Thoughts from the MacMillan piano rehearsal

Just got back a few hours ago from today’s piano rehearsal with Sir Colin Davis.  It was really a great rehearsal through and through.  A few items of interest:

Narrator chorus. Our narrator chorus is awesome.  That said, the conductor worked a really long time with them on a lot of things to get the characterization he wanted out of them.   You could hear them getting better and better with each adjustment.  His overall message to them was “less voice, more text.”  They’re not singing anything musically interesting, per se — they’re the storyteller, holding together the flow and pacing of the tale.  So he had to remind them several times to pull back on the volume, and at the same time keep it interesting.  He also really held their feet to the fire on holding on to those vowels and placing the consonants correctly and with authority, again with an emphasis on intelligibility to the audience.  My favorite direction he gave them was to ANNOUNCE the story, with that level of intensity and diction as if they were issuing a proclamation.  That bumped the narrator chorus up a couple notches further on the awesome scale once they internalized that guidance.

The basses’ recitative. The chorus manager gave us a “friendly reminder” that we basses are supposed to be completely off-book for all of the Pontius Pilate lines we have — the implication that it would not be so friendly tomorrow if we were staring at the score.  From the mutterings in my section, it was pretty clear that many of us thought we knew everything by heart, but once you’re out there alone on a singing island (and us 4th row folks don’t have anyone behind us), against those irregular rhythms and is-it-one-or-two-beats rest patterns, you can get a little … tentative. Hitting the books a bit more tomorrow before tomorrow’s orchestra rehearsal.

Jesus. We only got a few brief glimpses of the power of our baritone, Christopher Maltman, as he was at the rehearsal and sang a few lead-ins to help us with transitions between his parts and the rest of ours… but it really was great.  He’s the voice on the LSO recording, quite possibly the only person who’s ever sung this role in concert.  He has a very rich, powerfully deep voice, full of color, with just the right amount of vibrato — perfect for the complex lines which MacMillan has written for Jesus.  He’ll be able to reflect the ornamentals and grace notes and glissandos without sounding like he’s just warbling and wobbling his way through it.   The only funny thing is he looked so unassuming up there, sort of a Daniel Faraday of Lost, with his short trimmed beard and thin stature. One expects a plus-sized man with that full voice!

Sir Colin Davis. It is such a pleasure to work with Sir Colin Davis.  This man is 82, now… he’s not moving too fast when he’s walking to or from the podium.  But when he’s there, he is just a master.  Easy and clear to follow.  Knows what he wants and how to get it.  He’s not shy to criticize but he does so in a positive fashion, and he never hesitates to offer praise when the chorus does well.  He’s of the school of thought where he’ll say, “That’s great, really great… but you can make it better if you…” which I think most choristers prefer.  And of course his musical instincts are finely honed.  It’s just an honor to be on stage with him.  This will be my third performance with him, the others being Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and before that Berlioz’s Te Deum.  (He thanked us for the Te Deum specifically, saying it was wonderful, but that the piece “almost killed me” with the Friday afternoon performance following directly after the Thursday evening one.  No kidding!  That piece was a monster.)

Best one-liner. Normally the one-liners go to John Oliver, but Sir Colin Davis had a few.  After a few failed entrances by the chorus he urged us to keep up with the pacing of his accelerando and to watch.  “After all, this,” he said, indicating his baton,”is all we’ve got to go on.”  Given how little of the chorus is doubled by the orchestra, we whole-heartedly agree!

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