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.

Distilling the Soul of the Composer

At a Tent Club Q&A session on Wednesday, someone asked our conductor John Oliver, “What is the purpose of the conductor?” Rather than focus on the mechanics, like “beating time” or “keeping everyone together,” John’s answer was more profound. “The purpose of the conductor,” he said without even pausing to think, “is to distill the soul of the composer, and give it the orchestra, chorus, and soloists so they can communicate it to the audience through the piece.”

Throughout my stay at Tanglewood this week, I’m finding many applications for that statement during our rehearsals as we prepare two Verdi opera excerpts and Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.  It applies at three levels: the mechanics, the emotions, and the message.

The Mechanics

At an almost superficial level, it’s about what the composer wanted tactically within the music. Our conductors have been excellent at giving us technical details to further their interpretations.  Maestro Honeck is very clear about the placidity he wants at the chorus’s entrance in the Mahler, asking us to dramatically de-emphasize all the German consonants and maintain even dynamics and flow — it goes against all our instincts for singing German!  Maestro Lacombe for the Verdi has worked intensely with us to capture the character of each chorus, which is particularly tricky given Aida has bad-guy priests demanding blood, broken prisoners pleading for clemency, and victorious citizens celebrating.  He’s made the priests’ sound darker and more biting.  He’s asked us in the prisoners chorus to watch him closely for rubato to better shape our cry for pity.  He’s turned the people’s chorus into a baseline for the other choruses, asking for precision in consonant placements and dynamics, while bringing out subtle rhythms to maintain the driving pulse of the piece.

All of these adjustments are de rigueur for the week of Tanglewood.  I’ve always accepted them as part of the process, as the means by which the conductor shares his vision of the piece with us.  But never before have I done so with the broader purpose in mind; that if the conductor is giving us his interpretation, who is he interpreting?  It’s not just the notes and dynamics on the page, it’s what the composer wanted when he captured that music onto paper.

The Emotions

At a deeper level, it’s about the emotional interpretation of the music and what we want to deliver.

The lovely melody of Va, Pensiero from Nabucco is deceivingly simple, and it’s easy to get carried away lustily singing it.  Remembering that it’s a chorus of Hebrew slaves lamenting their exile from their homeland tempers that notion.  Mechanically, you sing more sotto voce, you shape phrases to avoid outbursts, you hold back until the third stanza’s fortissimo to give more impact to your lament to the fate-seers about times gone by.  But that’s all in service of the emotion.  Emotionally, you need a hushed reverence, an unquenched longing for what cannot be, that must carry through the entire piece.

The Mahler is all about emotion at the end, and I’ve written before about the musical orgasm of the finale, as you pour forth every ounce of your being into a joyous crescendo, a tidalwave of sound that overwhelms the audience.  We will rise again!  It’s almost impossible not to be affected listening to this piece.  My wife and I get goose bumps in the car just listening to a recording.  Here, too, though, there are subtleties before that moment, which Maestro is giving us.  Rubato again, but to signify the wings we win, to the point where we can visualize a feather darting back and forth in an uplifting wind.  The utmost silence of the opening is now a vehicle for the soloist to rise out of, her part splitting from the chorus and ascending just like the resurrection we sing about 5 minutes later.  Lots of neat colors are being painted with the music that I’ve not experienced as part of this piece before.

The Message

At its deepest level, I’m realizing how important it is to study the composer himself; what his life was like, the circumstances of his composition at the time, his comments about the work to peers. I’d always enjoyed reading about that anyways, purely out of my own interest. But I never really consciously consumed that with the intent of better delivering the message to the audience.

Verdi’s wife and small children had just died when he wrote Va, Pensiero.  What mindset must he have been in to pen this song of loss of one’s love, be it country or family?  How was he representing his loss through the chorus of the Hebrew Slaves?  

Mahler was obsessed with death; it’s no wonder the first movement of the 2nd Symphony is this threatening, funereal march to the grave. Moreover, he was a Jew who converted to Christianity. Before that conversion from Judaism, there was no afterlife for him. So the 2nd Symphony’s emotional center is the 4th movement’s “Urlicht” about the promise of heaven, before he celebrates that resurrection in the final movement, first quietly and then with raucous joy.  The music’s emotion is unmistakeable, but in the umpteen times I’ve performed this piece, I’ve never thought about the childlike wonder of a composer who is exploring, perhaps for the first time musically, the concept of salvation from the death he had brooded about for the first half of his life?

Artist’s interpretation

Somewhere while wandering through art museums, I picked up a notion that I hadn’t heard before: once a work of art is submitted to the public, it is no longer about what the artist intended when he created the work.  It is about the art community’s interpretation of the work.  Never mind what Picasso had in mind whenever he painted bizarre portraits of his lover–he relinquishes ownership of its meaning.

Perhaps that is as true in music as it is in the visual arts.  But since music is digested through performances, there is a more active element involved, one that mandates a translator.  The conductor is our view into the composer’s soul.  I can only hope to be a contributing puzzle piece to achieve that vision and bring people into the moment, to extend that composer’s vision to their lives.