Category Archives: TFC

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


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.

Pathos, not Precision

Well! After 4-5 hours spent with Maestro Montanero on Wednesday, we have a much better idea of how his interpretation of the Verdi Requiem will be different.  It’s pathos at the expense of precision, with his desire for outward expressivity delivered through insanely fast tempi, dramatic dynamics and tempo changes, and the emotion we embed in our singing.  The overall effect should make for an exciting rollercoaster ride of a performance.

Before we sang a single note, Montanero explained what he was going for with this “religious opera,” as he referred to it. Regardless of what we personally believed in, he said for this piece we needed to truly respect and believe in the God described by this piece, and communicate that belief to the audience through our singing. And by no means should this be a private belief, as if some sort of internalized quiet prayer for salvation. This was raising our hands, looking to the heavens, and shouting, begging, for God to spare us. (“Oh, so Old Testament God,” chorister Laura remarked.)

He reiterated this theme, this reliance on an outward display of pathos, throughout the rehearsal. For the Dies Irae?  “God is trying to kill you.  When you sing, I want to turn around and see people in the audience running for the exits!”  For the Libera me, he suggested, “You are shaking the Judge in front of you by the shoulders, frantically begging him to let you go free.”  Very rarely does he go for subtlety: his conducting is fierce and energetic, his attacks are often sudden and dramatic, his tempo changes are as exaggerated as the triple f’s and triple p’s that Verdi put in the score.  (In other words?  He’s Italian.)  This version of the Requiem is all about distilling an intense, passionate pleading through the framework of Verdi’s composition.

The unfortunate side effect of this approach, however, is that we are sacrificing precision for this passion.  Maestro Gatti would focus on many details:  achieving the right balance for the quantus tremor, or the way he wanted the phrasing of huic ergo articulated across the chorus, or showing exactly what we’d get from him for a cutoff.  Whereas Maestro Montanero really just barrels through it all, stopping only to correct us when we didn’t understand what his conducting meant.  For instance, he asks for louder and softer by moving faster or slower — still keeping the same tempo, but with broadly exaggerated motions or restrained, hunched-over hand movements.   While he’ll point out phrasing or hairpin dynamics that he wants us to represent, such as a dramatic decrescendo he wants in the Rex tremendae, it’s otherwise very hit and miss.  What details don’t come from the podium “in the moment” are left up to us, either from what John’s  drilled into us or from what’s left over from Gatti — agogic accents in the te decet hymnus passage, phrasings in the fugues, pronouncing salva with three syllables, that sort of thing.

Strangely enough, Maestro Montanero’s conducting is quite clear–and yet it’s still hard to follow.  He plays “red light, green light” with his rubato, egging us on to keep up with him in an accelerando and then suddenly slowing down to almost half the note value for a dramatic cadence.   There were several times when the chorus, the soloist, and the orchestra would all move to the next note in a phrase at different times because we incorrectly anticipated where he wanted it.  There’s no steady drumbeat, and we haven’t yet internalized where he’s going with each phrase.  In the end, he’s just not a “choral” conductor, breathing with us, giving us each /t/ and /s/ cutoff, and integrating us with the rest of the ensemble.  He isn’t willing us to follow him… he’s daring us to.

That’s particularly true because of the overall speed of the piece.  Saying his tempi are a little fast is like saying that Beethoven was a little hard of hearing.  Mind you, many of us thought Maestro Gatti’s Dies Irae was a bit too slow, even though we know he was going for something noble and terrible in its majesty.  Montanero’s Dies Irae is tremendously exciting, and sounds more like what you hear in movie trailer commercials, when they use that movement as a temporary score.   But he doesn’t stop there.  The Sanctus is about as fast as I’ve ever heard it.  And the ending fugue?  It’s like running down a steep hill and hoping you don’t trip.  During the rehearsal, it was Survivor: Fugue Island and less prepared chorus members kept getting “voted off” as they tried to find their place. Forget that God is trying to kill us — if he doesn’t, at this speed, Montanero will! Often  when playing an instrument or singing, a performer thinks ahead maybe a half-measure or so to know what’s coming next.  Here, we just have to keep executing, relying on muscle memory to get through it all!

