Tag Archives: rehearsals

Pathos, not Precision

Well! After 4-5 hours spent with Maestro Montanero on Wednesday, we have a much better idea of how his interpretation of the Verdi Requiem will be different.  It’s pathos at the expense of precision, with his desire for outward expressivity delivered through insanely fast tempi, dramatic dynamics and tempo changes, and the emotion we embed in our singing.  The overall effect should make for an exciting rollercoaster ride of a performance.

Before we sang a single note, Montanero explained what he was going for with this “religious opera,” as he referred to it. Regardless of what we personally believed in, he said for this piece we needed to truly respect and believe in the God described by this piece, and communicate that belief to the audience through our singing. And by no means should this be a private belief, as if some sort of internalized quiet prayer for salvation. This was raising our hands, looking to the heavens, and shouting, begging, for God to spare us. (“Oh, so Old Testament God,” chorister Laura remarked.)

He reiterated this theme, this reliance on an outward display of pathos, throughout the rehearsal. For the Dies Irae?  “God is trying to kill you.  When you sing, I want to turn around and see people in the audience running for the exits!”  For the Libera me, he suggested, “You are shaking the Judge in front of you by the shoulders, frantically begging him to let you go free.”  Very rarely does he go for subtlety: his conducting is fierce and energetic, his attacks are often sudden and dramatic, his tempo changes are as exaggerated as the triple f’s and triple p’s that Verdi put in the score.  (In other words?  He’s Italian.)  This version of the Requiem is all about distilling an intense, passionate pleading through the framework of Verdi’s composition.

The unfortunate side effect of this approach, however, is that we are sacrificing precision for this passion.  Maestro Gatti would focus on many details:  achieving the right balance for the quantus tremor, or the way he wanted the phrasing of huic ergo articulated across the chorus, or showing exactly what we’d get from him for a cutoff.  Whereas Maestro Montanero really just barrels through it all, stopping only to correct us when we didn’t understand what his conducting meant.  For instance, he asks for louder and softer by moving faster or slower — still keeping the same tempo, but with broadly exaggerated motions or restrained, hunched-over hand movements.   While he’ll point out phrasing or hairpin dynamics that he wants us to represent, such as a dramatic decrescendo he wants in the Rex tremendae, it’s otherwise very hit and miss.  What details don’t come from the podium “in the moment” are left up to us, either from what John’s  drilled into us or from what’s left over from Gatti — agogic accents in the te decet hymnus passage, phrasings in the fugues, pronouncing salva with three syllables, that sort of thing.

Strangely enough, Maestro Montanero’s conducting is quite clear–and yet it’s still hard to follow.  He plays “red light, green light” with his rubato, egging us on to keep up with him in an accelerando and then suddenly slowing down to almost half the note value for a dramatic cadence.   There were several times when the chorus, the soloist, and the orchestra would all move to the next note in a phrase at different times because we incorrectly anticipated where he wanted it.  There’s no steady drumbeat, and we haven’t yet internalized where he’s going with each phrase.  In the end, he’s just not a “choral” conductor, breathing with us, giving us each /t/ and /s/ cutoff, and integrating us with the rest of the ensemble.  He isn’t willing us to follow him… he’s daring us to.

That’s particularly true because of the overall speed of the piece.  Saying his tempi are a little fast is like saying that Beethoven was a little hard of hearing.  Mind you, many of us thought Maestro Gatti’s Dies Irae was a bit too slow, even though we know he was going for something noble and terrible in its majesty.  Montanero’s Dies Irae is tremendously exciting, and sounds more like what you hear in movie trailer commercials, when they use that movement as a temporary score.   But he doesn’t stop there.  The Sanctus is about as fast as I’ve ever heard it.  And the ending fugue?  It’s like running down a steep hill and hoping you don’t trip.  During the rehearsal, it was Survivor: Fugue Island and less prepared chorus members kept getting “voted off” as they tried to find their place. Forget that God is trying to kill us — if he doesn’t, at this speed, Montanero will! Often  when playing an instrument or singing, a performer thinks ahead maybe a half-measure or so to know what’s coming next.  Here, we just have to keep executing, relying on muscle memory to get through it all!

