Category Archives: TFC

Assume someone special is listening

When I was growing up, I remember practicing flashy piano pieces and thinking to myself, “Imagine there’s someone important walking down the street right now who’s going to hear me playing – maybe a talent scout, or a future girlfriend, or someone with a paying gig.  I want to make sure they get the best show I can give them.” And I’d use that to fuel my concentration and make it my best performance yet… even if no one witnessed it.

Whenever I’m performing with a chorus, there’s usually some sort of audience, be it the Tanglewood grounds, the crowd at Symphony Hall, or the congregation in the pews… so there’s no question of witnesses.  But it’s somehow more special if there are people close to me in the crowd — that whole “look for your mom” mentality ingrained in us since grade school holiday concerts.  I wanted to make sure they got my best performance.

But I don’t want just the people-I-know-attending concerts to be special, though.  So these days I always assume there’s someone there to see me.  And if I don’t know who it is, I’ll even play a little mental game and try to make some sort of connection with the audience – pick someone out to sing to, imagine they’re there to see me.  This is important because when you’re doing nine Holiday Pops concerts, you have to do something to make each one fresh.  You may be doing nine, but that audience is only doing one.  Sometimes the results are kinda hilarious — like the year I befriended a gaggle of grandmas on the walk from the parking garage, then had them all waving at me crazily from their seats because they proudly considered me a de facto member of their family.  Fun.

There’s another reason to sing like someone you know is there to see you.  Sometimes they’re really there.  As I was leaving my most recent Holiday Pops concert, I received a text from a friend.  “My sister, her family, and my mom are at the concert tonight,” she wrote, and included a picture to prove it.  I didn’t know they’d be there beforehand, but I was sure glad I pretended that they were.  It turns out concerts can be retroactively special, too.

Pops view from the crowd

Music, Moving Invisible Internal Objects

During the rehearsal — not even the performance! — of the Mahler 2 symphony this morning, despite having studied the piece and performed it several times… there was a moment where I felt tears glistening in my eyes.  It’s in the 5th movement, during the “sunrise,” where the music swells and blossoms forward and hugs everyone and says it’s all right, it’s amazing isn’t it, there’s beauty and joy everywhere, you are loved.  (Here’s a clip, though as usual, a recording doesn’t do it justice.)

It reminds me of a great story from a welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, the pianist and director of the music division there.  He pointed out that the Greeks related Music and Astronomy, saying that while Astronomy may be about the relationship between large objects such as planets, Music “is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.”  He then told this story, which I’ve condensed here:

The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND […] We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. […]

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man was clearly a soldier — even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

[…] For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

I look forward to connecting with our audiences over the next few days.

The Enigma of Einfelde’s Lux Aeterna

My next concert series with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is two pieces: the triumphant joy of Mahler’s 2nd (“Resurrection”) Symphony, and an unfamiliar, lightly accompanied 2012 choral arrangement from Latvian composer Maija Einfelde.  I’ve already expressed my love for the Resurrection Symphony elsewhere on this blog, so this post focuses on the more mysterious offering from Einfelde.  It’s certainly off the beaten path for the BSO and our chorus — we don’t often perform contemporary pieces, or works by Latvian (let alone female) composers.

Here is the only professional recording I could find. It’s by the Latvian Radio Choir, for whom Einfelde originally composed the piece.  If you have 6 quiet minutes, it’s really worth listening to (though our choral director urges us to stop listening to this so we can own our own performance.)

To appreciate any piece, it’s always helpful to understand its context. Who is the composer: a church music director, a struggling loner, an underappreciated royal appointee? When and where was it written: during a war, at the start of the Romantic period, under a repressive regime?  WHY was it written – as a commission, as a protest, as a celebration?

