Tag Archives: Tanglewood

Our (Slightly Sloppy) Success

Last night’s Verdi was every bit as exciting as I expected it to be.  While I’ll certainly file it in my memory as another successful performance, I must admit that it won’t be one of my favorites because it included some of the pitfalls I was concerned about going into the performance.

Maestro Montanero was true to his style, with dramatic, forceful, energetic conducting from the podium.  He urged us to infuse the passion and emotion of this Requiem’s story into a heartfelt rendition of the piece.  Both Old Testament God and the supplications and pleadings of those facing Judgment Day came through loud and clear… and yes, quickly, too!  We executed on the vision and put together a memorable performance for the audience.  In fact, it’s going to be hard to listen to any Verdi Requiem performance, now, without comparing it to this one’s range of tempo and dynamics, its accelerando and rubato, and the singular approach which Montanero used.

I suspect, however, that when the critics turn to their inevitable sniping at the performance’s merits, they will find some of the same things that I found lacking, things which prevented this performance from achieving true greatness. The main problem?  Its sloppiness.  Mind you, we’re talking the sloppiness of a Lenox restaurant’s dinner guest leaving bread crumbs and a minor coffee spill on the tablecloth, not a toddler smearing mushed carrots all over his high chair.  I’m being incredibly picky. But for a group that generally craves precision, we had minor errors all over the place.  Cutoffs that we approximated.  Swells and fades that we invented because we weren’t actually sure what Maestro wanted.  A default mezzo forte dynamic for some entrances.  And tempo curves in the road that we could only gamely follow and hope for the best.  In general, the crispness that I know I desire wasn’t there.  I don’t think the performance itself suffered too greatly from it.  Personally, it vaguely diminished my enjoyment in creating the music, and the distractions made it harder for me to concentrate on producing an efficient, glorious sound.

The quartet of soloists were one of the better groups I have ever heard perform the Verdi Requiem.  However, they had some of the same troubles that the chorus faced.  Montanero often had to get in their faces to buckle them in for his rubato and other tempo shifts.  Our poor soprano came in a measure early on the tremens factus sum ego portion of the Libera me, and later on was a measure late in her return entrance.  Fortunately in both cases she adjusted by changing note values to realign with the orchestra–a mark of an experienced professional for sure.   The quartets seemed relatively well-balanced (with only the mezzo having trouble keeping up with the others’ volume and tone quality), but there were moments where they were just not in lockstep with the orchestra.

I can’t help but lay the blame for those near train wrecks on the baton of Maestro Montanero, because of his fast tempo and occasional lack of clarity in communicating that tempo to chorus, soloists, and orchestra.   Some in the chorus argued that he was quite clear.  I would say yes — he was as clear as your spouse telling you, “Okay… ummmm…. TURN HERE!  You missed it.”  Too many directions were better interpreted after it was too late to do something about them.  Again, did it hurt the performance?  Only to the most ardent Verdi fans who know the score well enough to pick up those kinds of slips.  The rest of the audience must surely have enjoyed the excitement and energy of the breakneck pace, a pace which did a great job communicating the this-is-our-last-chance begging of the judged.  A slavish attention to detail would have robbed this interpretation of its soul.  We would never have delivered the emotional payload, and this wouldn’t have been such an awesome — in the true sense of the word — performance.

Anxious, frustrated, and hopefully optimistic

With yesterday morning’s rehearsal behind us, and tonight’s performance coming, I’m left feeling a little anxious, a little frustrated, and yet hopeful and optimistic.

