Category Archives: TFC

Don’t want to leave “On Leaving”

This weekend we are performing Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony again, as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s efforts to record the full cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. But the piece I’m more looking forward to luxuriating in is Grigorjeva’s “On Leaving,” a mostly a capella modern composition influenced by 15th-17th century traditions of Russian polyphonic singing and sacred poetry.

You may not be familiar with this composer – I sure wasn’t. Galina Grigorjeva was born in Ukraine in 1962 but now lives in Estonia. Her works often highlight polyphonic layers and Slavonic sacred music, and “On Leaving” is no exception. While the piece briefly features a tenor soloist, a flautist, and some triangles, it is primarily a showcase for the chorus, given its pervasive atmosphere of ancient monk-like chants. She sources the text from prayers in the Orthodox church service book, “[…] on the Hour of Leaving of Orthodox Souls” and “On Burying Lay People.” Though the text is Russian, it might as well be Latin; it has underlying meaning but functions more as a vehicle for the sustained harmonies and interwoven rhythms.

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Mechanically, the piece demands a massive amount of concentration and intelligent breath control. It’s been a long time since I’ve counted to 8 for double whole notes in a piece, but long quasi-measured phrases call for it several times. Our conductor, James Burton, warned us today not to be fooled by so many white notes — producing them (and handling the breathing) cannot be boring. Each sustained note has to have a direction and a meaning within the local phrasing as well as the overall direction. He’s worked meticulously with us to make sure we are vertically tuned and aligned, that our counting and cutoffs are crisp, and that when we breathe, it’s with intent and purpose.

The combined effect of these opulent, sometimes discordant arrivals is the creation of an astoundingly beautiful meditative space. Even in the more somber parts, the beauty shines through; James described them as “like a dark cloud covering the sunny day.”

img_6235The second movement in particular is challenging (except for us basses, who have the luxury of holding pedal tones throughout). Parts overlap in rhythms of 4’s, 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s to create this many layered buildup of individual phrases stacked like warm covers on your bed in the winter. It reminds me very much of the second half of Part 7 of the St. John Passion by James MacMillan, a composer who also favored melismas and stacks of voices at different related rhythms. In both cases, the singing complexities lead to a transformative effect that’s hard to describe. It overloads your brain so that you stop perceiving individual lines and exist instead inside an expanded head space.

One other note worth mentioning. In our final piano rehearsal, we reached a moment where the chorus fused tightly together, as if we broke through the copious notes and adjustments and aligned to express the piece as a unit. It was exhilarating to finally reach “flow,” not just for this piece but as a chorus as a whole – the last time I felt that strongly was during the Pizzetti prelude performance two summers ago. James praised us for it afterwards, momentarily dropping his focus on technical fixes to encourage us to search for that moment again in performance. And personally, I love that we got far enough past the technical corrections to earn some coaching on how to distill the soul of the composer. There is a spirituality that this piece can’t help but communicate. We are going to change at least one audience member’s life when they witness this piece. I’m looking forward to it.

(We’re performing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday evenings, though the Grigorjeva piece is not on the program Friday night.)

Peace on Earth

I’ve never been so physically affected by a piece as I was by listening to a stunning performance of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. 

This Sunday marked the closing concert of the Tanglewood 2019 summer season, and per tradition, it included a rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth enjoyed by all.  But that piece was prefaced by a first: the chorus singing on the Shed stage unaccompanied, with our chorus director James Burton conducting.  It was a reprise of Friede auf Erden, the closing number for the Friday prelude concert that I had missed. I was determined to hear it up close. So I waved my chorus pass in the faces of ushers and grabbed a good spot in the back row seats.

The piece is unrelentingly challenging for a chorus to sing — so much so, that Schoenberg was forced to write an instrumental accompaniment to support initial chorus performances. The tonality of the piece is constantly swirling, in complex voice leading dances that literally measure by measure transform from one harmonic space to the next. Triads are superimposed atop other triads.  A note that’s the third in one chord suddenly pivots in context to become the fifth of another.  The recurring word Friede has a theme that’s an odd but distinct juxtaposition of major chords.

