I was going to write up a review of the reviews of the Bach… but there is no time! We’re already two rehearsals into Le Fraaaaaanch, with my out-rayyyy-zhously bad ax-sceeeeeeennnntah!
Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette is up next, and the lucky curse of being selected for so many concerts means many of us had just one week to empty our brains of the many ways to pronounce “ch” and fill it with the many ways to pronounce “e”… there’s the short e in “Capulets,” the schwa e in “au revoir“, the open e in “allez,” the very French e in “eux,” the e in “breuvage,” and the nasal e in “moments.” And sometimes you get three of them at once, like in “eux-memes” or “eternelle.” I can look at a German word and have a pretty good idea how to pronounce it. I know merde about French; I was glued to the IPA whenever I was studying the text, and my wife, whose French was well enough to guide us when we once vacationed in Quebec City, has alternated between coaching me, giggling, or rolling her eyes as she hears me fail to not pronounce n’s and such.
That said, I’ve finally got a handle on the all the text and have committed enough of it to memory that I no longer feel lost at rehearsals or when listening to the recording. All things considered, there’s not too much to learn. A small chorus (not me) sings in part 1. The men sing from backstage in part 2. Then we’re all on for part 3, first for a funeral scene where only some of us sing, then when we all discover the bodies, and then when Friar tells us what happened and helps us overcome our feud and grieve together, so we can be amis pour toujours. And yes, we are divided into les Capulets on stage right and les Montagus stage left. Fun!
The two evening rehearsals this weekend were great at reinforcing the shaky parts in my head, and our French coach Michel was very particular in his observations. Yes, this is a good thing; did you not read my lament two paragraphs ago? But as usual, the thing that I love most about these rehearsals is the coaching we get from John Oliver. John is back, his tendon-repaired foot in a walking cast, and his sense of humor and musicality intact. He continues to make observations that his 40+ years of serious vocal and choral instruction have earned him, things that I would never have thought of. For instance, when tenors were coming in too late during the part where the Capulets and Montagues all keep shouting at each other: “The important part of mais notre sang is the last word, which comes on the downbeat. If you’re trying to time the entrance of your mais (“1... 2.mais!…”) then you’ll be late. Think of those three beats as the upbeat to your sang on the downbeat.” That completely fixed it. For all voices there he’s urged us not to wait for each other, but to interrupt them and thereby stay on the beat, or the whole thing will drag. Throughout the rehearsal, he would add color to our singing… Finding the two lovers dead (Morts tous les deux) should be darker… and Et leur sang fume encore should be almost whispered… as should Dieu, quel prodige! when we realize “it’s a miracle” that we’re not fighting any more. And so forth. It makes quite a difference.
I particularly liked his answer to a very valid question. I had noticed that there was a swell marked — what I’ve seen called “hairpins” before ( < > ), but across two notes instead of one. I was excused (then not excused… then excused again, whew!) from singing this part, and it sounded fine when the small chorus sang it. But one chorister from that chorus asked where the swell should be. John’s response: “What you did was fine. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it should be on the 9th 32nd note of the beat, or something like that… to me, it’s emotional, and you have to have that musical intelligence to know where it goes.” Not only a great answer, but great because we know we’ve got that in this group and he doesn’t need to give excessive direction for stuff like that. And I’ve definitely sung with choral conductors who would tell you precisely where they wanted that swell to be…. such technical direction sacrifices the emotional content.
Of course the night was not without the usual witticisms:
– On us failing to observe pianissimo markings in the final chorus: “Please look over the dynamics in the last movement… because, you know, there ARE dynamics in the last movement.”
– On some of the women flubbing a tough entrance: “I know what you did there, you were thinking ‘is it a 16th note or an 8th note,’ when you should have been thinking, ‘is that a B or a B flat.’ ”
– On the sound of the men in the backstage chorus: “Have you heard of cambiata? The sound of a boy whose voice is changing? Yeah. Here’s my musical advice: don’t do that.”
Piano rehearsal with Charles Dutoit (gee, you think he’ll notice if my French sucks?) is Monday night. Orchestra rehearsals Wednesday, then performances Thursday through Saturday.