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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. 

Critical Reviews of the Verdi Requiem

As I once wrote elsewhere, compliments from the critics are rarely the external validation our chorus seeks – the applause of the audience is sufficient reward, and in the end we sing to scratch our own creative itches, to know we had a hand in making the music come alive.  That said, I’ve found it helpful to review the reviews and weigh the comments of the critics against my own experiences.  These days we typically get comments from three publications:

Jeremy Eichler of the Globe was unusually complimentary and keenly accurate in his observations, impressed by Gatti’s fluid, poised conducting, and attention to musical details:

From the hushed opening bars, Gatti drew out long singing lines from the orchestra, while also clearly prizing textural and rhythmic clarity. He showed a knack for organic tempo choices and transitions that captured the full drama and, at times, fury of this remarkable score. The same might be said of his conducting of the Tanglewood Chorus, which sang superbly, its performance in the Dies Irae duly terrifying yet free of stridency, its Sanctus measured with a welcome dignified gait[…]  The BSO as a whole seemed alert and highly responsive to Gatti’s direction.

I agree with him calling out the responsiveness of the orchestra to the “organic tempo choices”–I’d call Gatti’s frequent rubato, dramatic fermata, and fluidity the defining factor of his time on the podium.  I love Eichler’s observations on the Sanctus, because it means we delivered on Gatti’s previous direction to sing it “with respect.”  It’s satisfying to get that independent validation of our ability to communicate something so intangible.

Eichler also correctly noted that the quartet was “capable but uneven,” preferring the mezzo’s voice the most, but complimenting the female Agnus Dei duet.  Amusingly, he professed confusion over our leaping to our feet several times for our big forte interruptions–and the next night, we cut one of those leaps to make things a little less frantic.  He wasn’t the only one who saw it as a problem.

Brian Jones wrote up our Friday performance in the Boston Music Intelligencer, and almost loved it:  “In retrospect, this was a performance to admire in so many ways that I wish I could say I was as deeply moved as one hopes to be with this splendid music.”  On top of his praise for the soloists he lobbed fair criticisms about the soprano’s odd vowel modifications and the bass’s lack of power.  And it’s clear he noted the responsiveness in dynamics, tone, and tempo between us and the maestro:

His sensitive reading of the score brought forth many lucid and musical moments, and great credit goes to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for just the right hushed sound here,  or magnificent triumph there. The utter security of singing from memory makes the chorus’s contribution even more significant. Maestro Gatti also conducted without a score.

[…]The other movements were mostly beautiful, and handled with the appropriate degree of intensity and reflection. Gatti made perfect sense of the famous opening bars, with their legendary, hushed iterations of “Re-qui-em,”, and his use of rubato was appropriate and compelling. (One interesting touch in the second movement was as the chorus actually spoke the words “quantus tremor” (“how great a terror”): I had never heard that effect before, and it worked. The Offertorio, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were given much better tempos, although orchestra, chorus and soloists occasionally threatened to slip off the tracks. Several expressive moments in the Lux Aeterna went by with little recognition, but the final movement (“Libera Me”) was the highlight of the evening, and beautifully conceived.

However, noticing them does not mean approving of them.  Despite his praise above, overall he did not seem to care for Gatti’s frequent tempo shifts:

The famous requiems of Verdi, Mozart, Brahms, Faure and a few others present interesting interpretive challenges: so many musicians and listeners are familiar with them that conductors often feel the need to “leave their mark” in ways which sometimes stretch and even snap the threads of musical line for which these works are justifiably noted. Gatti’s approach was most successful in all the shorter movements, but in the second, long movement his tendency to take extra time with breaks in the music, as well as his tempo in the famous “Dies Irae” music (too slow to achieve the gripping drama of those repeated notes and triplets), made the long second movement seem even longer than should have been the case. Many of the numerous sections of this movement were handsomely dealt with, but the overall architecture and sense of line suffered.

I’ve noticed many reviewers similarly criticize an interpretation of a performance if it didn’t match their own favorite version.  While I understand Jones’s commentary on “activist conductors,” I’m pretty sure Gatti’s extra time was borne not out of an egotistic desire to claim the piece as his own, but rather out of a true love for the music and how he conceives it.  I had never heard the Dies Irae that deliberate myself, but while Jones said it sacrifices the gripping drama, I’d say it’s a welcome trade off that allows the internal lines to sing through–it  creates an overall effect that’s even more terrifying than bulldozing through the whole thing.

