Tag Archives: Stravinsky

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.

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!)

Oedipus Rex rehearsal with Maestro Levine

Last night was another shortened rehearsal for Oedipus Rex, as we took less than 50 minutes to run through all of our parts with Maestro James Levine (hereafter referred to affectionately as “Jimmy,” as most of us do).

Almost every other conductor we’ve sung for wants very hands-on experience directing the chorus and gives us very specific direction.  It’s usually welcomed, but it also sort of reminds me sadly of the classic office situation where executives approving something just have to make a few changes to make it feel like it’s theirs and to reassert their authority.  (I do it too, unconsciously, when I’m approving something for someone else… “In this copy, what if we change this word, and split this into two paragraphs…”).  Most conductors insist on these minor adjustments, sometimes inspired, sometimes shrug-inducing, that  satisfy some particular quirk of theirs but may or may not make the piece better.

It’s been a long time since I’ve sung for Jimmy, given his physical ailments that have kept him away from the podium for a few years.  But one thing hasn’t changed.  Jimmy is not a hands-on conductor during the piano rehearsal.  He’s there to watch and listen.  He lets John Oliver conduct us, and occasionally — I’d even say, rarely — interrupts to give us some sort of direction.

It is painfully easy to watch Jimmy during moments like these and conjure up the image of a special needs kid trying to keep up.  He is partially transfixed by the music, sometimes singing along with solo parts in an off-key warbling baritone, often rocking back and forth and constantly shifting position (to the point where I wonder if he has Parkinson’s), and always with a child-like smile on his face.  But it would be a mistake.  When he does give advice, it’s so quickly clear that he’s hearing about 50 more things than you or I will ever hear in the music.  Like when he slipped into a lecture about how it’s necessary to bring out the tension between the vocal harmonics and the sostenuto (the sustained, repeated timpani notes, which often is the only accompaniment.)

And yet, even with such limited involvement, we know he is capable of generating the most amazing concert performances.  Everyone gushed about how “transcendent” his Mahler’s 2nd performance was last October.  We saw a glimpse of this when he suddenly took over for John in the last part, reminding us of how to treat the final Vale, vale Oedipus. He reminded us that since “the end of each phrase as written is so sad,”  the character of the ending should be “the saddest thing you’ve ever heard.  We did it again, suddenly evoking a gentle pity that we found from ourselves more easily from the slower tempo he dictated and his (very brief!) hand movements as he led us through it.  Wow.  It will leave the audience breathless, that ending.

One funny moment: We were asking Jimmy about the character of the happy-go-lucky section which is at odds with the somber nature of the scene (blood gushing from Oedipus’s eyes after he pokes them out with the brooch from his hanged wife… not something you expect circus music from.)  Jimmy called it the “Tarantella from Hell,” and made an off-hand remark (I didn’t quite hear it) comparing it to all the Pops music we’d been singing this Christmas.  John took it a step further, pointing out how it was banal, cheap music for the mob — the spectacle for the masses — the stuff everyone wants to hear.  “You’re familiar with that by now, right?  Singing for the masses?”  Having each come off 7+ holiday pops performances… yes, we knew what he meant!

First “real” Oedipus Rex rehearsal

We have had an Oedipus Rex rehearsal at the end of November, but it really didn’t count. Last night was our first true rehearsal for Oedipus Rex, and it was everything I love about a TFC rehearsal: insightful, funny, helpful, rewarding, and short.

Insightful. During the rehearsal, John shared some snippets of background on Stravinsky that gave appropriate color.  He emphasized how Stravinsky saw himself as composing very mechanically and without emotion, as compared to contemporaries like Schoenberg.  All of those early 20th century composers were “running away from the 19th century” trying to find their own distinctive style and sound, and Stravinsky was no exception.  Practically speaking, it meant staccato notes were even shorter and more precise; cutoffs were as exact as possible; and duples and triplets, when those rhythms occurred, were as academic as possible.