Alas, this piece has very little written about it. One brief review of the recording describes Einfelde’s music as “often harsh and abrasive, such as her award winning work Pie zemes tālās (At the Edge of the Earth),” but suggests that her Lux Aeterna represents a departure with its “great power and depth.”  The write-up in the BSO’s program notes makes it clear that she’s an accomplished composer and artist from her awards and previous works, and that she’s benefited from the sophistication of Latvia’s choral tradition.  The notes accurately describe the piece as:

strongly tonal, its harmonies sometimes transparent, sometimes rich and dense under soaring melody. At the beginnings of phrases, the texture thins to a chantlike simplicity, allowing the words to emerge clearly before being woven into the contrapuntal fabric. The layering and repetition of the phrases in the sustained choral setting of this short text reflect the metaphor of eternal light.

That’s great, but what does it mean?  What is the emotional message that we are conveying to the audience?

Our former conductor, John Oliver, described the purpose of the conductor as

“to distill the soul of the composer, and give it the orchestra, chorus, and soloists so they can communicate it to the audience through the piece.”

In this upcoming week of rehearsals — assuming we achieve the compulsory task of getting the notes tuned properly — I expect James Burton will communicate that vision to us so we can deliver it with uniformity during each concert.  But until then, it’s left to us individually to pull emotional content from the piece as we internalize it.

Here’s where my head is.  Most Requiem movements about eternal light shining upon the dead are stable, hopeful, peaceful counterpoints to Day of Wrath judgments elsewhere.  Consider Rutter, Verdi, Mozart, Duruflé, Faure, Dvořák, and even the tumultuous Berlioz, all of which feature a change of color to tell listeners a glorious ascension is happening.  While the beginning of the Einfelde certainly shimmers; I hear uncertainty, concern, and maybe even desperation within that eternal light.  I hear prayers being offered as a plea, by disturbed mourners who aren’t convinced that their loved ones are at rest.  After the first two minutes of those questions, we get this amazing (and vocally challenging!) tone cluster of voices, with layers of complexity, undulating like a turbulent sea in the wind, and a pleading soprano line rising out of it.  It’s then, once we’ve made it through that unrest, do we reach a hollow, tentative acceptance, as if we’ve worked through the troublesome emotions of the first half of the piece.  Finally, and only at the very end, do we achieve a deep and satisfying consonance — reinforced by the low basses as we drop down to confirm a powerful C major chord, hidden until then, as if to say, “Shhhh… it’s okay.”

So I see this stand alone Lux Aeterna, bereft of any Dies Irae to play off of, as bringing its own narrative conflict by representing the stages of grief.  The opening is denial and anger. The tumult in the middle is the bargaining and depression.  The ending, however, is too powerful to be a passive “this sucks” acceptance of grief; to me, it’s a more active decision to absorb the grief, incorporate it, and move forward with life.

We’re all looking forward to getting lost in this tapestry of sound… before settling into the risers each night to await the final movement of the Mahler.

Finding Triumph in Haydn’s Nelson Mass

Our final choral performance this weekend is Haydn’s Missa in Anguistiis, known more commonly as the Lord Nelson Mass.  Of the 14 different mass settings Haydn composed, this one is considered his greatest — in fact, his biographer calls it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition,” though my vote would be for The Creation, which he had just finished writing.

Haydn started writing the “Mass for Troubled Times” at a time of intense fear.  In 1789, the terrified public knew that Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.  (One effect – his patrons stopped paying for wind players, so he was down to only strings and a few hired trumpets and timpani!)  The opening Kyrie, in a dark D minor, echoes this public mood.  By the time the piece was first performed, however, Britain’s Lord Nelson had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat – and when the work was performed in Nelson’s honor during his visit in 1800.  Since then, the piece has been more about the triumphant victory over that menacing opening movement, as D minor becomes D major in the later, more celebratory movements.  And with the smaller orchestra, it means that our smaller roster is more than adequate for the sound – we’ve had double this chorus size for pieces like the Mozart Requiem before.

Our conductor for this piece is the 91 year old Herbert Blomstedt.  We can all only hope to be as active as Maestro Blomstedt at that age, given he’s conducting 90 concerts a year. in venues around the world.  His devout lifestyle is all well and good, but as a chorus we wondered coming into the week of on-site rehearsals at Tanglewood: would this be like Boston’s beloved Harry Ellis Dickson conducting Holiday Pops in the twilight of his career (i.e., “don’t watch him, watch the first violinist”) Any concerns we had were quickly abated when he took the podium and immediately began shaping our sound.

