Okay, okay… THAT was a rehearsal, too. 🙂
Singing yesterday with John was about seeing a familiar face. Singing tonight was great, but it was hard work. If yesterday was slipping into a favorite, comfortable pair of slippers, then today was breaking in a new pair of $700 loafers. (Hat tip to Will for that one. Also, I clearly don’t spend enough on my shoes.)
So what does the Brahms Requiem according to Maestro Dohnányi sound like?
For one thing, he embraces the concept that this piece is about “philosophy, not belief.” The German Requiem is more secular in nature than others, given the way it eschews the Latin Mass in favor of vernacular passages from the Luther Bible. It’s less about the afterlife and those who have died, and more about those of us here now who still live. That happens to be one of the reasons I really enjoy this Requiem more than some of the others, but I’d never seen that philosophy transferred into the interpretation of the music before. Christoph’s overriding direction to us was to make it happy. Blessed are we who mourn! We should rejoice in the lives that were led, and embrace those of us still here. Instead, our tendency has been to sing this like a funeral dirge, with a lugubrious, dark tone. Christoph wants none of that, and immediately set to work reversing our somber tone, reminding us that we’re comforting the mourners, reminding them of the good in life.
The other major difference is how particular Maestro is about… well, about everything, really. The first 10 minutes of rehearsal had us all pretty worried, as Christoph’s correctional slogging, measure by measure, felt like a potential repeat of a long Saturday workout with Maestro Suzuki and the St. John Passion. He let up a little bit as we settled in, but he still never accepted anything that interfered with the sound he wanted. (He drilled us basses down to individual poorly tuned notes on one particularly offensive passage.) I especially liked the way he would have us rehearse the fugues quietly. Not only did this preserve our voices, it exposed us to flaws in our entrances, pronunciation, note values, and other automatic pilot details that disappear when you’re singing loudly. It’s definitely a good technique to keep in mind. (You know, should I ever conduct this piece myself. Uh-huh. Right.)
Nowhere was this attention to detail more noticeable than his direction on when dynamics begin and end. We’ve admittedly gotten a bit lazy on starting and finishing crescendos, and so far we’ve just survived using our musical intelligence to shape the phrase. But Christoph holds us to what’s printed. That crescendo you’re making? It doesn’t start until the third measure. That decrescendo you didn’t make? You’ve got to get back down to piano or else you won’t have a place to start the swell in the next two measures. The whole rehearsal was peppered with corrections like that to what we thought we knew about the ebb and flow of the phrases.
The rest of the differences are really just interesting artistic decisions that zig where previously John zagged. Like every encounter with great conductors, one walks away with a renewed sense of the textures of the piece, and a new appreciation for passages that might have been swept aside or sung on automatic pilot before. Asking the basses to back off so the altos can be the lead in quiet passages featuring the three lower voices. Replacing bombastic swells with smarter phrasing that fits the character of the piece. Emphasizing the counterpoints just as much as the subjects in the fugues. Changing the basses’ entire fugue entrance from the marcato “Proud, Triumphant!!!” (written in my score from previous years) to a more reserved, fully legato line that carries through the continuity of the (now much more pronounced) ewigkeit lead in. Lots of little adjustments like that to alter the textures we’re used to and thereby bring out previously hidden melodies.
It’s… strange, to be tasting the chef’s concoction that has been plated before us. But he’s a darn good chef, and the requiem he’s serving up tastes fantastic. I think we all can’t wait to put it all together with the orchestra tomorrow and Wednesday. Let’s just hope we can keep something in reserve for the actual performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.