Category Archives: Oliverisms

Rehearsal last night kicked ass

Last night’s rehearsal was both narrator chorus and large chorus, for the first time since October.  It really made me even more excited about the piece.  We’re still fighting through some notes and rhythms here and there, but I think that was to be expected.  What’s really exciting to me is that we’re making the emotional connection with the piece, and that’s so very important for what’s essentially an opera rather than a tone poem or some sort of symphonic piece.

Our narrator chorus is particularly impressive.  I’m especially pleased with the way the sopranos sound, since they have to achieve these floating high notes with light texture in some places.  Some of the crazy lines the narrator chorus has to sing have exquisite ornamentals that really twist and turn, but they’re nailing them.  John Oliver joked about the tediousness of their narrator-chorus-only rehearsals: “Can you imagine, line after line of ‘And he said’, ‘And Jesus said,’ ‘And they said’ ?”  Putting it all together is a relief for both choruses.

As for memorization, I don’t think I saw anyone without the book in their hand.  I tried whenever possible to close the thing so I wouldn’t rely on it — technically it was our “off book” rehearsal, but ever since John Oliver and Sir Colin Davis made the decision to allow us to keep the scores on stage, no one’s been up tight about glances here and there.  It’s clear though that for some passages we NEED to be looking up to catch an accelerando or rallentando if we don’t want to get left behind.  For instance, at one point some of the women finished a particularly tough passage about 1 bar after the rest of the chorus.  John looked at them and said, “Oh, you must have the revised edition.”

Tomorrow we do the remaining movements and see where we’re at.  I feel like I have the whole piece down now (sort of), and could perform it shakily from memory at gunpoint if I had to.

Oliverisms from first joint MacMillan rehearsal

Some of my favorite Oliverisms from yesterday:

[To the basses barking out one of Pilate’s lines]  “That was superb!  Considering you all had NO IDEA what the pitches were.  [Laughter]  But your diction was amazing!”

“I don’t want the whole syllable — I want just the ‘st’ of ‘priest to come right on that rest.  Like you’re spitting at the composer.”

[On being asked if a marking of a crescendo from mezzoforte to mezzopiano in the score was meant to be a subito piano…]  “Well, it surprised the hell out of me!”


What are these “Oliverisms” that I refer to often in this blog?

I’ve been singing for John Oliver since 1991.  He was conducting  the MIT Concert Choir then, and I was just making the transition from ‘pianist’ to ‘singer.’  Learning to sing in that choir with John was like learning to drive in a parking lot but with a $100,000 BMW.  You got the impression you were being treated very nicely, but you didn’t have a real way to experience it.  Even with that limited experience singing with John, I got to appreciate his musical knowledge, his style and typical adjustments, his well-trained ear….  and his wit.

John has a great way of breaking up the pace of rehearsals with a funny story or a one-liner that just cracks everyone up.  It functions as a nice tension relief, too, to break up all that concentration on the music in front of you.  (Having sung for Allen Lannom later with the Masterworks Chorale, I got to see first hand how weary it can be to drill, drill, drill without a break in the action.)  But more importantly… they’re just damn funny!

For years, now, I’ve always wanted to capture every one of those spontaneous lines (my term: “Oliverisms”).  He throws at least a couple out there every rehearsal to lighten the mood and keep the rehearsal moving forward.  Many of my favorites are lines he throws out when someone screws up.  He’ll regularly stir up friendly rivalries amongst the sections, with lines like “You sound great, basses — MUCH better than the tenors.”

Three of my all time favorite lines:

  • “That’s too soft.”  (Said with an earnest look as if he’s serious, when an entire section misses its first entrance.)
  • “The problem is that the sopranos are flat when they’re exposed.”
  • “Try to sing… as if the person next to you… might be right.”

I’m trying to capture my favorites as I remember them from rehearsals going forward.

Oliverisms from first Large Chorus MacMillan rehearsal of the year

Some recent Oliverisms I managed to jot down:

“We’ll have to rehearse all of these smaller chorus parts.  That means some of you will have to sit and wait while the other side struggles.”

[After the altos hit a low E-flat] “The altos haven’t visited that note since that night on the beach in 1960!”

“Careful — the trombones are doubling you up until that point, then you’re there with your asses hanging out.”