These complaints would make it sound like this was going to be a train wreck of a performance.  But you know what?  It won’t be, and here’s why.  It’s an overdependence on those  precise details, making our picky brains feel more in control of what we’re producing, that get in the way of communicating the essence of a piece.  This isn’t Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.  And if a singer worries about every cutoff and note value, he or she may fail to deliver the musicality and the emotional payload intrinsic to the music.   My wife recorded a brief snippet of the Dies Irae from the lawn during the orchestra rehearsal just so I could hear it.  The uniformity of sound, excitement, and drama that travels beyond the stage creates goose bumps.  The emotion trumps the technical.  We may not ever feel fully in control during this piece, but I think by embracing the passion that Montanero wants us to live and breathe and sing, we’re going to take the audience for one helluva ride on Saturday night.

Deeper and Deeper into a Colorful Verdi

I’m often amazed at how there’s always something more to get out of a piece, even one that I’m already intimately familiar with like the Verdi Requiem.

First, let’s take the two rehearsals with John Oliver.  In my last post, I talked about how we had focused on the technical aspects of singing the piece under Bill Cutter’s tutelage.  The difference when John stepped up to the podium and began conducting was palpable.  It was immediately clear that we all were doing some lazy singing–or at least lazy interpreting–because John was immediately asking for things just by the way he conducted, and we were able to deliver them.  Even then, though John’s rehearsals were focused on tactical concerns… but it was tactical approaches to getting the emotion into the piece.  Pause here and here…  put a break before this subito piano so that the audience can hear the dynamic jump and the forte passage preceding it doesn’t run over the change.  There’s usually a stentando here, but watch the conductor to find out how he observes it.   That sort of thing.

But when Maestro Gatti took the podium last night, we went a level even deeper, focused a lot on color.  Color is a strange musical term; defined only as the quality of the tone, but it’s so weird to use a visual concept for an audio one–and talking about a “darker” color doesn’t help!  But Gatti made us start several passages over and over again until we got the color just the way he wanted it.  As one bass commented to me on the way back to the rehearsal room, “It’s clear he hears the piece a certain way in his head, and he won’t stop until we match that.”

By the end of Maestro Gatti’s piano rehearsal on Monday night, we had a very specific version of the Verdi Requiem in our heads.  One that is not misterioso (which is how I’m used to singing the Verdi), but instead full of a lingering regret and sorrow.  I think he used the word culpa — as in “sorry” — to describe how we should be singing from the very opening notes.  [Edit: it was, in fact, cupo — meaning dark, somber.] He modified vowels to achieve a certain darkness, often chiding us for very open /i/ and /e/ sounds which came across as too happy or too childlike.  He migrated the triumphant sounding Sanctus movement away from its celebratory nature into one of respect.  He asked for sharp differences in legato and staccato notes to get combinations of contrasting textures.  At one point he reined in the sopranos because their excellently sung high notes were piercing through the rest of the chorus–I didn’t truly notice it until he fixed it.  He was very clear and insightful in his tempi choices.  He would make the text mean something, asking for the repeated request dona (“give [them]”) to be more prayerful and pleading, for instance.  And he did a few really interesting modifications to how we sang as an ensemble to get some magical effects, which I’ll detail in my next post for people familiar with the piece.

We had heard that Gatti had a reputation for demanding precision.  While we saw some of that last night, it wasn’t so much a demand but a promise.  Each one of the Verdi performances I’ve been involved in with other choruses has had a distinct flavor.  I’m very much looking forward to this one!

The Christoph von Dohnányi Brahms Requiem

Okay, okay… THAT was a rehearsal, too.  🙂

Singing yesterday with John was about seeing a familiar face.  Singing tonight was great, but it was hard work.  If yesterday was slipping into a favorite, comfortable pair of slippers, then today was breaking in a new pair of $700 loafers.  (Hat tip to Will for that one.  Also, I clearly don’t spend enough on my shoes.)

So what does the Brahms Requiem according to Maestro Dohnányi sound like?

For one thing, he embraces the concept that this piece is about “philosophy, not belief.”  The German Requiem is more secular in nature than others, given the way it eschews the Latin Mass in favor of vernacular passages from the Luther Bible.  It’s less about the afterlife and those who have died, and more about those of us here now who still live.  That happens to be one of the reasons I really enjoy this Requiem more than some of the others, but I’d never seen that philosophy transferred into the interpretation of the music before.  Christoph’s  overriding direction to us was to make it happy.  Blessed are we who mourn!  We should rejoice in the lives that were led, and embrace those of us still here.  Instead, our tendency has been to sing this like a funeral dirge, with a  lugubrious, dark tone.  Christoph wants none of that, and immediately set to work reversing our somber tone, reminding us that we’re comforting the mourners, reminding them of the good in life.

