Tag Archives: TFC

Don’t want to leave “On Leaving”

This weekend we are performing Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony again, as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s efforts to record the full cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. But the piece I’m more looking forward to luxuriating in is Grigorjeva’s “On Leaving,” a mostly a capella modern composition influenced by 15th-17th century traditions of Russian polyphonic singing and sacred poetry.

You may not be familiar with this composer – I sure wasn’t. Galina Grigorjeva was born in Ukraine in 1962 but now lives in Estonia. Her works often highlight polyphonic layers and Slavonic sacred music, and “On Leaving” is no exception. While the piece briefly features a tenor soloist, a flautist, and some triangles, it is primarily a showcase for the chorus, given its pervasive atmosphere of ancient monk-like chants. She sources the text from prayers in the Orthodox church service book, “[…] on the Hour of Leaving of Orthodox Souls” and “On Burying Lay People.” Though the text is Russian, it might as well be Latin; it has underlying meaning but functions more as a vehicle for the sustained harmonies and interwoven rhythms.

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Mechanically, the piece demands a massive amount of concentration and intelligent breath control. It’s been a long time since I’ve counted to 8 for double whole notes in a piece, but long quasi-measured phrases call for it several times. Our conductor, James Burton, warned us today not to be fooled by so many white notes — producing them (and handling the breathing) cannot be boring. Each sustained note has to have a direction and a meaning within the local phrasing as well as the overall direction. He’s worked meticulously with us to make sure we are vertically tuned and aligned, that our counting and cutoffs are crisp, and that when we breathe, it’s with intent and purpose.

The combined effect of these opulent, sometimes discordant arrivals is the creation of an astoundingly beautiful meditative space. Even in the more somber parts, the beauty shines through; James described them as “like a dark cloud covering the sunny day.”

img_6235The second movement in particular is challenging (except for us basses, who have the luxury of holding pedal tones throughout). Parts overlap in rhythms of 4’s, 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s to create this many layered buildup of individual phrases stacked like warm covers on your bed in the winter. It reminds me very much of the second half of Part 7 of the St. John Passion by James MacMillan, a composer who also favored melismas and stacks of voices at different related rhythms. In both cases, the singing complexities lead to a transformative effect that’s hard to describe. It overloads your brain so that you stop perceiving individual lines and exist instead inside an expanded head space.

One other note worth mentioning. In our final piano rehearsal, we reached a moment where the chorus fused tightly together, as if we broke through the copious notes and adjustments and aligned to express the piece as a unit. It was exhilarating to finally reach “flow,” not just for this piece but as a chorus as a whole – the last time I felt that strongly was during the Pizzetti prelude performance two summers ago. James praised us for it afterwards, momentarily dropping his focus on technical fixes to encourage us to search for that moment again in performance. And personally, I love that we got far enough past the technical corrections to earn some coaching on how to distill the soul of the composer. There is a spirituality that this piece can’t help but communicate. We are going to change at least one audience member’s life when they witness this piece. I’m looking forward to it.

(We’re performing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday evenings, though the Grigorjeva piece is not on the program Friday night.)

What to expect in this Verdi Requiem

If you’re a Verdi Requiem fan and are attending the performance tonight (or listening to it on streaming), what should you expect from a performance led by Andris Nelsons?

It won’t be the wildly varied performance led by Maestro Montanero at Tanglewood six years ago. Nelsons is steady and efficient with his tempi, with predictable accelerandos and allargandos, taking space where it’s needed without luxuriating in the gaps.  He lets the Verdi’s composition bring the drama, rather than indulging in it himself.

It won’t be the deliciously dramatic affair six months before that, led by Maestro Gatti, with his choral tricks to help us achieve the effects he wanted. In the prep work, Nelsons presented very few wacky innovations or interpretative variations to make the piece his own. Sure, he wants to evoke terror and desperation in the Dies Irae, to evoke solemn prayer in the Agnus Dei, to evoke tragedy and loss in the Lacrymosa, and a sense of wonder for the Great Amen to close the second movement. That’s all good in my mind — these choices aren’t revolutionary, they’re true to the Verdi Requiem.

In other words, what you should expect is a well-executed, traditionally realized, solid performance of a piece for the ages.

A few places where fans of the Verdi Requiem may notice something special:

  • Vertical tuning. This is an area that our choral conductor James Burton always emphasizes, but I think it makes a noticeable difference in the a capella sections. It’s the mentality of “don’t just sing your note – listen to the other parts and tune to a B-flat minor chord,” or “as the root, you’re the fifth of this inverted chord, basses, so tune it higher.”
  • Stronger marcato on the Dies Irae moving parts.  Nelsons took extra time with the descending voices, and the orchestra parts that double them. He wanted to ensure that in the iconic Dies Irae chant, they swing through with stronger weight at the end of the phrase.
  • A deeper Libera me chant. The one innovation that Nelsons gave us is something I’ve never seen or heard before in six concert runs. He asked any basses who could go down the octave during the restless chanting in the opening of the final movement to do so… and not to restrict ourselves to pianissimo. It certainly gives it a weightier, darker sound.