Before the concert, I had experienced only brief flashes of the piece through some additional rehearsals that our conductor had arranged during my previous residencies.  He intended them as a jump start for choristers singing in this residency, but non-participants like me could join in. Those sing-throughs reminded me of the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. As the parable goes, since each can only feel one part of the elephant at a time, they can’t truly explain or understand the whole beast. In those rehearsals, James often broke the piece down into two to four measure chunks, and walked through the extensive theory behind the phrases in each part. Here the basses were in one tonality, but pivoted two measures later to a related tonality as flats became sharps.  The sopranos get their entry note here, from this tenor note there; the altos and basses should target tuning to this perfect fifth like so, because they’re leading the way for the other voices to turn the dominant into the new tonic, and so on. James patiently (and excitedly) talked through the harmonic logic like a magician showing an apprentice where to hide the foam balls to make the trick work. I walked away from that with an appreciation of the complexity of the piece… but I only got to feel the trunk and the tusks.

With translation in hand, I sat with rapt attention and quickly lost myself in the piece. An MRI on my brain would have shown it lighting up all over, trying to keep pace with the harmonies, but also suddenly appreciating the powerful story being told. Divorced from the clinical this-then-this nature of the rehearsal segments, the totality of the piece consumed my cognition. At the warmup, James told the chorus singers that above all, they should move the audience. Fully concentrated on what I was hearing, I was subsumed by the emotional subtexts and subtleties that I had no idea were buried in the twists and turns of the harmonics. Somehow James and the chorus were bringing them out.  My invisible internal objects were fully connected as dissonant counterpoints became dramatic storytelling.

Then, at the closing lines of the piece…. how do I explain this? As the powerful choral forces climaxed and came into alignment with a brilliant D major finale, my shoulders started uncontrollably heaving.  There were no tears in my eyes, but my upper body just sort of began convulsing as if I were sobbing.  I felt so shaken by the enormity of the anti-war, somewhat naive message of hope: denouncing the complexity of our world and its faults, the bloody swords and shameful behavior of its population, with angels pleading for us to return to the Peace on Earth message they proclaimed at the Nativity, and us unable to get there on our own… but that some day we will get there, and that peace will once again be glorious. I was overcome for a few moments by the beauty and futility of it all right before the applause started, and then as the applause died I had sort of an aftershock as I returned to our family’s picnic spread.

To my wife, and all the other chorus members of that performance: all the hard work you put into perfecting those chromatic turns, aligning vertically with other parts, chanting text in warmups together, and pushing to get that last 5% of performance perfection… know that it was worth it and you achieved something monumental.  I can’t speak for what Beethoven-loving Romantic-era-craving audience members thought of it, but I was deeply moved. Congratulations.

Suffering, oppression, and struggle

Russian Soviet Army Fur Military Cossack Ushanka Hat (Black, 60 (L))страданье, гнет, and борьба!  The Russian words for “suffering, oppression, and struggle” sum up the Russian gestalt, as my good friend the Crazy Russian Dad confirmed. (He also suggested the chorus buy and wear these Ushanka hats, but alas, I don’t think they meet the summer dress code.) That is the world we’re entering as our chorus finalizes its preparation to sing Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony on Friday evening at Tanglewood.

Both our Russian diction coach (Olga Lisovksaya) and BSO conductor Andris Nelsons spoke to us about the Soviet legacy, since both grew up under its shadow. They recounted the brainwashing in schools insisting that Lenin was the country’s god and savior. The two implored us to get past the distasteful propaganda-heavy text and sing the music for what it was. But honestly, I didn’t think that was too hard. Every time we sing a piece we are acting, whether we’re pleading to be spared God’s wrath, gluttonously worshipping false gods, or sadly bidding farewell to our maimed star-crossed king.  Heck, for Holiday Pops, Christian chorus members sing joyful Hanukkah songs and Jewish chorus members sing reverently about the Nativity. Is this that different?