The other major difference is how particular Maestro is about… well, about everything, really.  The first 10 minutes of rehearsal had us all pretty worried, as Christoph’s correctional slogging, measure by measure, felt like a potential repeat of a long Saturday workout with Maestro Suzuki and the St. John Passion.  He let up a little bit as we settled in, but he still never accepted anything that interfered with the sound he wanted.  (He drilled us basses down to individual poorly tuned notes on one particularly offensive passage.)  I especially liked the way he would have us rehearse the fugues quietly.  Not only did this preserve our voices, it exposed us to flaws in our entrances, pronunciation, note values, and other automatic pilot details that disappear when you’re singing loudly.  It’s definitely a good technique to keep in mind.  (You know, should I ever conduct this piece myself.  Uh-huh.  Right.)

Nowhere was this attention to detail more noticeable than his direction on when dynamics begin and end.  We’ve admittedly gotten a bit lazy on starting and finishing crescendos, and so far we’ve just survived using our musical intelligence to shape the phrase.  But Christoph holds us to what’s printed.  That crescendo you’re making?  It doesn’t start until the third measure.  That decrescendo you didn’t make?  You’ve got to get back down to piano or else you won’t have a place to start the swell in the next two measures.  The whole rehearsal was peppered with corrections like that to what we thought we knew about the ebb and flow of the phrases.

The rest of the differences are really just interesting artistic decisions that zig where previously John zagged.  Like every encounter with great conductors, one walks away with a renewed sense of the textures of the piece, and a new appreciation for passages that might have been swept aside or sung on automatic pilot before. Asking the basses to back off so the altos can be the lead in quiet passages featuring the three lower voices.  Replacing bombastic swells with smarter phrasing that fits the character of the piece.  Emphasizing the counterpoints just as much as the subjects in the fugues.  Changing the basses’ entire fugue entrance from the marcato “Proud, Triumphant!!!”  (written in my score from previous years) to a more reserved, fully legato line that carries through the continuity of the (now much more pronounced) ewigkeit lead in.  Lots of little adjustments like that to alter the textures we’re used to and thereby bring out previously hidden melodies.

It’s… strange, to be tasting the chef’s concoction that has been plated before us.  But he’s a darn good chef, and the requiem he’s serving up tastes fantastic.  I think we all can’t wait to put it all together with the orchestra tomorrow and Wednesday.  Let’s just hope we can keep something in reserve for the actual performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The John Oliver Brahms Requiem

Now, THAT was a rehearsal.

Our chorus had had two weeks of rehearsals with Martin, our rehearsal pianist, and a fine musician and composer on his own… but he’d be the first to admit that he’s not a choral conductor.  If there were questions about interpretation, about specific cutoffs, about rewrites that had been inserted in half the scores (and contradicted in the other half) over the many years of performances, all Martin really had the authority to say was “sing it as written” or “we’ll see what John and Christoph [von Dohnányi] say next week.  As always, those rehearsals were great for [re-]learning the notes and text and fine-tuning or catching up on memorization.  But they barely serve as making music.

Tonight we made music.  Tonight was almost a religious experience for me as we rehearsed down in the chorus room with John Oliver leading us: leaning into the chords and lines, responding to his baton and playing off of his familiar cues, creating a sound that felt fulfilling and rewarding, and making John’s interpretation of the piece come alive.  John even joked about it at one point in the second movement.  He remarked to the basses, “I see you’re familiar with the John Oliver version of this Requiem, because you didn’t do the diminuendo until the last syllable of abgefallen, which is how I like it.”  Oh, we stopped to fix things when they needed to be fixed.  The connectivity of the movements was interrupted by the necessity of mundane comments like “At rehearsal letter K, the baritones should double the tenors” or “What are the tenors singing in the second system”  or “Altos, take out the rest that’s marked and finish with the lower voices so that the subito piano… you know, the one the sopranos aren’t doing (laughter)… comes through.”  He even brought up a debate about whether the “hairpins” written into our scores were accurate, as recent editors were suggesting those swells should be over the entire measure.  It didn’t matter.  For me, pausing for those adjustments did not diminish the feeling of accomplishment just from being a part of that rehearsal.

