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Unfamiliarizing Ourselves with the Mozart Requiem

If you spend many years singing choral classical music, you are destined to sing certain pieces in the repertoire.  The Brahms Requiem.  Handel’s Messiah (or at least the Hallelujah chorus).  The Verdi Requiem.  Carmina Burana.  The Mozart Mass in C minor.  These pieces, among many, are the chestnuts that form the framework of every “summer sing” — ad hoc local events where choristers show up, often with own scores in hand, to  rehearse a piece briefly before singing through it with professional soloists and piano accompaniment.  Those pieces work for summer sings because “everyone knows them.”

Next week I’m singing the Mozart Requiem with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  The Mozart Requiem is another one from that list.   I should probably be annoyed that I’m singing it again — except that like all those others, it’s such a damn good piece that I’d never turn down an opportunity to sing it in a professional setting.  But, just like the Brahms Requiem or Carmina Burana, there’s always an adjustment period because you think you know it so well that you should be able to show up and sing it, like another summer sing.  As one fellow chorister put it, “My favorite Mozart Requiem is one where you just join the choir to sing it memorized at the orchestra rehearsal, one day before singing it with them in the concert.”

Right now our chorus conductor du jour is the esteemed James Bagwell, who has the unenviable task of getting singers who are on cruise control to grab the wheel.  The good news is that, through a series of four two-hour rehearsals, he’s done just that.  With techniques such as asking everyone to pulse each note or sing everything staccato, he’s forced rhythmic sloppiness into the light.  (“Don’t fall in love with your voice, fall in love with the rhythm!”)  He’s given us our own copies of the score with his markings on it, so we know what he wants for consonant cutoffs, accents, and phrase-shaping.  He’s moved quiet passages from piano, to pianissimo, to his goal of “pianissimo with intensity.”  He’s asked for senza vibrato — “don’t think of it as punitive, even though it makes sopranos angry” — to fix tuning and make us use it more deliberately as an ornament.   After sing throughs, he repeats moments as duets, so basses and altos echoing each other, or tenors and sopranos who have a similar theme, can listen and adjust.  He once stated that he wanted us to become “the world’s largest string quartet.”  Finally, he arranged seating so that no one is sitting next to someone singing the same part – and has successfully argued for Andris Nelsons to keep us hashed.  That’s scarier for the few people who haven’t sung the piece before (and there are several — everyone has a first time!) but welcomed by veterans.

The result is that for the first time that I’ve sung this piece, I feel like I’m actually listening more to the other voices than my own part.  That’s always a sign to me of mastery in any group setting, from World of Warcraft raids to cooperative board games – the Matrix moment when you can escape the tunnel vision on your role, and see how everything fits together.  To my ears we’re coming across as a more unified ensemble, with the playful interplay of counterpoints much more pronounced in fugal passages.  I’m taking on complex runs of sixteenth notes by listening to the half measure of sopranos beforehand and interlocking with their rhythm rather than insisting on my own timing.  I’m imagining interjections as a call and response to other parts who precede me.

One might argue that I should be doing these things for any piece, and I would agree. But when you know any piece of music well – be it a choral chestnut, piano sonata, favorite Hamilton track, or The Star-Spangled Banner – you take a lot of things for granted.  Many of us could walk onto a stage and sing the Brahms / Verdi / Mozart Requiem tomorrow and give a high quality performance.  Finding that focus, though, by having some details to pay attention to, can elevate the performance to that next level.  Andris will undoubtedly change some things as he distills the soul of the composer in his own inimitable fashion, but now we are awake.  And we are prepared precisely because we have unfamiliarized ourselves with the piece.

Why Do We Do It?

I made the Tanglewood Festival Chorus roster for an upcoming small concert run.  It’s a little known piano concerto by Ferrucio Busoni that has an all male chorus.  It’s no surprise I made the roster, because they literally accepted anyone who said they were available and wanted to do it.  And as I studied the piece over February break in Florida, I could see why they didn’t have a lot of takers:

  • The chorus sings only in the last 8-10 minutes of a 70 minute piece.
  • The piece is rarely performed, because the piano solo is very hard, the orchestra is huge, and it’s hard to get together a chorus just for that last little bit.
  • The piece is not particularly loved or critically acclaimed.  It’s tonal, at least, but certainly not as remarkable as other choral works.
  • Our rehearsal schedule involves four trips into town before two daytime orchestra rehearsals and a Friday afternoon concert, meaning lots of work and home schedule disruption.
  • Each trip is 1-2 hours of rehearsal, for about four minutes of singing.  So not counting travel time, we’ll basically average more than an hour of prep for each minute, before the orchestra.
  • One of the composer’s goals was for the chorus to be almost invisible, just another texture added to the orchestra.  In fact, usually they’re an off-stage chorus.

