Tag Archives: my reviews

Self-Review: Verdi Requiem Opening Night

Our opening night performance was everything we wanted it to be: powerful, emotional, and expressive.  It was a night to be quite proud of.

The chorus achieved everything we set out to do — we stayed locked in on Maestro Gatti’s direction the whole time.  We got that cupa hollowness in the beginning.  We expanded ourselves as instruments to get the Hall-shattering triple-f for the Dies Irae.  We made the soft parts very personal to us.  We delivered and fulfilled the vision in Maestro’s head.

Some moments really gave me chills.  The climactic crescendo of the Tuba mirum, for instance, delivered on its promise of the trumpet-scattering tombs.  The Sanctus double fugue was tidy and, yes, respectful, and the final fugue was forcefully delivered with authority.  And for some reason, the second dona eis requiem verse of the fifth movement really hit home.  It felt like the most intimate, genuine supplication  to the heavens, a prayer begging for acknowledgement.

Maestro Gatti had even more surprises for us in the performance — we had to stay super-focused on him the entire time to watch for the occasional rubato or accelerando so we could stay with him.  He put in yet even more of these for dramatic effect — he was so physically and emotionally invested in communicating to us what he wanted that his every move had meaning.  As such, we were able to respond to a finger raise as much as a ginormous punch into the air.   He was not shy in reminding us of his requests from rehearsals and coaching us further mid-performance.  I hadn’t realized that he had the entire score memorized and could therefore conduct from the podium with the same attention and freedom to react that we had.  What a difference it made.

What, if anything, could be criticized?  Afterwards, a chorister jokingly referred to “the five soloists on stage,” meaning that Maestro Gatti was so demonstrative up there that he may have been stealing the show.  Would you believe he even shushed the soloists at one point, because they weren’t heeding his direction to sing softly fast enough?  He had a lot of grunts and exhales and even faint singing at a few points.  Some might find all that distracting; I found it endearing.

But there’s always room for improvement.  I don’t think we achieved some of the  triple-p moments that we did in rehearsal — we can touch on some of those passages even more gently to create a more sacred space.  I personally had a little mini-solo when I accidentally tried to double a tenor part; a relic of a previous performance with another crew that had twice as many basses as tenors.  I’m sure we’ll get a few minor adjustments and reminders at tonight’s warmup.  Other than that, however, I think we nailed it, and for the remaining performances I would only hope to commit even further to the piece so we can stay focused on creating another winning night.

You can’t go wrong with the Verdi Requiem; it’s a crowd pleaser any night, with any chorus, in any venue.  But the raucous applause and triple-bow standing ovation told me that the audience felt just as strongly that what they had witnessed was something special.

Thoughts on Lobgesang performance

Yesterday was our first of four performances of Mendelssohn’s symphony-cantata Lobgesang.  (It’s a symphony… no it’s a cantata… no it’s both!)

So how did we do?  Quite well.  We did a remarkable job of capturing the piece’s character and intensity, though I suspect there’s still more we can find in ourselves to give it over the remaining performances.

Maestro Tovey continued his outstanding stewardship at the podium.  He was kinetic, demonstrative, and inviting — but most importantly, consistent.  Consistent with the tempi and the cues and in the feeling he was trying to evoke from us as an orchestra and chorus.  I did think that one of the fugal passages started off a touch fast, almost as if he was daring us to keep up with him, but all in all there were no surprises.

The soloists were impressive — especially the way the two sopranos, Carolyn Sampson and Camilla Tilling.  I can only assume, when soloists like them are selected, that they are chosen not only for their availability and their skill, but also for how well they match each other for a duet like the cantata’s fifth movement.  John Tessier was pretty much what I expected from a tenor in this role – technically accurate, strong delivery, and capturing some of the pleading that’s built into his movements (which, given their nature, provide the work’s only counter to the “praise” theme.)

Our sound as a chorus was full and luscious, reaching to the back of a (disappointingly half empty) hall.  At no time did I feel we were competing with the orchestra for volume.  My throat’s a little sore this morning, so I have to wonder if I still may have been oversinging despite my best efforts to produce an efficient sound.  My singing felt good while I was up there.   Technically, I know we basses had a few shaky parts on some of the fugues where uncertainty pulled back our volume or made a weak entrance, but it was nothing serious and likely not noticeable in the heavy counterpoints we were wading through.  The highlight of the piece remains the Die Nacht ist vergangen! 7th movement as we transition from night into daylight, and we really did nail the a capella chorale that immediately follows it — nuanced, heartfelt singing that carried a prayerful, reflective tone.

