After two mornings of orchestra rehearsals, we are ready to go for our performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday! They should be a satisfying culmination of a lot of hard work on behalf of the chorus, not to mention the other musicians involved.
From the chorus’s perspective, the final rehearsals were NOT a cakewalk, by any means. Our choral director John Oliver had warned us earlier in the week that we were giving into the temptation to shout the piece instead of singing it, and that the result was a hollowness of tone when combined with the orchestration. He urged us to find better support for our sound and to be smarter about how we used our instrument. But at the orchestra rehearsals, we found that the more wholesome sound we were producing was not enough to cut through the brass-heavy orchestration. The orchestra was completely swallowing us in some passages — even the soloists were having trouble breaking through. Maestro Levine kept asking for more volume, and he wasn’t about to ask the orchestra to keep it down. What to do, what to do?
Well, the gauntlet had been thrown, and so we went about trying to find a way to cut through the sound, without shouting, while keeping the character of the piece. The answer was in our mechanics and in some visualizations. John gave us several tips for how to penetrate the orchestra – ways to physically position our body — our instrument — so that we had maximum support from the triangle of our rib cage and sternum, even perching ourselves on the small of our back when we needed to give a little more. He asked us to close vowels that normally tended to be open, like /a/ and /e/, pointing out that unlike /o/ and /u/ and /i/, they tend to ride too high to penetrate. In some cases he directed us to produce a darker sound. It was only by narrowing the vowel sound (and physically narrowing our mouths) as well as visualizing a more vertical sound coming from up higher in our heads — he gestured in front of his forehead and nose, like a dramatic Shakespearean actor — that we could knife through the heavily scored accompaniment, “beat the orchestra,” and reach the audience.
The result? The sound I hear coming out of me now is probably the most intensely focused, highly efficient sound I’ve ever created. I daresay the whole chorus is operating at this level now. Each of us is so alive, so insanely focused in our intensity on each and every note, each and every vowel, each and every consonant, in order to be heard over the orchestra. Every percussive consonant is spit out. Voiced consonants launch the the vowel forward. Vowels are carried forcefully through to the end of each held note without sagging, lest the audience hear the attack and nothing more. It’s the complete antidote to the admittedly lazy, unfocused singing that we often fall into for the mind-numbing Holiday Pops concerts. As a singer, you feel totally alive as you pour your essence and full concentration into making each and every note, consonant, and vowel count.
It should be a great performance. (If you’re going, look for me in the back row, three from the right!)