Tag Archives: Verdi Requiem

What to expect in this Verdi Requiem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choir dynamics and hula hoops

Performing a piece like the Verdi Requiem is an exercise in extremes. To meet those extremes, the chorus must stay closely connected — a tough exercise that’s reminiscent of a frustrating hula hoop team building exercise.

Verdi, embracing the Italian stereotype, composes everything over-dramatically using severe contrasts. (You can almost see him wildly gesticulating with his hands about how loud or how soft he wants each section to be.) When first performed, critics said his Requiem was too much like one of his operas instead of a sacred piece. Look at any part of the score and you’ll probably see the chorus told to sing either pianissimo or fortissimo.  Sometimes even ppp or fff.  Sometimes even ppppp!  And even then there are internal gradations… it may say pp in one phrase, but then say düster (darker, more melancholy) or “a little less so” or some other direction in color or tone to show yet another contrast.  And don’t get me started on the subito piano moments when you suddenly drop from loud to an intense quiet.

Loud is relatively easy for a choir to do together. The tricky part is to not oversing and to listen to each other rather than “leading.”  The conductor then balances the orchestra volume (because when it’s orchestra vs. chorus, the orchestra can always win.)

But quiet… quiet is another matter entirely, especially given the heavy orchestral scoring which often features lots of brass.  It’s way too easy to sing, as some have jokingly called it, mezzofortissimo.  Yeah, you know this is supposed to be quiet, but hey, I can barely hear myself over others, so maybe a little louder… a little louder… until those dynamic contrasts are washed away by a middling volume.

It reminds me of the hula hoop team building exercise I mentioned. Now when I say “team building,” what I really mean is “team shattering,” because the first stage of the exercise usually devolves into everyone yelling at each other. Everyone stands in a circle and holds out pointer fingers, and a moderator balances a hula hoop on them. The goal is to lower the hoop as far as possible, without it ever losing contact with a teammate’s fingers. In practice, what happens is the hoop keeps getting higher and higher because you always feel like someone else (the singers next to you, the orchestra) is going higher than you, and you feel compelled to correct for it.

The only way to successfully get the hoop lower is to work together, to trust that others are doing what they’re asked to do, and to communicate and coordinate clearly.  What a coincidence – that’s how to maintain a pianissimo against the desire to produce a louder sound.

During our chorus’s initial piano rehearsal of the week, it felt like many of our pp‘s had become mp’s and that we weren’t getting enough contrast. But by the first orchestra rehearsal, we achieved the feat of being told we were too quiet for one passage. (The solution was not to sing louder; rather, Andris Nelsons held back the orchestra even further.) We have plenty of other places, however, where our mezzofortissimo is showing. That means more ensemble work needed before Saturday to get that hula hoop moving in the right direction.

 

The Half-Blood Prince’s Verdi Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.