One of the things I’ve always enjoyed as a conductor is exploring and learning about a new style, period, composer, or individual work—and trying to communicate the essential elements of that to my ensemble (and ultimately to the audience).
One can think of this in terms of “performance practice,” but I think too many see that in a narrow way, simply as a series of prescriptions for the way one does ornaments or whatever in “older” music. However, most period instrument players and stylistically aware singers I know who are heavily into “HIPP” (“historically informed performance practice) know it’s much more than that, and are among the best at attempting to get inside the mind and culture of the periods and composers with which they work. The details (of instrument, pitch, ornamentation, language, etc.) are just the means with which to better explore the expression and emotions in the music.
Music doesn’t have to be that “old” to need this understanding of context and style, and any time you explore a new (to you) musical “culture” (even a contemporary one) it requires a sense of what that culture truly is and how it expresses itself.
An example from my own work to illustrate:
In 1992 I decided to do Rachmaninov’s great All-Night Vigil (more often known as the Vespers) with the Seattle Symphony Chorale. We had an unusually long period in the Spring where the Symphony didn’t need us, so it was the perfect time to take on a big project of our own.
There are lots of questions when approaching such a work: language, style (phrasing, rubato, articulation, etc.), liturgical context, and many others. Of course I read biographies of Rachmaninov and began learning the music, but where else does one start?
I knew Vladimir Morosan’s dissertation, Choral Performance Practice in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, and this proved to be invaluable. It has lots of information about the liturgy, choirs (especially the Moscow Synodal Choir, which premiered the Vigil) and general performance practices (size of choirs, distribution of parts, how the choir was arranged, etc.), as well as information about the Vigil’s premiere and other performances with the Synodal Choir and its conductor at the time, Nikolai Danilin. This gave an extraordinary amount of information and context.
Vlad also owns Musica Russica and had published a new edition of the Vigil with his transliteration system (important when performing with a choir that won’t have the time to learn Cyrillic!). At that time, Vlad hadn’t yet published the Rachmaninov “monument” but was kind enough to send me copies of galleys to the notes on the Vigil, which had much more specific information about the liturgy, the chants (both ancient chants and Rachmaninov’s composed ones), etc. used throughout the Vigil.
Vlad also prepares pronunciation tapes/CDs for his works and this was very helpful for me to begin to get the sound of Church Slavonic into my ear and voice (he also allows copies to be made for your singers, which saves much coaching time in rehearsal). While getting ready to prepare a performance a few years later with my choir at PLU my wife said she heard me talking in my sleep and couldn’t figure out what I was saying—until she realized I was mumbling in Church Slavonic. A good sign that I was spending enough time with the language!
Another question has to do with the sound of Russian choirs, the general vocal sound, style and phrasing, and of getting closer to special issues of pronunciation and diction. For this, I listened to recordings of lots of Russian choirs, not just of the Vigil, but of other works, too. For example, one of the characteristics one hears in many Russian choirs is a “scooping” into the pitch at times, particularly when words begin with a “soft” or “palatalized” consonant. One of the advantages of listening to lots of Russian choirs is you can begin to sort out how wide a range there is—some choirs seem to scoop all the time and others not as much. It helps decide what is normal and expected for all native Russian choirs (and would sound “wrong” without it), and how much might be a matter of taste. Similarly, one can experience vowel colors and vocal styles and ideas of sound on different vocal parts (are sopranos typically more lyric or dramatic? What kind and how much vibrato is used?).
In Vlad’s dissertation he’d quoted a number of sources on the special “secco” style of performance of the rapidly “chanted” sections by the Synodal Choir, with very quick text delivery. Vlad mentioned a recording he had of the Synodal choir from the ‘20’s, I believe, and was kind enough to send me a copy. The quality of the recording was poor, but good enough to learn much more about the style of performance in these passages.
Finally, I was curious about Rachmaninov’s own “performance practice”—how did he shape phrases, what kind of rubato did he take, etc.? For this I listened to as many recordings of him playing his own piano works as I could. This is a case where we’re close enough in time to hear the way the composer himself shapes his music (not choral music, to be sure, but helpful nevertheless).
This kind of broad listening is important, since you absorb many things (without consciously realizing it) that can’t easily be talked about or articulated. As an example that was telling to me in another medium, in 1988 I was in Berlin and visited the Dahlem museum in West Berlin, but had only a couple hours. They had a nice Rembrandt collection so I decided to spend my time there, looking at about 10-12 Rembrandts during that time span. A month or so later I was in London and went to the National Gallery to see a special exhibit from the Hermitage. On the way to that exhibit, I saw a painting out of the corner of my eye and thought, “Rembrandt.” It was, in fact, a Rembrandt. I couldn’t have described to you the characteristics of Rembrandt’s painting or techniques. I’d never taken an art history class. It’s simply that my couple hours of staring at 10-12 Rembrandts gave me a sense (unconscious to me) of what a Rembrandt “is.” It was experiential rather than intellectual. In the same way, I’m sure listening to lots of Russian choirs and Rachamaninov’s recordings allowed me to absorb much about what a Russian choir does and what Rachmaninov’s style is—much more, in some ways than I could get through just analysis or reading about the style.
You can’t replicate the time you’ve spent in all of this research, listening and study with your choir, of course. I had to boil it down for them, so at the Chorale’s beginning of the year retreat I gave an introduction to the work, read some passages from Vlad’s dissertation about performance practice and responses to the Synodal Choir, and played recordings of several different Russian choirs doing selected movements of the Vigil. After this we worked on a few pieces and sections of the work. All of this was to get their minds and ears acclimated to some changes to the normal way they might sing and phrase. We also made copies of the pronunciation tapes for all of them and I encouraged them to buy and listen to some recordings of the Vigil by Russian choirs (I suggested several). Since we wouldn’t start rehearsing until later in the year, this meant that by the time we started working they would be a long ways ahead.
This kind of preparation for music in a different “world” than one normally works in is incredibly rewarding and fun.