Pretty bleak, eh?  Those were the thoughts rumbling in my head as I traveled to the very first rehearsal upon returning from vacation.  Why do I do concerts like this?  Why do any of us do it?

Over the course of those three rehearsal and tonight’s piano rehearsal with Maestro Oramo, I’ve reflected on the answers to that question…  because, wow, there are a lot of them.  Why do we do it?  Because:

  • The piece actually is very beautiful.  (You can hear the part we sing in on YouTube here.)
  • All men’s choruses are fun.  Especially when we get to sing hashed so we can truly blend with each other.
  • I get free voice lessons and German diction lessons from musicians Who Know This Sort Of Thing.
  • I’m an extrovert who loves being on a stage, and who loves being around people I don’t see as often.
  • I love any activity that involves a group of people working together to achieve something they couldn’t achieve individually.
  • It’s yet another opportunity to be in “flow” when you know the music so well that you are completely in the zone, immersed in everything around you, enraptured.
  • Everyone else at these rehearsals wants to be here too.  There’s no glamour in being in this piece.  So everyone in the chorus wants to make great music.
  • For that victorious moment at the rehearsal with the conductor, where he looks up after about 30 minutes of work and, slightly stunned, says, “Actually I…. I’m really, really happy with this,” and dismisses you early.

Ultimately, though, the answer is this: Music is my religion.  The chorus room is my church.  And the concert hall stage is my cathedral.  I’ll take advantage of every opportunity to worship that I can.

The Promise of Singing

On Friday, John Oliver conducted his final prelude concert as the leader of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus before his retirement.  The next to last piece on the program, Copland’s “The Promise of Living,” was the perfect tear-jerking valediction that pretty much summed up our time with John over the last 45+ years.

John-Oliver-final-preludeThe piece itself, if you’re not familiar with it, is a song of thanksgiving.  It speaks to the promise that every community can be strengthened through the love of its neighbors.  The text suggests that our raison d’être for living, growing, and ultimately ending our time in this world is “labor and sharing and loving.”  Its message is that we can best show our thanks to the Lord by lending a hand, working with our friends in the fields to “bring in the harvest.”

Friday’s performance was masterful and powerful, even with the normal orchestral accompaniment reduced to two pianos.  Frank Corliss, our former rehearsal pianist, even made a cameo as he joined current pianist Martin Amlin.  (I half-expected Phyllis Curtin, Seiji Ozawa, and James Levine to walk out at the end as a sort of “This Is Your Life” surprise movie ending for John.)  The moving music coupled with it being John’s performance meant some singers were fighting through tears while singing; in fact, many of us chorus members not in the prelude concert were dabbing our eyes as well.

You might call the piece John’s personal creed.  John has made it known in rehearsals before that he’s not particularly religious, but that he still relies on his sense of wonder about the world — especially when he needs us to convey that wonder in pieces that touch on the divine.  To some degree, you can’t sing great choral works, born out of their composers’ faith, without reaching inward and touching one’s own connection to Something Greater Than Us.  In this great Huffington Post interview with Michael Levin, John reflects on how his spirituality and emotional nature helps him connect to music.

I’m still a spiritual person in the sense that I get up every morning and am in awe of the universe, including the evils of our world. And I wonder, like anybody else does, how did this happen? I am not a religious person in the sense of organized religion. I fell out of the church when I was about 24 and was never tempted to go back again […] And I’m a very emotional person. I’m known to have my voice break up when I’m telling the chorus something. I said that to Phyllis Curtin recently. And she said, “Of course you are. You can’t be an artist without being very emotional.”