Funny. John had his usual array of funny stories.  I loved his aside comment about being in charge of a boy choir once (and aging faster in those 2 years than any point of his life), as well as stories about his voice teacher who said he’d never be a singer but took him on anyway because of his musicality.  Dwight asked a question about whether we should be emphasizing the double L in ellum and John joked, “You know, that kept me up all night on New Year’s Eve,” and fired back with “What you’re doing sounds great” without really answering the question.  Ha!  Then, after practicing a section with crazy high speed runs, John started off his commentary with “there’s a C-natural…” and everyone burst out laughing because the notes are all so run together and approximated that there’s no way any of us freakin’ know where the C-natural is that he’s talking about.  He plowed on, “No, really, this is one people will be able to notice!”  (And he was right.)

Helpful. I may have the music memorized quite well, but there’s nothing like a live rehearsal to really lock in on a lot of the words.  John worked us hard on a few parts where the orchestra diverges from doubling us, to make sure those chromatic moments come through very clearly.  He emphasized the need to have a brighter sound, even a sharper sound, partially to cut through the characteristically heavy orchestration of Stravinsky, and partially to keep the harmonic motion as energetic as possible.  The before-and-after difference after mentioning this was quite noticeable, especially for the tenors who changed the character of one section from “sagging” to “interesting.”

Rewarding. I love walking away with new insights and a better understanding of the piece.  For instance, John at one point stopped drilling sections and warned us that it’s easy to shout while singing a piece like this, and in fact that’s what we were doing, was shouting.  He tried to explain this a few different ways: that voice teacher he spoke of before would say we were “singing on the capital and not on the interest.”  He encouraged us to get a better sound so that we would “avoid a hole in the tone” when singing against the weighty orchestration.  Nothing better than getting such hands-on feedback and then hearing the chorus as a whole adjust nicely to incorporate it.

Short.  I couldn’t believe it, but we walked out of there after only a little more than an hour of the three hours on the schedule.  I’m used to these ending early but this was great.  I attribute it to the fact that the chorus really sounded good, garnished a lot of compliments from John Oliver, and really didn’t need to work on a lot of the piece.  In other words, we did our homework well.

This is a busy week, with a piano rehearsal tonight with Maestro Levine, orchestra rehearsals Tuesday morning and all day Wednesday, and performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

Oedipus Rex incoming

Just before the Holiday Pops season began, we had our first run through rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. It was an unusual combination of dissatisfying, worrisome, and a savory whetting of the appetite for the piece.

This piece has an odd place in my heart, because it was the first time I ever sang with the BSO in Symphony Hall (despite having already been in the chorus for several years beforehand.)  I was given the green light to rejoin the full roster after a reaudition.  I found myself unceremoniously added as a last minute walkon to the Oedipus Rex roster.  I showed up to the first rehearsal having never heard the piece, as regulars on the roster had received music and a rehearsal recording about a month beforehand.  Not my preference for being introduced to a new piece!  It was a jumble of sight-reading notes and text and trying to keep up with John Oliver and the other choristers (who also may or may not have looked at the piece much  beforehand.)

The piece itself is more difficult to memorize than others we’ve performed.  The text is in Latin (thankfully… no crazy Russian from Les Noces) but not any standard liturgical Latin such as a Mass or a Requiem.  On top of that, there are many irregular repetitions of text, syncopations, and hemiolas which surprise the unwary.  Simply put, you just have to know it cold!

In any case, John Oliver was not available for this rehearsal so it was more of a read through than anything else.  Which is always a bit disappointing… while Martin is an excellent rehearsal pianist, it’s difficult to play AND conduct AND give corrective advice beyond notes and rhythms.  And that’s one of the reasons I like this chorus so much… less focus on learning notes, more focus on singing properly and capturing the essence of a piece.  It also was tough because any question about “where do you want us to breathe” and the like becomes “I don’t know what he’ll want, why don’t you wait for John at the next rehearsal.”  To be fair, though, for our first rehearsal, it was helpful to just get comfortable with the piece.

That’s partially what made the rehearsal worrisome… hoo boy, there’s a lot of text.  When I performed this with this chorus in 2006, we ended up actually using the scores on stage because our performance at the piano rehearsal was so mediocre and enough of us obviously didn’t know it well enough to be off book.  It was a tough decision and one that I think led to stricter rules coming down the next year about having a piece truly memorized.  So there’s a lot to chew on here.

