November 3rd, 2007

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Rehearsing Bach

Today we had the first "big" rehearsal of the Bach Magnificat with David Stevens.   Two Wednesdays ago, we had a sectional with other leaders, and that was quite good, but...but it wasn't David.  Also, it was all sectional, except for a brief try at two movements, so this was the first rehearsal with all five parts all the way.   I would contend that nobody, but nobody, handles rehearsals for major music as well as David does.  What makes it great is not just that he is a perfectionist (lots of choir directors are) but that he has, by instinct or experience, great timing in reinforcement, both positive and negative.  He is generous with praise, and relentless in correction--and all immediate, so that it sticks the best.

Despite having worked on this for several months, I'm still struggling with some sections when I move into words as opposed to syllables (and sometimes even then.)   However, I've solved some problems and am making fewer mistakes than at the sectional...though there's only two weeks to go and I had better be note perfect by next Saturday, when the symphony's conductor will hear us for the first time.

We rehearsed for 3 hours with one 10 minute break and a few breaks when David was explaining what he wanted and why.   When I first began singing choral music, I thought if you sang the right notes at the right time for the right duration and the right loudness, that was all anyone could ask for.  HA!   That's the beginning.  That's the necessary-but-not-sufficient.   Over the years, I learned a little more, each time thinking "OK, that's it, that's the most anyone but an opera singer can do..." and each time learning that I was wrong...there's always more.    There's the diction, of course: matching vowels.  Take 50-odd people, who grew up in different parts of the country, and tell them to sing "ah" and you will not get matched "ah" right away.   Much less matched "oh",  "oo," "eh," "ih," or "ee".   But if people sing different vowel sounds, the choral sound is mushy (at best.)   Then there's placing and pronouncing consonants...not just the "snake" problem ("sssss" instead of one crisp, brief "s".)   In ordinary choirs, consonants are often not unified, and final consonants may be "swallowed."  More mush.  Then there's shaping every note that's long enough (and learning to shape shorter and shorter notes)...every note should have a shape.  You don't just sing it on one tonal quality and volume for its entire duration...that's unmusical  (David has convinced me) , so from a quarter note on up (or, in slower tempi, every note) each should either swell to the end or swell and diminish or start strong and then fade. 

What I've experienced with David, in one piece of music after another, from simple hymns to stuff that's harder than this, is his ability to refine, refine, refine the choir's whole that the music emerges, as if from behind a series of veils, or rising from under water, clearer and clearer, more and more crystalline, all its intended beauty revealed, with no "messy" bits to dross, no smudges on the crystal, no murk, no clouding...just the naked beauty.    His commitment to this goal, to making the music itself perfect, would by itself attract me, make me want to sing with any choir he's directing...but in addition, his commitment to engaging the choir in his goal--not just *driving* them somewhere, but leading, encouraging, believing that each of us has the ability to understand where he's going and why, each of us can participate, each of us can be trusted/expected to attain that perfection--that's the final cherry on top of the joy of singing this great music with a great director.

Last year we did a couple of great pieces with other directors (David helped rehearse us but wasn't in charge) and it was not the same experience.   These were good, experienced, knowledgeable, musical people, but they did not have the touch...they seemed to regard the choir as a group of dullish cattle that had to be chivvied into narrow chutes of performance...very little if any positive reinforcement, a lot of scolding.   It wasn't fun.

This was fun.   This was the best kind of fun, three hours of making great music better and better with other people who enjoy it.  And a director who wants us to enjoy it, not just do it.