I’m anxious because this performance will still be more of a balancing act than usual. We go into it confident in our abilities and knowledge of the piece, but not confident in having a shared vision with Maestro Montanero.  His tempo still feels like a music box to me, and to many others in the chorus — sometimes wound too tight and racing ahead, then suddenly winding down without warning.   (However fast we imagine the final fugue in our heads, it’s always faster.  I swear he speeds up immediately after introducing the tempo just to whip the racehorse that is the chorus into a stampeding frenzy.)  While these sudden tempo changes are less of a surprise than from the first rehearsal, it does mean we’ll need extra concentration on his cues to follow him.  This may distract us from the musicality we’re bringing to the performance, just so we can stretch to reach his.So that’s why I’m a little frustrated, because this isn’t the way I personally enjoy making music.  Granted, my personality energy is normally very sunshine yellow, preferring outward expression of emotion and never afraid of a little improvisation.  But I’m finding that my music-making is cool blue, unusually so given my energy tends to shy away from that more calculating, precise, give-me-all-the-details approach.  I want to be in control, I want to know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen, and I want our group of some 120 singers to succeed in projecting a uniformity of sound.  That uniformity will not be uniformly achieved tonight.  There will be moments where we are off.  And frankly, that’s probably what Maestro Montanero wants, given his emphasis on us earnestly believing and communicating the terror our souls feel when faced with Judgment Day.  I’m guessing that the end of the world won’t come about measured in perfectly kept 4/4 time.
All that said, just like in my previous post, I remain pretty hopeful and optimistic that this is going to be a stellar performance, specifically because of that wildness.  In the Master Class that John Oliver ran today — a topic for another post, I’m sure — John emphasized proper technique first and foremost, especially for younger singers still trying to find the best way to use their instrument.  But he also spent time convincing some more experienced singers, singers who had proper technique, to let go of that control.   He asked them to open up, to loosen tension or constrictions they had formed, to give up control in order to achieve a more powerful sound.  And sure enough, those singers achieved back-of-the-concert-hall power by making their well-honed technique the slave, not the master.  We have to let Montanero be the master, we have to let passion drive our performance tonight, and use that to propel us through the piece.
My family and I listened to an excerpt from the Gatti performance, side by side with my wife’s Dies Irae snippet recorded from rehearsal.  What had sounded majestic, noble, and inexorable for Gatti now sounds pale, languid, and lugubrious.  Montanero’s interpretation is just that much more exciting.  Anyone who hears it is going to be captivated by its energy and momentum.  We’re going down a double-black-diamond hill and we’ve only been on the greens and blues…  but we have the talent as an ensemble to do it, however reckless it may feel (oh my god, the Sanctus…. the Libera me … holy crap!)  If we can avoid any train wrecks along the way, we should have a performance to be proud of.

Pathos, not Precision

Well! After 4-5 hours spent with Maestro Montanero on Wednesday, we have a much better idea of how his interpretation of the Verdi Requiem will be different.  It’s pathos at the expense of precision, with his desire for outward expressivity delivered through insanely fast tempi, dramatic dynamics and tempo changes, and the emotion we embed in our singing.  The overall effect should make for an exciting rollercoaster ride of a performance.

Before we sang a single note, Montanero explained what he was going for with this “religious opera,” as he referred to it. Regardless of what we personally believed in, he said for this piece we needed to truly respect and believe in the God described by this piece, and communicate that belief to the audience through our singing. And by no means should this be a private belief, as if some sort of internalized quiet prayer for salvation. This was raising our hands, looking to the heavens, and shouting, begging, for God to spare us. (“Oh, so Old Testament God,” chorister Laura remarked.)

He reiterated this theme, this reliance on an outward display of pathos, throughout the rehearsal. For the Dies Irae?  “God is trying to kill you.  When you sing, I want to turn around and see people in the audience running for the exits!”  For the Libera me, he suggested, “You are shaking the Judge in front of you by the shoulders, frantically begging him to let you go free.”  Very rarely does he go for subtlety: his conducting is fierce and energetic, his attacks are often sudden and dramatic, his tempo changes are as exaggerated as the triple f’s and triple p’s that Verdi put in the score.  (In other words?  He’s Italian.)  This version of the Requiem is all about distilling an intense, passionate pleading through the framework of Verdi’s composition.

The unfortunate side effect of this approach, however, is that we are sacrificing precision for this passion.  Maestro Gatti would focus on many details:  achieving the right balance for the quantus tremor, or the way he wanted the phrasing of huic ergo articulated across the chorus, or showing exactly what we’d get from him for a cutoff.  Whereas Maestro Montanero really just barrels through it all, stopping only to correct us when we didn’t understand what his conducting meant.  For instance, he asks for louder and softer by moving faster or slower — still keeping the same tempo, but with broadly exaggerated motions or restrained, hunched-over hand movements.   While he’ll point out phrasing or hairpin dynamics that he wants us to represent, such as a dramatic decrescendo he wants in the Rex tremendae, it’s otherwise very hit and miss.  What details don’t come from the podium “in the moment” are left up to us, either from what John’s  drilled into us or from what’s left over from Gatti — agogic accents in the te decet hymnus passage, phrasings in the fugues, pronouncing salva with three syllables, that sort of thing.

