Tag Archives: TFC

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.

Learning to Accept

When I was young and had just started exploring classical music, I had a tape of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I played to within an inch of its life.  I loved the word painting and rollicking cadenzas, the cheerful harpsichord that put the movement in the movements, and the contrasts in tempo and tone from one season to another.  Recently, remembering how much I loved that recording, I went to get a more modern equivalent from iTunes.

I couldn’t — wouldn’t — buy one.

I listened to excerpts and all of them were different.  This one was too fast; this one was draggy.  Another version’s okay, except the violin is doing something crazy that I don’t recognize.  The harpsichord isn’t even playing arpeggios in this one.  I didn’t realize how much of that work is left up to the interpretation of the conductor and the soloist and the continuo.  I couldn’t accept that my version was not the version — even if it was the version for me.  Until I accept another interpretation — or figure out where that tape came from — I may never buy a recording!

Which brings us to the Tanglewood concert that my wife and I are participating in next weekend, where we’ll be singing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and the popular Carmina Burana by Orff.  (You know Carmina, even if you think you don’t… it’s everywhere. )  The Ravel isn’t an issue for me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever sung it, let alone memorized our small contribution, so I have had no preconceived notions… just a fear of knowing when to ahhh and when to ohhh, whether a 5/4 measure is next, and how long the rest is before our next entrance.

Carmina Burana, however, is a problem.

I’ve performed Carmina Burana in four concert runs now, twice from memory.  Some chorus members have many more.  My wife and I even have our favorite version — the time we both sang with Rafael Frübeck de Burgos at Symphony Hall.  “FdB” has a very specific vision for the piece which we embraced.  He really distinguishes his version, thanks in part to some quirky tempo changes — for instance, how he asks the chorus to almost ashamedly gossip-sing about the “errant brethren” and “dispersed monks” while In Taberna, or the sudden switch to double-time to create the “bursting out all over” lover’s fast heartbeat in Tempus es iocundum.  He truly gives it that bawdy, irreverent character that it needs.  I have a recording of that performance, and it’s my gold standard for the piece.

And that … that makes this particular performance much harder.  Now we’re singing it with a new conductor, whom we’ll meet next week.  And, we’ve been prepared by Betsy Burleigh, one of the chorus directors auditioning to replace John Oliver after his retirement last year.  Betsy’s intensity contrasts dramatically with John’s more laissez-faire style, and that’s been an adjustment for the entire chorus.  My “aha” observation is that in rehearsals, our chorus likes to learn, but doesn’t like to be taught.  John concerned himself more with the character and tone of our singing, and figured we’d work out most of the details on our own or with the conductor.  (He also generally hates Carmina Burana for its bombast and general lack of subtlety.)  Betsy prefers to establish an agreed-upon baseline landscape of diction and rhythm.  Once we have consensus on those boundaries as a chorus, we can then maneuver however the conductor wants to shape the piece.  Adding to the cognitive dissonance: since Carmina Burana is a weird mixture of Latin and German, there’s debate for each performance on whether a word like “quod” is pronounced /kwohd/ or /kvot/.  Betsy delivered a comprehensive and internally consistent pronunciation guide, but it disagrees with what most of us have previously memorized. So she’s had to deprogram us from old habits with some very detailed drilling.

Frankly, we could probably use the drilling, because that uniformity of sound and diction hasn’t really been a hallmark of our chorus over the last decade.  I can’t remember the last time we took a piece apart this thoroughly and then reassembled it.  We held five pre-residency rehearsals instead of the usual two or three – and we’re not even technically memorizing for this performance.  Sure there’s been grumbling, but by the final rehearsal we sounded so much better than the initial one, that I think it was worth it.  Betsy challenged us not to mail it in.  Once we learn to accept that, and accept her, and accept that there’s no John or FdB here, and accept that the chorus is transforming into something new…  then we can return to inspiring a picnic-crowded lawn.

In the end, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to sing the praises of fate, lust, springtime, and drinking heavily… regardless of whether I successfully shake off the instinct to rhyme crescis and dissolubilis with the English word “peace” instead of “hiss.”  We’ve been here before: that jarring cognitive dissonance when faced with a new interpretation happens every time.  And we’ve had guest chorus conductors shake us out of complacency for the Brahms Requiem, and we’ve had conductors take us for wild spins too.  Learning to accept is hard.  Leadership changes are hard.  But complacency won’t get us to the sort of memorable performance that makes me save a tape for decades.

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.