Tag Archives: Symphony of Psalms

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.

Tomorrow: Stravinsky and Mozart

It’s all over but the actual singing.  Over 6 hours of, well, fairly brutal rehearsals later, with our brains stuffed full of notes and tiny adjustments, we’re ready for another great Tanglewood performance tomorrow night on stage in the Shed.  If you can’t be there in person, you can hear it in Boston on 99.5 FM, or streaming online.  Our concert starts at 8:30pm on Friday, July 16.

Why were the rehearsals brutal?  It wasn’t just the heat.  It was that Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas (“MTT”) is a nerd of a conductor (and I say that as a compliment.)  In other words, he is a technician as much as an artist.  As such, he is questioning and doubling back over almost every entrance, every nuance, every layer of sound.  He’s completely hands-on with the orchestra:  “Add a diminuendo in measure 6.  Make measure 15 poco meno forte so that we can hear the alto’s low notes.  Let’s go back and try the beginning again… no wait, stop, it doesn’t have the right character, make it warmer.  Let’s try it again.”  These are the things he will say in the course of a few minutes.  Repeat over two 2-3 hour rehearsals today, after 2+ hours with just him and the chorus yesterday .   We’d do a movement from start to finish, and then he’d tell us it was really great.  REALLY great.  Except… well, there’s just a few minor things to touch up…. and then we painstakingly go back through (forward or backward) and pick it apart.

So it can be a bit maddening, and sometimes you’re not really sure whatever adjustment he’s making is really going to have any effect in the long run.  But you have to admire his persistence.  He knows what he wants and he will interrupt and make us sing it again until we nail the particular character he’s looking for.  It’s nice to have such attention to detail and if we remember half of the things he’s told us we’ll have an excellent performance.  Nevertheless, it can be frustrating to keep starting and stopping and never really get a sense for the larger arc of the piece.

The Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms makes a lot more sense to us now than it did when we were learning it by the book and the recording.  Relationships between notes, rhythms, values, and tempos are a lot clearer.  The character of the piece shines through and we’re communicating it more efficiently.  Many choristers already sang this a few years ago but it didn’t have MTT’s touch.  (And did I mention he’s “hands on”?)  The pleading of the first movement, followed by the reflective second movement, and then the joyous dancing of prayers answered in the third — all should be captured well in our performance.

The Mozart Requiem has been a bit of an adventure as well.  Most of us think we know it pretty well, having sung it a few times either with the TFC or other choruses.  But MTT is looking for some specifics that I certainly hadn’t heard before, and they definitely make it better.  Subtle interplays between alto-bass and soprano-tenor dynamic and rhythmic counterpoints, where one group swells while another fades. A prayerful, solemn character added to some of the quieter parts that have often just been belted out in other choruses.  Some phrasing choices I hadn’t heard before.  The end result is a Mozart Requiem that is decidedly his own.

I hope the soloists are up to the task — the men are described as “up and coming” in their bios, and although they all have the pedigrees and the operatic voices, they didn’t seem to carry as well in the Shed during rehearsal.  But of course I was just spoiled by Stephanie Blythe singing Mahler’s 2nd last weekend, and her voice could fill up the entire western half of the state if she wanted it to.

Hope you hear it!

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!