Strangely enough, Maestro Montanero’s conducting is quite clear–and yet it’s still hard to follow.  He plays “red light, green light” with his rubato, egging us on to keep up with him in an accelerando and then suddenly slowing down to almost half the note value for a dramatic cadence.   There were several times when the chorus, the soloist, and the orchestra would all move to the next note in a phrase at different times because we incorrectly anticipated where he wanted it.  There’s no steady drumbeat, and we haven’t yet internalized where he’s going with each phrase.  In the end, he’s just not a “choral” conductor, breathing with us, giving us each /t/ and /s/ cutoff, and integrating us with the rest of the ensemble.  He isn’t willing us to follow him… he’s daring us to.

That’s particularly true because of the overall speed of the piece.  Saying his tempi are a little fast is like saying that Beethoven was a little hard of hearing.  Mind you, many of us thought Maestro Gatti’s Dies Irae was a bit too slow, even though we know he was going for something noble and terrible in its majesty.  Montanero’s Dies Irae is tremendously exciting, and sounds more like what you hear in movie trailer commercials, when they use that movement as a temporary score.   But he doesn’t stop there.  The Sanctus is about as fast as I’ve ever heard it.  And the ending fugue?  It’s like running down a steep hill and hoping you don’t trip.  During the rehearsal, it was Survivor: Fugue Island and less prepared chorus members kept getting “voted off” as they tried to find their place. Forget that God is trying to kill us — if he doesn’t, at this speed, Montanero will! Often  when playing an instrument or singing, a performer thinks ahead maybe a half-measure or so to know what’s coming next.  Here, we just have to keep executing, relying on muscle memory to get through it all!

These complaints would make it sound like this was going to be a train wreck of a performance.  But you know what?  It won’t be, and here’s why.  It’s an overdependence on those  precise details, making our picky brains feel more in control of what we’re producing, that get in the way of communicating the essence of a piece.  This isn’t Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.  And if a singer worries about every cutoff and note value, he or she may fail to deliver the musicality and the emotional payload intrinsic to the music.   My wife recorded a brief snippet of the Dies Irae from the lawn during the orchestra rehearsal just so I could hear it.  The uniformity of sound, excitement, and drama that travels beyond the stage creates goose bumps.  The emotion trumps the technical.  We may not ever feel fully in control during this piece, but I think by embracing the passion that Montanero wants us to live and breathe and sing, we’re going to take the audience for one helluva ride on Saturday night.

Back in the Berkshires

Today marks the start of my first residency at Tanglewood in two years, this time for the Verdi Requiem performance on Saturday night, July 27th.  I’m grateful to be back, and I’m especially grateful to be singing this piece, even if we lost the opportunity to sing with the next BSO conductor along the way.

It’s very gratifying to be back.  Last summer various conflicts prevented me from even putting my name in for the few concerts that needed basses, so my “exile” wasn’t expected to be permanent.  Still, we haven’t been to even the first rehearsal and I already feel refreshed and energized knowing the week before us.  There’s just something about the experience of being out here for a residency, dedicating yourself to the music, being around like-minded musicians, as well as getting a break from the pace of work and home.  Missing it for a summer made its absence even more prominent.  Having my wife with me for the week, even though she’s not on this roster, makes it even better.

On the drive out, we listened to some movements of last winter’s performance at Symphony Hall with Maestro Gatti.  At one point, my wife asked me if this was my favorite piece.  That led to a spirited debate about our favorite choral pieces, but in the end for me it may be 1A and 1B between this and the Brahms Requiem for pieces that I’ve fully internalized and could probably sing memorized right now if you asked me to.  The upshot of that, though, is that it means–unlike some of my past residencies here–there’s very little homework required.  I just have to show up and be open to a new interpretation so I can realize the collective vision that we’re trying to achieve in the performance.