Finally, David Wright spoke of our opening night performance at Boston Classical Review.  I hesitate to even include him, given his inexplicably contrarian review of our Brahms Requiem, but he has occasionally given passable commentary.  He continues with his usual questionable, attack-filled observations again, suggesting that we lacked diction and rhythmic drive in the Sanctus, claiming the chorus “sounded more like a crowd scene than a chamber choir,” and later calling us “a firm, unobtrusive presence in its supporting role.”   I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s referring to passages where we sing under the soloists.  That said, he did praise our “gusto” for the Dies Irae and the Lacrymosa, and I’d say he was spot on in his observations of the soloists’ strengths and weaknesses individually and as a quartet.  He also wrote well of Gatti’s stewardship:

Throughout the evening, Daniele Gatti’s firm hand could be felt shaping every aspect of the performance, from the almost inaudible opening bars to the soft, measureless chanting of Libera me at the close, and all the high drama in between.

I like the philosophy that “Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”  The commonalities in all three reviews confirm that this was truly a marvelous performance, distinguished by Gatti’s fluid direction, a challenged but still enjoyable quartet of soloists, and some of the chorus’s most attentive, dedicated singing.  Bravo all, and let’s do it again for Andris Nelsons in the summer!

Self-Review: Verdi Requiem Opening Night

Our opening night performance was everything we wanted it to be: powerful, emotional, and expressive.  It was a night to be quite proud of.

The chorus achieved everything we set out to do — we stayed locked in on Maestro Gatti’s direction the whole time.  We got that cupa hollowness in the beginning.  We expanded ourselves as instruments to get the Hall-shattering triple-f for the Dies Irae.  We made the soft parts very personal to us.  We delivered and fulfilled the vision in Maestro’s head.

Some moments really gave me chills.  The climactic crescendo of the Tuba mirum, for instance, delivered on its promise of the trumpet-scattering tombs.  The Sanctus double fugue was tidy and, yes, respectful, and the final fugue was forcefully delivered with authority.  And for some reason, the second dona eis requiem verse of the fifth movement really hit home.  It felt like the most intimate, genuine supplication  to the heavens, a prayer begging for acknowledgement.

Maestro Gatti had even more surprises for us in the performance — we had to stay super-focused on him the entire time to watch for the occasional rubato or accelerando so we could stay with him.  He put in yet even more of these for dramatic effect — he was so physically and emotionally invested in communicating to us what he wanted that his every move had meaning.  As such, we were able to respond to a finger raise as much as a ginormous punch into the air.   He was not shy in reminding us of his requests from rehearsals and coaching us further mid-performance.  I hadn’t realized that he had the entire score memorized and could therefore conduct from the podium with the same attention and freedom to react that we had.  What a difference it made.

What, if anything, could be criticized?  Afterwards, a chorister jokingly referred to “the five soloists on stage,” meaning that Maestro Gatti was so demonstrative up there that he may have been stealing the show.  Would you believe he even shushed the soloists at one point, because they weren’t heeding his direction to sing softly fast enough?  He had a lot of grunts and exhales and even faint singing at a few points.  Some might find all that distracting; I found it endearing.

But there’s always room for improvement.  I don’t think we achieved some of the  triple-p moments that we did in rehearsal — we can touch on some of those passages even more gently to create a more sacred space.  I personally had a little mini-solo when I accidentally tried to double a tenor part; a relic of a previous performance with another crew that had twice as many basses as tenors.  I’m sure we’ll get a few minor adjustments and reminders at tonight’s warmup.  Other than that, however, I think we nailed it, and for the remaining performances I would only hope to commit even further to the piece so we can stay focused on creating another winning night.

You can’t go wrong with the Verdi Requiem; it’s a crowd pleaser any night, with any chorus, in any venue.  But the raucous applause and triple-bow standing ovation told me that the audience felt just as strongly that what they had witnessed was something special.

