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.