The person setting that vision, however, is not Maestro Nelsons, after a freak accident where he got a concussion from hitting his head on a door.  Nor will it be the scheduled bass soloist, Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has a bad cold.  While I’m told that Eric Owens is a more than able replacement for Furlanetto, the conductor replacing Nelsons is the relatively unknown Carlo Montanaro, whose Italian descent and operatic experience should serve him well for the Verdi.  Still, all of us in the chorus are of course disappointed that we won’t have an opportunity to meet and work with the next appointed conductor of the BSO.  What can you do?  (Besides ducking faster when a door’s coming at your head.)

I’ll be writing more about Maestro Montanaro and our rehearsals later this week.  We have two 2.5 hour rehearsals this afternoon, and a run-through on Friday morning, before the Saturday evening performance. 

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.

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!

Reviews of Mahler 2nd

The reviews are in!  And they’re pretty darn glowing.  Well, mostly.

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe praised Michael Tilson Thomas for his ability to draw different emotional contexts out of the various movements.  About us, he wrote:

Mahler’s finale is one of the most memorable in his oeuvre, full of hair-raising music depicting the end of days, but also containing some of his most spellbindingly quiet passages, as in the hushed first entrances of the enormous chorus. The TFC here sounded magnificent, as it did singing at full throttle.

Lloyd Schwartz of the Boston Phoenix spent most of his digital ink talking about the intricacies of the performance, with more (well-deserved) praise for Stephanie Blythe’s voice than for the chorus itself.

Clarence Fanto of  Berkshire Living was more effusive, saying it was no surprise that MTT’s interpretation would be a “magnificent, insightful, thoughtful and viscerally thrilling performance.”

Superlatives abound whenever John Oliver’s chorus performs; the singers’ hushed entrance in the final movement (mysterious, very slow and a triple-pianissimo as Mahler instructed) was as delicate yet well-articulated as imaginable. When Tilson Thomas urged them on to sing triple-forte for the final lines of Mahler’s text (“Die shall I in order to live…”), their exclamation of joyous redemption lifted the rafters skyward.

The performance was so tightly focused and unblemished technically — even the off-stage brasses and the distant marching band — that an instant CD or MP3 download could be released with no touchups required. Some of us would gladly pay for the privilege of owning a memento of this memorable event.

Well, then!

Meanwhile, the more austere Berkshire Eagle was very harshly critical, calling the performance a “bumpy ride” and “idiosyncratic.”  The writer acknowledge MTT’s style as closer to Bernstein’s, but derided him for lacking Bernstein’s “structural coherence and molded sound.”  It sounds like Andrew Pincus was lashing out for the absence of James Levine, blaming the performance on “a visiting conductor” and comparing MTT’s “swirling, stabbing demands” unfavorably to “Levine’s more measured, though no less visceral, approach.”  Time to get over it, people!  We may not see James “J.D. Drew” Levine again.  About us, he acknowledged:

From its hushed first entry – one of the most stunning moments in all music – the Tanglewood Festival Chorus rose to almighty thunder in the concluding ode.

And because Tanglewood is regarded as a New York activity as much as a Boston one (you should’ve heard the concert-goer who told me afterwards that the performance was “auw’asum“), the New York Times weighed in too. Anthony Tommasini wrote a lot about the absence of James Levine, but he also delved into the performance.  He praised MTT for bringing “lucid textures and structural coherence” to the otherwise disparate movements of the work.  About us, he gave a passing of-course-they-were-good nod of appreciation:

[MTT] drew brilliant playing from the orchestra, magisterial singing from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and inspired performances from the two vocal soloists […]  In the “Resurrection” poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, with Mahler’s added verses, the always impressive Tanglewood Festival Chorus (directed by John Oliver) sang with robust sound and sensitivity.

A New York Times blog post by Daniel Wakin included snippets of an interview with MTT about how he chose to interpret the piece, but the interesting thing there are the comments by the musical literati.  Some called MTT’s Mahler “the best there is” and others condemned him for making changes to the composer’s notes or called his conducting style superficial and showy.

Quite a roundup.  My thoughts on the performance will follow in the next post.