Tag Archives: TFC

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.

Critical reviews of the Lobgesang

The two usual commenters on our performance these days are the Boston Globe’s and the Boston Classical Review website.  Both did not disappoint with what I felt were accurate and insightful reviews.  Both caught on to the fact that, while this piece is magnificent in scale, its compositional form limits it.  They both also noted that, while our Chorus performed quite well, we were still missing a certain something.

I will say that our Friday performance exceeded our Thursday one — no doubt because we became yet more comfortable with the technicalities of the music (entrances, dynamics, fugues) so we could throw more weight toward the emotional connection as well as the melodic lines, and not sound quite so harsh.  I bet Saturday’s and Tuesday’s performances are even better!  Assuming anyone comes to them — the hall was half empty again on Friday.

Some of Jeremy Eichler’s comments from the Boston Globe:

Last night Symphony Hall had many empty seats, whether due to the unusual repertoire or the prospect of another substitute conductor. It was a pity because Tovey led a swift and sure-footed performance of the work, largely true to its Romantic heft, but never at risk of collapsing beneath the weight of its own grandiloquence.

There were times one wished he managed transitions with a bit more dramatic flair or harnessed the work’s rhetorical force to greater cumulative effect, but there were pleasures to be found in the constitutive parts.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus unleashed a robust and joyful noise at its first entrance, and by and large sustained its potent energy.  […]  The work ends without any grand Beethovian apotheosis, but last night the chorus still found plenty to celebrate in the arrival of dawn.

David Wright echoed some of these comments in his Boston Classical Review:

Even a beautifully polished and committed performance by the orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and three capable vocal soloists under the direction of Bramwell Tovey (substituting for the indisposed Riccardo Chailly) couldn’t quite make the case for this musical miscellany as a coherent symphonic work.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with its usual precision, but its sound sometimes went uncharacteristically hard and blatant, as if it were trying to kick some life into Mendelssohn’s chronically short, square phrases.

Privately, there seems to be a consensus from choristers and their attending guests that the piece just doesn’t quite hang together, and that our exuberance sometimes toed the line between fortissimo and “shouty.”  With no subtlety or dramatic tension short of the Watchman-to-Dawn transition, there’s not much to hang your hat on besides making sure your sound reaches the back row.   I do feel we’re finding some of those subtleties and will continue to bring them out in the remaining performances.  Assuming we survive — Tovey may kill us all on these fugues, as they’ve gotten a little faster with each performance.

Thoughts on Lobgesang performance

Yesterday was our first of four performances of Mendelssohn’s symphony-cantata Lobgesang.  (It’s a symphony… no it’s a cantata… no it’s both!)

So how did we do?  Quite well.  We did a remarkable job of capturing the piece’s character and intensity, though I suspect there’s still more we can find in ourselves to give it over the remaining performances.

Maestro Tovey continued his outstanding stewardship at the podium.  He was kinetic, demonstrative, and inviting — but most importantly, consistent.  Consistent with the tempi and the cues and in the feeling he was trying to evoke from us as an orchestra and chorus.  I did think that one of the fugal passages started off a touch fast, almost as if he was daring us to keep up with him, but all in all there were no surprises.

The soloists were impressive — especially the way the two sopranos, Carolyn Sampson and Camilla Tilling.  I can only assume, when soloists like them are selected, that they are chosen not only for their availability and their skill, but also for how well they match each other for a duet like the cantata’s fifth movement.  John Tessier was pretty much what I expected from a tenor in this role – technically accurate, strong delivery, and capturing some of the pleading that’s built into his movements (which, given their nature, provide the work’s only counter to the “praise” theme.)

Our sound as a chorus was full and luscious, reaching to the back of a (disappointingly half empty) hall.  At no time did I feel we were competing with the orchestra for volume.  My throat’s a little sore this morning, so I have to wonder if I still may have been oversinging despite my best efforts to produce an efficient sound.  My singing felt good while I was up there.   Technically, I know we basses had a few shaky parts on some of the fugues where uncertainty pulled back our volume or made a weak entrance, but it was nothing serious and likely not noticeable in the heavy counterpoints we were wading through.  The highlight of the piece remains the Die Nacht ist vergangen! 7th movement as we transition from night into daylight, and we really did nail the a capella chorale that immediately follows it — nuanced, heartfelt singing that carried a prayerful, reflective tone.