We still have more to give, however.  Some of the color and character of the piece that we brought out in rehearsals was still not captured in our performance as well as I’d hoped.  The fugues are still a little pedestrian sometimes, losing some of the pleasantry of the counterpoint and melodic line in favor of the plodding thump, thump, thump needed to get through them correctly.  I think we can get more pathos in the fourth movement and, yes, even in the chorale, where details like a subtle swell on the word Gott didn’t come through to my ears.  I think there’s still a minuscule barrier in our heads that we need to overcome, because of the late memorization — that if we all can truly internalize the music and stop worrying about what’s next, what’s next, that we can break through to an even higher echelon of performance.  Mind you, there’s only so much you can do with this piece given its monologue of praise, praise, praise.  Hopefully, though, it won’t be another 24 years before it’s performed again!


From the Holly Jollies to the Heebie Jeebies: Singing Oedipus Rex

I wrote the following article for the Winter/Spring 2011 TFC Newsletter; now that it’s published I can share it here:

Nothing drives away the sentiment of the Holiday Pops closing number “I Wish You Christmas” like blood gushing from the eyes of a parricidal king at the foot of his hanged wife/mother. Such was the schizophrenic nature of the study which the men of the Tanglewood Chorus faced as we prepared for the January 6-8 performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex while singing through December’s concerts. Little did we realize, however, just how much performing Oedipus Rex would require us to distance ourselves from the holly-jolliness of Pops.

The complete program itself was one of the darker ones we’ve been a part of. Those choristers who felt that one doomed protagonist was not enough for the evening would be able to slip into the audience for the second half and witness Bartók’s equally frightful Bluebeard’s Castle. What better way to follow up Oedipus’s shame and disfigurement than with the inquisitive Judith opening Bluebeard’s seven doors, each more terrifying and bloody than the last, until she discovers her own impending doom: to be imprisoned with her husband’s other three wives?

From the singer’s perspective, Oedipus is certainly not as challenging to learn as other doozies like, say, the Castillian text of Falla or the unpredictable melismas of MacMillan’s Passion. Nevertheless, with the combination of non-liturgical Latin, irregular repetitions of text, syncopations and hemiolas, and orchestral doubling coming and going, we had our hands full learning the notes and words before the first rehearsal on January 2nd. The orchestration may be a timpanist’s dream—its steady doom-doom-doom triples keeping the pace, sometimes on its own, through many passages—but it provided little help for tenors and basses searching for cues or pitch confirmation. There were very few ‘memorization tricks’ available… we simply had to drill, drill, drill until we knew it cold.

What happens once you get past the notes and the text? The most rewarding part of any TFC piece can be when the chorus can focus on the character and tone we’re trying to convey to the audience. Oedipus Rex was no exception. We became pleading, accusatory supplicants begging Oedipus to save us. We bade the blind Oedipus farewell as if it were the saddest thing on earth. We personified the bloodthirsty, hysterical mob recounting the spectacle of Oedipus in a bizarre juxtaposition of chaotic chromaticism and happy circus music which Maestro Levine termed “the Tarentella from Hell.” There’s something so wonderfully visceral about an opera-oratorio that you don’t always get from sacred choral works… even if, as we learned, Stravinsky preferred his compositions to be dispassionate and emotionless.

The chorus’s tests, however, would be technical, not emotional. It became clear during rehearsal week that one of the biggest challenges would be finding a way to be heard through the heavier orchestration. In an earlier rehearsal, John Oliver cautioned us that the dynamics – or, as he put it, “a variety of fortes” – had lured us into shouting the music, perhaps as a continuation of the default Pops singing style. He coached us on “making the weight of our tone more than the weight of our breath,” and warned us about “singing on the capital, not on the interest.” Yet at the orchestra rehearsals, Maestro Levine urged us again and again to be more fortissimo, to sing through the vowels and to send the sound to the rafters. Rather than quieting the orchestra, he implicitly challenged us to find a way through them. The gauntlet had been thrown.