So to some degree, “The Promise of Living” feels like John’s parting advice to us.  Just as one of his other favorite pieces, the Brahms Requiem, is decidedly sacred but shrugs off any particular liturgical setting in favor of a more secular humanism, Copland’s work, capturing the vernacular of the Midwestern American spirit, echoes a faith in relying on those living with us now over any supernatural intervention.  In essence: our lives are made better by loving each other, looking out for each other, and sharing the work between us – and that is the path to “peace in our own hearts, and peace with our neighbor.”  As the chorus itself faces uncertainty, staring into a future sure to bring changes through the leadership transition, John reminds us to “keep planting each row with seeds of grain,” and Providence will take care of the rest.

I’d even go so far as to say that this song is the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s personal creed — if it were possible for an entire organization to hold a belief.  “For many a year [we’ve] known these fields” of the greens of the Tanglewood lawn.  And we “know all the work that makes them yield” the music that we spend countless hours memorizing and internalizing separately, so that when we come together for a residency, “ready to lend a hand,” we can work together to “bring in the blessings of harvest.”  Sunshine or rain, we bring in the grain of another successful performance — and we do it together through a shared purpose that transcends any social cliques that form here and there while we enjoy our time out in the Berkshires.  When we’re on a stage together, whether it be Symphony Hall, Ozawa Hall, or the Koussevitzky Shed, we do so with the promise that sharing our hard labor and connecting personally with each other, with John, with the composer’s soul, and whoever’s conducting, will create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

So “let us sing our song, and let our song be heard.  Let’s sing our song with our hearts, and find a promise in that song.”  The Joy (Freude!) of Beethoven’s Ninth may be what the TFC is most known for, having performed it almost every summer for the last four decades.  But in our hearts, that Joy comes from what John Oliver has indelibly stamped on our characters.  The promise of living — the promise of singing — is the opportunity to continue working together as a community to create great music.  Nothing will ever change that.

Reviewing the Reviews of Verdi’s Stabat Mater performance

Our performance of Verdi’s Stabat Mater last weekend was just about everything I hoped for.

As an individual, I fought off a lingering cold to deliver (almost) all my singing with the clarity and precision I was searching for.  What held me from an A+ performance were a couple voice cracks and a few breaths I had to steal during long, slow phrases.  I felt like I told the story I wanted to tell, from the misery of the opening note, to the terror of seeing a tortured son, to the hushed whispers honoring his desolation, to the privilege of standing by the mother, and finishing with the prayer for ascension to glory.

As a chorus, we had a strong connection with Maestro Tovey, with the orchestra, with each other, and with the emotional subtext of the music.  We missed a few things, certainly: we basses never made it back to the full supported sound we achieved in rehearsals for our exposed passage, and I was disappointed the chorus didn’t successfully pull back at the beginning of the big finale, to make it more special.  Nevertheless, we created some indisputably magical moments.

If you haven’t heard the performance, it is streaming at WGBH (starting at 15:30) where it should remain available until July 2016.

Aaron Keebaugh, of the Boston Classical Review had a very positive review:

To capture the emotion of this most poignant of texts, the singers lofted their lines with supple blend and pristine diction.

A few isolated phrases in the beginning of the work suffered from some untidy attacks, but as the piece progressed the singers’ confidence grew. “Vidit suum” was desolate, the chorus controlling the thin textures with delicacy to match the sweet melancholy of the verse.

Tovey coaxed weighty, determined playing from the orchestra to support the earth-shaking statements of the “Sancta Mater.” “Flammis ne urar succensus” exploded with power. But the most affecting moment came at the end where the phrases of “Paradisi gloria” seemed to float heavenward where they formed into chords of robust strength before tapering off to whispers for the final “Amen.”

It’s always nice when a reviewer validates what you felt on stage: the desolate vidit suum, the powerful moments, and the great crescendo at the end.  I concede Aaron’s point about a few untidy attacks at the beginning — we basses were not together in the first /kw/ of our Quae mœrebat entrance, though we did support it better than we had in some rehearsals.

Andrew Pincus of The Berkshire Eagle gives our Stabat Mater performance a brief mention in his write-up of the weekend as well:

John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, though perhaps too large for so intimate a piece, nevertheless sang it with opulence of sound and full devotional fervor.

While we’d accept the compliment, I think our roster of 120 singers is no different than the approach we’ve used for many similar pieces over the last several decades, so it’s more of a question of personal taste here.  Intimate 60-person choral pieces belong in Ozawa Hall or maybe back in Boston at Symphony Hall, where they won’t get buried by the Shed’s open architecture and the orchestra’s blazing passages.

