Tag Archives: memorization

Book Report Extension

Last night’s rehearsal was like showing up at school,  looking hangdog, because you didn’t finish the book report that was due today — only to find that you have a substitute teacher who will let you spend the day finishing up that report.  That’s because John Oliver was sick, meaning one of the rehearsal pianists (the very capable Martin Amlin) ran the rehearsal.  It’s almost as if John knew that we might as a whole be having a little trouble.  Banging out the notes with Martin was just what the doctor ordered for helping us collectively catch up on our memorization.  There were many scores open, leading to many furtive and not-so-furtive glances at them, as we meticulously pounded through each movement at least twice.  Even though individually many of us were shaky, as a unit the chorus sounded quite strong.

Martin doesn’t have as much built-in authority as John when he’s up at the podium, which in the past has sometimes led to some unfortunate substitute teacher type rehearsals–people talking, people contradicting him, that sort of thing.  Plus, he can’t contribute the subtleties that a John can to bring out the sound we’re looking for as a chorus.  None of that mattered yesterday as our goal was not connecting the lines or making a beautiful sound, it was which entrance goes where?  When is the subito piano marking?  Is that cut-off on beat three or four?

This Lobgesang has turned out to be surprisingly challenging to learn.  It’s not hard to sing while looking at the score — there are no difficult intervals, no challenging runs, no confusing entrances.  In fact, that’s the problem.  The text, the fugues, the entrances all sort of swirl together in your head.  Everything is mostly regular, except when it’s not, so you need to commit to memory that this rhythm is straight but that rhythm has the sixteenth syncopation, but it’s on an unstressed syllable so you can’t punch it, but this other one needs an accent or it won’t be heard at all… and we haven’t even made it to competing with the orchestra yet (that comes Wednesday!)  So I think many of us have gained an unfortunate new appreciation for the complexity that is the simplicity of Mendelssohn’s writing.

Tonight (Tuesday night) we’ll have a piano rehearsal with Maestro Tovey.  I did not have the opportunity to work with him for Porgy and Bess.  My wife did, and has been gushing to me about how great he is to work with — personable and musically knowledgeable and knows how to get the sound he wants from us.  I’m looking forward to it.  Holiday Pops is basically a factory assembly line with Keith Lockhart, given the number of concerts we do and the relative ease of the pieces.  Other conductors we’ve worked with recently have all been good, but I wouldn’t describe any of them in the glowing terms that I’ve heard for Maestro Tovey.  I hope he lives up to my now heightened expectations!

What’s the Score?

Okay, this is how it all went down…

We were in the middle of the rehearsal and Maestro Suzuki suddenly commented that we, as a chorus, seemed tentative and were frequently late with our entrances. If you ask me, this was because he frequently asked us to start at certain measure numbers and we had to switch to the score for those moments.  (More cynically, sometimes it seemed he accused us of being late or early when I thought we sounded fine.)   He asked us if it would be better for us to have the score in front of us. We all laughed a bit and gave some sort of noncommittal reply about “if you tell us to, we will, but we are used to going without.”

Five minutes later, he stopped us again and told us he preferred that we use our scores.

This was a profound change. The way you sing with a score, I quickly learned, is quite different from the way you sing from memory. For one, you use the score as a crutch, looking at it more often than you ever needed to. Also, it’s HARD to find your place. Too many German and English words on the page to parse, plus four staffs. Reading it AND seeing the conductor is tough. third, there’s the weight of it in your hands as you hold it… Almost a physical barrier between you and the conductor.

So while there was a certain sigh of relief from some corners of the chorus, I think the decision was bittersweet.  Many of us are considering NOT bringing the score on stage, replacing it with just the little prayerbook we originally were given with the words to the chorales.  Then we’d hide the prayerbook in the black folders like a student reading a comic between the pages of his math textbook.  I’m gonna try that at today’s orchestra rehearsal, as a matter of fact, to see if I really can get by without the few spots where looking back at the score is helpful.  It’s not just a badge of courage… I prefer no score for all the reasons mentioned above.  I think I sing better without it.

Side note: at yesterday’s orchestra rehearsal we wondered where Maestro was going to stand — the conductor’s podium wasn’t there, and a harpsichord was in the way.  Lo and behold, he perched himself at the harpsichord and played all of the recitative interludes himself!  I wonder if that makes it more authentic for a performance.  (As my wife pointed out, however, you can only get so authentic with a Japanese conductor and an American chorus.)  One thing’s for sure, it’s even more clear that Suzuki lives and breathes this piece, if he’s capable of conducting AND playing the interludes without missing a beat or a cue.

