Musings from this year’s Holiday Pops season…
There’s always a slight let down when John Oliver just does a quick run through at the rehearsals he attends. I think a lot of chorus members wish he would more actively direct us in rehearsals as much as he used to in years past. It’s certainly true that preparing for the Holiday Pops concert series is not particularly musically challenging, and that we like being given the benefit of the doubt that we can be good singers. But we certainly appreciate it when he steps in to re-voice or re-balance a harmony. Or when he offers us specific direction, either on technical matters like breath locations, dynamics, and proper breath support, or on interpretative matters such as a particular tone or character required for a passage. We don’t get as much of that for Pops as we might for, say, a Prelude concert featuring the chorus. Even the best singers benefit from those adjustments.
On the flip side, the complaint often heard when Bill Cutter takes over a warmup is that he’s too anal with his adjustments and picks on everything we do. Even though the end result is that he gives us those same tips and tricks that I think we appreciate from John. The lesson? People like to complain! No surprise there… any group of people always have ideas about how things should be run.
In one of those warm up adjustments on Saturday, Bill told us to sing the Hallelujah Chorus “like it was the first time we’d sung it” instead of singing it “Pops style” by belting it out. “Where’s the emphasis? Ha-lle-LU-jah, not Hah! Le! Lu! Yah! The crescendo is built into the shape of the line. Think about where you’re going.” We rehearsed it and it sounded MUCH better. Bill continued: “Now apply that to the Rutter and to ‘Light One Candle.'” We did, and the look of appreciation on Keith Lockhart’s face was quite palpable. In fact, he told our chorus manager afterwards to relay that “that was the best performance of ‘I Wish You Christmas’ so far this year.” Warm fuzzies.
We used to get the Stink Eye from Keith all the time for bad mistakes. I remember him once mouthing “What was THAT?” to us after a blown entrance, or him furiously beating time and tapping his eye to tell us to watch closer. So far, haven’t seen that this year. Either we’re doing better, or he’s mellowed.
One of my favorite Oliverisms made a repeat appearance at the tutti rehearsal. “How many of you are piano players?” Several proud chorus members raise their hands. “That’s the problem.” Then, amid slightly nervous chuckles, John explained that we were punching out all the notes, and he pantomimed a violinist using long bow strokes as he asked us to make the lines more connected.
And yes, that’s the same advice Bill gave us for the Hallelujah Chorus. Usually as a chorus we’re good at taking direction the first time, but the blurring jaded nature of Pops concerts sometimes requires a few reminders.
I love the Pops. It’s really quite a privilege to be part of the group, and I never forget that when I sit up there on the risers with the best seat in the house. That said, the 7 required concerts can really wear you down. I don’t understand how some people manage 9 or more concerts, but friends don’t understand how I can manage 7. It’s still the toll you pay for the opportunity to “make real music” with the BSO during the winter and summer seasons. Still, as we found out yesterday afternoon, there’s nothing preventing you from making real music with the Pops, too. It’s all about the attitude, and making your smile on stage genuine instead of forced (or nonexistent.)
As a whole, we’re doing 37 concerts this year — I think that’s more than ever before. The chorus manager sent us out 9 dates and told us we could choose to be excused from up to 2. More than a few chorus members did not read that email, and accidentally ended up doing all 9. Once again, the power of opt-out vs. opt-in wins again.
We all rolled our eyes this year upon initially getting the music — oh no, we’re doing ‘Must Be Santa’ again? My opinion changed dramatically when I found out it was one of the songs my 5 year old was learning in Kindergarten. So far, I’d say it’s one of the biggest hits on the program.
Likewise, there was initial groaning when we saw at the orchestra rehearsal that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Bring Them Home” would be performed with a series of pictures and videos juxtaposing military personnel celebrating Christmas away from home or being reunited with their families. It felt vaguely political and cheesy at first, but the images were so touching they brought tears to my eyes as I thought of my own family. And it’s gotten a standing ovation for each of the three performances I’ve been in so far.
The lesson, of course, is that this is why I am not paid to determine Pops program content!