Jeremy Eichler’s Boston Globe review only gives us a passing mention:

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang well, if with some tentativeness, in Verdi’s “Stabat Mater,” but the first half in truth belonged to the towering bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

He does compliment us later for our participation in the crowd scenes of Tosca.  In general, I’ve found Eichler to be not particularly kind to the chorus in his reviews, for whatever reason.  It may also be because in the Globe, he doesn’t have the space to devote to our blip on the program radar in an overview of the entire weekend.  I assume his reference to “tentativeness” was for the same “untidy attacks” that Keebaugh mentioned which I remember from the bass line.

Finally, John Ehrlich had wonderful things to say in his review for the Boston Music Intelligencer.  Here’s an excerpt regarding the Stabat Mater:

As with all of the late Verdi works, there was much to amaze the listener. […] The music is alternately anguished, terrifying, reflective, and ultimately noble, a masterful marriage of language and illustrative, emotional music. Tovey was alert to each twist and turn of the score, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus followed his every lead. The many exposed orchestral moments were, of course, elegantly essayed by the orchestra. Not surprisingly, the applause was a bit tepid at the music’s end. It is an unsettling work, to be sure. I wished the audience had accorded a bit more enthusiasm for this elegant performance.

While he didn’t specifically call out the chorus’s performance for the Stabat Mater, Ehrlich’s enthusiasm for the emotional roller coaster and the unsettling nature of the music is a clear indication that we succeeded.  We made that connection to the soul of the composer and distilled it for our audience to internalize.  A triumph indeed!

Connecting to the Emotional Depths of Verdi

This Saturday we are singing a very emotional, almost melodramatic piece: Verdi’s Stabat Mater.  To plumb the depths of its rich emotional content, I’ve found, requires a combination of individual effort and a unifying vision by our conductors.

Regardless of your religious upbringing, there’s something fundamentally primal about the scene set forth: Mary standing beside Jesus’s cross as he dies. Everyone has been a son/daughter, and many of us are either parents ourselves or have taken care of someone we love. We know the fear, the anguish, of a loved one suffering and not being able to do anything to prevent it.

Singing is about communicating. And so each of us in the chorus has to find that dark place within us, that fear and anguish – as well as the longing and hope for an end to that suffering through salvation – and tap into those emotions enough to bring it out in the notes we sing.  You’d think it wouldn’t matter: a C-sharp is a C-sharp is a C-sharp, right?  Wrong.  The difference in emotional context is noticeable even to an untrained ear.

But 120 individual connections to the music doesn’t give us a unified sound. That’s where John Oliver and Bramwell Tovey come in. They use metaphors and describe situations to bring our interpretations together. Let me cite some examples.

The very first note of the piece is this strong dissonant C-sharp leading tone in unison. It’s a forceful entrance that also has to double as that powerful initial outpouring of a mother’s grief.

In a later section, Maestro Tovey asked us to sing proudly, as if we felt privileged to share that mother’s grief by standing with her. I definitely didn’t have that going in

As we sing about Jesus – her sweet son, dying, abandoned, his last breath escaping – Tovey asked for a quieter and more mournful sound. “Who would ever want to be a mother,” he commented, after rehearsing that package.

The end of the piece is us pleading that when our bodies die, we ask to be granted passage into heaven (paradisi gloria). We first sang it a little too happy; “when our bodies die, yay!”  But besides correcting that, Maestro Tovey asked us to sing it as if we weren’t sure we were gonna make it. The result is this trembling, doubtful unspoken question hanging over the hesitating request for salvation, followed by a  glorious representation of heaven in the finale. Strings and brass blare as we crescendo, literally ascending to musical heights.  This morning he did one better, asking us to observe the triple-piano at the beginning of the ascension to heaven. The result is this truly magical moment, right after the trepidatious prayer, where it just feels like the whole world is glittering with sunlight in the morning. It’s the transformational moment when The Beast becomes the prince, when Excalibur comes out of the stone, when Dorothy clicks her heels and goes home. It’s the ultimate reveal.

Verdi, perhaps more so than any other Romantic era composer, is prone to extreme dynamics and overtly dramatic passages to highlight emotional extravagance. This piece perfectly captures his style, and I’m looking forward to delivering it wit h the chorus on Saturday night (8:30pm, WCRB and live streamed.)

