Ahhh… that’s better.
Maestro Tovey was every bit as wonderful as I had heard he would be at tonight’s rehearsal. He immediately put us all at ease with a few jokes. “Well, it’s an unexpected pressure to conduct this piece with you,” he opened, given that he was only announced as the replacement conductor a few months ago. Then, with a look around our cramped rehearsal room, he commented, “Only the best for you, I see.” As our laughter subsided, he mentioned that it felt like this was one of those tunnels the Americans dug to hide from the English. “Well, it didn’t work — I’m here.”
I was pleased to hear his initial comments on the piece, which echoed my earlier thoughts on the singular theme of this Symphony-Cantata. This was a piece about praise, praising the Lord… and not really room for much else, he commented. But rather than lament its focus, he pointed out that there was still some drama and some color to be found in its pages, such as in the mystery and dark of the 4th movement. “So let’s go through and see if we can’t pick up some of this color here and there and bring it to life.”
His conducting style is very animated yet very clear. He urges us on in the fugal passages; he beckons us to stay with him through tempo changes; he winces and shushes us if we’re too loud. He gives us some further adjustments to match his plans for ritards and other places where he takes some time. Some conductors are more concerned about the orchestra, but I have little doubt he’ll be breathing with us and offering us our cues throughout the performance.
Most of all, he added personality to what was in danger of becoming a stomp-it-out sort of piece. He directs us with words like “warmth” and “beautiful” and “prayerful.” He tells us that our pianissimo should be “quiet enough that people could talk over it,” which I just love as a concrete direction to follow. He apologized about “not wanting to get all religious on us,” and then went there anyways, asking us to internalize a reverence and a joy and a relief at being delivered from the hell alluded to by the soloist in movement 6. He spends extra moments on some passages, urging us to swell dynamically just a bit on words like Trübsal (affliction), almost as if it hurt us to talk about it. After all, he pointed out, if you’re going to tell someone about your being saved from an affliction, you’re not beaming as you relate the story.
Throughout all this great direction, he kept up the one-liners. An aggressive /tzt/ at the end of setzt saw him pretend to wipe the spit from his eye, then commend us on our diligence in getting all the consonants out, but could we swallow that instinct? “Your individual contribution will be appreciated so much more.” When the basses didn’t agree on a high note, he characterized our singing as “blend-free.” Just a laugh a minute… with the effect of loosening us up, getting us to pay attention — no, more than that — getting us to want to help him out by following his directions and giving him what he asked for. We were clearly on the same team, and suddenly I found myself as fiercely loyal and committed to the character he wants to invoke and the performance he wants us to collaborate on together. It’s no wonder everyone raved about him for Porgy and Bess. Who wouldn’t want to sing for this man?