Maestro Blomstedt’s strong opinions ran counter to many of our initial musical instincts. For instance, he is vehemently against vibrato in the chorus, especially in the upper voices, making it vocally challenging for our sopranos to hit those high As and Bs. His rationale is that senza vibrato produces stronger harmonies, and allows the soloists to stand out over our tapestry of sound.  He also favors rhythmic intensity over natural melodic lines, urging us to add marcato stresses — for instance, we now heavily break up the syllabic Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son motif in the first movement rather than the legato shaping we had been rehearsing.  I personally find it harder to maintain the lighter, cleverer sound that one expects with any Haydn classical-era piece when we’re pummeling the rhythm this way, but as basses we’ll continue to fight to be more about rhythmically intensity (and less about elephantine plodding).  Blomstedt has also created great things with special moments in the piece, like taking the chorus way down during the text of cum sancto spiritu so that “the spirit” (a flautist playing a lilting tune) is audible as if it were a flute concerto for about four measures.  He is always about driving the tempo forward, even barking at some BSO second violinists (“TEMPO! KEEP UP!”) at one point in the orchestra rehearsal.

It’s always tempting, for these well-known chestnut pieces that could be sight-read at a summer sing somewhere, to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the musical ride.  Between conductor James Burton’s prep work, and Blomstedt’s urging, we have the luxury of not having that luxury.  That means we can take it off autopilot and really dig into the music, focus our concentration, bring to bear our copious notes scribbled in our scores, and shape its direction to create a performance that can make an audience sit up and listen.

Exploring the Pizzetti Requiem

Our upcoming Friday night Prelude performance at Tanglewood is a pretty spectacular collection of a cappella choral sacred music.  The backbone of the program is Pizzetti’s Messa di Requiem, a hauntingly beautiful setting of chant-like melodies that have been a joy to internalize and sing.

The Choral Scholar’s well-written (and rather exhaustive) analysis of the piece explores more of its historical context, including a lot on Pizzetti’s influences. Born in 1884, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s career was primarily as a conservatory teacher, rather than as a prolific composer, though he was responsible for several choral works. As a frequent music critic, he held disdain for 20th century compositional trends such as those introduced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, advocating frequently for a return to the Renaissance traditions of great Italian composers.  In 1922 he was commissioned to write this Requiem during a period of personal transition: his wife had died unexpectedly, and his 16-year tenure at the Istituto Musicale in Florence had come to an end.  “I was in such an emotional state,” he reflected later, “that I became overwhelmed by the tremendous immensity of the text,” as he contemplated his beliefs and sought comfort in choral expression.

Given his preferences, the style of the music is described as neo-Renaissance and neo-Medieval; it’s not hard to imagine monks in some forgotten time canonically chanting these plainsong melodies. But unlike most early music, it’s also dramatic and expressive: the dark, gloomy Dies Irae with its hollow theme; the sudden magical appearance of major keys in several places to represent heavenly light or salvation; the glorious expansiveness of the Sanctus; the pleading of the Libera Me.  Coupled with a shifting landscape of counterpoints and imitations — and choral textures ranging from the simplicity of unaccompanied basses to the extravagance of a heavy 12-part three-chorus anthem — and we have our hands full as a chorus trying to capture the soul of this composer.

Each rehearsal we’ve had so far has followed a similar pattern.  When we start out, perhaps with a read-through of one of the movements, I’d confess that the chorus sounds like we’re each strongly representing our own parts.  And then slowly over time, we become less of a collection of individual voice parts and more of an ensemble. Our conductor James Burton has smiled as he points this out: “I can see you listening to each other.”  And we’re getting faster at that; I’d say it took 30-60 minutes during our initial rehearsals last month, and about 15 minutes before we congealed into a unit yesterday.  It’s a tangible difference in our sound and collective approach.

