Category Archives: TFC

Learning to Accept

When I was young and had just started exploring classical music, I had a tape of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I played to within an inch of its life.  I loved the word painting and rollicking cadenzas, the cheerful harpsichord that put the movement in the movements, and the contrasts in tempo and tone from one season to another.  Recently, remembering how much I loved that recording, I went to get a more modern equivalent from iTunes.

I couldn’t — wouldn’t — buy one.

I listened to excerpts and all of them were different.  This one was too fast; this one was draggy.  Another version’s okay, except the violin is doing something crazy that I don’t recognize.  The harpsichord isn’t even playing arpeggios in this one.  I didn’t realize how much of that work is left up to the interpretation of the conductor and the soloist and the continuo.  I couldn’t accept that my version was not the version — even if it was the version for me.  Until I accept another interpretation — or figure out where that tape came from — I may never buy a recording!

Which brings us to the Tanglewood concert that my wife and I are participating in next weekend, where we’ll be singing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and the popular Carmina Burana by Orff.  (You know Carmina, even if you think you don’t… it’s everywhere. )  The Ravel isn’t an issue for me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever sung it, let alone memorized our small contribution, so I have had no preconceived notions… just a fear of knowing when to ahhh and when to ohhh, whether a 5/4 measure is next, and how long the rest is before our next entrance.

Carmina Burana, however, is a problem.

I’ve performed Carmina Burana in four concert runs now, twice from memory.  Some chorus members have many more.  My wife and I even have our favorite version — the time we both sang with Rafael Frübeck de Burgos at Symphony Hall.  “FdB” has a very specific vision for the piece which we embraced.  He really distinguishes his version, thanks in part to some quirky tempo changes — for instance, how he asks the chorus to almost ashamedly gossip-sing about the “errant brethren” and “dispersed monks” while In Taberna, or the sudden switch to double-time to create the “bursting out all over” lover’s fast heartbeat in Tempus es iocundum.  He truly gives it that bawdy, irreverent character that it needs.  I have a recording of that performance, and it’s my gold standard for the piece.

And that … that makes this particular performance much harder.  Now we’re singing it with a new conductor, whom we’ll meet next week.  And, we’ve been prepared by Betsy Burleigh, one of the chorus directors auditioning to replace John Oliver after his retirement last year.  Betsy’s intensity contrasts dramatically with John’s more laissez-faire style, and that’s been an adjustment for the entire chorus.  My “aha” observation is that in rehearsals, our chorus likes to learn, but doesn’t like to be taught.  John concerned himself more with the character and tone of our singing, and figured we’d work out most of the details on our own or with the conductor.  (He also generally hates Carmina Burana for its bombast and general lack of subtlety.)  Betsy prefers to establish an agreed-upon baseline landscape of diction and rhythm.  Once we have consensus on those boundaries as a chorus, we can then maneuver however the conductor wants to shape the piece.  Adding to the cognitive dissonance: since Carmina Burana is a weird mixture of Latin and German, there’s debate for each performance on whether a word like “quod” is pronounced /kwohd/ or /kvot/.  Betsy delivered a comprehensive and internally consistent pronunciation guide, but it disagrees with what most of us have previously memorized. So she’s had to deprogram us from old habits with some very detailed drilling.

Frankly, we could probably use the drilling, because that uniformity of sound and diction hasn’t really been a hallmark of our chorus over the last decade.  I can’t remember the last time we took a piece apart this thoroughly and then reassembled it.  We held five pre-residency rehearsals instead of the usual two or three – and we’re not even technically memorizing for this performance.  Sure there’s been grumbling, but by the final rehearsal we sounded so much better than the initial one, that I think it was worth it.  Betsy challenged us not to mail it in.  Once we learn to accept that, and accept her, and accept that there’s no John or FdB here, and accept that the chorus is transforming into something new…  then we can return to inspiring a picnic-crowded lawn.

