When I was young and had just started exploring classical music, I had a tape of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I played to within an inch of its life. I loved the word painting and rollicking cadenzas, the cheerful harpsichord that put the movement in the movements, and the contrasts in tempo and tone from one season to another. Recently, remembering how much I loved that recording, I went to get a more modern equivalent from iTunes.
I couldn’t — wouldn’t — buy one.
I listened to excerpts and all of them were different. This one was too fast; this one was draggy. Another version’s okay, except the violin is doing something crazy that I don’t recognize. The harpsichord isn’t even playing arpeggios in this one. I didn’t realize how much of that work is left up to the interpretation of the conductor and the soloist and the continuo. I couldn’t accept that my version was not the version — even if it was the version for me. Until I accept another interpretation — or figure out where that tape came from — I may never buy a recording!
Which brings us to the Tanglewood concert that my wife and I are participating in next weekend, where we’ll be singing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and the popular Carmina Burana by Orff. (You know Carmina, even if you think you don’t… it’s everywhere. ) The Ravel isn’t an issue for me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever sung it, let alone memorized our small contribution, so I have had no preconceived notions… just a fear of knowing when to ahhh and when to ohhh, whether a 5/4 measure is next, and how long the rest is before our next entrance.
Carmina Burana, however, is a problem.
I’ve performed Carmina Burana in four concert runs now, twice from memory. Some chorus members have many more. My wife and I even have our favorite version — the time we both sang with Rafael Frübeck de Burgos at Symphony Hall. “FdB” has a very specific vision for the piece which we embraced. He really distinguishes his version, thanks in part to some quirky tempo changes — for instance, how he asks the chorus to almost ashamedly gossip-sing about the “errant brethren” and “dispersed monks” while In Taberna, or the sudden switch to double-time to create the “bursting out all over” lover’s fast heartbeat in Tempus es iocundum. He truly gives it that bawdy, irreverent character that it needs. I have a recording of that performance, and it’s my gold standard for the piece.
And that … that makes this particular performance much harder. Now we’re singing it with a new conductor, whom we’ll meet next week. And, we’ve been prepared by Betsy Burleigh, one of the chorus directors auditioning to replace John Oliver after his retirement last year. Betsy’s intensity contrasts dramatically with John’s more laissez-faire style, and that’s been an adjustment for the entire chorus. My “aha” observation is that in rehearsals, our chorus likes to learn, but doesn’t like to be taught. John concerned himself more with the character and tone of our singing, and figured we’d work out most of the details on our own or with the conductor. (He also generally hates Carmina Burana for its bombast and general lack of subtlety.) Betsy prefers to establish an agreed-upon baseline landscape of diction and rhythm. Once we have consensus on those boundaries as a chorus, we can then maneuver however the conductor wants to shape the piece. Adding to the cognitive dissonance: since Carmina Burana is a weird mixture of Latin and German, there’s debate for each performance on whether a word like “quod” is pronounced /kwohd/ or /kvot/. Betsy delivered a comprehensive and internally consistent pronunciation guide, but it disagrees with what most of us have previously memorized. So she’s had to deprogram us from old habits with some very detailed drilling.
Frankly, we could probably use the drilling, because that uniformity of sound and diction hasn’t really been a hallmark of our chorus over the last decade. I can’t remember the last time we took a piece apart this thoroughly and then reassembled it. We held five pre-residency rehearsals instead of the usual two or three – and we’re not even technically memorizing for this performance. Sure there’s been grumbling, but by the final rehearsal we sounded so much better than the initial one, that I think it was worth it. Betsy challenged us not to mail it in. Once we learn to accept that, and accept her, and accept that there’s no John or FdB here, and accept that the chorus is transforming into something new… then we can return to inspiring a picnic-crowded lawn.
In the end, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to sing the praises of fate, lust, springtime, and drinking heavily… regardless of whether I successfully shake off the instinct to rhyme crescis and dissolubilis with the English word “peace” instead of “hiss.” We’ve been here before: that jarring cognitive dissonance when faced with a new interpretation happens every time. And we’ve had guest chorus conductors shake us out of complacency for the Brahms Requiem, and we’ve had conductors take us for wild spins too. Learning to accept is hard. Leadership changes are hard. But complacency won’t get us to the sort of memorable performance that makes me save a tape for decades.
It’s gratifying to learn that there’s somebody else on this planet who dislikes the Orff setting of Carmina Burana. It’s wonderfully affirming to know that the person in question is no less than John Oliver.
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