Tag Archives: Suzuki

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