Tag Archives: Oedipus Rex

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.

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!

First “real” Oedipus Rex rehearsal

We have had an Oedipus Rex rehearsal at the end of November, but it really didn’t count. Last night was our first true rehearsal for Oedipus Rex, and it was everything I love about a TFC rehearsal: insightful, funny, helpful, rewarding, and short.

Insightful. During the rehearsal, John shared some snippets of background on Stravinsky that gave appropriate color.  He emphasized how Stravinsky saw himself as composing very mechanically and without emotion, as compared to contemporaries like Schoenberg.  All of those early 20th century composers were “running away from the 19th century” trying to find their own distinctive style and sound, and Stravinsky was no exception.  Practically speaking, it meant staccato notes were even shorter and more precise; cutoffs were as exact as possible; and duples and triplets, when those rhythms occurred, were as academic as possible.

Funny. John had his usual array of funny stories.  I loved his aside comment about being in charge of a boy choir once (and aging faster in those 2 years than any point of his life), as well as stories about his voice teacher who said he’d never be a singer but took him on anyway because of his musicality.  Dwight asked a question about whether we should be emphasizing the double L in ellum and John joked, “You know, that kept me up all night on New Year’s Eve,” and fired back with “What you’re doing sounds great” without really answering the question.  Ha!  Then, after practicing a section with crazy high speed runs, John started off his commentary with “there’s a C-natural…” and everyone burst out laughing because the notes are all so run together and approximated that there’s no way any of us freakin’ know where the C-natural is that he’s talking about.  He plowed on, “No, really, this is one people will be able to notice!”  (And he was right.)

Helpful. I may have the music memorized quite well, but there’s nothing like a live rehearsal to really lock in on a lot of the words.  John worked us hard on a few parts where the orchestra diverges from doubling us, to make sure those chromatic moments come through very clearly.  He emphasized the need to have a brighter sound, even a sharper sound, partially to cut through the characteristically heavy orchestration of Stravinsky, and partially to keep the harmonic motion as energetic as possible.  The before-and-after difference after mentioning this was quite noticeable, especially for the tenors who changed the character of one section from “sagging” to “interesting.”

Rewarding. I love walking away with new insights and a better understanding of the piece.  For instance, John at one point stopped drilling sections and warned us that it’s easy to shout while singing a piece like this, and in fact that’s what we were doing, was shouting.  He tried to explain this a few different ways: that voice teacher he spoke of before would say we were “singing on the capital and not on the interest.”  He encouraged us to get a better sound so that we would “avoid a hole in the tone” when singing against the weighty orchestration.  Nothing better than getting such hands-on feedback and then hearing the chorus as a whole adjust nicely to incorporate it.

Short.  I couldn’t believe it, but we walked out of there after only a little more than an hour of the three hours on the schedule.  I’m used to these ending early but this was great.  I attribute it to the fact that the chorus really sounded good, garnished a lot of compliments from John Oliver, and really didn’t need to work on a lot of the piece.  In other words, we did our homework well.

This is a busy week, with a piano rehearsal tonight with Maestro Levine, orchestra rehearsals Tuesday morning and all day Wednesday, and performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

Oedipus Rex incoming

Just before the Holiday Pops season began, we had our first run through rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. It was an unusual combination of dissatisfying, worrisome, and a savory whetting of the appetite for the piece.

This piece has an odd place in my heart, because it was the first time I ever sang with the BSO in Symphony Hall (despite having already been in the chorus for several years beforehand.)  I was given the green light to rejoin the full roster after a reaudition.  I found myself unceremoniously added as a last minute walkon to the Oedipus Rex roster.  I showed up to the first rehearsal having never heard the piece, as regulars on the roster had received music and a rehearsal recording about a month beforehand.  Not my preference for being introduced to a new piece!  It was a jumble of sight-reading notes and text and trying to keep up with John Oliver and the other choristers (who also may or may not have looked at the piece much  beforehand.)

The piece itself is more difficult to memorize than others we’ve performed.  The text is in Latin (thankfully… no crazy Russian from Les Noces) but not any standard liturgical Latin such as a Mass or a Requiem.  On top of that, there are many irregular repetitions of text, syncopations, and hemiolas which surprise the unwary.  Simply put, you just have to know it cold!

In any case, John Oliver was not available for this rehearsal so it was more of a read through than anything else.  Which is always a bit disappointing… while Martin is an excellent rehearsal pianist, it’s difficult to play AND conduct AND give corrective advice beyond notes and rhythms.  And that’s one of the reasons I like this chorus so much… less focus on learning notes, more focus on singing properly and capturing the essence of a piece.  It also was tough because any question about “where do you want us to breathe” and the like becomes “I don’t know what he’ll want, why don’t you wait for John at the next rehearsal.”  To be fair, though, for our first rehearsal, it was helpful to just get comfortable with the piece.

That’s partially what made the rehearsal worrisome… hoo boy, there’s a lot of text.  When I performed this with this chorus in 2006, we ended up actually using the scores on stage because our performance at the piano rehearsal was so mediocre and enough of us obviously didn’t know it well enough to be off book.  It was a tough decision and one that I think led to stricter rules coming down the next year about having a piece truly memorized.  So there’s a lot to chew on here.

Finally, though, it was gratifying to be with more than just a CD while singing the piece.  You get into the spirit of things much more when you’re actually in the rehearsal room and physically singing among the rest of the men, learning where the trouble spots are, and hearing how the blend is going to sound.  I’m really excited to revisit this piece again, and I hope it’s as rewarding as it was in 2006.