The Finer Points of Achieving Gatti’s Verdi Vision

Some of the coaching and techniques that Maestro Gatti suggested were new to me.  Here are the ones that stood out:

  • “Sing for yourself.”  That was his direction to achieve the dynamics for some of the triple-p and quadruple-p passages.  I’ve often heard to sing to the back wall of the hall for loud passages, but this was great for singing softly.
  • “Dües Ürae.”  To achieve the darker color he wanted, Gatti told us to sing the /i/ in some of our quieter Dies Irae interjections as a /ü/  .It sure surprised me how well this worked.  After all, a darker color is often achieved by moving your lips forward, and to make an /ü/ you basically make an /i/ with your lips pursed like an /o/.  He also had the sopranos modify the /i/ vowel to an /a/ for their descending chromatic passage, because otherwise, “it sounds like a mosquito.”
  • “Saleva me.”  How many syllables in “Salva” ?  Apparently the answer is three.  Gatti wants the /l/ in salva so prominent that we’re actually putting a shadow vowel in after it to promote it.  This is quite noticeable on the cascading salva me across the chorus toward the end of the second movement.  Gatti got a laugh telling us to sound like Pavarotti and then imitating him, but I must say, it totally makes you sound like you’re a native Italian with that vowel in there.
  • Quantus tremor.  The Quantus tremor passage in the piece occurs right before the antiphonal trumpets and the rest of the brass come crashing in for the climactic Tuba mirum.  In past performances, the chorus I’ve been in has been told to sing it sotto voce, with almost no tone at all, giving it this creepy foreboding sense of wonder and doom.  Great.  Well, Gatti did something amazing with it.  He has the basses quiet but with normal intonation… the tenors with half-intonation… and the altos and sopranos just whisper the words with no intonation.  Then as the passage progresses the tenors bring in more intonation and the ladies step up to half-intonation.  The result is a bottom-heavy, darker, more dramatic effect that had us all looking at each other and nodding our heads to acknowledge how well that worked.
  • Respect the Sanctus.  The Sanctus fourth movement is an oddity in the piece.  Double chorus, cascading fugue-like entrances,  trumpets blaring a triumphant C, dancing strings, bouncy passages–it’s all very unlike the somber character of the rest of the piece.  I’ve always just sung it as a hectic madcap race to the ending with some beautiful transitional passages in the middle.  Usually the problem is just being heard above the orchestra.  Well, Maestro Gatti’s spin on that passage is to “sing it with respect.”  I like it — it keeps your enthusiasm in check so you don’t feel like a kid running around in church during a funeral.  I think communicating that respect will come through to the audience.  (We’ll see, once we add the orchestra and the battle for audibility begins.)
  • Reining in the sopranos.  At the quiet point of the Sanctus, the first chorus holds beautiful sustained chords while the second chorus interjects with prolonged Hosannas.  The sopranos tend to dominate this chord simply because of the range of their notes.  He hammered them a few time to sneak up on the note and barely articulate it so that their notes wouldn’t dominate the rest of the parts by virtue of their position in their passaggio.
  • No misterioso.  We started singing through the piece with that first hushed re-qui-em, and Gatti came back to that immediately after our first minute of sing through.  At the time, I thought we had just the right air of mystery and wonder that I’ve put into those notes in the past.  No, no misterioso, he said.  He wants these parts to be very reflective, very internalized, full of sorrowness and sighing.  He told us to get rid of the big rolled R that would normally go there, calling it out of style.
  • Sits and stands.  Maestro Gatti destroyed our sit and stand schedule, which called for us staying up for most of the first two movements, sitting only for the third and sixth movements which are all solo.  No, he wants the more dramatic visual of us leaping up one beat before our big Dies irae reprises and the Rex tremendae majestatis entrance.  We practiced it a few times.  It’s not very natural or conductive for singing dolcissimo, but fortunately none of those passages call for that — they’re all harsh, coarse entrances that favor power over finesse.

Whether you’re coming to hear us this week, or a connoisseur of Verdi, or  performing it yourself in the future, you’ll probably appreciate these touches and how they can shape the chorus for this piece.

