November 7th, 2007

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Bach again: the Tuesday rehearsal

Tuesday night's rehearsal was 7 - 9:30 pm.  Fifty miles away.   Driving was stressful, more so than usual due to being on the road in the dark at a time I'm usually already where I'm going...but I was working at home, and then remembered I needed to vote before leaving, and...there it was.  The worst stretch was on the elevated road in the city, once I got there.  Traffic had been unusually light for a mile or so before I chose the upper deck and ran into a jammed up situation.

But I made it, parked, got inside and the rehearsal was starting when I realized I'd left my cough drops in the car in the parking garage.   Still...a very good rehearsal.   David had the symphony conductor's notes for us to transfer to our scores (he'd had someone photocopy the conductor's markings)  and we worked on that whenever our section wasn't singing.  Our organist was there to play the piano for us, so David could concentrate entirely on directing.   I'd been working on the hard bits of the "Omnes generationes" and "Fecit potentias", plus writing in count-singing notes on the "Gloria."   So naturally David started with the opening movement, where I had left two rough patches unfixed because I knew they'd be easier to fix than the other two movements ("Eat vegetables before dessert...")   But he left that after a couple of run-throughs and the comment that the altos might really want to look at....the measures I hadn't worked on.   He rarely points out individuals at fault unless they are repeat offenders who just  aren't paying attention...when I'm not the alto who's made the mistake, bumping the section reminds me to be a leader and help out the person who's having the problem by singing it perfectly, and when I am the one who goofed, I know what to do about it.

We then went all the way to the back, the very end, and worked on that.  Then "Fecit potentias" and then "Omnes generationes."   The work I'd done didn't make me perfect, but I was much, much more confident and made many fewer mistakes.   For "Omnes generationes" he took the men and the women separately (giving each group a 10-15 minute recess, during which I zipped out to the parking garage and retrieved my cough drops--I'd had to take one from a friend when I had a coughing fit earlier.)   The men did a lot of work on their "dispersit" twiddly bits; by the time we altos got back in, and the sops and 2nd sops had been taken through their stuff, the altos' many twiddly bits were left to the altos...for last night.   With the whole group reassembled, David worked a lot on the ending of that piece too. 

One of his strengths is that he'll work on pieces back to front,  so we are moving into music we're more confident with...and he works on the hard bits longer.  Last year, the person leading the Durufle Requiem left rehearsing the hardest parts to the last, with the least time, and of course that produced a very insecure feeling in the choir, no matter how long we'd worked on our own.   Those of us who'd sung with David a lot were appalled and the bolder ones (not me) kept asking "Can we work on X?" and that director would say "Later, later..."  Later turned out to be the dress rehearsal.  

One of last night's special tasks was the transition from the slow solo to the much faster (and immediate) opening of "Omnes generationes"...David sang the last line of the solo, and then threw us into the maelstrom.  The first time (predictably...)  we sat there gaping a little and missed the entrance.  He stopped us at once (another of his excellent habits--he doesn't let mistakes persist to be learned...he catches 'em quick), shook his head at us sadly, and said "Altos...that was YOU.  Where WERE you?"   Um....a beat behind.   But not for long.   

Every iteration, he ramped up the tempo just a bit.   I don't think we hit the performance tempo, quite, but I am sure that the first one was right at the top of our comfort level and then he winched us up, bit by bit, to something that would've been very, very difficult at the beginning.  I've been through this before with him.  Sometime in the next two days he will take us ridiculously fast--faster than we'll perform--and then settle us into the performance tempo, which  will then feel comfortable and easily doable.  Similarly, he's tweaked the top-level details some in every rehearsal, not waiting to the end to work towards the sound he wants. 

He's said "I don't want a choir of a lot of good voices singing together" (and I could feel the shock of those who haven't worked with him before and are thinking "What the heck could he mean?")   then he adds "I want a choir of good musicians who know what we're trying to do and how they contribute to it."    He talks about the music, how it's structured, how the text and music are structured together (or not, in some cases, but definitely yes, in this one), how the different parts fit together, how it's not enough to sing the right note at the right time at the right volume...but how everything we sing, every note, every breath, every expressive tonality we can produce, needs to be purposeful for the entire intent of the music.

Example.   We often count-sing before we sing words, to establish in our minds and bodies the very basic rhythmic level of a piece.   In count-singing, we're required to sing the notes in their correct value, with the correct shaping of each note.   And of course we're required to stop the sound together.  Anyone who's sung in a choir at all, or directed one, knows how hard it is to get a group of people to end simultaneously (and it's even harder when there's no ending consonant...getting all the "ahs" together.  David tells us to count; that helps.  But often there's still a tiny fraying edge to the sound.  Then he'll say "INTEND to be together."  And suddenly we are.   You could lay a monomolecular thread along the edge of that was there; it's not there.  No fraying, no ragged blur, no hastily-chopped voice.

My ears have become a lot better--I used to wonder how David could tell, in the midst of 40 or more voices, that one was a hair late, early, in the wrong intonation, had too much vibrato, was singing the wrong vowel sound...I mean, one out of that many?   But now I can hear it too, because now I've heard what it's like when it's it should be.

Curiously enough, this does not feel like being stifled in musical expression.  It feels like being freed to make music that cannot be made any other way.  I can't make the Magnificat soar by myself.  No one of us can.  No one section can.   To be able to make it what it truly is--the aural vision Bach had of it when he wrote it--we need every singer, every instrumentalist, to subordinate his/her ego to the whole, while at the same time using that ego (without which no one can perform in public!) to uphold the necessary confidence.  Brain, body, heart, and soul...and when it works, it's an astonishing emotional high, not just for us but for those who hear us.   We are privileged to re-create something in a live performance that cannot be done without our skills--and the skills of those who teach us, train us, lead us.   Musical performances (even if recorded) are evanescant events--the recording is not the live performance (I have hundreds of recordings and enjoy them--but it's not the same.)   In that moment...that sequence of moments...we restore to the world a beauty that is gone even as we sing it.   For those sensitive to that beauty, there's nothing else like it.  

I'm tired today.  I've already worked some on the music.  I have rehearsals tonight, tomorrow night, and if my energy holds out, Friday night, and then the first rehearsal with the symphony's conductor on Saturday.  Next week is orchestra rehearsals and then the two performances.  I think I'm incredibly lucky and privileged.