On the retirement of John Oliver, my musical North Star

Today, it was announced (officially and publicly) that John Oliver, founder and sole conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for 45 years, was stepping down from his leadership position at the end of the 2015 Tanglewood season.

We knew it would happen someday, even if we don’t know why it’s now.  The lure of his greenhouse gardens?  The tough commutes to Boston and the Berkshires?  A break to write his memoirs?  A need for the next chapter?

It’s not like he’s dying or quitting making music (which, for Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos were equivalent); he and his white pants will continue to be a strong presence out at Tanglewood with his Master Teacher Chair position, and I’m sure as “Conductor Laureate of the TFC” he’ll appear again in our Symphony Hall rehearsal room to over the ensuing years.  But it’s the end of an era — his era.

Conductors, choristers, orchestra members, and critics will undoubtedly praise his musicianship, his talent, his longevity, and the long-lasting effect he’s had on the Boston vocal music scene.  But let me tell you what John Oliver means to me.

From age 5 to 17, my private piano teacher (hi, Mrs. Sori!) was my musical lens, and in some ways, a life coach.  She not only tapped into my musical talents, but instilled in me perseverance, the work ethics of practice, and the joys of performance.  She encouraged my positive outlook.  She taught me about trusting the talents you were given, and giving back to the world by celebrating them.  When I left her behind and pursued a music minor in college, my musical world broadened.  But for a year, I had no musical guidance — no North Star — beyond brief inspirations from professors teaching us the intricacies of harmony and counterpoint, music history, composing… and choral music, through a weekly sight singing lab.

On a whim in 1991, I joined the MIT Concert Choir (as a course for credit), which John Oliver conducted.  And John, whether he knew it or not, became my new musical North Star.  I knew nothing of choral singing before that class, but walked out of college 4 years later having sung masses and requiems and symphonies and tone poems by Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Mendelssohn, and others.  I was hooked.

It’s because of that experience that, after graduating in February 1996, I hopped in and out of local choruses and grabbed a few “rent-a-bass” pickup chorus gigs, because I had developed such a love of singing and choral music.  And, to my chagrin, I began to further appreciate John’s approach as a conductor, by not having it in my life any more.  I started to see how his instincts, musical interpretations, and technical corrections (simple example: his definitive “eighths out” for rests to line up our cutoffs and increase the intelligibility of the text) really fixed a lot of choral problems that other groups and conductors were struggling to solve.

In 1998 I found out that John Oliver conducted the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  So I auditioned, and was fortunate enough to get on the Pops-only roster.  Then he invited me to join a couple summer concert rosters, including the prelude concert that year.  “Tanglewood… what’s that?  Where is it?” I asked.  Needless to say, I was hooked again.

I had my musical North Star back, moreso than ever before.  That’s because the TFC was continually molded by John into what he wanted from a chorus.  Those instincts and interpretations that made so much sense to me were now infused into this collective group, and blossomed in every rehearsal and performance.  His focus on internalizing the music jived with my ability to memorize.  The drudgery of weekly note practices from community choruses was replaced with opportunities to go deeper into what the music was communicating.  Our musical flexibility increased as we learned to adapt his approaches to that week’s conductor’s vision.  Our musical intelligence grew from his master classes, mental visualizations, and other singing advice he doled out (in between jokes, of course) during his time with us.  It got me further than I could ever afford to travel via $50-$100/hr voice lessons.

In a sense, most of what I love about my life has been possible thanks to John being part of my life.  That’s because in 2000, I met my future wife in the chorus. That December I proposed to her on stage during a Pops concert.   If I hadn’t learned to sing with John, and been part of his chorus, I probably would have never met her, and grown this wonderful family.

In the early 2000s, John kicked me down from the regular performance roster back to the Pops-only roster.  After two failed auditions to get back on the regular roster, John explained: “Your musical intelligence is fine, but you don’t know how to produce sound correctly.  I can’t use you until you learn to use your instrument.  Take some private voice lessons, then come back.”  Humbled, I did as he asked, and discovered that I was Doing It All Wrong(TM).  When I returned triumphantly with my newly discovered voice, John nodded and put me right back on the roster.  Without that kick in the pants, I would have lumbered along with my “tired back-pew-of-the-church singer” voice and never challenged my level.  Oh, I’ll never be one of the best 30-60 core singers in the group who sing prelude concerts; I’m not investing in my voice like the harder working, more dedicated career musicians in the chorus are doing.  He’s continued to be that teacher, for all of us.  He doesn’t push us, so much as the weight of his expectations and our desire to achieve those high levels of musicianship push us — and that’s part of the culture he’s created.  I’ve been incredibly blessed with the opportunity to make music with him for the last 20-25 years… and to do it the way I’ve learned to make music… the way I’ll now always make music.