As for the soloists, I’m a big fan of Ryan Speedo Green, and the gravitas and power he brings to the bass part. The four of them have strengths and weaknesses, and were still learning to be an ensemble together during their first run through on Friday. Hopefully they’ll earn more praise than criticism in the inevitable reviews.

The Half-Blood Prince’s Verdi Score

When you’ve sung the Verdi Requiem several times, including a few times with the same choral score, your score starts to look like it belongs to the Half-Blood Prince.

Harry Potter fans will recognize the reference. In the sixth book of the series, Harry accidentally ends up with a beaten-up Potions textbook from someone called “The Half-Blood Prince” that has all sorts of scribbles in the margins and strange recipe modifications. He soon learns that if he follows the annotations, he outperforms classmates who are going strictly by the book.

My score has notes from past me’s scattered throughout: circled notes in tricky passages, eyeglasses warning me when to watch for a new tempo, pronunciation reminders, emotional tones to convey, explicit phrasing indicators, dynamic corrections, and other modifications inherited from previous conductors who had reached some areas of consensus for how the piece should be performed.

This is not without its disadvantages. The helpful quarter-rest out given to you three choruses ago to let you tackle the next fugue strongly may not be what the current conductor wants. So you have to be judicious in deciding what scribbles to keep and what notes to erase.

The danger of all this – as it was to Harry Potter in the books – is trusting the notes too much, and falling prey to the sense of complacency that comes from having sung a piece many times. Yes, I could walk in without rehearsals and sing One must always be hungry for more. One must always improve.

Just as a good actor knows his lines but a great actor knows everyone’s lines… or how a good team leader understands his role, but a great team leader understands how to bring out the best of each teammate’s abilities…  a good chorister knows his part down cold, but a great chorister knows not only his notes but also how he relates to the other parts.

Our conductor James continues to ask us to focus on vertical alignment and listening to each other.  That means knowing that third of the chord or the fifth of an inverted chord needs to be a little sharper.  Or that the women and men in the Lacyrmosa movement dance around each other as countermelodies.  Or that our opening theme should be strong in each fugue entrance but then fade into the tapestry afterwards. It’s those sorts of advances that take us beyond what’s on autopilot and lets us truly live each performance as if it were our first.

That’s what I’m striving for from this performance.

Thoughts after a successful reaudition

It’s been over a month since I got the gratifying news that my 21 years of service with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus would be extended at least another two years. A month is enough distance from the excitement, relief, and sorrow to reflect on what this means.

I don’t take this for granted. Though many more cuts to the membership happened in the first year, cuts did happen, and it’s hard not to see those members leave without pondering how I would feel and what I would have done. I told myself I would have finished out the summer and gone right back and re-auditioned next year, but those bold words are easier from this vantage point. I know it must hurt.

Those auditioning could receive renewals of up to three years, but I think my two years was quite fair given how it went. I know I’m pretty good at providing what our conductor James Burton is looking for. But I also know that I have a lot to work on, whether it be better breath control, tuning my ear to other parts, or finding that resonating ‘ping’ that sometimes eludes me. I’m improving how quickly I can achieve that alignment and get it right. I need to keep working until I can’t get it wrong.

I can also sense a confidence spreading across the chorus – a confidence that we belong. Until passing the re-audition, in the back of your head everyone wonders “does James want what I’m offering, or is my time here limited?” Once you’re through at least once, you’ve reaffirmed that you belong. At this point, everyone in the chorus has either passed a re-audition or was given three years right after the sing-in… so “we all belong.” It reminds me of when I worked for a company that started administering an aptitude test to all candidates before they were hired; those who failed didn’t even get an interview. They even asked current employees to take it as well. Though many proclaimed the process obnoxious, after a year of this, you knew that virtually everyone in the company had objectively demonstrated competence. It raised your trust. You knew you wouldn’t have to cover for someone, or be dragged down because someone didn’t have the ability to succeed.

That said, I’m reminded of stories about how newly elected members of the House of Representatives start thinking about the next election right away. I’ve got two years to build on my strengths and repair my weaknesses, so that I can go into the 2021 re-audition with even more confidence. Onward to this summer’s performances of the Verdi Requiem, another go at Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and a whole lot of Russian for Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony!

Sadness in choral music

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is the saddest choral music I’ve ever sung.