We still have more to give, however.  Some of the color and character of the piece that we brought out in rehearsals was still not captured in our performance as well as I’d hoped.  The fugues are still a little pedestrian sometimes, losing some of the pleasantry of the counterpoint and melodic line in favor of the plodding thump, thump, thump needed to get through them correctly.  I think we can get more pathos in the fourth movement and, yes, even in the chorale, where details like a subtle swell on the word Gott didn’t come through to my ears.  I think there’s still a minuscule barrier in our heads that we need to overcome, because of the late memorization — that if we all can truly internalize the music and stop worrying about what’s next, what’s next, that we can break through to an even higher echelon of performance.  Mind you, there’s only so much you can do with this piece given its monologue of praise, praise, praise.  Hopefully, though, it won’t be another 24 years before it’s performed again!

 

Rehearsals and Pre-rehearsals

Rehearsal on Wednesday morning was short and sweet — we didn’t even need the afternoon session, so I enjoyed the rest of the day off from work.  Maestro Tovey was, as expected, very efficient and entertaining.  A few jokes here, some clear direction to the orchestra and to the choir, and repeating short or tricky passages a few times to make sure he was getting the sound or the effect he wanted.  Again, there’s nothing particularly tricky about this piece except the memorizing.

Unfortunately, I think we’re all as a choir still a little behind on the memorization.  Some people are still flipping through their books to check things (guilty!) and in a couple instances, we’d drop out of the fugue in confusion.  Once you fall off the fugue train, it’s hard to get a ticket to get back on!  And if someone next to you is suddenly unsure, that may make you unsure, which makes the guy next to you unsure…  yet another reason why singing is really about confidence.  Confidence and breathing, and the rest will follow.

That aphorism about confidence and breathing is what I plan to tell 300 high school kids this morning.  Thursday morning is an open rehearsal where we’ll run the piece for a small crowd, before opening night tonight.  The chorus manager asked a good friend from the chorus (Laura Sanscartier) and I to participate in a pre-rehearsal talk for those high school kids, a task which we happily agreed to.  What?  You want us stage-loving, no-shame, happy-go-lucky people to talk to a bunch of students about how much we love singing?  SOLD!  It was only after we agreed that we found out that Maestro Tovey will be on the panel with us as well.  We’re both pretty excited about the opportunity!  Though I suspect I won’t be able to keep up with Tovey’s jokes.

 

Picking up some of the color

Ahhh… that’s better.

Maestro Tovey was every bit as wonderful as I had heard he would be at tonight’s rehearsal.  He immediately put us all at ease with a few jokes. “Well, it’s an unexpected pressure to conduct this piece with you,” he opened, given that he was only announced as the replacement conductor a few months ago.  Then, with a look around our cramped rehearsal room, he commented, “Only the best for you, I see.”  As our laughter subsided, he mentioned that it felt like this was one  of those tunnels the Americans dug to hide from the English.  “Well, it didn’t work — I’m here.”

I was pleased to hear his initial comments on the piece, which echoed my earlier thoughts on the singular theme of this Symphony-Cantata.  This was a piece about praise, praising the Lord… and not really room for much else, he commented.  But rather than lament its focus, he pointed out that there was still some drama and some color to be found in its pages, such as in the mystery and dark of the 4th movement.  “So let’s go through and see if we can’t pick up some of this color here and there and bring it to life.”

His conducting style is very animated yet very clear.  He urges us on in the fugal passages; he beckons us to stay with him through tempo changes; he winces and shushes us if we’re too loud.  He gives us some further adjustments to match his plans for ritards and other places where he takes some time.  Some conductors are more concerned about the orchestra, but I have little doubt he’ll be breathing with us and offering us our cues throughout the performance.

