I wrote the following article for the Winter/Spring 2012 TFC Newsletter; now that it’s published I can share it here. I love writing these! My last one, for last year’s TFC Newsletter, was on Oedipus Rex.
A good story has exposition, complication, a climax, dénouement, and subsequent resolution. Lobgesang is not a good story. We praised, we re-praised, we reprised the praise, and maybe even re-praised the reprise. Who knew thanking the Lord could border on monotony? Fortunately, through the guidance of John Oliver and the stewardship of choir-favorite Bramwell Tovey, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus added the color and character to bring this magnificent work to life.
Mendelssohn composed this symphony-cantata in 1840 for a festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of the printing press blah blah blah blah. You’ve skipped this paragraph already, haven’t you. You can learn this piece’s background from any of the published reviews or even Wikipedia. So never mind all that historical context—what’s it like to actually learn and sing a piece that the BSO has only performed twice before in its 131 years?
Learning anything for the winter season’s January choral performance is often fraught with peril. It’s difficult to truly devote time to studying music when you’re competing with the assembly line production of Holiday Pops concerts. This year was no exception. What was particularly dastardly, however, is how deceptively simple the piece looked from a casual glance through the score. Hmmm, let’s see… straightforward German, all tonal, predictable harmonic progressions, no crazy rhythms or key changes, reasonable dynamics, some pianissimo singing under the soloists… no problem! Just a few fugues to hash through. The score thus dismissed, we enjoyed our holidays, and set good ol’ Felix aside.
And then the panic started to settle in.
This is actually hard, went the whispers. With no subtlety or obvious dramatic tension in the piece, there were few landmarks (earmarks?) to help us memorize. Familiar passages quoted from Elijah only added to the confusion. And the fugues… oh the fugues. Straightforward enough, yet devilishly irregular—lose your place and you risked a solo entrance. Worse, once you fell off the fugue train, it was pretty tough to get a ticket back on. We began to appreciate the complexity of the simplicity. No, this was not as difficult as the Missa Solemnis, as nervous February roster members would agree. Nevertheless, it was all too easy to underestimate the effort required not only to memorize but also to internalize this Hymn of Praise.
Then there was the matter of singing technique. Where was the line between fortissimo and shouting? How could we overcome the plodding stomp, stomp, stomp of the rather blocky rhythms? How often would we make Livia Racz cringe by forgetting to schwa our unaccented German syllables? We tackled each of these challenges from the very first rehearsals. John urged us to preserve the melodic line of each phrase. Our goal, he told us, was less about volume and power and more about color and tone (and diction!) That said, at times we’d still need to summon a sonorous joy and send it to the back of the Hall, such as when chasing away die Nacht in the triumphant 7th movement.
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. While opening night may have felt a little tight, our subsequent efforts really did bring out a balanced mixture of radiant praise and emotional subtlety, on the shoulders of well-articulated text and strong singing technique.
Boston area critics were complimentary in their reviews, and our audiences were resoundingly enthusiastic in their acceptance. However, the all-too-numerous empty seats in the hall may have doomed this rather unknown piece to the archives for several more decades. Perhaps its unusual format or single-minded purpose have condemned Lobgesang to unpopularity. Regardless of its acceptance at large, we as a chorus were grateful to have an opportunity to add our voices to its song of praise, praise, and yet more praise.