From the opening 20 minute movement, throughout most of the first half, it functions as a musical personification of a grieving mother before her dying son. And even the later movements, excluding the apotheosis and redemption of the final movement, all have an undercurrent of yearning and loss, representing the prayers of a supplicant asking to share the burden of her grief.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve sung many sad moments in lots of musical pieces.  The lament for Oedipus at the end of Oedipus Rex is sad, but in a less personal, Greek chorus sort of one-minute farewell-to-thee.  Every Lacrymosa of every Requiem Mass has its own brand of sadness, though they’re often tinged with fear, too.  And other Stabat Mater settings, such as Verdi’s, also try to capture sadness.

I’d argue, though, that most sad choral music is melodramatically, stereotypically sad.  It screams, “Look at us, we are SAD!”  Minor keys, wailing violin accompaniment, soaring melodies that decrescendo as the line lingers on the seventh of the scale before falling to a hushed cadence.

The Dvořák sadness is personal, not ostentatious.  It’s a crushing, persistent grief.  It’s a mourning that sees no future without more mourning. Its consolation is only by crying it out through nine movements before it approaches a sense of hope and redemption at the end. As I wrote about in my previous post, Dvořák had suffered through the separate deaths of his three children, two within a month of each other.  I’ve been fortunate in my life not to have lost any immediate family so far, but this is how I expect that to feel when it happens.

Next time you see me (or anyone singing the piece this week) in person, ask us to sing the opening lament by the soprano section.  It will break your heart.

To accomplish this effect requires a lot of precision, but without looking precise — the musicality still has to shine through the proper cutoffs and rhythms.  Our choral director James Burton has been reminding us of the important of shaping every phrase,  not just when the hairpin dynamics are explicitly indicated.  We’ve played with the balance of voices, as different parts take control of the melody or serve as the tonal foundation that others play around.  (That’s personally fun in the third movement, where the basses take command of the melody… though Andris Nelson’s deliberate tempo will be challenging for us!)  We’ve had mixed success capturing the dramatic changes in dynamics.  With all the things going on, sometimes it’s hard to remember that pp doesn’t mean “mezzoforte,” and that not all fortes are equal — we have to hold something back for those dramatic buildups or there will be no climax left for the audience at their peaks.

After an admittedly shaky initial piano rehearsal earlier in the week, though, we redeemed ourselves in the first full orchestra rehearsal last night with some magical moments.  We’re looking forward to bringing this emotional piece to life this weekend.

 

 

The Enigma of Einfelde’s Lux Aeterna

My next concert series with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is two pieces: the triumphant joy of Mahler’s 2nd (“Resurrection”) Symphony, and an unfamiliar, lightly accompanied 2012 choral arrangement from Latvian composer Maija Einfelde.  I’ve already expressed my love for the Resurrection Symphony elsewhere on this blog, so this post focuses on the more mysterious offering from Einfelde.  It’s certainly off the beaten path for the BSO and our chorus — we don’t often perform contemporary pieces, or works by Latvian (let alone female) composers.

Here is the only professional recording I could find. It’s by the Latvian Radio Choir, for whom Einfelde originally composed the piece.  If you have 6 quiet minutes, it’s really worth listening to (though our choral director urges us to stop listening to this so we can own our own performance.)

To appreciate any piece, it’s always helpful to understand its context. Who is the composer: a church music director, a struggling loner, an underappreciated royal appointee? When and where was it written: during a war, at the start of the Romantic period, under a repressive regime?  WHY was it written – as a commission, as a protest, as a celebration?

Alas, this piece has very little written about it. One brief review of the recording describes Einfelde’s music as “often harsh and abrasive, such as her award winning work Pie zemes tālās (At the Edge of the Earth),” but suggests that her Lux Aeterna represents a departure with its “great power and depth.”  The write-up in the BSO’s program notes makes it clear that she’s an accomplished composer and artist from her awards and previous works, and that she’s benefited from the sophistication of Latvia’s choral tradition.  The notes accurately describe the piece as:

strongly tonal, its harmonies sometimes transparent, sometimes rich and dense under soaring melody. At the beginnings of phrases, the texture thins to a chantlike simplicity, allowing the words to emerge clearly before being woven into the contrapuntal fabric. The layering and repetition of the phrases in the sustained choral setting of this short text reflect the metaphor of eternal light.

That’s great, but what does it mean?  What is the emotional message that we are conveying to the audience?

Our former conductor, John Oliver, described the purpose of the conductor as

“to distill the soul of the composer, and give it the orchestra, chorus, and soloists so they can communicate it to the audience through the piece.”

In this upcoming week of rehearsals — assuming we achieve the compulsory task of getting the notes tuned properly — I expect James Burton will communicate that vision to us so we can deliver it with uniformity during each concert.  But until then, it’s left to us individually to pull emotional content from the piece as we internalize it.