With the vertical harmonies this piece advocates, our ears must continually attune to the chords we’re creating together.  The structure of the music requires constant mental awareness of balance, like a delicate pyramid of circus acrobats.  Often one voice part is clearly the lead actor while the others provide the staging, though dynamically it may only be mezzoforte vs mezzopiano.  Rhythmic intensity is the only way to avoid languishing through the rising and falling chants and losing tempo.  And since we’re unaccompanied, it’s easy to lose pitch on some of these descending lines, so our scores are littered with tiny up-arrows over notes in the greatest danger of going flat.

All this makes it sound like a pain in the butt to sing, but nothing could be further from the truth.  To create this magical sonority is a welcome challenge of not just our individual talents but also our ability to sustain a cohesive purpose in our choral communications to the audience. Throughout James Burton’s tuning of mechanics and technique has been an undercurrent of effort to align our intent behind each moment of the piece.  Capturing glimpses of that in each rehearsal has been nothing short of exhilarating, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with a wider audience on Friday.

Letters to the Editor

Today the Boston Globe printed a Letter to the Editor that my wife and I wrote in response to their front page article about our chorus.

The letter reads:

Your article on James Burton and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was disappointingly one-sided.  Your quotes from choristers came mostly from those who have left the chorus, all of whom are naturally hypercritical of James Burton’s approach to this transition. The article suggests that their inflammatory language (“snarky,” “rude,” “insulting,” “condescending,” “toxic”) is representative of the chorus’s reaction as a whole.

If you had dug beyond spurned choristers eager to avenge themselves by embarrassing the organization, you would have found many choristers who strongly disagree with these characterizations. We believe that James sincerely wants to make the Chorus the best it can be. He is a brilliant musician and communicates what he wants concisely. He makes singing exciting and fun, and many of us find rehearsals an absolute delight. While there’s consensus that the communication of audition results needs improvement, we believe the audition process and requirements are on par with what other choruses of this caliber ask of their singers. We enjoy singing with James as much, if not more than, any other conductor we’ve worked with.

Sincerely,
Jeff and Katherine Foley
North Reading
The writers have been members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus since 1998 and 2000, respectively.

My last post (“Transitions and Trust“) was an olive branch asking all of us to find a way forward. This letter, however, is a direct rebuttal of the original article’s portrayal of the situation, to inform bystanders who might otherwise believe it’s truly management vs chorus. It is not. It takes a lot to get me upset, but to see an organization which I care about, and can hopefully continue to perform with, get that unbalanced treatment publicly… well, it reminded me that unlike in other situations, there’d be no bravery in silence.  We decided it was worth the risks of alienating disgruntled members and any accusations of sycophancy. We’re not trying to convince other chorus members.  Most have already decided — they’re either looking for a way forward together or they’ve already “flipped the bit.”

Meanwhile, another letter to the editor appeared, in the Berkshire Eagle, from Ronny Feldman, a conductor and cellist with the BSO. Its conclusion:

…the choral director, James Burton, and the BSO management handled the new audition policy clumsily, with little regard to the consequences of treating devoted members so shabbily.

Dealing with orchestra members is the single most important responsibility of every conductor. A 300-member chorus is no different. I learned this valuable lesson at the beginning of my conducting career. James Burton is a seasoned, well-traveled choral conductor. He should have known better.

After digesting the first letter, readers may be surprised to learn that I completely agree with this letter. Don’t mistake my proffered praise of James’ conducting style, musicality, and character with a defense for the proceedings. As I detailed earlier, whether intentionally or not, the management team broke the group’s trust.  It’s just as Ronny Feldman described in his letter with his story about abruptly not re-hiring three orchestra members:

The decision reverberated throughout the entire orchestra. The relationship was never the same.

I’m hoping that, properly chastened in private and in the media, the BSO management team will take steps to correct these errors and rebuild the relationship between them and the volunteers who make up the chorus.

Learning to Accept

When I was young and had just started exploring classical music, I had a tape of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I played to within an inch of its life.  I loved the word painting and rollicking cadenzas, the cheerful harpsichord that put the movement in the movements, and the contrasts in tempo and tone from one season to another.  Recently, remembering how much I loved that recording, I went to get a more modern equivalent from iTunes.

