So then we tangled (and the word is intentional) with a variety of other pieces, including a chunk of a Bach cantata which some people knew and some didn't, and one of my least favorite of the many "Ride On" anthems used on Palm Sunday. (People who have had enough riding lessons cannot sing a "Ride On" without flashing on the memory of various instructors and other equestrian situations, and having to suppress them. Slow, lugubrious "Ride On" anthems, especially those like this one, which puts a section or the whole choir on one note...slowly...repeatedly...for a long time...evokes those memories in a way that Does Not Help. ("Ride ON! Use your LEGS! IMPULSION!" And there was a chunk of a Bach cantata, and a few other things, and then we got to the biggies, right at the end.
The biggies for the Easter Season this year are a big chunk of the St. John Passion, to be sung at the long Good Friday service, which means of course that it should be concert-quality on the day. We have been working on it for a couple of months (one of which I missed with pneumonia), in two-section rehearsals for the most part, and count-singing or singing the fast bits on "da" to clean up the alarming (to us) long, long, LONG stretches of 16th notes. With little breaks of longer notes during which we aren't supposed to breathe because of the meaning of the words, followed by another long, long LONG stretch of 16th notes. And the thing about Bach, when he does those twiddly bits, is that he's sneaky.
With Handel's dense runs of sixteenth notes, you usually have no more than two real four-note patterns within one stretch, just transposing the pattern up or down a note--the first time I learned MESSIAH, I marked my score with square brackets around each time, marked them A or B, and was home free, so to speak. Bach...not so easy. He will give you two alike (sometimes) but then he throws in a ringer, with accidentals (and yes, sometimes *two* accidentals.) You see the ascending pattern across the page (or two pages) and read the first two, and think "OK, got this" and the next thing you know you've tripped over an accidental in the third one, and realize it's nothing like the first two after all and the director has the hairy eyeball aimed at you.
Again with Handel, within any one piece, repeated runs of sixteenth notes will usually be the same (or with such minor variations that you can mark them in the score and go on as before.) You may be singing them higher or lower or in a different key, but it's the same "melody." Again, with Bach, not so easy. It will look the same (for those of us who are mediocre readers, especially of tiny notes on age-colored pages in insufficient light--and I was sitting, not under the bright lights in the middle of the rehearsal area, but the much dimmer light at one edge), but it will not be the same.
So last night, we were to sing words for the first time. The score has both English and German; we are, thank you Lord, singing it in English. However--we hadn't sung the words before and the print is fiendishly small. As ever, the ideal is to "keep the tanctus" (the beat), sing the right notes in the right order, for the right duration, at the right volume, using the correct (and matching) vowel sound on the words, and also with the right "shading" (expressiveness in the voice bringing out the meaning of the words.) The long sixteenth-note runs proved to be mostly on the "a" of "Master"--a vowel that is not easy to do that fast, that long, while keeping it pure--especially for Texans. By my ear, every singer was doing at least two of these 90% of the time. Some were doing three, but never all the way through. That resulted in giving an impression of the actual music (the same level of accuracy with Leighton or Britten or Walton would have produced acoustic death.) You could sort of tell what it was trying to sound like, but Johann Sebastian would not have been pleased...in fact, his bones were no doubt rattling in the coffin, trying to get out and come strangle us.
We struggled through two of the pieces, doing neither well, and so the end of the rehearsal was as disheartening as the beginning. MUCH individual work will have to be done really, really quickly.