Deeper and Deeper into a Colorful Verdi

I’m often amazed at how there’s always something more to get out of a piece, even one that I’m already intimately familiar with like the Verdi Requiem.

First, let’s take the two rehearsals with John Oliver.  In my last post, I talked about how we had focused on the technical aspects of singing the piece under Bill Cutter’s tutelage.  The difference when John stepped up to the podium and began conducting was palpable.  It was immediately clear that we all were doing some lazy singing–or at least lazy interpreting–because John was immediately asking for things just by the way he conducted, and we were able to deliver them.  Even then, though John’s rehearsals were focused on tactical concerns… but it was tactical approaches to getting the emotion into the piece.  Pause here and here…  put a break before this subito piano so that the audience can hear the dynamic jump and the forte passage preceding it doesn’t run over the change.  There’s usually a stentando here, but watch the conductor to find out how he observes it.   That sort of thing.

But when Maestro Gatti took the podium last night, we went a level even deeper, focused a lot on color.  Color is a strange musical term; defined only as the quality of the tone, but it’s so weird to use a visual concept for an audio one–and talking about a “darker” color doesn’t help!  But Gatti made us start several passages over and over again until we got the color just the way he wanted it.  As one bass commented to me on the way back to the rehearsal room, “It’s clear he hears the piece a certain way in his head, and he won’t stop until we match that.”

By the end of Maestro Gatti’s piano rehearsal on Monday night, we had a very specific version of the Verdi Requiem in our heads.  One that is not misterioso (which is how I’m used to singing the Verdi), but instead full of a lingering regret and sorrow.  I think he used the word culpa — as in “sorry” — to describe how we should be singing from the very opening notes.  [Edit: it was, in fact, cupo — meaning dark, somber.] He modified vowels to achieve a certain darkness, often chiding us for very open /i/ and /e/ sounds which came across as too happy or too childlike.  He migrated the triumphant sounding Sanctus movement away from its celebratory nature into one of respect.  He asked for sharp differences in legato and staccato notes to get combinations of contrasting textures.  At one point he reined in the sopranos because their excellently sung high notes were piercing through the rest of the chorus–I didn’t truly notice it until he fixed it.  He was very clear and insightful in his tempi choices.  He would make the text mean something, asking for the repeated request dona (“give [them]”) to be more prayerful and pleading, for instance.  And he did a few really interesting modifications to how we sang as an ensemble to get some magical effects, which I’ll detail in my next post for people familiar with the piece.

We had heard that Gatti had a reputation for demanding precision.  While we saw some of that last night, it wasn’t so much a demand but a promise.  Each one of the Verdi performances I’ve been involved in with other choruses has had a distinct flavor.  I’m very much looking forward to this one!

Critical Reviews of the Brahms

Well, this was another lesson in “don’t put too much stock in the reviewers.”  Our Thursday performance was perhaps one of the better performances I’ve been privileged to be a part of.  Our Friday matinee was also outstanding, though I admit I felt more emotionally connected to the Thursday performance… Fridays was more mechanical, and a little tougher for the chorus to keep the pitch up at the end, no doubt a little vocally weary after singing this twice in 16 hours.

But you wouldn’t believe that based on some of the reviews.

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe had this to say about the chorus:

And of course the hard-working Tanglewood Festival Chorus was in the spotlight for the entire evening. There were a few moments of wayward pitch, but overall these singers achieved a beautifully warm blend and sang from memory with a musical responsiveness that would be gratifying for any conductor. Certainly, as the response made clear, it was gratifying in the hall.

We initially bristled at the characterization of “a few moments of wayward pitch,” but a few chorus members in the audience dutifully confirmed just that: one or two moments of wavering.  Hardly significant, though, and by all accounts did not detract from the full enjoyment of the piece.  If anything, it’s disappointing what the reviewer did NOT mention: the slavish attention to detail with regard to diction and dynamics that produced a clarity of sound rarely heard in any Brahms Requiem performance.

The next Boston-area review, by David Wright of Boston Classical Review, was just a darn shame.  It practically devolved into insulting us.  He *really* didn’t like the performance, calling it “dull” and “a lugubrious miasma.”  And while many of us considered the soprano good but not great,  he held her up as the bright spot…

…on a night characterized by plodding tempos, lax rhythms, congealed orchestral textures, and choral singing that sounded harsh in forte and fuzzy in the softer dynamics.