These complaints would make it sound like this was going to be a train wreck of a performance.  But you know what?  It won’t be, and here’s why.  It’s an overdependence on those  precise details, making our picky brains feel more in control of what we’re producing, that get in the way of communicating the essence of a piece.  This isn’t Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.  And if a singer worries about every cutoff and note value, he or she may fail to deliver the musicality and the emotional payload intrinsic to the music.   My wife recorded a brief snippet of the Dies Irae from the lawn during the orchestra rehearsal just so I could hear it.  The uniformity of sound, excitement, and drama that travels beyond the stage creates goose bumps.  The emotion trumps the technical.  We may not ever feel fully in control during this piece, but I think by embracing the passion that Montanero wants us to live and breathe and sing, we’re going to take the audience for one helluva ride on Saturday night.

Self-Review: Verdi Requiem Opening Night

Our opening night performance was everything we wanted it to be: powerful, emotional, and expressive.  It was a night to be quite proud of.

The chorus achieved everything we set out to do — we stayed locked in on Maestro Gatti’s direction the whole time.  We got that cupa hollowness in the beginning.  We expanded ourselves as instruments to get the Hall-shattering triple-f for the Dies Irae.  We made the soft parts very personal to us.  We delivered and fulfilled the vision in Maestro’s head.

Some moments really gave me chills.  The climactic crescendo of the Tuba mirum, for instance, delivered on its promise of the trumpet-scattering tombs.  The Sanctus double fugue was tidy and, yes, respectful, and the final fugue was forcefully delivered with authority.  And for some reason, the second dona eis requiem verse of the fifth movement really hit home.  It felt like the most intimate, genuine supplication  to the heavens, a prayer begging for acknowledgement.

Maestro Gatti had even more surprises for us in the performance — we had to stay super-focused on him the entire time to watch for the occasional rubato or accelerando so we could stay with him.  He put in yet even more of these for dramatic effect — he was so physically and emotionally invested in communicating to us what he wanted that his every move had meaning.  As such, we were able to respond to a finger raise as much as a ginormous punch into the air.   He was not shy in reminding us of his requests from rehearsals and coaching us further mid-performance.  I hadn’t realized that he had the entire score memorized and could therefore conduct from the podium with the same attention and freedom to react that we had.  What a difference it made.

What, if anything, could be criticized?  Afterwards, a chorister jokingly referred to “the five soloists on stage,” meaning that Maestro Gatti was so demonstrative up there that he may have been stealing the show.  Would you believe he even shushed the soloists at one point, because they weren’t heeding his direction to sing softly fast enough?  He had a lot of grunts and exhales and even faint singing at a few points.  Some might find all that distracting; I found it endearing.

But there’s always room for improvement.  I don’t think we achieved some of the  triple-p moments that we did in rehearsal — we can touch on some of those passages even more gently to create a more sacred space.  I personally had a little mini-solo when I accidentally tried to double a tenor part; a relic of a previous performance with another crew that had twice as many basses as tenors.  I’m sure we’ll get a few minor adjustments and reminders at tonight’s warmup.  Other than that, however, I think we nailed it, and for the remaining performances I would only hope to commit even further to the piece so we can stay focused on creating another winning night.

You can’t go wrong with the Verdi Requiem; it’s a crowd pleaser any night, with any chorus, in any venue.  But the raucous applause and triple-bow standing ovation told me that the audience felt just as strongly that what they had witnessed was something special.

Ready for Verdi Requiem Tonight

Tonight is opening night, and it’s not just the chorus that’s excited. I’ve never heard the orchestra stamp their feet in approval at our choral singing except on rare occasions, and certainly never FOUR TIMES during a rehearsal stretch. But they did yesterday, to show just how much of a difference some of Maestro Gatti’s adjustments had created.

