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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Stockholm 2007 - Week 7

The last week! Hard to imagine, as this seven-week period has gone very quickly. However, if my sense of deep tiredness is any indication, it's been an unusually busy and intense time for Kathryn and me--much more so than our usual lives, although this year for me has been (and remains, for a while longer) crazy, even by my normal standards.

The week began on Monday with my first rehearsal with the Radio Choir. Today was actually two RK, since the rehearsal began with the choir singing for Parsifal (not all regular members of RK are doing that program, so there are a number of subs). Even it began with just the men, since Act III of Parsifal has almost no singing for the sopranos and altos.

Arne worked with the women on some other repertoire at the beginnning of the rehearsal. After working a little less than an hour on the scene with the Knights, the women joined us again to rehearse the last section, which is truly glorious music. There was no point to do detailed work, since the choir will work in combination with the Opera Chorus and I had no instructions from Gergiev about markings. So we took a slightly longer break than usual since the other members of RK were joining us at 11 AM.

We then rehearsed the Gloria and Sanctus from the Beethoven Mass in C, followed by the Choral Fantasy, and then I had time for a run-through of the movements from the Mass before the end of rehearsal. The voices are amazing, of course, so it's great fun to stand in front of the choir and hear the sound pouring over you (and, of course, they can sing very softly, too). They're also excellent musicians, so things rarely need to be said more than once and, even with a few of them never having sung the Beethoven before, one slow run-through of the fugues is usually enough to put notes right. Again, with no guidance from the ultimate conductor, I simply made my own decisions about breaths and note values at the end of phrases, articulations, added dynamics, etc., and gave options where there could easily be two choices.

I'll say more about what it's like to conduct a choir such as RK later. Certainly, I can say it's great fun.

The rest of the day was relatively relaxed, going to the nearby hotel with our laptop so I could access the internet and send last week's report to you, taking a walk in the beautiful weather (the sun came out by afternoon), and calling both sets of parents and Kathryn's sister in Norway.

Tuesday was a day off, so we took full advantage of it. We both are tired, as I said earlier, Kath still with her nagging cough and both of us from intense social and rehearsal and concert-going schedules. The weather was gorgeous today and much warmer (spring-like), so I even took the liner out of my coat. We enjoyed several walks and down time in the apartment, with a bit of rehearsal prep for me. It'll be fun to work on the Brahms Requiem tomorrow with 48 or so singers of RK and extras--it's a work that's close to my heart: the first time I conducted it was for the Anchorage Music Festival in 1993 at summer solstice time (no real darkness in Anchorage--amazing to come out of rehearsal at 10 PM and have it still completely light), subbing for Robert Shaw, who'd had a mild stroke and had to pare back his schedule.

Tuesday evening we took Eric and Monica out to dinner as partial thanks for all their help and friendship. Had a wonderful time talking about what we're both doing, the different people I've been seeing, etc. I feel lucky to have had so much contact with Eric.

I first saw him (although didn't meet him personally) in Nashville in '83 when the Radio Choir sang at ACDA. I'd just auditioned for grad school at Cincinnati and went down to Nashville afterwards with a group of those students. John Leman was organizing a choir for a masterclass with Eric, so I ended up singing in it.The next summer, after I started teaching at PLU, Eric was taking his MH Chamber Choir to an ISME conference in Eugene, OR and was looking for some other venues. Bruce Browne, who knew Eric, put me in touch with him, so I arranged for the PLU summer choral workshop to be built around that: the choir was in San Francisco before coming to Tacoma, so Eric flew up a day earlier for workshops and the choir came up by bus a day later and spent at least two days there, being the group for some conductors to work with and giving their own concert.

There were many contacts after that, including IFCM in Vienna in '87, another MH Chamber Choir visit to PLU in 1988 (they did an around the world tour that summer), April of '89 (my first visit to Sweden) when I was looking for a dissertation topic, and the entire summer of 1990 when I did the initial research.

During '89 I sublet the apartment of one of Monica's sons and in '90 the apartment of another one of her sons. Eric was also guest conductor at the birth of Choral Arts in 1993. I'd been thinking of such a choir and heard from him that he would be working with Pro Coro in Edmonton and he wanted some other work, since he didn't like to travel so far for just one concert. So I put together a choir for him in January of that year which then became Choral Arts.