Mr. Wright also claimed Dohnányi’s performance lacked in Brahmsian energy and warmth, said the Wie lieblich had no gentle sway to it, and claimed the emotional contrasts of the second movement “were grayed out in Dohnányi’s slack, one-tone-fits-all rendering.”  He further writes:

In fact, the entire performance was a cautionary study in how important a firm rhythmic foundation is, no matter what the music’s mood.  Without it, phrases lost shape and direction, ensemble playing grew shaky, crescendos lacked emotional conviction and became just a dialing-up of sound, the chorus’s tone and diction sagged—and, for the listener, minutes began to seem like hours.

To this, most of us say, “Huh?”  It’s hard to understand whether Mr. Wright was in the same Hall as the rest of us.  I could go through and refute each one of his points (except maybe the sagging tone), as each one of them was countered by the specific praise we heard from sharper, more experienced ears than his: non-roster chorus members attending, native speakers who praised our diction, brass at the BSO, orchestra members, and John Oliver himself.  My guess is that he fell into the same issue that I mentioned at the end of a previous blog post: his favorite interpretation of the Brahms Requiem no doubt indulges in more upbeat tempi, more swells, and [hyper]emotional melodrama.  Yet I still can’t explain his characterization of congealed orchestral textures, fuzzy choral singing, and lack of a rhythmic foundation.  Maybe he sat behind a pole or something.  Shrug.

The last review published online was the most spot on, from my ears, and not just because he said nice things.  Joel Schwindt, of the Boston Musical Intelligencer, wrote:

The combined forces offered a sensitive, supple interpretation of the work’s varied textures and temperaments, and the chorus displayed a remarkable unity of concept in their rendition of the Biblical and secular texts. This high level of unification included an impressive rapport between conductor and chorus, conductor and orchestra, and even the less-frequently-found rapport between chorus and orchestra, all of which was well served by the chorus’s memorization of the work.

He said the soloists were the only disappointment of the evening–not because their performances were poor (“executed their parts skillfully and gracefully”) but because they didn’t adapt their light-hearted vocal style sufficiently to meet the gravitas of Brahms.  He cited their backgrounds: Müller-Brachmann came across as if doing a Schubert song-cycle, and Prohaska resembled her colortura opera roles.  I hadn’t thought of this when hearing them, but I’m convinced he’s correct.

He closes with a movement by movement analysis of the performance, complimenting our performance as an ensemble rather than as chorus + orchestra + conductor.  I’d call it all exceedingly accurate and have no real quibbles with his observations and criticisms:

Soloists aside, the ensemble communicated Brahms’s message of “comfort for the living, rather than the beloved departed” (to paraphrase the composer) in a very moving fashion. A small amount of reticence at the opening of the performance completely vanished by the return of the first movement’s opening music, a moment that what was perhaps the most sublime of the entire evening. If the recapitulation of the first movement was the most sublime, then the return of the opening text in the second movement (“Denn alles fleisch es ist wie Grass/Then all flesh is as the grass”) was certainly the most moving. The ensemble offered a very tender rendition of the simply textured fourth movement, and its promise of eternal blessing after death. The sixth movement had its high and low points: the chorus’s staccato articulation at the opening led to a loss of the “horizontal” qualities of the musical and textual line, though the fluidity and intensity of lines that followed created a very effective buildup to the Vivace of the triumphant, “Tod, wo ist dein Sieg?” (Death, where is your victory?) Dohnányi’s choice of tempo in the Vivace was very exhilarating, though it was generally too fast to allow the chorus effectively to articulate of the syntax of the text. All of these issues disappeared, however, in the group’s exuberant rendition of the movement’s closing fugue. The final movement, “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben” (Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord), offered a touching close to the group’s stirring performance.

It’s telling that Mr. Schwindt’s byline gives his credentials as pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis as well as having vocalist and conductor experience.  It shows in his writing and his analysis of the performance.

