Tag Archives: Newsletter

More Lob Than Ever Gesang Before

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.

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.