Home stretch… and then the marathon

We’re almost there!  (Here’s my memorization progress to date.)  Almost finished memorizing, and almost to the REAL rehearsals.  We have a fairly brutal rehearsal schedule, by TFC standards:

  • Friday night off-book, 7-9ish
  • Saturday with Mo. Suzuki, 1-3p, 4-6p
  • Sunday with Mo. Suzuki, 1-3p, 4-6p
  • Monday 1-4p with orchestra
  • Tuesday 9:30a-1p, 2-4p with orchestra
  • Wednesday 6:30-10 with orchestra
  • Performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday

What’s clear from this, given that we’ll be singing every single day for 9 days, is that pacing will be key.  That means singing properly, with support, and most importantly not over-singing.  It will be tempting to do so in order to be heard over the orchestra.  We just have to trust that Suzuki will rein in the orchestra volume to be appropriate for a chorus of 60.  After all, the BSO is used to 100-120 of us back there for most of our  concerts!

Despite the heavy schedule, I personally am finding excitement building for the long rehearsals with Suzuki.  A short article in the New Yorker praises Bach’s compositions (and basically calls Gardiner’s recordings the quintessential Bach to own) but highlights the Bach Collegium Japan and their recent performance of the B-Minor Mass at Carnegie Hall with 21 singers and 26 players.  He writes how baroque performances tend to be either very austere or overdone, but that Suzuki “follows a pragmatic middle path…. In interpretive style, he tends toward subtlety rather than flamboyance, avoiding the abrupt accents, florid ornaments, and freewheeling tempos that are fashionable in Baroque performance practice. He is strong on clarity and musicality, sometimes lacking in force.”  That sounds like a good preview of what to expect over the weekend and for the actual performances.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2011/04/11/110411crmu_music_ross#ixzz1JJUu2fKY

Double recording double jeopardy

I’m knee-deep in learning the Bach St. John Passion right now — but at this point I probably should be neck-deep, instead.  We got the music in January, and I was rarin’ to go… but then once I was picked for a reaudition, I didn’t want anything to distract from learning and memorizing my audition piece, Meeres Stille… so I put off the Bach until mid-February.  Then I started listening to in the car, getting comfortable with it, yada yada yada OH MY GOD HOW IS IT MARCH ALREADY OH GOD OH GOD.  Now it’s almost April and I’ve probably got 1/3 of it memorized, with the first rehearsal this Monday the 4th and the off-book rehearsal scheduled for the 15th.  It actually got to the point where I made a spreadsheet to track progress so I could remind myself how far I had to go.  (You can follow along and applaud or tsk tsk my progress here. )

We received two recordings of this piece to study from.  Normally I am a big recording fan — my piano teacher once told me that learning music was 50% aural, 40% mechanical, and 10% visual.  Everyone learns differently, and all are important, but I’d say that’s pretty accurate for me.  But this time around there’s a conundrum.  Here’s why:

The first recording was made by our conductor for this piece, Mo. Suzuki.  (I only just learned that “Mo” was the “Mr” for Maestro.  Hee.  Anyways…)  His recording uses a concert pitch consistent with baroque performances using period instruments, so everything sounds about a half-note lower.  I have perfect pitch and this drives me nuts since we’ll be performing the piece at the modern (A=440) pitch.

The second recording is at the modern pitch, but uses a revision of the score that has different notes for the entire first part.  In addition, the performance style is noticeably different — hard to explain, but I’ll try.  In the modern piece, every entrance, every forte, is very punchy.  Very in-your-face.  It’s bold and brash.  The notes are all correct, the tempi are fine,  and had I not heard Maestro Suzuki’s version I would have thought it a fine recording.  But Suzuki’s version is much more nuanced.    Singer entrances just sort of slide in and out, and are complete in and of themselves.  It feels very natural, very flowing.  I liken it to the difference between diving into a pool and slipping into a hot tub.  Every phrase is sort of aware of itself, very proper, never extends.  There’s an economy to every breath, every legato, every vowel and consonant… nothing is wasted.  The other analogy that comes to mind, oddly enough, is the training montage in the Zorro movie where Anthony Hopkins is teaching Antonio Banderas to swordfight.  Hopkins’ character tells Banderas that there is a circle, and that he must stay within the circle as he fights.  These singers stay within a circle as well, never extending too far, never exposing themselves, always in control, putting together something fluid and beautiful.

Given that Suzuki is our conductor, I expect we too will be searching for that fluidity and economy of singer motion in our performance.  I’m mostly listening to that recording for style, but every once in a while I jump over to the other recording — just to remind me that I’ll have to brighten the tone and bump it up a half-step in the end.  Once we get to rehearsals and I begin to rely less on the recordings I’m sure it will work out.  But I need to finish putting the work in first!