Once again, Gatti was very specific in what he wants, both from the orchestra and from us. He fixes things you didn’t know were broken. Everyone around me was raving about his imagery and musicality and how he brings out lines you didn’t know were there. He is extremely deliberate in many of his tempos, sometimes slower than you might expect, but not uncomfortably so. The result is some magical moments–and not just from the powerful fortes.

A few more tricks I captured:

  • He chided all of us (especially tenors, with some of their soaring lines) on occasion for singing “too heroically.” Nothing heroic to see in a requiem mass.
  • The Rex Tremandae now starts strong but then he has us pull back and try to be fearful in our decrescendo.
  • A few times the chorus had this intimate delicate sound but the orchestra was sawing along. They matched our dynamics and tone but not our character. His direction to them? “Play carefully.” They did, and it made a difference. He often points to an instrument as if to say to us “match THAT” or points to us to say the same to the orchestra.
  • For the Lacrymosa, he asked the lower voices to make it very personal with a rubato on the accent. The effect is more profound.
  • We couldn’t get quiet enough for him on the Pie Jesu ending to the 2nd movement. So he asked every other person to hum. Weird but it works.
  • All tremolos are not created equal. He’s asked the strings for variations in speed and openness depending on whether he wants tension, floating, or the glowing light of the lux aeterna.
  • Gatti frequently varies his tempo, almost but not quite melodramatically. Rubato abounds, and we are always looking at him to watch out for sudden accelerations or pauses to heighten the musical moment. It’s never the same tempo; he’s very in the moment. He has pre-inserted some of those, like for the intentionally-not-in-tempo antiphonal trumpets. It’s heavy drama by playing with the listener’s expectations.

The soloists are all good, but the tenor is exceptional. His ingemisco may be my favorite ever. Reviewers may find faults with the others. Maestro is very hands on with their tempo and dynamic balance to keep them unified but expressive. I’ve never heard many of these solo parts sung with such fluid tempi and dynamic range, creating a tenderness where I didn’t know it existed. Likewise the orchestra achieves some great effects–I could just eat up the brass, the bassoon and flute solo moments, and the strings’ consistency.

At the end of today’s rehearsal we were looking at each other saying good lord, that was amazing, can we do it again three times? Some opening nights we will go in a little worried. My worry this time is preserving our voices through all three concerts.

The one thing still missing for me, personally, is that I haven’t invested in the singing emotionally yet. I admit I’ve been keeping that component at a distance to make sure I have the technical down right. I suspect others in the chorus are doing the same. So the moment of truth will be tonight. Can we make every dona eis requiem a pleading prayer? Can we make the king’s majesty fearful and awe inspiring? Can we be terrified? Terrifying? Desperate? Hopeful? At peace? I think the best is yet to come.

The Finer Points of Achieving Gatti’s Verdi Vision

Some of the coaching and techniques that Maestro Gatti suggested were new to me.  Here are the ones that stood out:

  • “Sing for yourself.”  That was his direction to achieve the dynamics for some of the triple-p and quadruple-p passages.  I’ve often heard to sing to the back wall of the hall for loud passages, but this was great for singing softly.
  • “Dües Ürae.”  To achieve the darker color he wanted, Gatti told us to sing the /i/ in some of our quieter Dies Irae interjections as a /ü/  .It sure surprised me how well this worked.  After all, a darker color is often achieved by moving your lips forward, and to make an /ü/ you basically make an /i/ with your lips pursed like an /o/.  He also had the sopranos modify the /i/ vowel to an /a/ for their descending chromatic passage, because otherwise, “it sounds like a mosquito.”
  • “Saleva me.”  How many syllables in “Salva” ?  Apparently the answer is three.  Gatti wants the /l/ in salva so prominent that we’re actually putting a shadow vowel in after it to promote it.  This is quite noticeable on the cascading salva me across the chorus toward the end of the second movement.  Gatti got a laugh telling us to sound like Pavarotti and then imitating him, but I must say, it totally makes you sound like you’re a native Italian with that vowel in there.
  • Quantus tremor.  The Quantus tremor passage in the piece occurs right before the antiphonal trumpets and the rest of the brass come crashing in for the climactic Tuba mirum.  In past performances, the chorus I’ve been in has been told to sing it sotto voce, with almost no tone at all, giving it this creepy foreboding sense of wonder and doom.  Great.  Well, Gatti did something amazing with it.  He has the basses quiet but with normal intonation… the tenors with half-intonation… and the altos and sopranos just whisper the words with no intonation.  Then as the passage progresses the tenors bring in more intonation and the ladies step up to half-intonation.  The result is a bottom-heavy, darker, more dramatic effect that had us all looking at each other and nodding our heads to acknowledge how well that worked.
  • Respect the Sanctus.  The Sanctus fourth movement is an oddity in the piece.  Double chorus, cascading fugue-like entrances,  trumpets blaring a triumphant C, dancing strings, bouncy passages–it’s all very unlike the somber character of the rest of the piece.  I’ve always just sung it as a hectic madcap race to the ending with some beautiful transitional passages in the middle.  Usually the problem is just being heard above the orchestra.  Well, Maestro Gatti’s spin on that passage is to “sing it with respect.”  I like it — it keeps your enthusiasm in check so you don’t feel like a kid running around in church during a funeral.  I think communicating that respect will come through to the audience.  (We’ll see, once we add the orchestra and the battle for audibility begins.)
  • Reining in the sopranos.  At the quiet point of the Sanctus, the first chorus holds beautiful sustained chords while the second chorus interjects with prolonged Hosannas.  The sopranos tend to dominate this chord simply because of the range of their notes.  He hammered them a few time to sneak up on the note and barely articulate it so that their notes wouldn’t dominate the rest of the parts by virtue of their position in their passaggio.
  • No misterioso.  We started singing through the piece with that first hushed re-qui-em, and Gatti came back to that immediately after our first minute of sing through.  At the time, I thought we had just the right air of mystery and wonder that I’ve put into those notes in the past.  No, no misterioso, he said.  He wants these parts to be very reflective, very internalized, full of sorrowness and sighing.  He told us to get rid of the big rolled R that would normally go there, calling it out of style.
  • Sits and stands.  Maestro Gatti destroyed our sit and stand schedule, which called for us staying up for most of the first two movements, sitting only for the third and sixth movements which are all solo.  No, he wants the more dramatic visual of us leaping up one beat before our big Dies irae reprises and the Rex tremendae majestatis entrance.  We practiced it a few times.  It’s not very natural or conductive for singing dolcissimo, but fortunately none of those passages call for that — they’re all harsh, coarse entrances that favor power over finesse.

Whether you’re coming to hear us this week, or a connoisseur of Verdi, or  performing it yourself in the future, you’ll probably appreciate these touches and how they can shape the chorus for this piece.

Deeper and Deeper into a Colorful Verdi

I’m often amazed at how there’s always something more to get out of a piece, even one that I’m already intimately familiar with like the Verdi Requiem.

First, let’s take the two rehearsals with John Oliver.  In my last post, I talked about how we had focused on the technical aspects of singing the piece under Bill Cutter’s tutelage.  The difference when John stepped up to the podium and began conducting was palpable.  It was immediately clear that we all were doing some lazy singing–or at least lazy interpreting–because John was immediately asking for things just by the way he conducted, and we were able to deliver them.  Even then, though John’s rehearsals were focused on tactical concerns… but it was tactical approaches to getting the emotion into the piece.  Pause here and here…  put a break before this subito piano so that the audience can hear the dynamic jump and the forte passage preceding it doesn’t run over the change.  There’s usually a stentando here, but watch the conductor to find out how he observes it.   That sort of thing.