There are chorus members who can also call themselves personal friends with John.  I am not one of them.  I’ve never joined his table at Brasserie Jo, or sat with him at our Tent Club after parties.  But you know what?  That’s totally fine.  You never really want to be too close to your teachers, or they lose that authority and a little bit of that mystique.  We’re not strangers by any means: he’s complimented me on my newsletter articles, I’ve shared a few jokes and observations with him in hallway conversations, and I’m quite confident that his ear and intimate knowledge of his singers means he can pick my individual voice out of a chorus of 20 basses.  He may not have truly appreciated how he’s affected my musical life, let alone the lives of the thousands of choristers he’s coached, urged, pleaded, harangued, inspired, critiqued, and goaded until he got the sound he was looking for.  But he has.

I’ve sat at John’s musical side and basked in his tutelage since 1991; others, even longer.  There will be other stars to navigate by, but none will shine as bright in my musical life as John Oliver has.  We all wish him the best.

An emotionally fulfilling, connected Brahms

Ahhhhh.  That hit the spot.  Thursday evening’s Brahms Requiem was possibly one of our more emotionally fulfilling performances of the piece.

Personally, I felt very connected, in many ways.

I felt connected to my body.  My diaphragm and the “front porch” of my mouth and lips and arches were linked up, so I could generate and support the volume of sound I needed.  I was struggling in rehearsals to find that connection and it meant a breathy, unsupported sound.  I agree whole-heartedly with other choristers who suggested that we had a lot of people trying to save their voices in rehearsals, which may have accounted for the uneven sound then.  It felt good to not hold back.

I felt connected to Maestro Tovey as he urged us through each movement.  Some conductors are facilitators.  Some are all about technical precision.  Some are about showmanship.  But I think Tovey’s conducting is about leadership.  He is constantly encouraging us, with a knowing smile and a wink, even as he waves us onward.  (I also felt connected to him when 10 of us grabbed a drink together afterwards!)

I felt connected to the rest of the chorus, who came through brilliantly in all the tough parts that bedeviled us in rehearsals.   Sopranos and tenors soared through those tough high passages.  Altos were the solid foundation.  We basses found levels of expressiveness I didn’t know we had.  Even exiled in the upper back corner of the stage, I had no trouble feeling like I was part of every line.

I felt connected to the emotional message of the piece.  I found it easy to slip into the roles of comforter, doom-foreteller, patience-counselor, awestruck heaven-gazer, and nose-thumber — you don’t get to taunt Death too often, after all.  With the emotional backdrop of the recent tragic death of a chorister’s sister, I think we all had something to sing for, and someone to comfort.

Lastly, I felt connected to the audience.  One woman in the front balcony, who clearly knew and loved the piece, was practically slapping her hand on the railing in time to the fast section in the 6th movement.  And the moment after the piece was over was amazing.  Tovey kept his hands up long after the last notes had died down, and the audience held their applause, not wanting to break the spell.

Was this a technically sound performance?  I think any performance will have its share of mistakes.  I know I messed up a few words, and I heard a few folks talking about blown or unintentional entrances here and there.  And our diction will never be as crisp as it was with Dohnányi.  But that was never the point.  We needed to connect with the music, with the audience, and with each other, and we succeeded.

Down to the wire, and still not where we should be

We’ve had our final rehearsal.  The orchestra is in prime form, the conductor is beaming, the soloists are amazing.  Is our normally solid chorus the weak link?

I say that because this does not feel like it will be our best concert performance of the Brahms Requiem.  To be fair, we’ve had some pretty awesome Brahms Requiem performances in the past several years, so the bar is set ridiculously high.  But it’d be a damn shame if we wasted this opportunity, given we’re joined by the talented Bryn Terfel, the chorus-favorite conductor Bramwell Tovey, and the less well-known-but-equally-capable Rosemary Joshua.