When I came back to Sweden in '96 to update research (just after Kathryn and I got married) I sublet the apartment across from Eric and Monica's. And of course, Eric's name and introductions have opened all doors to me in Sweden, and the research I've done and the many visits since have made for many close friends. While I would never dare to say I was a student of Eric's (and never studied with him formally), I've learned and gained so much from him, watching him, and talking with him and all our other Swedish friends. It's been a great privilege.

Wednesday brought a bit of serendipity to our trip: I've kept in touch with a former student from PLU, Mark Hjelmervik, but for some reason didn't have his email address, so he hadn't been getting these reports. He sent an update about his life (he just finished seminary in Chicago) and so I sent back my reports. His quick reply was, "Are you still in Sweden?!" It turned out that Mark was in Stockholm for a few days since his chosen church is the Covenant Church, which had its roots in the Swedish Mission Church, and his graduating class was in Sweden for classes to see about the roots of the American church. So we managed to get together for lunch--and this after I hadn't been able to see him the last time he was in Tacoma because I was too busy. Amazing the way things work out sometimes.

That afternoon was the rehearsal of the Brahms with RK and the extra singers, about 5 or 6 of whom were singing with RK for the first time (some others were former RK members and a few members of Eric's Chamber Choir). Quite simply, it was a joy. Almost all the singers have sung the Requiem before, some many times, so it was possible to communicate much via gesture from the very first run-through of each movement. Other than that, it was simply a matter of rehearsing what we all do: better ensemble, sound, blend, intonation, pronunciation of text, musicality, etc.--except beginning at a much higher level. Pure pleasure. I'm only sorry I don't get to conduct the performance.

Following rehearsal we went with Eva Wedin and the choir's regular accompanist, Michael Engström (who is fantastic) to the apartment of Arne Lundmark and his wife Birgit for dinner. Arne, as I mentioned earlier, is the choir's producer (he also teaches voice at MH and was for many years a member of Eric's Chamber Choir) and Birgit also works in the administration of the Radio. Dinner was a Lebanese feast and accompanied by lots of talk about choral music, experiences with Eric (it turns out Michael was also with the MH Chamber Choir on their '88 visit to PLU--and earlier I found out it was the same for one of the RK basses for the '84 tour), and more about Swedish choral life. Another wonderful evening.

Thursday's rehearsal was hard work--after beginning with two of Otto Olsson's Psalm settings to warm up--quite beautiful, by the way--I began work on Thomas Jennefelt's O Domine. This is a very good piece with two radically contrasting sections: the first dramatic, with rapid changes of tempi and lots of dissonance; the last section minimalistic, calm, with mostly gentle dissonances. Both sections needed work and there are possibly a couple sections that we'll repeat tomorrow. After break, the rest of the rehearsal was spent on Sven-David's Singet dem Herrn, which as I noted last time, is extremely virtuosic. The first section is quick, syncopated, has extreme ranges and dynamics. Much of the time was spent in drill: first choir, second choir; men, women; slower tempi, then back towards marked tempi. The next section didn't need as much time, but perhaps a little work on sound and intonation--the middle movement is truly gorgeous and calls for a beautiful legato, phrasing and sound. The last section is, if anything, trickier than the first (you really have to look at the score to see what I mean). Again, the choir worked hard through many repetitions of different sections. Another thing noticeable is the endurance and ability of these singers to sing repetitions at top dynamic and tessitura again and again--and all full out. That's extraordinary, too. Again, these are very fine singers, well-trained, and they do this with real regularity. While not as much fun as the Brahms rehearsal, I earned my pay in doing this necessary work to bring this music up to the level it deserves.

Tomorrow will bring more of the same with some of the other repertoire as well as more practice on Singet.

Eric also came to the first half of the rehearsal--very sweet of him to do that and we had a nice goodbye chat during the break.