But when Maestro Gatti took the podium last night, we went a level even deeper, focused a lot on color.  Color is a strange musical term; defined only as the quality of the tone, but it’s so weird to use a visual concept for an audio one–and talking about a “darker” color doesn’t help!  But Gatti made us start several passages over and over again until we got the color just the way he wanted it.  As one bass commented to me on the way back to the rehearsal room, “It’s clear he hears the piece a certain way in his head, and he won’t stop until we match that.”

By the end of Maestro Gatti’s piano rehearsal on Monday night, we had a very specific version of the Verdi Requiem in our heads.  One that is not misterioso (which is how I’m used to singing the Verdi), but instead full of a lingering regret and sorrow.  I think he used the word culpa — as in “sorry” — to describe how we should be singing from the very opening notes.  [Edit: it was, in fact, cupo — meaning dark, somber.] He modified vowels to achieve a certain darkness, often chiding us for very open /i/ and /e/ sounds which came across as too happy or too childlike.  He migrated the triumphant sounding Sanctus movement away from its celebratory nature into one of respect.  He asked for sharp differences in legato and staccato notes to get combinations of contrasting textures.  At one point he reined in the sopranos because their excellently sung high notes were piercing through the rest of the chorus–I didn’t truly notice it until he fixed it.  He was very clear and insightful in his tempi choices.  He would make the text mean something, asking for the repeated request dona (“give [them]”) to be more prayerful and pleading, for instance.  And he did a few really interesting modifications to how we sang as an ensemble to get some magical effects, which I’ll detail in my next post for people familiar with the piece.

We had heard that Gatti had a reputation for demanding precision.  While we saw some of that last night, it wasn’t so much a demand but a promise.  Each one of the Verdi performances I’ve been involved in with other choruses has had a distinct flavor.  I’m very much looking forward to this one!

Lost: Verdi’s Soul

Someone asked on Quora recently whether a robot could perform music as well as a human. What was the difference?

My answer to that question is here, but I was reminded more specifically about this problem after two Verdi rehearsals with Bill Cutter, both focused on notes, rhythm, and diction. People were worried that those rehearsals would be interminable, as Bill has a reputation for not letting anyone get away with lazy singing, doing passages over and over if they are too sloppy for his liking. But the rehearsals were fairly speedy. Even with an impressive number of singers new to the piece, we know the notes.

We know the notes, but we don’t know the soul.

You see, Verdi composes with stereotypical Italian exaggeration (four f’s? Four p’s? Really?). There are moments of extreme dramatic flourish, stuff that goes beyond what’s on the page. It’s like knowing you have to swing those Pops triplets. There are moments of magnificent terror, or of triumph, or of the caress of a caring mother.  A full gamut of emotions that you have to really inhabit to perform the piece.

What surprised me is how far away our chorus is from that right now.  We just don’t feel this yet. We sang some passages straight, like the Libera me chorus opening, when they desperately needed rubato. I’d say that’s due to Bill’s focus on notes and rhythm except he didn’t conduct it (“senza misura“) and we just don’t have the rhythm in our brains yet. LI-berame DO-mine de morte ae-TER-na in DI-e IL-la tre-MEN-da. Nope. Not there.  When I sang this with John Oliver 20 years ago in college, he told us to sing that part like “The little old ladies muttering as they kneel in the corner by the candles at church, desperately praying to try and still make it to heaven.” Still one of my favorite images from him.

Our first rehearsal with John Oliver (some might say our first real rehearsal) is tonight, Tuesday. I’m anxiously hoping to sing his Verdi Requiem just like I sang his Brahms Requiem. I want us to sound scared. This piece needs us to be pleading and begging to be saved. It must be dark and ominous. It must be melodramatic, but it’s without irony–we believe the melodrama.  Some of it is technical notes, some of it is conducting, some of it is sharing that vision of what we’re trying to communicate with this piece.  We’ll get that tonight, and then Maestro Gatti will reshape it again to his liking come next week at the piano rehearsal.

