Just before the Holiday Pops season began, we had our first run through rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. It was an unusual combination of dissatisfying, worrisome, and a savory whetting of the appetite for the piece.
This piece has an odd place in my heart, because it was the first time I ever sang with the BSO in Symphony Hall (despite having already been in the chorus for several years beforehand.) I was given the green light to rejoin the full roster after a reaudition. I found myself unceremoniously added as a last minute walkon to the Oedipus Rex roster. I showed up to the first rehearsal having never heard the piece, as regulars on the roster had received music and a rehearsal recording about a month beforehand. Not my preference for being introduced to a new piece! It was a jumble of sight-reading notes and text and trying to keep up with John Oliver and the other choristers (who also may or may not have looked at the piece much beforehand.)
The piece itself is more difficult to memorize than others we’ve performed. The text is in Latin (thankfully… no crazy Russian from Les Noces) but not any standard liturgical Latin such as a Mass or a Requiem. On top of that, there are many irregular repetitions of text, syncopations, and hemiolas which surprise the unwary. Simply put, you just have to know it cold!
In any case, John Oliver was not available for this rehearsal so it was more of a read through than anything else. Which is always a bit disappointing… while Martin is an excellent rehearsal pianist, it’s difficult to play AND conduct AND give corrective advice beyond notes and rhythms. And that’s one of the reasons I like this chorus so much… less focus on learning notes, more focus on singing properly and capturing the essence of a piece. It also was tough because any question about “where do you want us to breathe” and the like becomes “I don’t know what he’ll want, why don’t you wait for John at the next rehearsal.” To be fair, though, for our first rehearsal, it was helpful to just get comfortable with the piece.
That’s partially what made the rehearsal worrisome… hoo boy, there’s a lot of text. When I performed this with this chorus in 2006, we ended up actually using the scores on stage because our performance at the piano rehearsal was so mediocre and enough of us obviously didn’t know it well enough to be off book. It was a tough decision and one that I think led to stricter rules coming down the next year about having a piece truly memorized. So there’s a lot to chew on here.
Finally, though, it was gratifying to be with more than just a CD while singing the piece. You get into the spirit of things much more when you’re actually in the rehearsal room and physically singing among the rest of the men, learning where the trouble spots are, and hearing how the blend is going to sound. I’m really excited to revisit this piece again, and I hope it’s as rewarding as it was in 2006.