Tag Archives: James Levine

Ready for Oedipus? We are

After two mornings of orchestra rehearsals, we are ready to go for our performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday!  They should be a satisfying culmination of a lot of hard work on behalf of the chorus, not to mention the other musicians involved.

From the chorus’s perspective, the final rehearsals were NOT a cakewalk, by any means.  Our choral director John Oliver had warned us earlier in the week that we were giving into the temptation to shout the piece instead of singing it, and that the result was a hollowness of tone when combined with the orchestration.   He urged us to find better support for our sound and to be smarter about how we used our instrument.  But at the orchestra rehearsals,  we found that the more wholesome sound we were producing was not enough to cut through the brass-heavy orchestration.  The orchestra was completely swallowing us in some passages — even the soloists were having trouble breaking through.  Maestro Levine kept asking for more volume, and he wasn’t about to ask the orchestra to keep it down.   What to do, what to do?

Well, the gauntlet had been thrown, and so we went about trying to find a way to cut through the sound, without shouting, while keeping the character of the piece.  The answer was in our mechanics and in some visualizations.  John gave us several tips for how to penetrate the orchestra – ways to physically position our body — our instrument — so that we had maximum support from the triangle of our rib cage and sternum, even perching ourselves on the small of our back when we needed to give a little more.  He asked us to close vowels that normally tended to be open, like /a/ and /e/, pointing out that unlike /o/ and /u/ and /i/, they tend to ride too high to penetrate.  In some cases he directed us to produce a darker sound.  It was only by narrowing the vowel sound (and physically narrowing our mouths) as well as visualizing a more vertical sound coming from up higher in our heads — he gestured in front of his forehead and nose, like a dramatic Shakespearean actor — that we could knife through the heavily scored accompaniment, “beat the orchestra,” and reach the audience.

The result?  The sound I hear coming out of me now is probably the most intensely focused, highly efficient sound I’ve ever created.  I daresay the whole chorus is operating at this level now.  Each of us is so alive, so insanely focused in our intensity on each and every note, each and every vowel, each and every consonant, in order to be heard over the orchestra.  Every percussive consonant is spit out.  Voiced consonants launch the the vowel forward.  Vowels are carried forcefully through to the end of each held note without sagging, lest the audience hear the attack and nothing more.  It’s the complete antidote to the admittedly lazy, unfocused singing that we often fall into for the mind-numbing Holiday Pops concerts.  As a singer, you feel totally alive as you pour your essence and full concentration into making each and every note, consonant, and vowel count.

It should be a great performance.  (If you’re going, look for me in the back row, three from the right!)

Oedipus Rex rehearsal with Maestro Levine

Last night was another shortened rehearsal for Oedipus Rex, as we took less than 50 minutes to run through all of our parts with Maestro James Levine (hereafter referred to affectionately as “Jimmy,” as most of us do).

Almost every other conductor we’ve sung for wants very hands-on experience directing the chorus and gives us very specific direction.  It’s usually welcomed, but it also sort of reminds me sadly of the classic office situation where executives approving something just have to make a few changes to make it feel like it’s theirs and to reassert their authority.  (I do it too, unconsciously, when I’m approving something for someone else… “In this copy, what if we change this word, and split this into two paragraphs…”).  Most conductors insist on these minor adjustments, sometimes inspired, sometimes shrug-inducing, that  satisfy some particular quirk of theirs but may or may not make the piece better.

It’s been a long time since I’ve sung for Jimmy, given his physical ailments that have kept him away from the podium for a few years.  But one thing hasn’t changed.  Jimmy is not a hands-on conductor during the piano rehearsal.  He’s there to watch and listen.  He lets John Oliver conduct us, and occasionally — I’d even say, rarely — interrupts to give us some sort of direction.

It is painfully easy to watch Jimmy during moments like these and conjure up the image of a special needs kid trying to keep up.  He is partially transfixed by the music, sometimes singing along with solo parts in an off-key warbling baritone, often rocking back and forth and constantly shifting position (to the point where I wonder if he has Parkinson’s), and always with a child-like smile on his face.  But it would be a mistake.  When he does give advice, it’s so quickly clear that he’s hearing about 50 more things than you or I will ever hear in the music.  Like when he slipped into a lecture about how it’s necessary to bring out the tension between the vocal harmonics and the sostenuto (the sustained, repeated timpani notes, which often is the only accompaniment.)

And yet, even with such limited involvement, we know he is capable of generating the most amazing concert performances.  Everyone gushed about how “transcendent” his Mahler’s 2nd performance was last October.  We saw a glimpse of this when he suddenly took over for John in the last part, reminding us of how to treat the final Vale, vale Oedipus. He reminded us that since “the end of each phrase as written is so sad,”  the character of the ending should be “the saddest thing you’ve ever heard.  We did it again, suddenly evoking a gentle pity that we found from ourselves more easily from the slower tempo he dictated and his (very brief!) hand movements as he led us through it.  Wow.  It will leave the audience breathless, that ending.

One funny moment: We were asking Jimmy about the character of the happy-go-lucky section which is at odds with the somber nature of the scene (blood gushing from Oedipus’s eyes after he pokes them out with the brooch from his hanged wife… not something you expect circus music from.)  Jimmy called it the “Tarantella from Hell,” and made an off-hand remark (I didn’t quite hear it) comparing it to all the Pops music we’d been singing this Christmas.  John took it a step further, pointing out how it was banal, cheap music for the mob — the spectacle for the masses — the stuff everyone wants to hear.  “You’re familiar with that by now, right?  Singing for the masses?”  Having each come off 7+ holiday pops performances… yes, we knew what he meant!