The result was perhaps some of the most intensely focused, efficient, and “in character” singing we’ve ever done in order to cut through the brass-heavy orchestration. John gave us more tricks to better support our sound: leaning onto the small of our backs to get that extra push of volume… closing our vowels and visualizing them delivered vertically rather than broadly… throwing our consonants forward and sustaining our vowels through the wall of sound from the orchestra. It was quite rewarding to hear the difference in the chorus room and to carry that momentum through on stage. And carry it through we did!

Not surprisingly, the reviews of the performances from local critics tend to focus on the compositions themselves, with an emphasis on the soloists more than the chorus. Was Russell Thomas formidable enough as Oedipus? Did Michelle DeYoung pace herself while singing Jocasta so she could shine as Judith in the second half? Was Albert Dohmen’s Creon swallowed up by the orchestra? (Since the credentials of the BSO and Maestro Levine are unquestioned, then surely the fault must be that of the soloist… or perhaps Stravinsky, himself.) Those who did deign to comment on the men folk behind them called our singing “strong, clear, [and] well-shaped” (The Boston Globe) or “formidable, fast-moving fronts of sound” (The Faster Times) or simply “outstanding” (The Boston Phoenix).

Nevertheless, compliments from the critics are rarely the external validation  our chorus seeks – just before intermission on that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the applause of the audience was all the reward we really needed. In the end, the performances were all certainly something our own mothers/spouses could be proud of.

My review of our Stravinsky and Mozart performance

If you compare last night’s performance to other performances of the Mozart Requiem I’ve been in or listened to, it was top-notch–well, except for that one blemish.  But if you compare it to what our chorus is capable of, I feel that we didn’t reach our potential for artistic excellence in that performance.   It really felt that both the Mozart and the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms were pieces that we just sort of sleepwalked our way through, relying on our collective musical instincts.

And you know what?  I lay a big part of the blame for this on conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.   Honestly, I think he was sick… or maybe one of his dogs died… or maybe he read the Eagle review from last week criticizing him for being too wild on the podium.  Whatever the reason, the animated, smile-and-a-wink, conductor from our rehearsals–the one who knew exactly what he wanted to get–wasn’t present last night.  The wildly gesticulating, flamboyant crowd pleaser of the Mahler performance last week was subdued and even a little careless.  The result is we weren’t nearly as engaged as a chorus as we could have been.  Oh, there were a few moments where you could see the playful spark come back into his eyes and he started cuing instruments and getting us into it.  We were even starting to get into a rhythm with the Mozart until… it happened.

The Sanctus movement is one of three movements where the singing starts immediately.  No introduction.  No tempo indication to speak of.  Just a big downbeat and boom! we’re in.  We did the Dies Irae fine because we were locked in on him waiting for it.  We started with our Domine Jesu without issue, because he gave us a look and mouthed the word Domine reminding us to come in quietly.  But the Sanctus? He looked at us, smiled a bit, got prepared, and then looked down and gave sort of a quiet half-cue.  The entire chorus (except for two superstar sopanos) collectively went, “Uh, what?”  The timpani came in, and the orchestra strings sort of quickly made it in a bit late.  The rest of us… well… we started singing on the second measure.  Oops.  A slip-up like that really rattles both the conductor and the chorus and I never felt as locked in for the rest of the piece.

Coupled with that, everyone seemed to agree that the soloists were nothing special.  They all did their jobs, and wonderfully so, but there was nothing about their presentation, their singing style, or their interpretation that will leave a lasting impression, and there was nothing noteworthy about their voices.

Lest I sound too negative, I’d like to report that I felt we conveyed a lot of the detailed direction that MTT gave us for both pieces in our extensive rehearsals.  While I don’t have anything with which to compare our Symphony of Psalms performance except our practice recording, I feel we delivered a solid effort and that anyone familiar with the piece would have been pleased with what they heard.  And the Mozart, according to knowledgeable and trustworthy listeners, was a top-tier performance, missed entrance notwithstanding.  Again, I just wish I could have walked off the stage saying “YEAH!  We nailed that!”  Again, sort of like the Mahler last week, which by almost all accounts was a concert both the performers and the audience will remember years from now.

We’ll see what the “real” critics say… after all,  I’m just a bass.