The Christoph von Dohnányi Brahms Requiem

Okay, okay… THAT was a rehearsal, too.  🙂

Singing yesterday with John was about seeing a familiar face.  Singing tonight was great, but it was hard work.  If yesterday was slipping into a favorite, comfortable pair of slippers, then today was breaking in a new pair of $700 loafers.  (Hat tip to Will for that one.  Also, I clearly don’t spend enough on my shoes.)

So what does the Brahms Requiem according to Maestro Dohnányi sound like?

For one thing, he embraces the concept that this piece is about “philosophy, not belief.”  The German Requiem is more secular in nature than others, given the way it eschews the Latin Mass in favor of vernacular passages from the Luther Bible.  It’s less about the afterlife and those who have died, and more about those of us here now who still live.  That happens to be one of the reasons I really enjoy this Requiem more than some of the others, but I’d never seen that philosophy transferred into the interpretation of the music before.  Christoph’s  overriding direction to us was to make it happy.  Blessed are we who mourn!  We should rejoice in the lives that were led, and embrace those of us still here.  Instead, our tendency has been to sing this like a funeral dirge, with a  lugubrious, dark tone.  Christoph wants none of that, and immediately set to work reversing our somber tone, reminding us that we’re comforting the mourners, reminding them of the good in life.

The other major difference is how particular Maestro is about… well, about everything, really.  The first 10 minutes of rehearsal had us all pretty worried, as Christoph’s correctional slogging, measure by measure, felt like a potential repeat of a long Saturday workout with Maestro Suzuki and the St. John Passion.  He let up a little bit as we settled in, but he still never accepted anything that interfered with the sound he wanted.  (He drilled us basses down to individual poorly tuned notes on one particularly offensive passage.)  I especially liked the way he would have us rehearse the fugues quietly.  Not only did this preserve our voices, it exposed us to flaws in our entrances, pronunciation, note values, and other automatic pilot details that disappear when you’re singing loudly.  It’s definitely a good technique to keep in mind.  (You know, should I ever conduct this piece myself.  Uh-huh.  Right.)

Nowhere was this attention to detail more noticeable than his direction on when dynamics begin and end.  We’ve admittedly gotten a bit lazy on starting and finishing crescendos, and so far we’ve just survived using our musical intelligence to shape the phrase.  But Christoph holds us to what’s printed.  That crescendo you’re making?  It doesn’t start until the third measure.  That decrescendo you didn’t make?  You’ve got to get back down to piano or else you won’t have a place to start the swell in the next two measures.  The whole rehearsal was peppered with corrections like that to what we thought we knew about the ebb and flow of the phrases.

The rest of the differences are really just interesting artistic decisions that zig where previously John zagged.  Like every encounter with great conductors, one walks away with a renewed sense of the textures of the piece, and a new appreciation for passages that might have been swept aside or sung on automatic pilot before. Asking the basses to back off so the altos can be the lead in quiet passages featuring the three lower voices.  Replacing bombastic swells with smarter phrasing that fits the character of the piece.  Emphasizing the counterpoints just as much as the subjects in the fugues.  Changing the basses’ entire fugue entrance from the marcato “Proud, Triumphant!!!”  (written in my score from previous years) to a more reserved, fully legato line that carries through the continuity of the (now much more pronounced) ewigkeit lead in.  Lots of little adjustments like that to alter the textures we’re used to and thereby bring out previously hidden melodies.

It’s… strange, to be tasting the chef’s concoction that has been plated before us.  But he’s a darn good chef, and the requiem he’s serving up tastes fantastic.  I think we all can’t wait to put it all together with the orchestra tomorrow and Wednesday.  Let’s just hope we can keep something in reserve for the actual performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The John Oliver Brahms Requiem

Now, THAT was a rehearsal.

Our chorus had had two weeks of rehearsals with Martin, our rehearsal pianist, and a fine musician and composer on his own… but he’d be the first to admit that he’s not a choral conductor.  If there were questions about interpretation, about specific cutoffs, about rewrites that had been inserted in half the scores (and contradicted in the other half) over the many years of performances, all Martin really had the authority to say was “sing it as written” or “we’ll see what John and Christoph [von Dohnányi] say next week.  As always, those rehearsals were great for [re-]learning the notes and text and fine-tuning or catching up on memorization.  But they barely serve as making music.

