Choir dynamics and hula hoops

Performing a piece like the Verdi Requiem is an exercise in extremes. To meet those extremes, the chorus must stay closely connected — a tough exercise that’s reminiscent of a frustrating hula hoop team building exercise.

Verdi, embracing the Italian stereotype, composes everything over-dramatically using severe contrasts. (You can almost see him wildly gesticulating with his hands about how loud or how soft he wants each section to be.) When first performed, critics said his Requiem was too much like one of his operas instead of a sacred piece. Look at any part of the score and you’ll probably see the chorus told to sing either pianissimo or fortissimo.  Sometimes even ppp or fff.  Sometimes even ppppp!  And even then there are internal gradations… it may say pp in one phrase, but then say düster (darker, more melancholy) or “a little less so” or some other direction in color or tone to show yet another contrast.  And don’t get me started on the subito piano moments when you suddenly drop from loud to an intense quiet.

Loud is relatively easy for a choir to do together. The tricky part is to not oversing and to listen to each other rather than “leading.”  The conductor then balances the orchestra volume (because when it’s orchestra vs. chorus, the orchestra can always win.)

But quiet… quiet is another matter entirely, especially given the heavy orchestral scoring which often features lots of brass.  It’s way too easy to sing, as some have jokingly called it, mezzofortissimo.  Yeah, you know this is supposed to be quiet, but hey, I can barely hear myself over others, so maybe a little louder… a little louder… until those dynamic contrasts are washed away by a middling volume.

It reminds me of the hula hoop team building exercise I mentioned. Now when I say “team building,” what I really mean is “team shattering,” because the first stage of the exercise usually devolves into everyone yelling at each other. Everyone stands in a circle and holds out pointer fingers, and a moderator balances a hula hoop on them. The goal is to lower the hoop as far as possible, without it ever losing contact with a teammate’s fingers. In practice, what happens is the hoop keeps getting higher and higher because you always feel like someone else (the singers next to you, the orchestra) is going higher than you, and you feel compelled to correct for it.

The only way to successfully get the hoop lower is to work together, to trust that others are doing what they’re asked to do, and to communicate and coordinate clearly.  What a coincidence – that’s how to maintain a pianissimo against the desire to produce a louder sound.

During our chorus’s initial piano rehearsal of the week, it felt like many of our pp‘s had become mp’s and that we weren’t getting enough contrast. But by the first orchestra rehearsal, we achieved the feat of being told we were too quiet for one passage. (The solution was not to sing louder; rather, Andris Nelsons held back the orchestra even further.) We have plenty of other places, however, where our mezzofortissimo is showing. That means more ensemble work needed before Saturday to get that hula hoop moving in the right direction.


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