But what made this non-performance such a special experience for me?  Well, having sung this piece with John once at MIT in the early 90’s, and once out at Tanglewood almost a decade later, I’ve internalized “John’s version of the piece” as my own.  It makes it distracting to listen to any other version, recorded or live, because a tempo will be different, a dynamic won’t be there, a certain character or tone won’t be present… fundamental decisions by the conductor and the choir can create discordances within my memory of “how it’s supposed to go.”  Like hearing a different comedian tell a joke you know — still the same joke, but the retelling of the story, the timing of the punchline, can make the joke unrecognizable or even not funny.

On the drive down this evening, I told my wife, “I will bet you dollars to donuts that John stops us to tell us three things tonight, because we’re not doing them yet.”  Those three things:

  1. He will make a pained look on his face and say “shh shh shh” in the recapitulation of the 4th movement, finally stopping us to say that this second occurrence of the Wie lieblich theme must be “absolutely pianissimo.”
  2. He will make us go back and repeat a very important agogic accent at the end of the Die loben dich immerdar section in the transition to the subito piano because we’re plowing through it without any separation.
  3. He will tell us that the opening of the sixth movement needs to sound like we’re exhausted, like we’re trudging home from work after a long day, carrying a huge burden.

Bingo.  John said all of these things, almost verbatim.  My wife shot me a smile across the room after each one of them.  To be fair, John painted a slightly different picture on the third point–he did use the word “trudging” but he described it as “several overweight pallbearers marching along carrying a coffin with another overweight man inside.”  It’s an amusing mental image, but it’s an important point to convey — that part of the piece is supposed to drive home the human side of the requiem equation, the “this is our place on Earth and we’re pushing through our days here hoping that our work before we die makes it a better place.”

There were many other familiar dynamics, phrases that John motioned to bring out from the texture, ritardandos in all the places I’m expecting them, gestures to tenors and altos on certain sections that are quintessential moments for him… and remind me that yes, THIS is the version of the Brahms Requiem I enjoy.  This rehearsal was my one and only performance of it this year.

Because that’s the shame of it all, really.  Starting tomorrow, at the piano rehearsal, Maestro Dohnányi will begin shaping us to his version of the Brahms Requiem.  I’m sure it will be glorious… full of subtlety and majesty, musically intelligent, and conveying his retelling of perhaps Brahms’ greatest work.  John will reconvene with us in the rehearsal room, and remind us of what Christoph wanted here, and advise us to watch his stentando on this cadence and an accelerando going into a fugue that we hadn’t seen before… and, as always, we will shape ourselves to deliver on a new vision.  We will embody the decisions that Christoph asks for, and I will love singing every minute of it.

But it won’t be my favorite version.

Picking up some of the color

Ahhh… that’s better.

Maestro Tovey was every bit as wonderful as I had heard he would be at tonight’s rehearsal.  He immediately put us all at ease with a few jokes. “Well, it’s an unexpected pressure to conduct this piece with you,” he opened, given that he was only announced as the replacement conductor a few months ago.  Then, with a look around our cramped rehearsal room, he commented, “Only the best for you, I see.”  As our laughter subsided, he mentioned that it felt like this was one  of those tunnels the Americans dug to hide from the English.  “Well, it didn’t work — I’m here.”

I was pleased to hear his initial comments on the piece, which echoed my earlier thoughts on the singular theme of this Symphony-Cantata.  This was a piece about praise, praising the Lord… and not really room for much else, he commented.  But rather than lament its focus, he pointed out that there was still some drama and some color to be found in its pages, such as in the mystery and dark of the 4th movement.  “So let’s go through and see if we can’t pick up some of this color here and there and bring it to life.”

His conducting style is very animated yet very clear.  He urges us on in the fugal passages; he beckons us to stay with him through tempo changes; he winces and shushes us if we’re too loud.  He gives us some further adjustments to match his plans for ritards and other places where he takes some time.  Some conductors are more concerned about the orchestra, but I have little doubt he’ll be breathing with us and offering us our cues throughout the performance.