Friday: my last day with RK and seeing so many friends. A morning rehearsal this time, so I began with the final two Olsson Psalms as warmup (RK certainly doesn't do "warm-ups," but just jump to work) and a few spots in the 2nd one that needed good transitions between the baritone solo (chant--no flats or sharps) and choir (E Major). Then the Jan Sandström Gloria, not a difficult piece, but one which calls for clean tuning and ensemble. Then Sven-David's take on Purcell's Hear my Prayer, O Lord, which quotes it exactly, at the end melding into S-D's own anguished plea, but ending with a calm C Major. Finally before break: Hillborg's mouyuoum, which is a fascinating minimalistic exercise. Like many such pieces, it's not easy to rehearse, partly since at 13 minutes long, it's tiring to sing, and you can't do too much repetition. So we didn't work on too many sections--they also know it well.

After break it was time for Singet dem Herrn again. Hard work (for me, too), but necessary work to give the best chance of success in Saarbrücken. Again, much repetition, drill with one choir or the other, at slower speeds, etc., all taken in good spirit by RK's members.

If I know something as a rehearsal technician, it's how to keep a fairly quick pace of rehearsal, which is especially necessary with such work. Three singers are substitutes who did not sing the September concerts and therefore were sightreading Singet--for them a huge challenge, but at least now they have a good idea of how the piece works and can practice before Saarbrücken.

At the end of the rehearsal thanks from both sides (me to them and them to me) and I think we all hope I get a chance to work with RK again in the not-too-distant future. We'll keep in touch . . .

RK is really a wonderful choir to work with. They have such a good understanding of what it takes to be an ensemble singer that you begin work at an already high level. As I've mentioned, the choir is also made up of very good voices, many of solo quality.

These are not small voices either, which is why they can successfully do major works with orchestra with 48 or so singers. They also (at least for me in the two different times I've worked with them) have a good attitude. One can worry that professionals (choirs or orchestras) can begin to think of their work as just a job, but I don't sense that here (and haven't with most of the professional orchestras I've worked with, from members of the Seattle Symphony earlier to my recent work with Edmonton Symphony members): most of all they want to make good music. Consequently, if they sense you know what you want and have musical ideas, they're very willing to work hard for you. As with most professionals, however, they don't want their time wasted, so a good and efficient rehearsal technique is a must. And, of course, you have to know the scores well and what to do with the music. Beyond that, the work is the same as with any choir, just at a higher level: work on ensemble, intonation, sound, expression, phrasing, etc. You have, also, to have your ears "calibrated" at a finer level--with a choir this good, it has to be very fine tolerances of intonation, ensemble, etc. I hope, too, this is good for me in my work with my other choirs. I can learn to be more demanding of what is possible musically. Certainly as I said before, it's great fun to work with them and I wouldn't miss the opportunity to work with RK again.

Afterwards we had a short chat with Eva, our good friend, whom we'll miss. She's delightful and has been amazingly helpful before and during our stay. Then off to lunch with Bo Johansson and his wife Ingrid. Yesterday one of the new basses (to me) introduced himself as Lasse. Today he said, "I hear you're going to lunch with my father after rehearsal." I hadn't realized Lasse is Bo and Ingrid's son! He is a regular with RK from this year, but has been on paternity leave, so came to these two rehearsals since he will go off leave in April and be with the choir for this program. After rehearsal, he was to return home and take over for his mother, who'd been baby-sitting. Bo is another good friend from my summer of research in 1990 and conductor of the world-famous Adolf Fredrik Girlchoir (we also worked together at a "Singing Week" in Veszprém, Hungary in 1996). Adolf Fredrik is a special music school (up until HS years) and students get musical instruction in addition to their regular classes. It's amazing how many of the singers in Sweden's fine choirs have attended Adolf Fredrik. Bo is known to all as "Bosse" (I won't attempt to phonetically write the pronunciation, but the Bo is pronounced "oo") and is one of the happiest people I know, a fantastic teacher and musician. He'll be involved with some masterclasses at IFCM in Copenhagen next summer (2008), so you could get a chance to watch him work there. Again, a delightful time and then back home, where frankly, I'm exhausted! We were supposed to go to the Radio Orchestra concert tonight (Edo de Waart and Mahler 5), but I'm writing this as the concert would be about to begin--I was just too tired to go out again tonight. The trip's not over yet, though. More to come Saturday and Sunday.

