“How many of you have sung this more than 10 times before?” asked our assistant conductor Bill Cutter in the middle of our second weekend rehearsal. A good 30+ hands shot up of the hundred or so choristers assembled. “And that’s the problem,” Bill said with a grimace. He admonished us (correctly) that too many of us were mailing it in, and not seeking that deep connection we need to have with the music. Bill did an admirable job not letting us sit back on our haunches and forced us to reconnect with the text and the meaning behind it. We needed a little flexibility, because Bill’s direction didn’t always match what the grizzled veterans were used to for this piece.
That’s going to be incredibly important, because every performance of the Brahms is very different. And we don’t really know what to expect heading into Monday night’s piano rehearsal with Maestro Tovey.
My wife sang with Tovey for the chorus’s performance of Porgy and Bess. Neither of us sang with him for his return to the chorus with Candide this summer, though everyone raved about what a fantastic performance it was. Tovey certainly has a flair for turning musicals into crowd-pleasing concerts. I was fortunate enough to sing with Tovey for the Lobgesang, and see a bit more of his joie de vivre at the chorus holiday party afterwards. He was the life of the party even before the afterparty, because on the podium, Tovey is full of positive energy, humor, and gusto. Here’s what I wrote back then:
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.
It’s hard to imagine the happy-go-lucky, musical showmanship of Tovey applied to a Requiem. But this isn’t a sad Requiem… it’s a celebration of the living. It’s a service for the living, not the deceased. It’s victory and power and mocking death’s inability to triumph in the end. It’s reflective peacefulness and the blessings of your friends and family that let you keep carrying on.
So I fully expect Maestro Tovey to take us on quite a journey. Where Maestro Dohnányi was about philosophy and precision, Tovey will almost certainly be about color and emotion. Though they’ll both share the same directive: to rejoice in our lives even as we comfort the mourners.