The first true rehearsal for the Cacophony of Psalms felt great. Okay, it’s called Symphony of Psalms, technically, and I’m actually starting to enjoy the piece as I delve further and further into it. But this is another one of those boy is the audience screwed if they’re hearing it for the first time sort of pieces. You know… the songs that, once properly studied, I really begin to enjoy… but it takes several listening sessions to get comfortable with the… call it the sonority.
Here’s the first movement, in all its mechanical WTF-is-going-on glory:
There are 2nd and 3rd movement recordings here and here as well, if you make it through that one. The whole piece is only about 20 minutes.
It was comforting to have John Oliver tell us that he was specifically looking for a mécanique style coming from the chorus to emulate the helter-skelter clock mechanism of the piano and accompanying instruments. Time values snap into place with little or no rubato. He doesn’t want anyone gliding between notes. (One great Oliverism: in a later movement, the tenors move from an e-natural to an e-flat over a few beats, and John cautioned them: “That’s an express… it’s not a local train. You shouldn’t be making five stops along the way… go right from one note to the other.”)
I really appreciated John being so involved in the rehearsal–this is not a piece that can be done on autopilot nor one he can leave to the conductor to make adjustments. He had insightful comments such as “you’re on the right note but your color is wrong.” He warned some of us that we weren’t at the center of a pitch where we needed to hold a dissonance against the other parts. He stopped us a few times to ask for a more focused, brighter vowel so we’d cut through the orchestration. At one point he told us it was okay to open up and just make a very raw sound, because “the brass are so loud there they’ll cover it all up.” Finally, at one point during a held long note on a diminuendo, he cautioned that many of us were “parking” on the note–we couldn’t just get softer and stop, we needed to finish the whole phrase and that meant a continuous decrescendo throughout the note. “Don’t give up on it.”
John spent a little extra time with us basses on a few parts, such as making sure we landed on our opening G in the YouTube clip I’ve linked. Though, as any time the director singles out a section to work with, you find yourself wondering after each comment, “Is he talking about ME? Or the people next to me? I *think* I was singing that right… hmmmm.” I’ve been in at least one chorus where the conductor literally would keep breaking down a section into smaller and smaller parts (“just the back row… just you five people…”) until he found out who was screwing up. Fortunately, John trusts us enough to figure it out. It’s a powerful feeling… being surrounded by other very competent singers and working together to go beyond the notes and make something beautiful. Well…. beautiful in its awe-inspiring mechanical spookiness, at least!
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