Tag Archives: performances

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.

Critical reviews of the Lobgesang

The two usual commenters on our performance these days are the Boston Globe’s and the Boston Classical Review website.  Both did not disappoint with what I felt were accurate and insightful reviews.  Both caught on to the fact that, while this piece is magnificent in scale, its compositional form limits it.  They both also noted that, while our Chorus performed quite well, we were still missing a certain something.

I will say that our Friday performance exceeded our Thursday one — no doubt because we became yet more comfortable with the technicalities of the music (entrances, dynamics, fugues) so we could throw more weight toward the emotional connection as well as the melodic lines, and not sound quite so harsh.  I bet Saturday’s and Tuesday’s performances are even better!  Assuming anyone comes to them — the hall was half empty again on Friday.

Some of Jeremy Eichler’s comments from the Boston Globe:

Last night Symphony Hall had many empty seats, whether due to the unusual repertoire or the prospect of another substitute conductor. It was a pity because Tovey led a swift and sure-footed performance of the work, largely true to its Romantic heft, but never at risk of collapsing beneath the weight of its own grandiloquence.

There were times one wished he managed transitions with a bit more dramatic flair or harnessed the work’s rhetorical force to greater cumulative effect, but there were pleasures to be found in the constitutive parts.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus unleashed a robust and joyful noise at its first entrance, and by and large sustained its potent energy.  […]  The work ends without any grand Beethovian apotheosis, but last night the chorus still found plenty to celebrate in the arrival of dawn.

David Wright echoed some of these comments in his Boston Classical Review:

Even a beautifully polished and committed performance by the orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and three capable vocal soloists under the direction of Bramwell Tovey (substituting for the indisposed Riccardo Chailly) couldn’t quite make the case for this musical miscellany as a coherent symphonic work.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with its usual precision, but its sound sometimes went uncharacteristically hard and blatant, as if it were trying to kick some life into Mendelssohn’s chronically short, square phrases.

Privately, there seems to be a consensus from choristers and their attending guests that the piece just doesn’t quite hang together, and that our exuberance sometimes toed the line between fortissimo and “shouty.”  With no subtlety or dramatic tension short of the Watchman-to-Dawn transition, there’s not much to hang your hat on besides making sure your sound reaches the back row.   I do feel we’re finding some of those subtleties and will continue to bring them out in the remaining performances.  Assuming we survive — Tovey may kill us all on these fugues, as they’ve gotten a little faster with each performance.

Es ist vollbracht!

Es ist vollbracht — “It is accomplished,” or “It is finished,” or perhaps “All is fulfilled,” depending on which Biblical version of Jesus’s final words on the cross you prefer.  Seems appropriate as we closed out our St. John Passion performances.

The final performance tonight, broadcast on WGBH, was by far the best of the three (or four, if you include the open rehearsal.)  Our tenor evangelist had mostly recovered his voice and started to show the strength and pathos that I heard first on Tuesday.  (Plus, they brought in another tenor soloist to handle the tenor arias… it definitely made a difference.)  More importantly, though, as a chorus we were all more comfortable with Suzuki’s conducting style and knew what he was asking for (and could anticipate what he would be asking for).  Furthermore, many choristers said “screw it” and ditched the score for the later performances.  Collectively it felt as if we were more unified and responsive.

I reluctantly ditched my score as well after some encouragement from another bass, and it was the right decision.  It was soooo much easier to follow Suzuki and stay on top of tempi and to give what he was requesting.  Personally, I felt much more emotionally invested and focused on this last performance, whereas on Thursday and Friday I found my mind wandering during recitatives and arias.  I don’t know how much of that I can attribute to ditching the score, but something changed.

We also all agreed to close our folders and sing the final, most powerful movement (Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein) completely by memory.  This movement, already a powerful ending, was magnified tenfold as the entire character of our sound changed when we all dropped music to our sides and sang to the rafters.  Our chorus manager communicated this decision to us; I don’t know if it was his idea, Maestro’s request (he had asked us to memorize chorales whenever possible), or if the impetus came from somewhere externally, but it was a great move.