Most of all, he added personality to what was in danger of becoming a stomp-it-out sort of piece.  He directs us with words like “warmth” and “beautiful” and “prayerful.”  He tells us that our pianissimo should be “quiet enough that people could talk over it,” which I just love as a concrete direction to follow.  He apologized about “not wanting to get all religious on us,” and then went there anyways, asking us to internalize a reverence and a joy and a relief at being delivered from the hell alluded to by the soloist in movement 6.  He spends extra moments on some passages, urging us to swell dynamically just a bit on words like Trübsal (affliction), almost as if it hurt us to talk about it.  After all, he pointed out, if you’re going to tell someone about your being saved from an affliction, you’re not beaming as you relate the story.

Throughout all this great direction, he kept up the one-liners.  An aggressive /tzt/ at the end of setzt saw him pretend to wipe the spit from his eye, then commend us on our diligence in getting all the consonants out, but could we swallow that instinct?  “Your individual contribution will be appreciated so much more.”  When the basses didn’t agree on a high note, he characterized our singing as “blend-free.”  Just a laugh a minute… with the effect of loosening us up, getting us to pay attention — no, more than that — getting us to want to help him out by following his directions and giving him what he asked for.  We were clearly on the same team, and suddenly I found myself as fiercely loyal and committed to the character he wants to invoke and the performance he wants us to collaborate on together.  It’s no wonder everyone raved about him for Porgy and Bess.  Who wouldn’t want to sing for this man?

Les Deux Répétition pour Berlioz

I was going to write up a review of the reviews of the Bach… but there is no time!  We’re already two rehearsals into Le Fraaaaaanch, with my out-rayyyy-zhously bad ax-sceeeeeeennnntah!

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette is up next, and the lucky curse of being selected for so many concerts means many of us had just one week to empty our brains of the many ways to pronounce “ch” and fill it with the many ways to pronounce “e”… there’s the short e in “Capulets,” the schwa e in “au revoir“, the open e in “allez,” the very French e in “eux,” the e in “breuvage,” and the nasal e in “moments.”  And sometimes you get three of them at once, like in “eux-memes” or “eternelle.”  I can look at a German word and have a pretty good idea how to pronounce it.  I know merde about French; I was glued to the IPA whenever I was studying the text, and my wife, whose French was well enough to guide us when we once vacationed in Quebec City, has alternated between coaching me, giggling, or rolling her eyes as she hears me fail to not pronounce n’s and such.

That said, I’ve finally got a handle on the all the text and have committed enough of it to memory that I no longer feel lost at rehearsals or when listening to the recording.  All things considered, there’s not too much to learn.  A small chorus (not me) sings in part 1.  The men sing from backstage in part 2.  Then we’re all on for part 3, first for a funeral scene where only some of us sing, then when we all discover the bodies, and then when Friar tells us what happened and helps us overcome our feud and grieve together, so we can be amis pour toujours.  And yes, we are divided into les Capulets on stage right and les Montagus stage left.  Fun!

The two evening rehearsals this weekend were great at reinforcing the shaky parts in my head, and our French coach Michel was very particular in his observations.  Yes, this is a good thing; did you not read my lament two paragraphs ago?  But as usual, the thing that I love most about these rehearsals is the coaching we get from John Oliver.  John is back, his tendon-repaired foot in a walking cast, and his sense of humor and musicality intact.  He continues to make observations that his 40+ years of serious vocal and choral instruction have earned him, things that I would never have thought of.  For instance, when tenors were coming in too late during the part where the Capulets and Montagues all keep shouting at each other: “The important part of mais notre sang is the last word, which comes on the downbeat.  If you’re trying to time the entrance of your mais (“1... 2.mais!…”) then you’ll be late.  Think of those three beats as the upbeat to your sang on the downbeat.”  That completely fixed it.  For all voices there he’s urged us not to wait for each other, but to interrupt them and thereby stay on the beat, or the whole thing will drag.  Throughout the rehearsal, he would add color to our singing…  Finding the two lovers dead (Morts tous les deux) should be darker… and Et leur sang fume encore should be almost whispered… as should Dieu, quel prodige! when we realize “it’s a miracle” that we’re not fighting any more.  And so forth.  It makes quite a difference.

I particularly liked his answer to a very valid question.  I had noticed that there was a swell marked — what I’ve seen called “hairpins” before ( < > ), but across two notes instead of one.  I was excused (then not excused… then excused again, whew!) from singing this part, and it sounded fine when the small chorus sang it.  But one chorister from that chorus asked where the swell should be.  John’s response: “What you did was fine.  I’m not going to sit here and tell you it should be on the 9th 32nd note of the beat, or something like that… to me, it’s emotional, and you have to have that musical intelligence to know where it goes.”  Not only a great answer, but great because we know we’ve got that in this group and he doesn’t need to give excessive direction for stuff like that.  And I’ve definitely sung with choral conductors who would tell you precisely where they wanted that swell to be…. such technical direction sacrifices the emotional content.

