Category Archives: TFC

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.

Thoughts midway through a Mahler 2 Final Rehearsal

Man, do I love this piece. And that’s even before we sing a single note.

I’m currently sitting on the risers as we do a final full run through of Mahler’s 2nd, the “Resurrection Symphony.” Since we only sing at the end of the final movement, it’s a bit annoying to “practice sitting on stage” like we will for four performances (Thursday, Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Tuesday). But it means the best seats in the house for an extra performance.

First of all, what a spectacle. Two harps. A percussion section with two timpani players, bells, a huge drum, a snare drum, and an array of other effects. An organ that only plays at the very very end – the organist spends even more time waiting than we do! A long pause between the first two movements to “clear the palate” from a heavy, hero’s journey and death as we transition to an airy 2nd movement ending with the most beautiful extended pizzicato string section you’ll ever hear. Then the crazy third movement marches through with its sudden outbursts of brass. Then the most beautiful interlude as one of the soloists takes the stage for her brief homage in a short expressive moment that almost brings tears to my eyes every time. Then the crazy final movement, with players slinking off stage so they can play the distant horn calls and the ominous sound of the approaching army, contrasting the meter and character of the tense on stage scene. A beautiful tuba + trombone quintet.

Oh, and then we get to sing, too.

And do we ever! The quietest sound you can imagine, a breath of air from departed souls over the quiet of an empty battlefield. But by the end, the loudest any of us can possibly sing, in a bombastic barrage of sound that washes over the audience. We Will Rise Again, yes! We Will Rise Again!

Maestro Dohanyi has been customarily brutal in rehearsals. There’s no other way to say it: he is “fussbudget” and has no qualms about making us sing the same passage a twentieth time because on the nineteenth time he felt the /st/ of unsterblich was right on the beat and he had asked us to make it a little late. The result is an exasperated chorus that sings at a higher level and doesn’t treat this as a mail it in performance. The Dutch, they use every part of the German word. Each /l/, each /f/, each /ich/ better be there or we hear about it.

But above all that, he wants us to tell the story. To transcend the music and notes twelfth and communicate this message of hope and triumph. I think we are almost there.

Oops! Time to sing. Hope I can hit a low b flat after sitting for an hour

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Our (Slightly Sloppy) Success

Last night’s Verdi was every bit as exciting as I expected it to be.  While I’ll certainly file it in my memory as another successful performance, I must admit that it won’t be one of my favorites because it included some of the pitfalls I was concerned about going into the performance.

Maestro Montanero was true to his style, with dramatic, forceful, energetic conducting from the podium.  He urged us to infuse the passion and emotion of this Requiem’s story into a heartfelt rendition of the piece.  Both Old Testament God and the supplications and pleadings of those facing Judgment Day came through loud and clear… and yes, quickly, too!  We executed on the vision and put together a memorable performance for the audience.  In fact, it’s going to be hard to listen to any Verdi Requiem performance, now, without comparing it to this one’s range of tempo and dynamics, its accelerando and rubato, and the singular approach which Montanero used.

I suspect, however, that when the critics turn to their inevitable sniping at the performance’s merits, they will find some of the same things that I found lacking, things which prevented this performance from achieving true greatness. The main problem?  Its sloppiness.  Mind you, we’re talking the sloppiness of a Lenox restaurant’s dinner guest leaving bread crumbs and a minor coffee spill on the tablecloth, not a toddler smearing mushed carrots all over his high chair.  I’m being incredibly picky. But for a group that generally craves precision, we had minor errors all over the place.  Cutoffs that we approximated.  Swells and fades that we invented because we weren’t actually sure what Maestro wanted.  A default mezzo forte dynamic for some entrances.  And tempo curves in the road that we could only gamely follow and hope for the best.  In general, the crispness that I know I desire wasn’t there.  I don’t think the performance itself suffered too greatly from it.  Personally, it vaguely diminished my enjoyment in creating the music, and the distractions made it harder for me to concentrate on producing an efficient, glorious sound.

