Tag Archives: rehearsals

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!)

Cacophony of Psalms: First rehearsal

The first true rehearsal for the Cacophony of Psalms felt great.  Okay, it’s called Symphony of Psalms, technically, and I’m actually starting to enjoy the piece as I delve further and further into it.  But this is another one of those boy is the audience screwed if they’re hearing it for the first time sort of pieces.  You know… the songs that, once properly studied, I really begin to enjoy… but it takes several listening sessions to get comfortable with the… call it the sonority.

Here’s the first movement, in all its mechanical WTF-is-going-on glory:

There are 2nd and 3rd movement recordings here and here as well, if you make it through that one.  The whole piece is only about 20 minutes.

It was comforting to have John Oliver tell us that he was specifically looking for a mécanique style coming from the chorus to emulate the helter-skelter clock mechanism of the piano and accompanying instruments.  Time values snap into place with little or no rubato.  He doesn’t want anyone gliding between notes.  (One great Oliverism: in a later movement, the tenors move from an e-natural to an e-flat over a few beats, and John cautioned them: “That’s an express… it’s not a local train. You shouldn’t be making five stops along the way… go right from one note to the other.”)

I really appreciated John being so involved in the rehearsal–this is not a piece that can be done on autopilot nor one he can leave to the conductor to make adjustments.  He had insightful comments such as “you’re on the right note but your color is wrong.”  He warned some of us that we weren’t at the center of a pitch where we needed to hold a dissonance against the other parts.  He stopped us a few times to ask for a more focused, brighter vowel so we’d cut through the orchestration.  At one point he told us it was okay to open up and just make a very raw sound, because “the brass are so loud there they’ll cover it all up.”  Finally, at one point during a held long note on a diminuendo, he cautioned that many of us were “parking” on the note–we couldn’t just get softer and stop, we needed to finish the whole phrase and that meant a continuous decrescendo throughout the note.  “Don’t give up on it.”

John spent a little extra time with us basses on a few parts, such as making sure we landed on our opening G in the YouTube clip I’ve linked.  Though, as any time the director singles out a section to work with, you find yourself wondering after each comment, “Is he talking about ME?  Or the people next to me?  I *think* I was singing that right… hmmmm.”  I’ve been in at least one chorus where the conductor literally would keep breaking down a section into smaller and smaller parts (“just the back row… just you five people…”) until he found out who was screwing up.  Fortunately, John trusts us enough to figure it out.  It’s a powerful feeling… being surrounded by other very competent singers and working together to go beyond the notes and make something beautiful.  Well…. beautiful in its awe-inspiring mechanical spookiness, at least!