Of course the night was not without the usual witticisms:

– On us failing to observe pianissimo markings in the final chorus: “Please look over the dynamics in the last movement… because, you know, there ARE dynamics in the last movement.”

– On some of the women flubbing a tough entrance: “I know what you did there, you were thinking ‘is it a 16th note or an 8th note,’ when you should have been thinking, ‘is that a B or a B flat.’ ”

– On the sound of the men in the backstage chorus: “Have you heard of cambiata?  The sound of a boy whose voice is changing?  Yeah.  Here’s my musical advice: don’t do that.”

Piano rehearsal with Charles Dutoit (gee, you think he’ll notice if my French sucks?) is Monday night.  Orchestra rehearsals Wednesday, then performances Thursday through Saturday.

St. John Passion Final Musings

Random musings after today’s orchestra rehearsal, in no particular order, as we’re headed into the quasi-performance open rehearsal tomorrow and three days of performances:

Someone said Suzuki was “very sensitive to accelerations.”  This wins the  Politest Understatement of the Year Award, given how often he stopped us to say we were rushing or we were behind, even though we could barely hear that we were.

The male soloists kick ass.  I love an evangelist who holds the score in his hand only so he can refer to where Maestro wants to start up again, and Cristoph certainly has it down cold.  The bass Jesus (Hanno Müller-Brachmann) is solid.  Can’t speak to the women; our portion of the rehearsal ended before I got to hear them.

I was originally toying with the idea of not bringing the score on stage, but I’ve given that thought up — there are too many late surprises and minor adjustments by Suzuki that I can’t keep track of all of them.  I’ll need those glances down to see what’s next.

Suzuki is so freakin’ clear with his choral conducting, it’s unbelievable.  He breathes with us — my wife, who has conducted more than a few small choruses in her time, has always insisted that’s the key to choral conducting.  The tricky thing is still catching his hand movements for cutoffs, because he does a little extra flourish to show where the consonant goes… and you have to get used to waiting for it.  It’s like playing rock-paper-scissors with someone, only you go on “One, two, three!” and the other person goes on “One, two, three, shoot!”  If you cut-off too early and then see the extra flourish (he sort of points up with his finger after the traditional cutoff sign), it’s too late.

After the constant starting and stopping during these rehearsals, one chorister wondered how many times he would stop, and started making tick marks in his score to keep track.  The verdict?  Suzuki stopped 69 times during the first 75 minutes or so of rehearsal before the break.

I can’t quite read the orchestra players — I think they’re annoyed at the constant stops and lectures about what they should be doing, but they’re also fascinated by his attention to detail and realize that they’re learning from him.  No, maybe they’re just annoyed!  In any case, they now match the chorus in many places with the same articulations, unwritten dynamics, and cutoffs.

At least a few choristers are grumbling about the direction this has gone — overheard amongst the complaints about the starts and stops was that, with the scores in our hands now and so many details to remember, the piece has become less personal and more mechanical.  I myself am finding it necessary to really internalize the detailed direction in order to come closer to realizing the vision laid out for us… but I admit it’s taken a lot of work.  The difference in what we’re producing now compared to last Saturday is quite remarkable.  Basically, we can’t take anything for granted if we want to own this ourselves, too.

I marvel at all the little things that Suzuki has brought out during these intense rehearsals that I couldn’t hear at all on the other recordings I’ve listened to and certainly never anticipated as I learned the piece.  Here are just a few examples:

Looking forward to a great series of performances.

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.

Wet consonants?

Every once in a while John Oliver will instruct us to do something with imagery that almost doesn’t make sense.

Last night we did a fairly quick run through of the choral parts of the piece again, with Sebastian gently correcting our improper variations of the ch’s in ich vs. doch vs. nacht and the like.  Rehearsal took about half as long (about 75 minutes) because we spent less time rerunning entire movements to revisit issues.  But early on, John asked us to “make the consonants wetter.”


