Wet consonants?

Every once in a while John Oliver will instruct us to do something with imagery that almost doesn’t make sense.

Last night we did a fairly quick run through of the choral parts of the piece again, with Sebastian gently correcting our improper variations of the ch’s in ich vs. doch vs. nacht and the like.  Rehearsal took about half as long (about 75 minutes) because we spent less time rerunning entire movements to revisit issues.  But early on, John asked us to “make the consonants wetter.”


John is a big believer in imagery to fool yourself mentally into making the appropriate physical and mechanical adjustments to create the sound he is looking for.  I still remember one of my first pieces Tanglewood pieces with him, a set of three a capella men’s chorus pieces, where the middle piece had me labelled as a “Bass 3.”  That turned out to mean that I’d be singing low D’s, low C’s, even a low B-flat.  I honestly had no idea how to do that and sustain it, but John told all the basses (and especially the bass 3’s) not just to focus on posture and support, but to imagine a vast reservoir of energy, sort of an underground lake, somewhere below our navel, and that we should be tapping into that reserve as we produced the sound.  I don’t know how or why, but it worked.

At first blush, he might as well have told us to make the consonant sounds more yellow, more ethical, or more sans serif.  And yet, I could hear a difference, and the sound was better, so… it worked?  I don’t know what I was doing differently, but I suspect I was treating the consonants as more liquid, sort of blurring the lines between them and the vowels even as we focused on barking them out more precisely so that we could be quite particular about their placement and make the German as intelligible as possible (despite teasing by John that we were getting lazier on consonants as the rehearsal went on.)

At the first rehearsal, John reminded us of a lesson he learned years ago from Colin Davis while trying to prepare a chorus: “Prepare them as if you were conducting,” and so he did.  At this rehearsal, though, he had looked at some video and listened to some recordings associated with Suzuki, and gave us some suggestions of what he might want.  It will be interesting to see how Maestro Suzuki responds during our extensive chorus rehearsals… how much of this will he undo?

3 responses to “Wet consonants?

  1. Good Luck with your St. John’s! Yours will be a decidedly more professional one than mine. Enjoyed your Blog.

  2. I’m seeing this on April 23, and looking forward to it so much. The St. John Passion is one of my favorite pieces to sing, full of drama but wonderfully constrained withing Baroque sensibilities, and to hear it sung by my favorite chorus will be a treat. In my youth, I was lucky enough to sing the chorales at a performance in Jordan Hall, so I appreciate the delicacy and poetry you’re going for. In college I was in a chorus that sang the entire SJP each Good Friday in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine– an exhausting and transcendent experience every time.

    • That’s great! You’re lucky to have such first-hand experience with this Passion. I regret that this is the first time I’ve truly been exposed to it. We’ll do you proud on that Saturday.

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