The Christoph von Dohnányi Brahms Requiem

Okay, okay… THAT was a rehearsal, too.  🙂

Singing yesterday with John was about seeing a familiar face.  Singing tonight was great, but it was hard work.  If yesterday was slipping into a favorite, comfortable pair of slippers, then today was breaking in a new pair of $700 loafers.  (Hat tip to Will for that one.  Also, I clearly don’t spend enough on my shoes.)

So what does the Brahms Requiem according to Maestro Dohnányi sound like?

For one thing, he embraces the concept that this piece is about “philosophy, not belief.”  The German Requiem is more secular in nature than others, given the way it eschews the Latin Mass in favor of vernacular passages from the Luther Bible.  It’s less about the afterlife and those who have died, and more about those of us here now who still live.  That happens to be one of the reasons I really enjoy this Requiem more than some of the others, but I’d never seen that philosophy transferred into the interpretation of the music before.  Christoph’s  overriding direction to us was to make it happy.  Blessed are we who mourn!  We should rejoice in the lives that were led, and embrace those of us still here.  Instead, our tendency has been to sing this like a funeral dirge, with a  lugubrious, dark tone.  Christoph wants none of that, and immediately set to work reversing our somber tone, reminding us that we’re comforting the mourners, reminding them of the good in life.

The other major difference is how particular Maestro is about… well, about everything, really.  The first 10 minutes of rehearsal had us all pretty worried, as Christoph’s correctional slogging, measure by measure, felt like a potential repeat of a long Saturday workout with Maestro Suzuki and the St. John Passion.  He let up a little bit as we settled in, but he still never accepted anything that interfered with the sound he wanted.  (He drilled us basses down to individual poorly tuned notes on one particularly offensive passage.)  I especially liked the way he would have us rehearse the fugues quietly.  Not only did this preserve our voices, it exposed us to flaws in our entrances, pronunciation, note values, and other automatic pilot details that disappear when you’re singing loudly.  It’s definitely a good technique to keep in mind.  (You know, should I ever conduct this piece myself.  Uh-huh.  Right.)

Nowhere was this attention to detail more noticeable than his direction on when dynamics begin and end.  We’ve admittedly gotten a bit lazy on starting and finishing crescendos, and so far we’ve just survived using our musical intelligence to shape the phrase.  But Christoph holds us to what’s printed.  That crescendo you’re making?  It doesn’t start until the third measure.  That decrescendo you didn’t make?  You’ve got to get back down to piano or else you won’t have a place to start the swell in the next two measures.  The whole rehearsal was peppered with corrections like that to what we thought we knew about the ebb and flow of the phrases.

The rest of the differences are really just interesting artistic decisions that zig where previously John zagged.  Like every encounter with great conductors, one walks away with a renewed sense of the textures of the piece, and a new appreciation for passages that might have been swept aside or sung on automatic pilot before. Asking the basses to back off so the altos can be the lead in quiet passages featuring the three lower voices.  Replacing bombastic swells with smarter phrasing that fits the character of the piece.  Emphasizing the counterpoints just as much as the subjects in the fugues.  Changing the basses’ entire fugue entrance from the marcato “Proud, Triumphant!!!”  (written in my score from previous years) to a more reserved, fully legato line that carries through the continuity of the (now much more pronounced) ewigkeit lead in.  Lots of little adjustments like that to alter the textures we’re used to and thereby bring out previously hidden melodies.

It’s… strange, to be tasting the chef’s concoction that has been plated before us.  But he’s a darn good chef, and the requiem he’s serving up tastes fantastic.  I think we all can’t wait to put it all together with the orchestra tomorrow and Wednesday.  Let’s just hope we can keep something in reserve for the actual performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.