John is a big believer in imagery to fool yourself mentally into making the appropriate physical and mechanical adjustments to create the sound he is looking for.  I still remember one of my first pieces Tanglewood pieces with him, a set of three a capella men’s chorus pieces, where the middle piece had me labelled as a “Bass 3.”  That turned out to mean that I’d be singing low D’s, low C’s, even a low B-flat.  I honestly had no idea how to do that and sustain it, but John told all the basses (and especially the bass 3’s) not just to focus on posture and support, but to imagine a vast reservoir of energy, sort of an underground lake, somewhere below our navel, and that we should be tapping into that reserve as we produced the sound.  I don’t know how or why, but it worked.

At first blush, he might as well have told us to make the consonant sounds more yellow, more ethical, or more sans serif.  And yet, I could hear a difference, and the sound was better, so… it worked?  I don’t know what I was doing differently, but I suspect I was treating the consonants as more liquid, sort of blurring the lines between them and the vowels even as we focused on barking them out more precisely so that we could be quite particular about their placement and make the German as intelligible as possible (despite teasing by John that we were getting lazier on consonants as the rehearsal went on.)

At the first rehearsal, John reminded us of a lesson he learned years ago from Colin Davis while trying to prepare a chorus: “Prepare them as if you were conducting,” and so he did.  At this rehearsal, though, he had looked at some video and listened to some recordings associated with Suzuki, and gave us some suggestions of what he might want.  It will be interesting to see how Maestro Suzuki responds during our extensive chorus rehearsals… how much of this will he undo?

Back to Back (Bach to Bach?) rehearsals

Our  first official Bach rehearsal has been completed, with many more to come.  We’re on again tonight, and then in about 8 days a Friday night off-book rehearsal, and then two grueling 6 hour rehearsals that Saturday and Sunday — we’ve been informed that Maestro Suzuki “loves chorus rehearsals” and will probably spend extra time working through us on each and every note and word and tone and diction and…  it’s either a chorus’s dream or nightmare, depending on how picky he is and how much better we end up by the end.

Tonight’s rehearsal was all about getting comfortable with the piece and the text, with our native-speaking German coach Sebastian sitting next to John.  He offered advice and corrected us on improper pronunciations after each movement.  Since most of us have sung a lot of German, it’s not like we were learning from scratch.  But there were several subtleties that came into play.  That’s really where we as a chorus can up the level of our game.

For instance, Sebastian warned us that it was /ist/ not /eest/, and /in/ not /een/.  John partially blamed himself for this, calling it an unfortunate side effect of the qualities he looks for in singers (auditions were yesterday).  He prefers singers who he thinks can send a focused vowel through an orchestration, which encourages people to modify their vowels this way.  In another case, John said that we had the /e/ vowel correct technically, but it wasn’t the right character or resonance for the words.  We found new ways to produce that sound that measured up.

Another example were the double r’s.  We were encouraged to rejoice in the double r of Herr… even adding a shadow vowel behind it, so it was more like “Herr-reh”.   Furthermore, John wanted that /r/ sound has to be pitched.  He demonstrated singing the note on a rolled /r/.  This was especially relevant for the word Kreuzige — “crucify him.”  We had a lot of focus on this deliciously gruesome word.  It’s gotta be vicious every time you say it, with lots of /r/.  This is tough because during some of the Kreuzige movement, we have long sustained pitches on the /eu/ sound, which we tended to approach lyrically.  John shut that down quickly:  “You’re creating a plush, lush monster… stop it!  You’re not giving hugs here.”

As is true with any German piece, diction and overemphasizing the consonants is the name of the game.  My favorite piece of advice was when John asked us to treat the consonants and the vowels as equal weight.   A corollary to this was our approach to vowels in general, where our attach was just not enough.  “You’re sustaining the sound, but I need something more stabby,” were his words.  I liked that image and it was easy to keep that in mind with each new vowel… at least until we forgot again, being distracted by the next correction!

Finally, anyone familiar with Bach’s two Passions knows that they intersperse various chorales among the recitative narrative and the arias.   John warned us about an easy trap to fall into while singing the chorales: he pantomimed a double bass player sawing at his instrument with big bow strokes.  He asked us to treat these poems like we were speaking them or narrating them more than if we were singing them.

It wouldn’t be a rehearsal without some great Oliverisms.  My favorite of the evening was when the sopranos, altos, and tenors had a shaky triad to finish a cadence — “I liked that very much… once you got down to 3 notes.”