Here’s where my head is.  Most Requiem movements about eternal light shining upon the dead are stable, hopeful, peaceful counterpoints to Day of Wrath judgments elsewhere.  Consider Rutter, Verdi, Mozart, Duruflé, Faure, Dvořák, and even the tumultuous Berlioz, all of which feature a change of color to tell listeners a glorious ascension is happening.  While the beginning of the Einfelde certainly shimmers; I hear uncertainty, concern, and maybe even desperation within that eternal light.  I hear prayers being offered as a plea, by disturbed mourners who aren’t convinced that their loved ones are at rest.  After the first two minutes of those questions, we get this amazing (and vocally challenging!) tone cluster of voices, with layers of complexity, undulating like a turbulent sea in the wind, and a pleading soprano line rising out of it.  It’s then, once we’ve made it through that unrest, do we reach a hollow, tentative acceptance, as if we’ve worked through the troublesome emotions of the first half of the piece.  Finally, and only at the very end, do we achieve a deep and satisfying consonance — reinforced by the low basses as we drop down to confirm a powerful C major chord, hidden until then, as if to say, “Shhhh… it’s okay.”

So I see this stand alone Lux Aeterna, bereft of any Dies Irae to play off of, as bringing its own narrative conflict by representing the stages of grief.  The opening is denial and anger. The tumult in the middle is the bargaining and depression.  The ending, however, is too powerful to be a passive “this sucks” acceptance of grief; to me, it’s a more active decision to absorb the grief, incorporate it, and move forward with life.

We’re all looking forward to getting lost in this tapestry of sound… before settling into the risers each night to await the final movement of the Mahler.

Finding Triumph in Haydn’s Nelson Mass

Our final choral performance this weekend is Haydn’s Missa in Anguistiis, known more commonly as the Lord Nelson Mass.  Of the 14 different mass settings Haydn composed, this one is considered his greatest — in fact, his biographer calls it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition,” though my vote would be for The Creation, which he had just finished writing.

Haydn started writing the “Mass for Troubled Times” at a time of intense fear.  In 1789, the terrified public knew that Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.  (One effect – his patrons stopped paying for wind players, so he was down to only strings and a few hired trumpets and timpani!)  The opening Kyrie, in a dark D minor, echoes this public mood.  By the time the piece was first performed, however, Britain’s Lord Nelson had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat – and when the work was performed in Nelson’s honor during his visit in 1800.  Since then, the piece has been more about the triumphant victory over that menacing opening movement, as D minor becomes D major in the later, more celebratory movements.  And with the smaller orchestra, it means that our smaller roster is more than adequate for the sound – we’ve had double this chorus size for pieces like the Mozart Requiem before.

Our conductor for this piece is the 91 year old Herbert Blomstedt.  We can all only hope to be as active as Maestro Blomstedt at that age, given he’s conducting 90 concerts a year. in venues around the world.  His devout lifestyle is all well and good, but as a chorus we wondered coming into the week of on-site rehearsals at Tanglewood: would this be like Boston’s beloved Harry Ellis Dickson conducting Holiday Pops in the twilight of his career (i.e., “don’t watch him, watch the first violinist”) Any concerns we had were quickly abated when he took the podium and immediately began shaping our sound.

Maestro Blomstedt’s strong opinions ran counter to many of our initial musical instincts. For instance, he is vehemently against vibrato in the chorus, especially in the upper voices, making it vocally challenging for our sopranos to hit those high As and Bs. His rationale is that senza vibrato produces stronger harmonies, and allows the soloists to stand out over our tapestry of sound.  He also favors rhythmic intensity over natural melodic lines, urging us to add marcato stresses — for instance, we now heavily break up the syllabic Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son motif in the first movement rather than the legato shaping we had been rehearsing.  I personally find it harder to maintain the lighter, cleverer sound that one expects with any Haydn classical-era piece when we’re pummeling the rhythm this way, but as basses we’ll continue to fight to be more about rhythmically intensity (and less about elephantine plodding).  Blomstedt has also created great things with special moments in the piece, like taking the chorus way down during the text of cum sancto spiritu so that “the spirit” (a flautist playing a lilting tune) is audible as if it were a flute concerto for about four measures.  He is always about driving the tempo forward, even barking at some BSO second violinists (“TEMPO! KEEP UP!”) at one point in the orchestra rehearsal.

It’s always tempting, for these well-known chestnut pieces that could be sight-read at a summer sing somewhere, to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the musical ride.  Between conductor James Burton’s prep work, and Blomstedt’s urging, we have the luxury of not having that luxury.  That means we can take it off autopilot and really dig into the music, focus our concentration, bring to bear our copious notes scribbled in our scores, and shape its direction to create a performance that can make an audience sit up and listen.