Well! Saturday was every bit as much the workout we expected. Fortunately, it was the “staying in shape by running on the treadmill” sort of workout, rather than the “4 hours of helping some move” workout. It felt rewarding rather than annoying, and I daresay there was a bit of a glow in the chorus by the end of it.
With John Oliver out for the rest of the run as he recovers from his emergency ankle surgery, there was some worry that we might not get the choral direction and shaping we needed to handle a large piece like the Bach St. John Passion. After yesterday’s rehearsal, I’d say that worry has evaporated!
Maestro Suzuki came on stage before us at 1pm: short, sort of poofy white hair, an affable smile, and rather unassuming. He took the podium and asked us to start at #1. We sang through the whole movement and he nodded his head appreciatively. “That was very good. Very, very good. I mean, not that I expected not good,” he said with a chuckle, “but it was very good.” We beamed a bit.
We then went back to the first measure and he proceeded to tear into us, measure by measure. (Thank goodness it wasn’t ‘not good,’ or who knows how rehearsal would have gone!)
Fortunately, every criticism he levied was accurate and made sense. He would stop us and make us repeat something if we didn’t demonstrate we understood what he meant. He would even say “just the basses” or “just the sopranos” for specific spots. More importantly, making his adjustments made us sound better. Sometimes it was just getting us all to do the same vowel. Sometimes it was style — he changed our thumpy plodding through the runs into a more horizontal, connected phrase. In many places he asked us to remove vibrato and go for a purer sound. Sometimes he would add specific commas, crescendos, subito dynamics, or accents. He even coached us on bringing through the meaning of a movement. For instance, I never understood that the “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen” movement, about the guards casting lots to win Jesus’ tunic rather than rip it, could work as “playful,” but that’s totally how it works. (And his short little surprise ritardando at the end for it is just adorable, for lack of a better word.) The chorales in particular now have characterizations ranging from reverent to sorrowful to pleading to introspective. Before yesterday’s rehearsals they were simply chorales.
Suzuki focused a lot on consonant placement — I’m used to the exhortation by conductors to get the German consonants ahead of the beat (“Krrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreuzige” he demonstrated, telling us we really couldn’t be too early with the rolled r on that one), but he also had us putting some trailing consonants AFTER the beat, which felt very unusual for us. Take a phrase like “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,” which is the first line of the fourth chorale. He wants the -ück to happen after his cutoff, with an extra oomph behind it. Likewise, “das wider deinen Willen tut,” at the end of the second chorale, needs an -ut at the end instead of just the /t/.
In general, Suzuki dragged us kicking and screaming into the baroque period. He even said at one point that we were singing like it was a romantic piece, and asked us to focus more on the shape of phrases. At this point he also confessed that this is the first time he’s ever done this piece with a symphony orchestra. At first I thought he meant the BSO, but after discussion with other chorus members we think he meant ever — he has either only done this with smaller orchestras, or period instruments, or maybe only both.
I have to say, it was a relief to discover his English was more than passable; only occasionally during the rehearsal did he have trouble expressing what he wanted, or said “how do I say this in English…” No “what the heck did Seiji say?” moments here! That said, the main result of any residual language barrier was that he didn’t sugar-coat anything. Typical verbatim comments included: “You are too early,” “Try not to be so late,” “No, that’s not right,” “Stop rushing,” and “Your intonation is… is not good.” Never mean or confrontational, but a contrast to, say, Jimmy’s “That was great, phenomenal… what would make it even better is…” style. Suzuki doesn’t bother to translate anything subtle. And you know what? I’m fine with that.
The result of all this is that for the first time, the piece is really starting to come alive and mean something for me. It’s like looking at an impressionistic pointillism painting — you get the big picture from far away, but as you get closer you start to understand the specific choice of color and brush strokes and whatnot that make it what it is. This is now becoming less an exercise of notes and text as we become more intimate with the work. By late next week, I expect the personal relationship we all have with the piece to shine through for an excellent performance. (I just hope he can rein in the orchestra so our pianissimos can be true pianissimos!)