Unfamiliarizing Ourselves with the Mozart Requiem

If you spend many years singing choral classical music, you are destined to sing certain pieces in the repertoire.  The Brahms Requiem.  Handel’s Messiah (or at least the Hallelujah chorus).  The Verdi Requiem.  Carmina Burana.  The Mozart Mass in C minor.  These pieces, among many, are the chestnuts that form the framework of every “summer sing” — ad hoc local events where choristers show up, often with own scores in hand, to  rehearse a piece briefly before singing through it with professional soloists and piano accompaniment.  Those pieces work for summer sings because “everyone knows them.”

Next week I’m singing the Mozart Requiem with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  The Mozart Requiem is another one from that list.   I should probably be annoyed that I’m singing it again — except that like all those others, it’s such a damn good piece that I’d never turn down an opportunity to sing it in a professional setting.  But, just like the Brahms Requiem or Carmina Burana, there’s always an adjustment period because you think you know it so well that you should be able to show up and sing it, like another summer sing.  As one fellow chorister put it, “My favorite Mozart Requiem is one where you just join the choir to sing it memorized at the orchestra rehearsal, one day before singing it with them in the concert.”

Right now our chorus conductor du jour is the esteemed James Bagwell, who has the unenviable task of getting singers who are on cruise control to grab the wheel.  The good news is that, through a series of four two-hour rehearsals, he’s done just that.  With techniques such as asking everyone to pulse each note or sing everything staccato, he’s forced rhythmic sloppiness into the light.  (“Don’t fall in love with your voice, fall in love with the rhythm!”)  He’s given us our own copies of the score with his markings on it, so we know what he wants for consonant cutoffs, accents, and phrase-shaping.  He’s moved quiet passages from piano, to pianissimo, to his goal of “pianissimo with intensity.”  He’s asked for senza vibrato — “don’t think of it as punitive, even though it makes sopranos angry” — to fix tuning and make us use it more deliberately as an ornament.   After sing throughs, he repeats moments as duets, so basses and altos echoing each other, or tenors and sopranos who have a similar theme, can listen and adjust.  He once stated that he wanted us to become “the world’s largest string quartet.”  Finally, he arranged seating so that no one is sitting next to someone singing the same part – and has successfully argued for Andris Nelsons to keep us hashed.  That’s scarier for the few people who haven’t sung the piece before (and there are several — everyone has a first time!) but welcomed by veterans.

The result is that for the first time that I’ve sung this piece, I feel like I’m actually listening more to the other voices than my own part.  That’s always a sign to me of mastery in any group setting, from World of Warcraft raids to cooperative board games – the Matrix moment when you can escape the tunnel vision on your role, and see how everything fits together.  To my ears we’re coming across as a more unified ensemble, with the playful interplay of counterpoints much more pronounced in fugal passages.  I’m taking on complex runs of sixteenth notes by listening to the half measure of sopranos beforehand and interlocking with their rhythm rather than insisting on my own timing.  I’m imagining interjections as a call and response to other parts who precede me.

One might argue that I should be doing these things for any piece, and I would agree. But when you know any piece of music well – be it a choral chestnut, piano sonata, favorite Hamilton track, or The Star-Spangled Banner – you take a lot of things for granted.  Many of us could walk onto a stage and sing the Brahms / Verdi / Mozart Requiem tomorrow and give a high quality performance.  Finding that focus, though, by having some details to pay attention to, can elevate the performance to that next level.  Andris will undoubtedly change some things as he distills the soul of the composer in his own inimitable fashion, but now we are awake.  And we are prepared precisely because we have unfamiliarized ourselves with the piece.

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