It’s that time again. Time for Bass 2’s in the back row to bust out the low B-flats and the high G’s. Time to explore a dynamic range that starts at pppp and ends at ffff. Time for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to sing Mahler’s 2nd, the “Resurrection” symphony!
We’re performing this Friday, for the opening night performance of the 2017 Tanglewood season out here in the Berkshires. As I write this, we have one run-through left before the concert itself. And I’ll make the bold claim that we’ll be more prepared to sing this piece than we have in perhaps two decades, thanks to the prep work by new TFC chorus director James Burton and BSO conductor Andris Nelsons.
Like my last experience unfamiliarizing myself with the Mozart Requiem, the Mahler is extremely well-known piece to our chorus, which means once again we’ve had to unlearn what we’ve previously learned. I personally have found myself slipping into muscle memory and old habits if I’m not actively concentrating on being present, and singing what we’ve been taught over the last several rehearsals. In this respect, one of James’s comments was particularly insightful — he suggested that if we weren’t actively taking part, we were “just singing along.” Guilty. In fact, I’d argue that a good portion of our chorus (myself included) has been “singing along” to familiar pieces for at least the last couple years, if not longer.
And what has he been teaching us, this time around? New tricks for staying in tune during the a capella opening, like singing the e-flats and a-flats almost too sharp. (James: “You’re playing this too safe. You’re comfortably sitting back in the middle of the note and that’s why your pitch sags later on.) Physical reminders, like “showing the audience your eyebrows” and various hand and body movements in rehearsals to connect our bodies to the music. Enunciation notes so our German sounds like, you know, German — so that words like entstanden aren’t split up into three separate unnatural-sounding syllables. Being aware of the other choral parts so that we tune to create a unified sound, rather than focusing solely on our own line. The effect has been revelatory.
The preparation has not been without its minor conflicts. Sometimes Andris will ask for something that seems to conflict with James’s preparation. Andris may ask for a stronger legato, but James will remind us that we need our “gorilla accents” on each note. (James had us actually making deep gorilla grunt noises in an earlier rehearsal to really emphasize the connection between our diaphragms and the marcato accents.) Or Andris might appear to be asking for a darker sound from us, when James and our diction coach Livia Racz have been reminding us to keep the sound more forward in our mouths. In cases like both of these the answer is frequently that “Both are right.” The marcato should not sacrifice a sense of horizontal connectedness. The darker sound Andris wants is actually a deeper, more supported forceful call that doesn’t require going back into the throat to achieve.
Like the Busoni piece from earlier this year, it’s tempting to question why we spend so much effort for what is effectively less than 10 minutes of stage presence at the end of a much longer piece. But the answer comes at every performance — that pouring out of your soul from the whispered choral entrance at the beginning to the total catharsis of the end, with gongs and chimes and brass and organ all combining to an apotheosis of gorgeous sound… it’s one of those life experiences that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.