Tag Archives: St. John Passion

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.

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.

Home stretch… and then the marathon

We’re almost there!  (Here’s my memorization progress to date.)  Almost finished memorizing, and almost to the REAL rehearsals.  We have a fairly brutal rehearsal schedule, by TFC standards:

  • Friday night off-book, 7-9ish
  • Saturday with Mo. Suzuki, 1-3p, 4-6p
  • Sunday with Mo. Suzuki, 1-3p, 4-6p
  • Monday 1-4p with orchestra
  • Tuesday 9:30a-1p, 2-4p with orchestra
  • Wednesday 6:30-10 with orchestra
  • Performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday

What’s clear from this, given that we’ll be singing every single day for 9 days, is that pacing will be key.  That means singing properly, with support, and most importantly not over-singing.  It will be tempting to do so in order to be heard over the orchestra.  We just have to trust that Suzuki will rein in the orchestra volume to be appropriate for a chorus of 60.  After all, the BSO is used to 100-120 of us back there for most of our  concerts!

Despite the heavy schedule, I personally am finding excitement building for the long rehearsals with Suzuki.  A short article in the New Yorker praises Bach’s compositions (and basically calls Gardiner’s recordings the quintessential Bach to own) but highlights the Bach Collegium Japan and their recent performance of the B-Minor Mass at Carnegie Hall with 21 singers and 26 players.  He writes how baroque performances tend to be either very austere or overdone, but that Suzuki “follows a pragmatic middle path…. In interpretive style, he tends toward subtlety rather than flamboyance, avoiding the abrupt accents, florid ornaments, and freewheeling tempos that are fashionable in Baroque performance practice. He is strong on clarity and musicality, sometimes lacking in force.”  That sounds like a good preview of what to expect over the weekend and for the actual performances.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2011/04/11/110411crmu_music_ross#ixzz1JJUu2fKY

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.”

Double recording double jeopardy

I’m knee-deep in learning the Bach St. John Passion right now — but at this point I probably should be neck-deep, instead.  We got the music in January, and I was rarin’ to go… but then once I was picked for a reaudition, I didn’t want anything to distract from learning and memorizing my audition piece, Meeres Stille… so I put off the Bach until mid-February.  Then I started listening to in the car, getting comfortable with it, yada yada yada OH MY GOD HOW IS IT MARCH ALREADY OH GOD OH GOD.  Now it’s almost April and I’ve probably got 1/3 of it memorized, with the first rehearsal this Monday the 4th and the off-book rehearsal scheduled for the 15th.  It actually got to the point where I made a spreadsheet to track progress so I could remind myself how far I had to go.  (You can follow along and applaud or tsk tsk my progress here. )

We received two recordings of this piece to study from.  Normally I am a big recording fan — my piano teacher once told me that learning music was 50% aural, 40% mechanical, and 10% visual.  Everyone learns differently, and all are important, but I’d say that’s pretty accurate for me.  But this time around there’s a conundrum.  Here’s why:

The first recording was made by our conductor for this piece, Mo. Suzuki.  (I only just learned that “Mo” was the “Mr” for Maestro.  Hee.  Anyways…)  His recording uses a concert pitch consistent with baroque performances using period instruments, so everything sounds about a half-note lower.  I have perfect pitch and this drives me nuts since we’ll be performing the piece at the modern (A=440) pitch.

The second recording is at the modern pitch, but uses a revision of the score that has different notes for the entire first part.  In addition, the performance style is noticeably different — hard to explain, but I’ll try.  In the modern piece, every entrance, every forte, is very punchy.  Very in-your-face.  It’s bold and brash.  The notes are all correct, the tempi are fine,  and had I not heard Maestro Suzuki’s version I would have thought it a fine recording.  But Suzuki’s version is much more nuanced.    Singer entrances just sort of slide in and out, and are complete in and of themselves.  It feels very natural, very flowing.  I liken it to the difference between diving into a pool and slipping into a hot tub.  Every phrase is sort of aware of itself, very proper, never extends.  There’s an economy to every breath, every legato, every vowel and consonant… nothing is wasted.  The other analogy that comes to mind, oddly enough, is the training montage in the Zorro movie where Anthony Hopkins is teaching Antonio Banderas to swordfight.  Hopkins’ character tells Banderas that there is a circle, and that he must stay within the circle as he fights.  These singers stay within a circle as well, never extending too far, never exposing themselves, always in control, putting together something fluid and beautiful.

Given that Suzuki is our conductor, I expect we too will be searching for that fluidity and economy of singer motion in our performance.  I’m mostly listening to that recording for style, but every once in a while I jump over to the other recording — just to remind me that I’ll have to brighten the tone and bump it up a half-step in the end.  Once we get to rehearsals and I begin to rely less on the recordings I’m sure it will work out.  But I need to finish putting the work in first!