Finally, though, it was gratifying to be with more than just a CD while singing the piece.  You get into the spirit of things much more when you’re actually in the rehearsal room and physically singing among the rest of the men, learning where the trouble spots are, and hearing how the blend is going to sound.  I’m really excited to revisit this piece again, and I hope it’s as rewarding as it was in 2006.

Reviews of Stravinsky and Mozart (and Mahler)

Reviews have trickled in for last weekend’s concert.  They’re not as harsh as I thought they would be, which just goes to show that it’s always easier to be hypercritical of one’s own performance.

Of the Stravinsky, Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe writes:

This was a surely paced, elegant performance with fine singing from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, conveying by turns the restrained serenity and the disquieting mystery at the core of this music.

We’ll take it.  As for the Mozart, he does not criticize the soloists as I did, writing:

Thomas and a keenly responsive chorus brought out the pathos and dark drama of this work, particularly in the “Rex Tremendae,’’ “Confutatis,’’ and “Lacrimosa’’ movements. Soile Isokoski, Kristine Jepson, Russell Thomas, and Jordan Bisch were the capable soloists.

For my wife’s performance of the Mahler 3, he notes that “The American Boychoir and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus turned in lively performances,” and offers minor criticism of the players.  (The orchestra on Saturday were Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, not the BSO as on Friday.  My wife thought they played with much more pathos though admittedly less technical merit… most notably when Maestro Thomas had to snap at an oboe player to get him to look up and pay attention to the tempo!)

The New York Times was complimentary but not as kind.  It praised Maestro Thomas for “keeping a firm grip on the young band” to produce “superbly balanced sonorities and stunning climaxes” in the Mahler 3 performance, though the reviewer caught that “Mr. Thomas was reduced at one point to snapping his fingers, evidently in response to a missed entrance in the wind section.”  About the chorus, James R. Oestreich had a lot to say after all:

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which John Oliver has developed into one of the nation’s outstanding choirs, and which also performs with the Boston Symphony at its home in Boston, is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and its program here with the orchestra on Friday night, Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Mozart’s Requiem, was particularly apt. […]

It was especially good to hear the 125-strong Tanglewood choir at full voice in the Mozart (with an orchestra about half that size). Now that decorously small, historically sanctioned choruses have become the norm in Mozart, it is good to be reminded of the punch this music can pack in an appropriate setting like the outdoor Shed. (Shaw used a chorus of 200.) And the singing was simply terrific, in moments of meditative quiet as well as at full throttle.

As usual on Mr. Oliver’s tight ship, the chorus performed from memory. Mr. Levine, in his time as the orchestra’s music director, has dispensed with a further trademark: Mr. Oliver’s favored seating plan, a complex interweaving of high and low, male and female, voice types. Now it is the standard left-to-right lineup: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

The Stravinsky performance made a listener usually disinclined to second-guess Mr. Oliver wonder too about the wisdom of pointedly performing from memory. In the first two movements, somewhat diffuse in nature, attacks were often tentative, rhythms and pitches imprecise, despite the chorus’s recent experience with the work in Boston.

But by the third and final movement, with its repetitive textual and musical phraseology, the chorus was singing with its customary assurance and flair, with splendid results. Mr. Thomas’s incisive approach ideally suited Stravinsky’s guarded effusions, and the orchestra improbably carried it through on a soggy evening.

Quite a bit there!  I’ve never heard any reviewer point out that we no longer interleave the voices like we used to a few years ago.  I admit I prefer that “hashed chorus” greatly to what we do now, since it lets you hear what else is going on much better.  Supposedly conductors enjoy being able to cue the singers like they cue the cellos or the woodwinds or the brass.  But if we’re waiting for our cue, then we’re already screwed.

This reviewer called out our tentative attacks, and I agree we had some.  I’m betting we didn’t all have this as solidly memorized as we have other concerts.  But there was a curious lack of cues from Maestro Thomas compared to his explicit conducting during the choir and orchestra rehearsals, and I think it threw us a bit.  I also disagree with the reviewer: I think the first movement of the Stravinsky was pretty solid, the second had some flaws (our laudate dominum refrains were not together), and the third was where I felt we were really sort of out there.  Still I wouldn’t castigate the memorization philosophy for these faults.

