Transforming the Chorus through Ravel

The textless, mystifyingly ethereal chord progressions of Maurice Ravel are bringing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus together in a way none of us really anticipated.

Daphnis et Chloé is one of two concert runs I’m privileged to participate in this 2017-2018 winter season. Instead of ballet dancers sharing the stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it will be us from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Now officially on the job for almost a year, our conductor James Burton shared some touching words with us before a recent rehearsal.  He explained that others have told him that wherever he’s conducted — and he has quite a curriculum vitae to his name — the choirs have a certain character to them that is distinctly imparted by his leadership… but that he hadn’t really achieved that yet with the TFC.  However, with the Ravel, he felt we were finally approaching how he wanted us to sound for the first time since he took over.

Part of the reason for that is that Daphnis et Chloé has no text to distract us.  Without us trying to stick the landing on German consonants, we’re left with aahs and oohs.  There’s no choice but to focus on the tuning and the quality of the sound we’re producing.  So to that end, he’s been encouraging us to find a nice choral blend, with instructions like, “Sing to the volume of the person next to you,” or riding us until we’re all making the same open /a/ vowel with the same resonance and color (“loosen your lower jaw,” “basses you’re too dark, bring the sound forward to make it brighter,” “think of the sound resonating both in front of and behind your head”).  He’s also challenged the “leaders” in the chorus (“leaders, you know who you are… and if you’re not a leader, you know who they are…”), asking them to pull back and do more listening than leading.  You have to understand, we’ve historically sung intentionally as ~120 soloists and “averaged to a blend” as part of our unique powerful sound.  We may know our parts cold but may not have internalized how we fit into the whole.  James is chipping away at that history in favor of this newer style, and it’s hard work for him and for us.

This be-one-with-the-group mentality is especially needed for this piece, because we are effectively just more instruments in the orchestra, instead of our usual starring role as a featured chorus!  Just listen to how you can sometimes barely tell the chorus is singing.  Since we have to think more like orchestra members, we already have to blend our entrances with other instruments and cross-fade with the orchestra dynamics — except, of course, during the impressive 3 minute a capella section featured in the middle of the piece.

One of James’s most profound comments was while rehearsing that a capella section:  “You are all singing the right notes, but you’re still not singing an A flat major chord.”  And he proved it by asking us to then sing an A flat major chord, which *was* in tune.  When we as singers get too focused on our notes and intervals (“okay, a major third up, then down a tritone, up another third…”), we lose the tuning with the rest of the chorus — and we hear it when he stops us and asks us to sing the chord by name.  For this piece in particular, we have to think in terms of chords.  James has been identifying mental stopping places where we should be thinking “this should sound like C major… this should sound like F# minor…” and so forth.  I can’t explain why this improves the sound so much, but it does.  For example, there’s a G7 major chord that always sounds like a tone cluster because each part arrives on it from a different direction… but once he had us think of it as a G major chord, suddenly this radiant sound burst forth that we’ve never achieved before, and that frankly I’ve never heard cleanly in any recording.

Though this is my first time singing the entire Suite, there are chorus members who have sung this piece ten times. I’ve been reminded by no fewer than three singers that “the BSO and TFC won a Grammy for singing this piece,” almost as if that exempts us from James’ criticism regarding our tuning efforts.  He’s challenged us with high expectations, and we’ve seen glimpses of it in rehearsals when we don’t resort back to our automatic pilot habits.  At one point he said, “Can you sense that we’re not singing this the way you’ve always done it?” and there was a forceful, almost grimacing “YES!” acknowledgement from everybody in the room.

Long-time TFC members who attended the Saturday Schumann performance, at the concert the week before this Ravel series, praised us for our diction, for our dynamics, for our tone, and for our focused singing.  But a few lamented wistfully that “it doesn’t sound like the TFC I know any more.”  I’ve witnessed this with so many leadership transitions: be it a new choral conductor, a new orchestra conductor, a new department head, or a new pastor, when there’s a new sheriff in town, the world changes.  It’s okay to mourn the past for a little while, but then you move forward, and as a follower decide if and how you’re going to embrace the vision set forth by the new leader.  And for the TFC, the Ravel represents perhaps another step in embracing a new vision of how a chorus should sound.


One response to “Transforming the Chorus through Ravel

  1. This is fascinating. I wouldn’t have suspected that the approach could make such a difference.

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