Tovey has been everything we’ve hoped: gracious, funny, clear in his adjustments and requests, and inspiring.  He’s reminded us that lugubrious faces do not communicate how lovely thy dwelling place is, and that concentrated frowns don’t give credence to a message of everlasting joy.  He’s one of those conductors that spends more time looking up at us than at the orchestra — breathing with us, smiling at us, encouraging us to keep locked in on his direction so he can take us where we want to go.

And we so want to go with him! Yet, despite Bill Cutter’s efforts to prepare us — drilling us on diction and sound quality all week — there’s a collective concern that as a chorus we’re falling short of our normal levels of awesome.  More than a few choristers I’ve chatted with are disappointed with the consistency of our sound.  It’s not as full, not as supported, not as articulate and crisp, and not as emotionally invested as we’ve sung in the past.  Sheesh, we still have Maestro Tovey correcting us for flat notes and intonation problems in the final orchestra rehearsal.  If we can’t get past the compulsories, we’ll never transcend the notes to reach the deeper meaning of the piece.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our rehearsals would be challenging.  We no doubt worked too hard on Saturday and Sunday and burned us out for the rehearsals earlier this week.  The rain and schedule has made it tough for many to attend rehearsals, leaving a preponderance of empty spots.  Furthermore, this is an exhausting piece to sing!  A tired chorus makes for an unsupported sound.  Even trying to “mark” (sing softer), I’ve still left some rehearsals with a sore jaw from all the work required to sing this piece — I’m probably too tense with my singing, but I’ve heard similar complaints from a few other choristers about the physical stamina required to sing this piece.

One thing making this even harder to correct is the insidious nature of any group collaboration.  It’s easy to pick out what sounds wrong, and easy to assign blame, but harder to identify who or what is actually responsible.  Worse, I doubt any of us truly recognize how we ourselves might be contributing to the problem.  For instance, I might think the tenors and sopranos are having trouble singing through some of the higher notes (Tovey: “Just bring that high A up a little higher; don’t worry, it’ll never be sharp”).  But I thought the basses were doing fine, only to hear from a few others that they thought we collectively sounded thin and unsupported in many passages. Oops.  You never think you’re the problem.  It’s humbling to realize that I might be one of the problems.

Fortunately, there’s still time.

So instead of brushing off that feedback, I personally need to ask myself: what can I do to better support my sound?  To sing ‘operatically’ and get the full resonance I need to propel my notes to the back of the hall?  To make my diction fortissimo?  To maintain my breath control?  To fully engage with this piece, and dedicate myself completely to it at the downbeat?  Individually we’re singing with confidence, but I wonder if we might each be overconfident in our own abilities, and not considering the possibility that there’s more that we should be doing? Few people appreciate it when individual choristers speak up to say “I think that ‘we’ [meaning everyone but me, since I’m so smart that I’m pointing it out] are having trouble with this passage / diction / cut-off / note.”  Yet hopefully, by performance time, we’ll all come to that realization that we each still have more to give.

Tonight will be the first time that we are all physically present, and all mentally present, and have the opportunity to be emotionally present.  It’s our chance to give it our all.  To invest fully in the almost mystical qualities that embody this piece.  I’m betting that we pull it off – we almost always do!

Preparing for Maestro Tovey’s Brahms Requiem

“How many of you have sung this more than 10 times before?” asked our assistant conductor Bill Cutter in the middle of our second weekend rehearsal.  A good 30+ hands shot up of the hundred or so choristers assembled.  “And that’s the problem,” Bill said with a grimace.  He admonished us (correctly) that too many of us were mailing it in, and not seeking that deep connection we need to have with the music.  Bill did an admirable job not letting us sit back on our haunches and forced us to reconnect with the text and the meaning behind it.  We needed a little flexibility, because Bill’s direction didn’t always match what the grizzled veterans were used to for this piece.

That’s going to be incredibly important, because every performance of the Brahms is very different.  And we don’t really know what to expect heading into Monday night’s piano rehearsal with Maestro Tovey.