This symphony, however, is odd. The composition includes some “abstract music” with unusual layering effects. It was commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.  Shostakovich himself didn’t like the results, calling his 2nd and 3rd symphonies “completely unsatisfactory,” as he struggled setting the words to music.  The piece itself is rarely performed, unless a group (such as the BSO) decides to do a Shostakovich cycle. In fact, our choral scores were assembled just for us: the Cyrillic transliterated, the music photocopied, the pages spliced together from disparate parts. 

Having somehow dodged performing Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, I finally had to learn how to pronounce Russian consonants and vowels that don’t exist in the English language (hint: it’s all in how you palatalize your tongue). I learned to be a good little Soviet who can sing the praises of Ленин and his revolution. 

If you’re listening this Friday night, here’s what to expect during these 20 minutes. The first section reportedly represents the chaos before order emerged, as clusters of instruments compete for attention. Then, there’s a meditative section described by Shostakovich as depicting a child killed on the streets. After that, more funky music including some beautiful solos.  And then the triumphant propaganda of the Oktober Revolution by Lenin, jarringly introduced by (I kid you not) a factory siren. In fact, Andris and the orchestra are still debating whether the siren should go full blast or stop at an F# for us to tune to.

While it won’t go down as my favorite Tanglewood performance, it’s been fun to lean into the role of devoted proletarians. At one point, Andris told us he didn’t think we were capturing the fervent adoration of the cult of Lenin when we shout his slogans before the finale, so he gave us this direction in his halting English: “I haven’t partaken of this, but… you know that new cannabis store that opened by the highway, with lines of cars around the block? Act like you’ve been there.” That’s right, baby… we’re high on Lenin this Friday!

What to expect in this Verdi Requiem

If you’re a Verdi Requiem fan and are attending the performance tonight (or listening to it on streaming), what should you expect from a performance led by Andris Nelsons?

It won’t be the wildly varied performance led by Maestro Montanero at Tanglewood six years ago. Nelsons is steady and efficient with his tempi, with predictable accelerandos and allargandos, taking space where it’s needed without luxuriating in the gaps.  He lets the Verdi’s composition bring the drama, rather than indulging in it himself.

It won’t be the deliciously dramatic affair six months before that, led by Maestro Gatti, with his choral tricks to help us achieve the effects he wanted. In the prep work, Nelsons presented very few wacky innovations or interpretative variations to make the piece his own. Sure, he wants to evoke terror and desperation in the Dies Irae, to evoke solemn prayer in the Agnus Dei, to evoke tragedy and loss in the Lacrymosa, and a sense of wonder for the Great Amen to close the second movement. That’s all good in my mind — these choices aren’t revolutionary, they’re true to the Verdi Requiem.

In other words, what you should expect is a well-executed, traditionally realized, solid performance of a piece for the ages.

A few places where fans of the Verdi Requiem may notice something special:

  • Vertical tuning. This is an area that our choral conductor James Burton always emphasizes, but I think it makes a noticeable difference in the a capella sections. It’s the mentality of “don’t just sing your note – listen to the other parts and tune to a B-flat minor chord,” or “as the root, you’re the fifth of this inverted chord, basses, so tune it higher.”
  • Stronger marcato on the Dies Irae moving parts.  Nelsons took extra time with the descending voices, and the orchestra parts that double them. He wanted to ensure that in the iconic Dies Irae chant, they swing through with stronger weight at the end of the phrase.
  • A deeper Libera me chant. The one innovation that Nelsons gave us is something I’ve never seen or heard before in six concert runs. He asked any basses who could go down the octave during the restless chanting in the opening of the final movement to do so… and not to restrict ourselves to pianissimo. It certainly gives it a weightier, darker sound.

As for the soloists, I’m a big fan of Ryan Speedo Green, and the gravitas and power he brings to the bass part. The four of them have strengths and weaknesses, and were still learning to be an ensemble together during their first run through on Friday. Hopefully they’ll earn more praise than criticism in the inevitable reviews.