Tonight we made music.  Tonight was almost a religious experience for me as we rehearsed down in the chorus room with John Oliver leading us: leaning into the chords and lines, responding to his baton and playing off of his familiar cues, creating a sound that felt fulfilling and rewarding, and making John’s interpretation of the piece come alive.  John even joked about it at one point in the second movement.  He remarked to the basses, “I see you’re familiar with the John Oliver version of this Requiem, because you didn’t do the diminuendo until the last syllable of abgefallen, which is how I like it.”  Oh, we stopped to fix things when they needed to be fixed.  The connectivity of the movements was interrupted by the necessity of mundane comments like “At rehearsal letter K, the baritones should double the tenors” or “What are the tenors singing in the second system”  or “Altos, take out the rest that’s marked and finish with the lower voices so that the subito piano… you know, the one the sopranos aren’t doing (laughter)… comes through.”  He even brought up a debate about whether the “hairpins” written into our scores were accurate, as recent editors were suggesting those swells should be over the entire measure.  It didn’t matter.  For me, pausing for those adjustments did not diminish the feeling of accomplishment just from being a part of that rehearsal.

But what made this non-performance such a special experience for me?  Well, having sung this piece with John once at MIT in the early 90’s, and once out at Tanglewood almost a decade later, I’ve internalized “John’s version of the piece” as my own.  It makes it distracting to listen to any other version, recorded or live, because a tempo will be different, a dynamic won’t be there, a certain character or tone won’t be present… fundamental decisions by the conductor and the choir can create discordances within my memory of “how it’s supposed to go.”  Like hearing a different comedian tell a joke you know — still the same joke, but the retelling of the story, the timing of the punchline, can make the joke unrecognizable or even not funny.

On the drive down this evening, I told my wife, “I will bet you dollars to donuts that John stops us to tell us three things tonight, because we’re not doing them yet.”  Those three things:

  1. He will make a pained look on his face and say “shh shh shh” in the recapitulation of the 4th movement, finally stopping us to say that this second occurrence of the Wie lieblich theme must be “absolutely pianissimo.”
  2. He will make us go back and repeat a very important agogic accent at the end of the Die loben dich immerdar section in the transition to the subito piano because we’re plowing through it without any separation.
  3. He will tell us that the opening of the sixth movement needs to sound like we’re exhausted, like we’re trudging home from work after a long day, carrying a huge burden.

Bingo.  John said all of these things, almost verbatim.  My wife shot me a smile across the room after each one of them.  To be fair, John painted a slightly different picture on the third point–he did use the word “trudging” but he described it as “several overweight pallbearers marching along carrying a coffin with another overweight man inside.”  It’s an amusing mental image, but it’s an important point to convey — that part of the piece is supposed to drive home the human side of the requiem equation, the “this is our place on Earth and we’re pushing through our days here hoping that our work before we die makes it a better place.”

There were many other familiar dynamics, phrases that John motioned to bring out from the texture, ritardandos in all the places I’m expecting them, gestures to tenors and altos on certain sections that are quintessential moments for him… and remind me that yes, THIS is the version of the Brahms Requiem I enjoy.  This rehearsal was my one and only performance of it this year.

Because that’s the shame of it all, really.  Starting tomorrow, at the piano rehearsal, Maestro Dohnányi will begin shaping us to his version of the Brahms Requiem.  I’m sure it will be glorious… full of subtlety and majesty, musically intelligent, and conveying his retelling of perhaps Brahms’ greatest work.  John will reconvene with us in the rehearsal room, and remind us of what Christoph wanted here, and advise us to watch his stentando on this cadence and an accelerando going into a fugue that we hadn’t seen before… and, as always, we will shape ourselves to deliver on a new vision.  We will embody the decisions that Christoph asks for, and I will love singing every minute of it.

But it won’t be my favorite version.

More Lob Than Ever Gesang Before

I wrote the following article for the Winter/Spring 2012 TFC Newsletter; now that it’s published I can share it here.  I love writing these!  My last one, for last year’s TFC Newsletter, was on Oedipus Rex.