In the end, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to sing the praises of fate, lust, springtime, and drinking heavily… regardless of whether I successfully shake off the instinct to rhyme crescis and dissolubilis with the English word “peace” instead of “hiss.”  We’ve been here before: that jarring cognitive dissonance when faced with a new interpretation happens every time.  And we’ve had guest chorus conductors shake us out of complacency for the Brahms Requiem, and we’ve had conductors take us for wild spins too.  Learning to accept is hard.  Leadership changes are hard.  But complacency won’t get us to the sort of memorable performance that makes me save a tape for decades.

Thoughts midway through a Mahler 2 Final Rehearsal

Man, do I love this piece. And that’s even before we sing a single note.

I’m currently sitting on the risers as we do a final full run through of Mahler’s 2nd, the “Resurrection Symphony.” Since we only sing at the end of the final movement, it’s a bit annoying to “practice sitting on stage” like we will for four performances (Thursday, Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Tuesday). But it means the best seats in the house for an extra performance.

First of all, what a spectacle. Two harps. A percussion section with two timpani players, bells, a huge drum, a snare drum, and an array of other effects. An organ that only plays at the very very end – the organist spends even more time waiting than we do! A long pause between the first two movements to “clear the palate” from a heavy, hero’s journey and death as we transition to an airy 2nd movement ending with the most beautiful extended pizzicato string section you’ll ever hear. Then the crazy third movement marches through with its sudden outbursts of brass. Then the most beautiful interlude as one of the soloists takes the stage for her brief homage in a short expressive moment that almost brings tears to my eyes every time. Then the crazy final movement, with players slinking off stage so they can play the distant horn calls and the ominous sound of the approaching army, contrasting the meter and character of the tense on stage scene. A beautiful tuba + trombone quintet.

Oh, and then we get to sing, too.

And do we ever! The quietest sound you can imagine, a breath of air from departed souls over the quiet of an empty battlefield. But by the end, the loudest any of us can possibly sing, in a bombastic barrage of sound that washes over the audience. We Will Rise Again, yes! We Will Rise Again!

Maestro Dohanyi has been customarily brutal in rehearsals. There’s no other way to say it: he is “fussbudget” and has no qualms about making us sing the same passage a twentieth time because on the nineteenth time he felt the /st/ of unsterblich was right on the beat and he had asked us to make it a little late. The result is an exasperated chorus that sings at a higher level and doesn’t treat this as a mail it in performance. The Dutch, they use every part of the German word. Each /l/, each /f/, each /ich/ better be there or we hear about it.

But above all that, he wants us to tell the story. To transcend the music and notes twelfth and communicate this message of hope and triumph. I think we are almost there.

Oops! Time to sing. Hope I can hit a low b flat after sitting for an hour

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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.

Self-Review: Verdi Requiem Opening Night

Our opening night performance was everything we wanted it to be: powerful, emotional, and expressive.  It was a night to be quite proud of.

The chorus achieved everything we set out to do — we stayed locked in on Maestro Gatti’s direction the whole time.  We got that cupa hollowness in the beginning.  We expanded ourselves as instruments to get the Hall-shattering triple-f for the Dies Irae.  We made the soft parts very personal to us.  We delivered and fulfilled the vision in Maestro’s head.

Some moments really gave me chills.  The climactic crescendo of the Tuba mirum, for instance, delivered on its promise of the trumpet-scattering tombs.  The Sanctus double fugue was tidy and, yes, respectful, and the final fugue was forcefully delivered with authority.  And for some reason, the second dona eis requiem verse of the fifth movement really hit home.  It felt like the most intimate, genuine supplication  to the heavens, a prayer begging for acknowledgement.

Maestro Gatti had even more surprises for us in the performance — we had to stay super-focused on him the entire time to watch for the occasional rubato or accelerando so we could stay with him.  He put in yet even more of these for dramatic effect — he was so physically and emotionally invested in communicating to us what he wanted that his every move had meaning.  As such, we were able to respond to a finger raise as much as a ginormous punch into the air.   He was not shy in reminding us of his requests from rehearsals and coaching us further mid-performance.  I hadn’t realized that he had the entire score memorized and could therefore conduct from the podium with the same attention and freedom to react that we had.  What a difference it made.