A third review appeared in the Times Union newspaper, though Priscilla McLean spent a good part of the article discussing  the history of the pieces.  About the performers herself, she mentioned:

Stravinsky’s orchestration excludes violins, violas and clarinets, but is otherwise complete, allowing the upper voices in the chorus to be clearly heard while becoming part of the orchestral palette. This was carried off by the voices and instruments flawlessly.

The “Psalms” seems a more dire, solemn piece than, surprisingly, Mozart’s “Requiem,” and the third movement of the Stravinsky is a hymn of praise, but sounding more dirge-like than joyous. The contrast of the chorus singing long narrow phrases over the busy orchestra, which had more complex contrapuntal and rhythmic lines, made for interesting listening, with excellent tempi and fine balance between the different groups.

[…] The sections that are Mozart’s shine with clarity and variety, and a strange joy. Of the four vocal soloists, the soprano Soile Isokoski had the purest sound[…]

The most poignant and hauntingly powerful section was the Lacrimosa, with the chorus and an ominously beating timpani. […]

Michael Tilson Thomas, the BSO, chorus, and soloists were consistently first-rate. It is a joy to attend Tanglewood and hear such wonderful quality performance.

I’m surprised that the Berkshire Eagle didn’t put out a review or that I didn’t find any more online.  If I do, I’ll add them here.

My review of our Stravinsky and Mozart performance

If you compare last night’s performance to other performances of the Mozart Requiem I’ve been in or listened to, it was top-notch–well, except for that one blemish.  But if you compare it to what our chorus is capable of, I feel that we didn’t reach our potential for artistic excellence in that performance.   It really felt that both the Mozart and the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms were pieces that we just sort of sleepwalked our way through, relying on our collective musical instincts.

And you know what?  I lay a big part of the blame for this on conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.   Honestly, I think he was sick… or maybe one of his dogs died… or maybe he read the Eagle review from last week criticizing him for being too wild on the podium.  Whatever the reason, the animated, smile-and-a-wink, conductor from our rehearsals–the one who knew exactly what he wanted to get–wasn’t present last night.  The wildly gesticulating, flamboyant crowd pleaser of the Mahler performance last week was subdued and even a little careless.  The result is we weren’t nearly as engaged as a chorus as we could have been.  Oh, there were a few moments where you could see the playful spark come back into his eyes and he started cuing instruments and getting us into it.  We were even starting to get into a rhythm with the Mozart until… it happened.

The Sanctus movement is one of three movements where the singing starts immediately.  No introduction.  No tempo indication to speak of.  Just a big downbeat and boom! we’re in.  We did the Dies Irae fine because we were locked in on him waiting for it.  We started with our Domine Jesu without issue, because he gave us a look and mouthed the word Domine reminding us to come in quietly.  But the Sanctus? He looked at us, smiled a bit, got prepared, and then looked down and gave sort of a quiet half-cue.  The entire chorus (except for two superstar sopanos) collectively went, “Uh, what?”  The timpani came in, and the orchestra strings sort of quickly made it in a bit late.  The rest of us… well… we started singing on the second measure.  Oops.  A slip-up like that really rattles both the conductor and the chorus and I never felt as locked in for the rest of the piece.

Coupled with that, everyone seemed to agree that the soloists were nothing special.  They all did their jobs, and wonderfully so, but there was nothing about their presentation, their singing style, or their interpretation that will leave a lasting impression, and there was nothing noteworthy about their voices.

Lest I sound too negative, I’d like to report that I felt we conveyed a lot of the detailed direction that MTT gave us for both pieces in our extensive rehearsals.  While I don’t have anything with which to compare our Symphony of Psalms performance except our practice recording, I feel we delivered a solid effort and that anyone familiar with the piece would have been pleased with what they heard.  And the Mozart, according to knowledgeable and trustworthy listeners, was a top-tier performance, missed entrance notwithstanding.  Again, I just wish I could have walked off the stage saying “YEAH!  We nailed that!”  Again, sort of like the Mahler last week, which by almost all accounts was a concert both the performers and the audience will remember years from now.

We’ll see what the “real” critics say… after all,  I’m just a bass.