Our next-to-last day had a concert at Jacobs again. This one with the "WÅG" trio (Mattias Wager, organ & piano; Anders Åstrand, percussion; and Gary Graden, singer). An improvisational concert, this continues experiments at St. Jacob for new ways to attract people to the church. The improvisations ranged from fairly traditional to reminders of '60s/70s "happenings," using all combinations of singer, percussion (marimba and all manner of drums), piano, the small organ at the front of the church and the big one in the gallery in the back. Gary sang gregorian chant with different backgrounds by Mattias and Anders, Mattias played a fantastic Bach-style improv on the piano to accompany a hymn (yes, the audience was asked to sing again, too), and they finished with Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, beginning with Gary and the small organ at the front, then Gary and percussion (while Mattias went back to the big organ), then Gary worked his way back for a big ending with all three in the gallery at full volume. Really a terrific and interesting time. Gary is one of the most creative and interesting musicians I know. It was another good and enthusiastic audience.

I sat next to a woman who clearly had some mental problems and was possibly homeless, incredibly thin, in worn, dirty clothes, talking to herself softly. But she was clearly moved by the music, moving to it, giggling with joy sometimes, and near the end when Gary sang a spiritual talking about the flowing river, she moved her hands along with Gary, smiling all the while. It was a terrific example of the power of music to speak directly to someone--someone who, if we saw them on the street, we might shy away from, or at least look the other way. It also reminded me of the possibility (and hope) of the church providing a place that can be joy and solace to anyone who may walk through the doors. At least it's something I'd hope that the church could truly be.

Kathryn didn't go to the concert, since she was home preparing a feast (and it was a feast, since Kathryn is an excellent cook)
for a dinner with Gary and Maria and Birgit Hemberg. I walked with Birgit back from the church (the weather's turned colder again and apparently a storm is on the way--certainly the wind was blowing hard against us), and we spent an hour and a half or so visiting.

Gary and Maria, after going home and sorting out things with their boys, joined us around six and we had a delightful dinner. Again,terrific conversation and reminders about what wonderful friends we have here. Hard to believe we have only one more day.

Sunday dawned gray and rainy, although the sun came out in the afternoon and we had some beautiful views of Stockholm for our last day. Apparently the storm comes in tonight, so we hope no problems getting out of Arlanda Airport. A fair amount of time was spent cleaning, organizing and packing for the journey home, but we got to end our trip with a performance of the Mass in B Minor with Mikaeli Kammerkör, led by its founder and leader for many years, Anders Eby. The concert took place at Adolf Fredriks, where Anders Öhrwall did so many performances years ago (Anders was there and I got to say a brief hello) and where we heard Eric's Chamber Choir near the beginning of the trip

We also saw (surprise, surprise) Mark Lawlor, whom we met when I interviewed at ASU a number of years ago.Mark was here for a week's study tour. We also saw Bosse and Ingrid again, plus well-known Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård.

The performance of the Bach was certainly a good one, so a perfect end to our trip. The choir and soloists were very good (especially countertenor Mikael Bellini), and the orchestra, too. Having worked on and off with period instrument ensembles, it makes certain kinds of balances much easier and more natural to achieve. They were working with Stockholms Barockorkester, which is a free-lance ensemble that plays with many choirs in town. The orchestra (with the exception of cellos and basses, of course) stood for the performance--fun to watch the concertmistress (who was great) and principal bassoon, both of whom moved with great freedom and joy. The trumpets were particularly good and the first trumpet amazing. They all played cleanly and accurately and with a fantastic tone quality that was extremely well-matched. Anders's tempos were quick, which occasionally led to a little muddiness in the church acoustic, but generally worked very well. The Bach is one of my favorite pieces--I sang it with Rilling in 1972 at the Oregon Bach Festival when it was only in its 3rd year (concerts in First Lutheran Church--no Hult Center), conducted it for the first time in 1975, which really cemented Seattle Pro Musica's existence, and just did it last season with Pro Coro for Good Friday. Again, I can't think of a nicer way to have ended our trip.

I can't say how fortunate we feel to have been able to spend this much time in Sweden, visit family in Norway, see so many good friends here in Stockholm and Uppsala, and hear so many rehearsals and performances, not to speak of working again with the Radio Choir

We particularly have to thank our most beautiful friend, Gunilla Luboff, who made it possible by lending us her lovely apartment in Stockholm. Many thanks, Gunilla!

Hope you've enjoyed the vicarious visit to the Swedish choral world as seen through our eyes and ears.

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