Our first official Bach rehearsal has been completed, with many more to come. We’re on again tonight, and then in about 8 days a Friday night off-book rehearsal, and then two grueling 6 hour rehearsals that Saturday and Sunday — we’ve been informed that Maestro Suzuki “loves chorus rehearsals” and will probably spend extra time working through us on each and every note and word and tone and diction and… it’s either a chorus’s dream or nightmare, depending on how picky he is and how much better we end up by the end.
Tonight’s rehearsal was all about getting comfortable with the piece and the text, with our native-speaking German coach Sebastian sitting next to John. He offered advice and corrected us on improper pronunciations after each movement. Since most of us have sung a lot of German, it’s not like we were learning from scratch. But there were several subtleties that came into play. That’s really where we as a chorus can up the level of our game.
For instance, Sebastian warned us that it was /ist/ not /eest/, and /in/ not /een/. John partially blamed himself for this, calling it an unfortunate side effect of the qualities he looks for in singers (auditions were yesterday). He prefers singers who he thinks can send a focused vowel through an orchestration, which encourages people to modify their vowels this way. In another case, John said that we had the /e/ vowel correct technically, but it wasn’t the right character or resonance for the words. We found new ways to produce that sound that measured up.
Another example were the double r’s. We were encouraged to rejoice in the double r of Herr… even adding a shadow vowel behind it, so it was more like “Herr-reh”. Furthermore, John wanted that /r/ sound has to be pitched. He demonstrated singing the note on a rolled /r/. This was especially relevant for the word Kreuzige — “crucify him.” We had a lot of focus on this deliciously gruesome word. It’s gotta be vicious every time you say it, with lots of /r/. This is tough because during some of the Kreuzige movement, we have long sustained pitches on the /eu/ sound, which we tended to approach lyrically. John shut that down quickly: “You’re creating a plush, lush monster… stop it! You’re not giving hugs here.”
As is true with any German piece, diction and overemphasizing the consonants is the name of the game. My favorite piece of advice was when John asked us to treat the consonants and the vowels as equal weight. A corollary to this was our approach to vowels in general, where our attach was just not enough. “You’re sustaining the sound, but I need something more stabby,” were his words. I liked that image and it was easy to keep that in mind with each new vowel… at least until we forgot again, being distracted by the next correction!
Finally, anyone familiar with Bach’s two Passions knows that they intersperse various chorales among the recitative narrative and the arias. John warned us about an easy trap to fall into while singing the chorales: he pantomimed a double bass player sawing at his instrument with big bow strokes. He asked us to treat these poems like we were speaking them or narrating them more than if we were singing them.
It wouldn’t be a rehearsal without some great Oliverisms. My favorite of the evening was when the sopranos, altos, and tenors had a shaky triad to finish a cadence — “I liked that very much… once you got down to 3 notes.”