My wife sang with Tovey for the chorus’s performance of Porgy and Bess.  Neither of us sang with him for his return to the chorus with Candide this summer, though everyone raved about what a fantastic performance it was.  Tovey certainly has a flair for turning musicals into crowd-pleasing concerts.  I was fortunate enough to sing with Tovey for the Lobgesang, and see a bit more of his joie de vivre at the chorus holiday party afterwards.  He was the life of the party even before the afterparty, because on the podium, Tovey is full of positive energy, humor, and gusto.  Here’s what I wrote back then:

Choristers who sang for Maestro Tovey in the Berkshires for last summer’s Porgy & Bess often gushed about how great he was to work with: personable, musically knowledgeable, and able to clearly communicate what sound he wanted from us. Those of us experiencing Tovey for the first time were not disappointed. He immediately set to work identifying the moments of drama that were hidden in plain sight, and gave us concrete tempo and dynamics adjustments to highlight them. He added personality to the pedestrian, directing us with words like “warmth” and “beautiful” and “prayerful.” He challenged us to embody the reverence and joy and relief from pain that lay beneath the surface of the text. And he did it all with a wink and a laugh that quickly earned the fierce loyalty of the whole chorus. One couldn’t help but want to sing for him and to deliver what he asked from us. We became committed to his vision of the piece, long before he endeared himself to the group at Saturday’s winter chorus party by joining the jazz band and hitting the dance floor.

Come performance time, Maestro Tovey continued his outstanding leadership at the podium. He was animated, demonstrative, and inviting in his conducting. At no time did the chorus really feel we were competing with the orchestra’s sound, with Tovey holding the reins. Through it all, we successfully captured and conveyed the piece’s character and intensity.

It’s hard to imagine the happy-go-lucky, musical showmanship of Tovey applied to a Requiem.  But this isn’t a sad Requiem… it’s a celebration of the living.  It’s a service for the living, not the deceased.  It’s victory and power and mocking death’s inability to triumph in the end.  It’s reflective peacefulness and the blessings of your friends and family that let you keep carrying on.

So I fully expect Maestro Tovey to take us on quite a journey. Where Maestro Dohnányi was about philosophy and precision, Tovey will almost certainly be about color and emotion.  Though they’ll both share the same directive: to rejoice in our lives even as we comfort the mourners.

Brahms Bingo

John Oliver is not going to be available to prepare us for our upcoming Brahms performance.  (Assistant conductor Bill Cutter will be doing the honors.)  This may not be that big a deal, given that at Bill’s preliminary rehearsal, I saw fewer than 10 hands raised when Bill asked who hadn’t sung it before.

This is only too bad because I had been planning to make a 4×4 “JO Brahms Bingo” card for rehearsals this weekend, using the 16 coachable comments that I expected from him during the run-throughs.  That’s because, having sung the Brahms with him 3 times now (twice with TFC, once with MIT), I’ve gotten used to many of the particulars he emphasizes.

None of it truly matters once the conductor arrives and adds his own personal stamp to our performance.  But anything he doesn’t change becomes The Way We’re Doing It, and I like that.

So here are the minor moments I love in John Oliver’s interpretation of the piece.  Many are already indicated in the score; much of this won’t mean anything to those not intimately familiar with the piece.  And Bill will likely not observe them, as he has his own technicalities to pursue.  But it’s how MY favorite Brahms Requiem goes.

Movement I

1. Making that first entrance (and later recap) as light a touch on Selig as possible

2. Two /t/ — Articulating lied tragen and und tragen carefully

3. Getting in and out quickly on the selig swells, to match the brass

Movement II

4. The darker tone, legato, and double consonants of denn alles Fleisch

5. The flinging sensation of spitting out wird weg

Movement III

6. Aspirating the /h/ and rolling the /r/ for movement III’s opening  Herr

7. Each Nun Herr sounding like two bell peals ringing out

8. The stentando keine Qual finish to the fugue

Movement IV

9. The piano espressivo melodies for the tenors and basses

10. Sempre piano for the recapitulation

11. Stepping back to become the accompaniment for the orchestra at Wohl denen

12. The all-important agogic accent, separation, and subito piano before the final immerdar.

Movement V

13. The prayer-like intonation and cadence of einen seine Mutter each time

Movement VI

14. The drudgery and step-by-step plodding of the opening Denn wir haben, like dragging yourself home after a long day of work

15. A big separation and subito piano right before the next to last Ehre und Kraft

Movement VII

16. Attacca this movement, sopranos be damned.