The quartet of soloists were one of the better groups I have ever heard perform the Verdi Requiem.  However, they had some of the same troubles that the chorus faced.  Montanero often had to get in their faces to buckle them in for his rubato and other tempo shifts.  Our poor soprano came in a measure early on the tremens factus sum ego portion of the Libera me, and later on was a measure late in her return entrance.  Fortunately in both cases she adjusted by changing note values to realign with the orchestra–a mark of an experienced professional for sure.   The quartets seemed relatively well-balanced (with only the mezzo having trouble keeping up with the others’ volume and tone quality), but there were moments where they were just not in lockstep with the orchestra.

I can’t help but lay the blame for those near train wrecks on the baton of Maestro Montanero, because of his fast tempo and occasional lack of clarity in communicating that tempo to chorus, soloists, and orchestra.   Some in the chorus argued that he was quite clear.  I would say yes — he was as clear as your spouse telling you, “Okay… ummmm…. TURN HERE!  You missed it.”  Too many directions were better interpreted after it was too late to do something about them.  Again, did it hurt the performance?  Only to the most ardent Verdi fans who know the score well enough to pick up those kinds of slips.  The rest of the audience must surely have enjoyed the excitement and energy of the breakneck pace, a pace which did a great job communicating the this-is-our-last-chance begging of the judged.  A slavish attention to detail would have robbed this interpretation of its soul.  We would never have delivered the emotional payload, and this wouldn’t have been such an awesome — in the true sense of the word — performance.

Anxious, frustrated, and hopefully optimistic

With yesterday morning’s rehearsal behind us, and tonight’s performance coming, I’m left feeling a little anxious, a little frustrated, and yet hopeful and optimistic.

I’m anxious because this performance will still be more of a balancing act than usual. We go into it confident in our abilities and knowledge of the piece, but not confident in having a shared vision with Maestro Montanero.  His tempo still feels like a music box to me, and to many others in the chorus — sometimes wound too tight and racing ahead, then suddenly winding down without warning.   (However fast we imagine the final fugue in our heads, it’s always faster.  I swear he speeds up immediately after introducing the tempo just to whip the racehorse that is the chorus into a stampeding frenzy.)  While these sudden tempo changes are less of a surprise than from the first rehearsal, it does mean we’ll need extra concentration on his cues to follow him.  This may distract us from the musicality we’re bringing to the performance, just so we can stretch to reach his.So that’s why I’m a little frustrated, because this isn’t the way I personally enjoy making music.  Granted, my personality energy is normally very sunshine yellow, preferring outward expression of emotion and never afraid of a little improvisation.  But I’m finding that my music-making is cool blue, unusually so given my energy tends to shy away from that more calculating, precise, give-me-all-the-details approach.  I want to be in control, I want to know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen, and I want our group of some 120 singers to succeed in projecting a uniformity of sound.  That uniformity will not be uniformly achieved tonight.  There will be moments where we are off.  And frankly, that’s probably what Maestro Montanero wants, given his emphasis on us earnestly believing and communicating the terror our souls feel when faced with Judgment Day.  I’m guessing that the end of the world won’t come about measured in perfectly kept 4/4 time.
All that said, just like in my previous post, I remain pretty hopeful and optimistic that this is going to be a stellar performance, specifically because of that wildness.  In the Master Class that John Oliver ran today — a topic for another post, I’m sure — John emphasized proper technique first and foremost, especially for younger singers still trying to find the best way to use their instrument.  But he also spent time convincing some more experienced singers, singers who had proper technique, to let go of that control.   He asked them to open up, to loosen tension or constrictions they had formed, to give up control in order to achieve a more powerful sound.  And sure enough, those singers achieved back-of-the-concert-hall power by making their well-honed technique the slave, not the master.  We have to let Montanero be the master, we have to let passion drive our performance tonight, and use that to propel us through the piece.
My family and I listened to an excerpt from the Gatti performance, side by side with my wife’s Dies Irae snippet recorded from rehearsal.  What had sounded majestic, noble, and inexorable for Gatti now sounds pale, languid, and lugubrious.  Montanero’s interpretation is just that much more exciting.  Anyone who hears it is going to be captivated by its energy and momentum.  We’re going down a double-black-diamond hill and we’ve only been on the greens and blues…  but we have the talent as an ensemble to do it, however reckless it may feel (oh my god, the Sanctus…. the Libera me … holy crap!)  If we can avoid any train wrecks along the way, we should have a performance to be proud of.