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.

 

The Half-Blood Prince’s Verdi Score

When you’ve sung the Verdi Requiem several times, including a few times with the same choral score, your score starts to look like it belongs to the Half-Blood Prince.

Harry Potter fans will recognize the reference. In the sixth book of the series, Harry accidentally ends up with a beaten-up Potions textbook from someone called “The Half-Blood Prince” that has all sorts of scribbles in the margins and strange recipe modifications. He soon learns that if he follows the annotations, he outperforms classmates who are going strictly by the book.

My score has notes from past me’s scattered throughout: circled notes in tricky passages, eyeglasses warning me when to watch for a new tempo, pronunciation reminders, emotional tones to convey, explicit phrasing indicators, dynamic corrections, and other modifications inherited from previous conductors who had reached some areas of consensus for how the piece should be performed.

This is not without its disadvantages. The helpful quarter-rest out given to you three choruses ago to let you tackle the next fugue strongly may not be what the current conductor wants. So you have to be judicious in deciding what scribbles to keep and what notes to erase.

The danger of all this – as it was to Harry Potter in the books – is trusting the notes too much, and falling prey to the sense of complacency that comes from having sung a piece many times. Yes, I could walk in without rehearsals and sing One must always be hungry for more. One must always improve.

Just as a good actor knows his lines but a great actor knows everyone’s lines… or how a good team leader understands his role, but a great team leader understands how to bring out the best of each teammate’s abilities…  a good chorister knows his part down cold, but a great chorister knows not only his notes but also how he relates to the other parts.

Our conductor James continues to ask us to focus on vertical alignment and listening to each other.  That means knowing that third of the chord or the fifth of an inverted chord needs to be a little sharper.  Or that the women and men in the Lacyrmosa movement dance around each other as countermelodies.  Or that our opening theme should be strong in each fugue entrance but then fade into the tapestry afterwards. It’s those sorts of advances that take us beyond what’s on autopilot and lets us truly live each performance as if it were our first.

That’s what I’m striving for from this performance.

Thoughts after a successful reaudition

It’s been over a month since I got the gratifying news that my 21 years of service with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus would be extended at least another two years. A month is enough distance from the excitement, relief, and sorrow to reflect on what this means.

I don’t take this for granted. Though many more cuts to the membership happened in the first year, cuts did happen, and it’s hard not to see those members leave without pondering how I would feel and what I would have done. I told myself I would have finished out the summer and gone right back and re-auditioned next year, but those bold words are easier from this vantage point. I know it must hurt.

Those auditioning could receive renewals of up to three years, but I think my two years was quite fair given how it went. I know I’m pretty good at providing what our conductor James Burton is looking for. But I also know that I have a lot to work on, whether it be better breath control, tuning my ear to other parts, or finding that resonating ‘ping’ that sometimes eludes me. I’m improving how quickly I can achieve that alignment and get it right. I need to keep working until I can’t get it wrong.

I can also sense a confidence spreading across the chorus – a confidence that we belong. Until passing the re-audition, in the back of your head everyone wonders “does James want what I’m offering, or is my time here limited?” Once you’re through at least once, you’ve reaffirmed that you belong. At this point, everyone in the chorus has either passed a re-audition or was given three years right after the sing-in… so “we all belong.” It reminds me of when I worked for a company that started administering an aptitude test to all candidates before they were hired; those who failed didn’t even get an interview. They even asked current employees to take it as well. Though many proclaimed the process obnoxious, after a year of this, you knew that virtually everyone in the company had objectively demonstrated competence. It raised your trust. You knew you wouldn’t have to cover for someone, or be dragged down because someone didn’t have the ability to succeed.

That said, I’m reminded of stories about how newly elected members of the House of Representatives start thinking about the next election right away. I’ve got two years to build on my strengths and repair my weaknesses, so that I can go into the 2021 re-audition with even more confidence. Onward to this summer’s performances of the Verdi Requiem, another go at Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and a whole lot of Russian for Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony!