Hymn of Praise, Praise, and Yet More Praise

Singing is back!  Well, technically, there was a surprisingly wonderful Holiday Pops season this year, but since I didn’t seem to find the time to write about it, we’ll just move on to the next major piece I’m singing in with John Oliver and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus:  Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, also known as the Lobgesang Symphony.

Lobgesang translates to “Hymn of Praise,” and boy is it ever.  It’s almost monotonous in its praise.  You know how a good story has exposition, and then plot complication, with a climax, dénouement , and subsequent resolution?  Yeah.  This, not so much.  We barely go into minor key, let alone say anything that’s not full of joy and praise.  How much Lob can you get in one sang ?  Apparently a lot.  Here are the English translations of the movements in which we get to sing:

  • Movement 2: Praise ye the Lord O ye Spirit
  • Movement 4: All ye that cried unto the Lord
  • Movement 5: I waited for the Lord
  • Movement 7: The Night is Departing
  • Movement 8: Let all men praise the Lord
  • Movement 10: Ye nations, offer to the Lord

On top of all this, as John Oliver pointed out to us at our rehearsal on Tuesday, is  that “the score is just ink.”  In true Mendelssohn style, it’s very heavily orchestrated, including lots of brass doubling of key themes, making it very hard for a chorus to be heard.  Nevertheless, we’re already putting some good tricks in place to be sure to come through, and even with the excessive praise theme, I’ve already warmed up well to what should be a fun piece to sing.

The first and most obvious lesson from rehearsal was a back to basics for German pronunciation.  Livia Racz and John coached us through things that “they know we know” but weren’t doing.  Doubling the L in words like alles.  Separating words like und and alles so that they were distinct.  Keeping the vowel dark and rolling the r’s in words like Herrn.  Getting the stresses on the right syllables–Mendelssohn did not seemingly write well for the text, given the number of downbeats that are on schwas and unaccented syllables.  (Funny Oliverism: John asked us to sing a certain way, and then held up the basses as an example, asking us to sing that passage again.  We did, and he said: “See, just like the basses… well, the ones who did it right.”)

The second technique we adopted is to combat the otherwise blocky writing of the music.  It’s really quite tempting to fall into a plodding rhythm, pounding each note like you would piano keys in a finger exercise, because of the way the piece is composed.  (Unfortunately, our practice recording seems to do just that, to the point where it positively destroys the chorale in movement 8.)  To fight this, John has already started emphasizing preserving the melodic line, as well as adding some texture by introducing slight diminuendos on long held notes.

Finally, there’s the question of being heard through the thick score.  As John reminded us, it’s “human orchestral nature” for the orchestra to get louder and louder if they hear us getting louder and louder.  We’ll have no trouble making forte sections loud, but can we keep the piano sections soft enough?  It reminds me of the screamfest that was Berlioz’s Te Deum, which we’ve sung within the last few years. Overall, as it was then, the goal is less about volume and power and more about color and tone.

Of course, I can rhapsodize about color and tone over volume and power all day, and none of it freakin’ matters if I don’t have the notes memorized.  After checking in with a few other chorus members, I found that many of us have been procrastinating all January on cracking open the score and really putting in the memorization work that one needs to get this down.  Partially this is because this January’s piece is so much more manageable than last year’s Oedipus Rex or the previous year’s St. John Passion from James MacMillan.  So we may be getting a little soft.  The upshot, however, is that I’m now down to 4 days before the first rehearsal, and I’ve only made it to the point where I can sing through all 6 movements with the music in front of me.  I may have movement 8 down and movement 7 is very close, but it’ll be a photo finish.  This is the first time that my new job’s long commute has been something to cherish rather than despise!

Wednesday’s rehearsal was cancelled thanks to our solid rehearsal on Tuesday (with one grinning admonition from John after we fumbled our way through the last movement: “You should — wait — how should I word this — when you go to practice this before the next rehearsal, you should probably start with this one first.”)  Monday is our off-book rehearsal, Tuesday is our piano rehearsal with Maestro Bramwell Tovey, and then its an all day orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday, morning orchestra on Thursday, and performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday.

3 responses to “Hymn of Praise, Praise, and Yet More Praise

  1. Hopefully Maestro Tovey will keep the orchestra from drowning the chorus out.

    Looking forward to Thursday.

  2. By all indications, he is keenly aware of the score and what he needs from us so we can be heard. He warned us at the rehearsal yesterday about a few parts where we might be buried, and also urged us to stay restrained at parts where the orchestra is reduced to pizzicato or to giant chords with empty space. Something about making the audience work to hear us at those parts, as a contrast to the other bombastic parts no doubt.

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on Lobgesang performance | Just Another Bass

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