What, if anything, could be criticized?  Afterwards, a chorister jokingly referred to “the five soloists on stage,” meaning that Maestro Gatti was so demonstrative up there that he may have been stealing the show.  Would you believe he even shushed the soloists at one point, because they weren’t heeding his direction to sing softly fast enough?  He had a lot of grunts and exhales and even faint singing at a few points.  Some might find all that distracting; I found it endearing.

But there’s always room for improvement.  I don’t think we achieved some of the  triple-p moments that we did in rehearsal — we can touch on some of those passages even more gently to create a more sacred space.  I personally had a little mini-solo when I accidentally tried to double a tenor part; a relic of a previous performance with another crew that had twice as many basses as tenors.  I’m sure we’ll get a few minor adjustments and reminders at tonight’s warmup.  Other than that, however, I think we nailed it, and for the remaining performances I would only hope to commit even further to the piece so we can stay focused on creating another winning night.

You can’t go wrong with the Verdi Requiem; it’s a crowd pleaser any night, with any chorus, in any venue.  But the raucous applause and triple-bow standing ovation told me that the audience felt just as strongly that what they had witnessed was something special.

Ready for Verdi Requiem Tonight

Tonight is opening night, and it’s not just the chorus that’s excited. I’ve never heard the orchestra stamp their feet in approval at our choral singing except on rare occasions, and certainly never FOUR TIMES during a rehearsal stretch. But they did yesterday, to show just how much of a difference some of Maestro Gatti’s adjustments had created.

Once again, Gatti was very specific in what he wants, both from the orchestra and from us. He fixes things you didn’t know were broken. Everyone around me was raving about his imagery and musicality and how he brings out lines you didn’t know were there. He is extremely deliberate in many of his tempos, sometimes slower than you might expect, but not uncomfortably so. The result is some magical moments–and not just from the powerful fortes.

A few more tricks I captured:

  • He chided all of us (especially tenors, with some of their soaring lines) on occasion for singing “too heroically.” Nothing heroic to see in a requiem mass.
  • The Rex Tremandae now starts strong but then he has us pull back and try to be fearful in our decrescendo.
  • A few times the chorus had this intimate delicate sound but the orchestra was sawing along. They matched our dynamics and tone but not our character. His direction to them? “Play carefully.” They did, and it made a difference. He often points to an instrument as if to say to us “match THAT” or points to us to say the same to the orchestra.
  • For the Lacrymosa, he asked the lower voices to make it very personal with a rubato on the accent. The effect is more profound.
  • We couldn’t get quiet enough for him on the Pie Jesu ending to the 2nd movement. So he asked every other person to hum. Weird but it works.
  • All tremolos are not created equal. He’s asked the strings for variations in speed and openness depending on whether he wants tension, floating, or the glowing light of the lux aeterna.
  • Gatti frequently varies his tempo, almost but not quite melodramatically. Rubato abounds, and we are always looking at him to watch out for sudden accelerations or pauses to heighten the musical moment. It’s never the same tempo; he’s very in the moment. He has pre-inserted some of those, like for the intentionally-not-in-tempo antiphonal trumpets. It’s heavy drama by playing with the listener’s expectations.

The soloists are all good, but the tenor is exceptional. His ingemisco may be my favorite ever. Reviewers may find faults with the others. Maestro is very hands on with their tempo and dynamic balance to keep them unified but expressive. I’ve never heard many of these solo parts sung with such fluid tempi and dynamic range, creating a tenderness where I didn’t know it existed. Likewise the orchestra achieves some great effects–I could just eat up the brass, the bassoon and flute solo moments, and the strings’ consistency.

At the end of today’s rehearsal we were looking at each other saying good lord, that was amazing, can we do it again three times? Some opening nights we will go in a little worried. My worry this time is preserving our voices through all three concerts.

The one thing still missing for me, personally, is that I haven’t invested in the singing emotionally yet. I admit I’ve been keeping that component at a distance to make sure I have the technical down right. I suspect others in the chorus are doing the same. So the moment of truth will be tonight. Can we make every dona eis requiem a pleading prayer? Can we make the king’s majesty fearful and awe inspiring? Can we be terrified? Terrifying? Desperate? Hopeful? At peace? I think the best is yet to come.