to, and a close eye on our conductor James Burton as he leads us through it all.

Perhaps one of the most straightforward examples of this is one piece in the middle of the program: Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus.  Composed just as Baroque music was evolving into a Classical period style, it is one of the best known works of sacred music that the Italian composer created. I’m told that many a high school choir has learned and performed it, since the notes themselves aren’t hard to sing.  It’s how you bring them together and infuse them with passion and sorrow all while staying technically accurate and attuned to the other parts that makes the piece so transcendental.

Spend three minutes listening to a recording right now, if you haven’t already:

This video is even more enjoyable because, by displaying the sheet music, you can see what’s going on.  I love how the voices build upon each other for the first minute, then maneuver around each other, passing themes back and forth, until the mournful finish.

Trust me, it is even more exhilarating to sing it, especially with a group of musically intelligent adults fully committing themselves to producing a beautiful sound.  Our first deep rehearsals of the piece with James Burton focused on bringing out those passages of tension, finding anchor chords that we can use to tune to other parts, and carefully working out some of the trickier intervals.  And, like with the Ravel, when he emphasizes the theory, and our mentality changes from “I’m singing an A” to “I’m singing the third of F major,” something clicks in the way the ensemble sings such that we stop clinging to our separate notes and lock the tuned chord in place.  (Though I have lots of “up arrows” pencil marks in my score written above notes that are easy to overshoot in several phrases.)

The final effect is magical… and we’re not even done working it.  If you can be out at Tanglewood this summer, try to catch our performance on July 20th at Ozawa Hall.