Starting Fresh with Schumann

“How many of you have sung either of these pieces before?” James Burton, choral director of the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, asked all of us at the first rehearsal.

Only a few knew the Nachtlied, and no one raised a hand for the Neujahrslied. “Wow – take a picture,” someone muttered. Given the breadth of choral experience and the longevity of many TFC members – some who’ve been singing with the TFC since its founding in 1970 – having a new, noncommissioned piece from an established composer is… well, it’s liberating.

So far in James Burton’s tenure, we’ve had to spend a lot of time unlearning old habits and erasing old markings. Singing conventions that John Oliver established, remixes of part roadmaps, and predefined dynamic and tempo alterations have almost been distractions during rehearsals. (We learned early on in James’ tenure not to interrupt rehearsals with questions like, “We always took an eighth rest out of this whole note, should we still do that?”)

None of that is present for these Schumann lieder. That means we get to discover these rarely performed pieces on our own terms, and collectively apply our musicianship rather than lazily relying on “how we’ve always done it.”

A great example was one moment in the first morning orchestra rehearsal, in the Neujahrslied. The chorus and orchestra come together in a series of solid chords after furtively creeping through a mysterious fugue. When we first performed it, it was… fine. Then Andris Nelsons asked the orchestra to hold back on the volume and play their part with long, sustained notes — call it un poco maestoso (a little majestic). He then asked the chorus to sing espressivo (expressively and dramatically), so that we would stand out in the foreground against this tapestry created by the orchestra.

This matter-of-fact correction, unwritten anywhere in the literal music itself, completely changed the character of that moment. It was like looking into an old Viewmaster and seeing a 2D slide jump to life in 3D. And that was just one adjustment in over an hour of adjustments, notwithstanding all the similar tweaks that James Burton put in place during the hour before we joined the orchestra. It was a completely engaging, satisfying rehearsal, basking in the expertise of learned leaders and a top-notch orchestra even as we contributed our part.

The result should be an enjoyable performance for audience members now going through the same process of discovery that we did, as these sumptuous pieces come to life.

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