Most of all, he added personality to what was in danger of becoming a stomp-it-out sort of piece.  He directs us with words like “warmth” and “beautiful” and “prayerful.”  He tells us that our pianissimo should be “quiet enough that people could talk over it,” which I just love as a concrete direction to follow.  He apologized about “not wanting to get all religious on us,” and then went there anyways, asking us to internalize a reverence and a joy and a relief at being delivered from the hell alluded to by the soloist in movement 6.  He spends extra moments on some passages, urging us to swell dynamically just a bit on words like Trübsal (affliction), almost as if it hurt us to talk about it.  After all, he pointed out, if you’re going to tell someone about your being saved from an affliction, you’re not beaming as you relate the story.

Throughout all this great direction, he kept up the one-liners.  An aggressive /tzt/ at the end of setzt saw him pretend to wipe the spit from his eye, then commend us on our diligence in getting all the consonants out, but could we swallow that instinct?  “Your individual contribution will be appreciated so much more.”  When the basses didn’t agree on a high note, he characterized our singing as “blend-free.”  Just a laugh a minute… with the effect of loosening us up, getting us to pay attention — no, more than that — getting us to want to help him out by following his directions and giving him what he asked for.  We were clearly on the same team, and suddenly I found myself as fiercely loyal and committed to the character he wants to invoke and the performance he wants us to collaborate on together.  It’s no wonder everyone raved about him for Porgy and Bess.  Who wouldn’t want to sing for this man?

Book Report Extension

Last night’s rehearsal was like showing up at school,  looking hangdog, because you didn’t finish the book report that was due today — only to find that you have a substitute teacher who will let you spend the day finishing up that report.  That’s because John Oliver was sick, meaning one of the rehearsal pianists (the very capable Martin Amlin) ran the rehearsal.  It’s almost as if John knew that we might as a whole be having a little trouble.  Banging out the notes with Martin was just what the doctor ordered for helping us collectively catch up on our memorization.  There were many scores open, leading to many furtive and not-so-furtive glances at them, as we meticulously pounded through each movement at least twice.  Even though individually many of us were shaky, as a unit the chorus sounded quite strong.

Martin doesn’t have as much built-in authority as John when he’s up at the podium, which in the past has sometimes led to some unfortunate substitute teacher type rehearsals–people talking, people contradicting him, that sort of thing.  Plus, he can’t contribute the subtleties that a John can to bring out the sound we’re looking for as a chorus.  None of that mattered yesterday as our goal was not connecting the lines or making a beautiful sound, it was which entrance goes where?  When is the subito piano marking?  Is that cut-off on beat three or four?

This Lobgesang has turned out to be surprisingly challenging to learn.  It’s not hard to sing while looking at the score — there are no difficult intervals, no challenging runs, no confusing entrances.  In fact, that’s the problem.  The text, the fugues, the entrances all sort of swirl together in your head.  Everything is mostly regular, except when it’s not, so you need to commit to memory that this rhythm is straight but that rhythm has the sixteenth syncopation, but it’s on an unstressed syllable so you can’t punch it, but this other one needs an accent or it won’t be heard at all… and we haven’t even made it to competing with the orchestra yet (that comes Wednesday!)  So I think many of us have gained an unfortunate new appreciation for the complexity that is the simplicity of Mendelssohn’s writing.

Tonight (Tuesday night) we’ll have a piano rehearsal with Maestro Tovey.  I did not have the opportunity to work with him for Porgy and Bess.  My wife did, and has been gushing to me about how great he is to work with — personable and musically knowledgeable and knows how to get the sound he wants from us.  I’m looking forward to it.  Holiday Pops is basically a factory assembly line with Keith Lockhart, given the number of concerts we do and the relative ease of the pieces.  Other conductors we’ve worked with recently have all been good, but I wouldn’t describe any of them in the glowing terms that I’ve heard for Maestro Tovey.  I hope he lives up to my now heightened expectations!