I couldn’t — wouldn’t — buy one.

I listened to excerpts and all of them were different.  This one was too fast; this one was draggy.  Another version’s okay, except the violin is doing something crazy that I don’t recognize.  The harpsichord isn’t even playing arpeggios in this one.  I didn’t realize how much of that work is left up to the interpretation of the conductor and the soloist and the continuo.  I couldn’t accept that my version was not the version — even if it was the version for me.  Until I accept another interpretation — or figure out where that tape came from — I may never buy a recording!

Which brings us to the Tanglewood concert that my wife and I are participating in next weekend, where we’ll be singing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and the popular Carmina Burana by Orff.  (You know Carmina, even if you think you don’t… it’s everywhere. )  The Ravel isn’t an issue for me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever sung it, let alone memorized our small contribution, so I have had no preconceived notions… just a fear of knowing when to ahhh and when to ohhh, whether a 5/4 measure is next, and how long the rest is before our next entrance.

Carmina Burana, however, is a problem.

I’ve performed Carmina Burana in four concert runs now, twice from memory.  Some chorus members have many more.  My wife and I even have our favorite version — the time we both sang with Rafael Frübeck de Burgos at Symphony Hall.  “FdB” has a very specific vision for the piece which we embraced.  He really distinguishes his version, thanks in part to some quirky tempo changes — for instance, how he asks the chorus to almost ashamedly gossip-sing about the “errant brethren” and “dispersed monks” while In Taberna, or the sudden switch to double-time to create the “bursting out all over” lover’s fast heartbeat in Tempus es iocundum.  He truly gives it that bawdy, irreverent character that it needs.  I have a recording of that performance, and it’s my gold standard for the piece.

And that … that makes this particular performance much harder.  Now we’re singing it with a new conductor, whom we’ll meet next week.  And, we’ve been prepared by Betsy Burleigh, one of the chorus directors auditioning to replace John Oliver after his retirement last year.  Betsy’s intensity contrasts dramatically with John’s more laissez-faire style, and that’s been an adjustment for the entire chorus.  My “aha” observation is that in rehearsals, our chorus likes to learn, but doesn’t like to be taught.  John concerned himself more with the character and tone of our singing, and figured we’d work out most of the details on our own or with the conductor.  (He also generally hates Carmina Burana for its bombast and general lack of subtlety.)  Betsy prefers to establish an agreed-upon baseline landscape of diction and rhythm.  Once we have consensus on those boundaries as a chorus, we can then maneuver however the conductor wants to shape the piece.  Adding to the cognitive dissonance: since Carmina Burana is a weird mixture of Latin and German, there’s debate for each performance on whether a word like “quod” is pronounced /kwohd/ or /kvot/.  Betsy delivered a comprehensive and internally consistent pronunciation guide, but it disagrees with what most of us have previously memorized. So she’s had to deprogram us from old habits with some very detailed drilling.

Frankly, we could probably use the drilling, because that uniformity of sound and diction hasn’t really been a hallmark of our chorus over the last decade.  I can’t remember the last time we took a piece apart this thoroughly and then reassembled it.  We held five pre-residency rehearsals instead of the usual two or three – and we’re not even technically memorizing for this performance.  Sure there’s been grumbling, but by the final rehearsal we sounded so much better than the initial one, that I think it was worth it.  Betsy challenged us not to mail it in.  Once we learn to accept that, and accept her, and accept that there’s no John or FdB here, and accept that the chorus is transforming into something new…  then we can return to inspiring a picnic-crowded lawn.

In the end, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to sing the praises of fate, lust, springtime, and drinking heavily… regardless of whether I successfully shake off the instinct to rhyme crescis and dissolubilis with the English word “peace” instead of “hiss.”  We’ve been here before: that jarring cognitive dissonance when faced with a new interpretation happens every time.  And we’ve had guest chorus conductors shake us out of complacency for the Brahms Requiem, and we’ve had conductors take us for wild spins too.  Learning to accept is hard.  Leadership changes are hard.  But complacency won’t get us to the sort of memorable performance that makes me save a tape for decades.