A good story has exposition, complication, a climax, dénouement, and subsequent resolution. Lobgesang is not a good story. We praised, we re-praised, we reprised the praise, and maybe even re-praised the reprise. Who knew thanking the Lord could border on monotony? Fortunately, through the guidance of John Oliver and the stewardship of choir-favorite Bramwell Tovey, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus added the color and character to bring this magnificent work to life.

Mendelssohn composed this symphony-cantata in 1840 for a festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of the printing press blah blah blah blah. You’ve skipped this paragraph already, haven’t you. You can learn this piece’s background from any of the published reviews or even Wikipedia. So never mind all that historical context—what’s it like to actually learn and sing a piece that the BSO has only performed twice before in its 131 years?

Learning anything for the winter season’s January choral performance is often fraught with peril. It’s difficult to truly devote time to studying music when you’re competing with the assembly line production of Holiday Pops concerts. This year was no exception. What was particularly dastardly, however, is how deceptively simple the piece looked from a casual glance through the score. Hmmm, let’s see… straightforward German, all tonal, predictable harmonic progressions, no crazy rhythms or key changes, reasonable dynamics, some pianissimo singing under the soloists… no problem! Just a few fugues to hash through. The score thus dismissed, we enjoyed our holidays, and set good ol’ Felix aside.

And then the panic started to settle in.

This is actually hard, went the whispers. With no subtlety or obvious dramatic tension in the piece, there were few landmarks (earmarks?) to help us memorize. Familiar passages quoted from Elijah only added to the confusion. And the fugues… oh the fugues. Straightforward enough, yet devilishly irregular—lose your place and you risked a solo entrance. Worse, once you fell off the fugue train, it was pretty tough to get a ticket back on. We began to appreciate the complexity of the simplicity. No, this was not as difficult as the Missa Solemnis, as nervous February roster members would agree. Nevertheless, it was all too easy to underestimate the effort required not only to memorize but also to internalize this Hymn of Praise.

Then there was the matter of singing technique. Where was the line between fortissimo and shouting? How could we overcome the plodding stomp, stomp, stomp of the rather blocky rhythms? How often would we make Livia Racz cringe by forgetting to schwa our unaccented German syllables? We tackled each of these challenges from the very first rehearsals. John urged us to preserve the melodic line of each phrase. Our goal, he told us, was less about volume and power and more about color and tone (and diction!) That said, at times we’d still need to summon a sonorous joy and send it to the back of the Hall, such as when chasing away die Nacht in the triumphant 7th movement.

Choristers who sang for Maestro Tovey in the Berkshires for last summer’s Porgy & Bess often gushed about how great he was to work with: personable, musically knowledgeable, and able to clearly communicate what sound he wanted from us. Those of us experiencing Tovey for the first time were not disappointed. He immediately set to work identifying the moments of drama that were hidden in plain sight, and gave us concrete tempo and dynamics adjustments to highlight them. He added personality to the pedestrian, directing us with words like “warmth” and “beautiful” and “prayerful.” He challenged us to embody the reverence and joy and relief from pain that lay beneath the surface of the text. And he did it all with a wink and a laugh that quickly earned the fierce loyalty of the whole chorus. One couldn’t help but want to sing for him and to deliver what he asked from us. We became committed to his vision of the piece, long before he endeared himself to the group at Saturday’s winter chorus party by joining the jazz band and hitting the dance floor.

Come performance time, Maestro Tovey continued his outstanding leadership at the podium. He was animated, demonstrative, and inviting in his conducting. At no time did the chorus really feel we were competing with the orchestra’s sound, with Tovey holding the reins. Through it all, we successfully captured and conveyed the piece’s character and intensity. While opening night may have felt a little tight, our subsequent efforts really did bring out a balanced mixture of radiant praise and emotional subtlety, on the shoulders of well-articulated text and strong singing technique.

Boston area critics were complimentary in their reviews, and our audiences were resoundingly enthusiastic in their acceptance. However, the all-too-numerous empty seats in the hall may have doomed this rather unknown piece to the archives for several more decades. Perhaps its unusual format or single-minded purpose have condemned Lobgesang to unpopularity. Regardless of its acceptance at large, we as a chorus were grateful to have an opportunity to add our voices to its song of praise, praise, and yet more praise.