This was the kind of concert you walk out of with that buzz in your head, a natural high from the quality of the performance, the contribution you know you made, the studying and other investment of time paying off.  The audience responded appropriately, with an even bigger roar and an extra ovation, some of them clearly moved by the whole performance.  After Thursday’s, I was worried that our hard work was going to be irreparably marred.  The Globe’s take on the concert seemed to confirm that (I’ll do a review round up later).  Fortunately, Friday afternoon and especially Saturday night dispelled that notion entirely.

The Roar of the Crowd

You know, there are great reoccurring moments in life that are worth experiencing every time.  For me, it’s the roar of the Symphony Hall audience when the Chorus takes our bow after an impressive performance.  And we got that again Thursday night after our first of three performances of the Bach “St. John” Passion.  (No, I don’t understand the scare quotes, but that’s how the program billed it over and over again.)

I don’t know what the reviews will say in the morning.  Actually, I’ve got a pretty good idea.  I think our poor tenor will get his butt handed to him — he made a partial atonement for his going easy during the open rehearsal, but his voice still cracked a few times, his notes were not precise, and he really didn’t sound up to those arias.  I got the impression he’s been the evangelist for this piece several times but not necessarily the tenor aria soloist.  I don’t know what happened to the confident guy I saw and heard at the Tuesday rehearsal, where he barely referred to the score as he blew through all his lines by memory.  I’m guessing he’s sick.  Something caused him to lose his mojo.

The soprano soloist will get lavish praise for her exquisite, piercingly pure voice.   She had a particular style to her voice — no vibrato, but not sounding like a British chorister.  Her bio mentions performing lots of baroque and earlier music (e.g., madrigals) so that may be it.  It’s a shame she only has two movements.

The alto soloist was fine, nothing amazing, but that’s Bach’s fault not hers.  The alto doesn’t get much to do.  Meanwhile, our basses were both great, and our choral soloists for the two bit parts nailed ’em all.

Collectively, the chorus sounded awesome, and it was a performance to be proud of.   I’m sure we can do better — I kinda felt like we had passed some sort of peak and were all having a bit of trouble concentrating, because (even after making fun of Mo. Suzuki for being too sensitive) I felt a few times that we were coming in late behind his beat and that, for all his exhortations about getting the consonants early, we were falling behind.  Certainly *I* was falling behind a bit.

Personally, I was uncomfortable on stage physically… I kept struggling to get into a groove and stay in focus all evening.  While sitting down, my back was sore and I caught myself slouching a bit.  While standing, I wasn’t feeling the breath support I had during earlier rehearsals, and I wasn’t making it to the end of all my phrases.  Weird.  Mechanically, I kept trying to readjust my position, get my rib cage back in the right place, tried to imagine my head suspended by a string, with my legs bent just a little like I was about to ski or skate away.  I tried to keep the back of my throat open, to drop my diaphragm and get bigger breaths.  And it was elusive — I’d get it, and then I wouldn’t.  Clearly I’m physically too tired — and yes, I can blame the 6+ straight days of singing.  Overall, my sound was fine, it just didn’t come as easily as I’m used to.  We’ll try again tomorrow!

It’ll be hard for the reviewers to ignore the chorus in their write up — as they often do!  But I expect a few lines about our warm, lush sound in the chorales, our impressive agility during the short fugue entrances, and our contrasting dynamics and pathos in the opening and closing choruses.  This tacked on to three paragraphs detailing the history of Bach’s Passions as originally performed in Leipzig.  You know, to show everyone that the reviewer is smart.  Oops, too catty… and as I’ve said before, our validation is not from what someone writes on a page the next day, it’s that roar of the crowd, and the satisfaction of knowing we came together to make some great music.