We’ve had our final rehearsal. The orchestra is in prime form, the conductor is beaming, the soloists are amazing. Is our normally solid chorus the weak link?
I say that because this does not feel like it will be our best concert performance of the Brahms Requiem. To be fair, we’ve had some pretty awesome Brahms Requiem performances in the past several years, so the bar is set ridiculously high. But it’d be a damn shame if we wasted this opportunity, given we’re joined by the talented Bryn Terfel, the chorus-favorite conductor Bramwell Tovey, and the less well-known-but-equally-capable Rosemary Joshua.
Tovey has been everything we’ve hoped: gracious, funny, clear in his adjustments and requests, and inspiring. He’s reminded us that lugubrious faces do not communicate how lovely thy dwelling place is, and that concentrated frowns don’t give credence to a message of everlasting joy. He’s one of those conductors that spends more time looking up at us than at the orchestra — breathing with us, smiling at us, encouraging us to keep locked in on his direction so he can take us where we want to go.
And we so want to go with him! Yet, despite Bill Cutter’s efforts to prepare us — drilling us on diction and sound quality all week — there’s a collective concern that as a chorus we’re falling short of our normal levels of awesome. More than a few choristers I’ve chatted with are disappointed with the consistency of our sound. It’s not as full, not as supported, not as articulate and crisp, and not as emotionally invested as we’ve sung in the past. Sheesh, we still have Maestro Tovey correcting us for flat notes and intonation problems in the final orchestra rehearsal. If we can’t get past the compulsories, we’ll never transcend the notes to reach the deeper meaning of the piece.
It shouldn’t be surprising that our rehearsals would be challenging. We no doubt worked too hard on Saturday and Sunday and burned us out for the rehearsals earlier this week. The rain and schedule has made it tough for many to attend rehearsals, leaving a preponderance of empty spots. Furthermore, this is an exhausting piece to sing! A tired chorus makes for an unsupported sound. Even trying to “mark” (sing softer), I’ve still left some rehearsals with a sore jaw from all the work required to sing this piece — I’m probably too tense with my singing, but I’ve heard similar complaints from a few other choristers about the physical stamina required to sing this piece.
One thing making this even harder to correct is the insidious nature of any group collaboration. It’s easy to pick out what sounds wrong, and easy to assign blame, but harder to identify who or what is actually responsible. Worse, I doubt any of us truly recognize how we ourselves might be contributing to the problem. For instance, I might think the tenors and sopranos are having trouble singing through some of the higher notes (Tovey: “Just bring that high A up a little higher; don’t worry, it’ll never be sharp”). But I thought the basses were doing fine, only to hear from a few others that they thought we collectively sounded thin and unsupported in many passages. Oops. You never think you’re the problem. It’s humbling to realize that I might be one of the problems.
Fortunately, there’s still time.
So instead of brushing off that feedback, I personally need to ask myself: what can I do to better support my sound? To sing ‘operatically’ and get the full resonance I need to propel my notes to the back of the hall? To make my diction fortissimo? To maintain my breath control? To fully engage with this piece, and dedicate myself completely to it at the downbeat? Individually we’re singing with confidence, but I wonder if we might each be overconfident in our own abilities, and not considering the possibility that there’s more that we should be doing? Few people appreciate it when individual choristers speak up to say “I think that ‘we’ [meaning everyone but me, since I’m so smart that I’m pointing it out] are having trouble with this passage / diction / cut-off / note.” Yet hopefully, by performance time, we’ll all come to that realization that we each still have more to give.
Tonight will be the first time that we are all physically present, and all mentally present, and have the opportunity to be emotionally present. It’s our chance to give it our all. To invest fully in the almost mystical qualities that embody this piece. I’m betting that we pull it off – we almost always do!
I’ll add a few things:
1) I believe that many, many, many of the issues stem from lack of attention to the language. Bill said it today that if the vowel is incorrect, it affects the pitch. Thus is true of many places, in particular if the ‘a’ vowels aren’t bright enough. ‘E’ vowels too. In the past, John would have addressed this by having us imagine the placement of the sound differently.
2) Many of the things addressed in today’s rehearsal, including in the orchestra are common issues with this piece, so we should recognize the difficulty of the material, *while* we rise to the challenge of it.
3) I’m not quite as concerned about the sound we’re producing because we were marking. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have plenty to work on (have you seen the number of tabs in my score still?), but I hear overall fewer mechanical issues (e.g., entrances and cut offs) as I have heard *and produced* in other concerts.
4) We can always lead with what the text *means*, which fixes so many things.
Gentlemen, I was in the house Thurs. night. I think attending to “meaning” carried the day. I know that you were all laboring on short energy – a dress and a performance of such a piece on the same day is too much. But there were some glorious sounds being produced – you basses rocked!