I talked briefly in the last blog about presenting unfamiliar works or styles to your choir. This can be a challenge, particularly with works in a completely new style, works that are difficult to sight-read, or works where the choir’s role is only a part of what makes the piece significant.
This can take many different forms. In 1985 at PLU I found out the University’s Artist Series had booked Robin and Rachelle McCabe for a duo-piano recital. Both had grown up near PLU, Robin had gone from the University of Washington to study at Juilliard and built a career as a concert pianist, her career helped by a New Yorker profile that became a book called Pianist’s Progress by Helen Drees Rosencutter (Robin’s now Director of the School of Music at the UW). Rachelle also went from the UW to Juilliard, then to the University of Michigan for doctoral work, then teaching at Oregon State University. I asked my Dean if I could propose doing Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer with the McCabes and the Choir of the West, did so, and the idea was accepted.
With the Brahms, it wasn’t a problem of an unfamiliar musical language (the German took some work), but the question was how to familiarize the choir with Viennese waltz style. Brahms certainly appreciated and knew the waltz culture in Vienna and, when he met Strauss’ daughter, gave her his card with the theme from “The Blue Danube” written on the back, along with the words, “Leider nicht von Brahms” (Unfortunately not by Brahms). Certainly he knew well the traditional performance style for Viennese waltzes. So I began by playing waltzes as the choir came in for each rehearsal—I always had Strauss Waltzes playing in performances by the Vienna Philharmonic under Willi Boskovsky and others. This was, much as my listening to Russian choirs for Rachmaninov, to start building their unconscious aural picture of how waltzes were done—the “lilt” and rubato particularly. We also talked about the waltz socially in Vienna, the kind of Hausmusik that was taking place, and the great popularity of the Liebeslieder once they were published. We also had a waltz party with the PLU dance instructor there to teach the choir members how to dance a waltz (too bad we didn’t have the great popularity of “Dancing with the Stars!”). At any rate, it was great fun and I think it all made a difference in their performance.
A couple years later I felt we had the right forces in place for a performance of the Britten War Requiem, a work I’d long loved and wanted to do. The problem here is that much of the choral music is not easy to sight-read, some is difficult, much isn’t “pretty,” and the choral parts by themselves don’t make much sense without a context. In this situation, I need to “sell” the work to the choir so that they buy into all the work that was ahead in learning the music. I knew they’d love it once all the elements were put together, but to get as far as we could in terms of quality of performance, they had to “own” it from the very beginning.
For those that don’t know the Britten, it was written for an arts festival celebrating the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, which sits next to the ruins of the old cathedral, which was firebombed in WWII. In it, Britten combines the Latin text of the Requiem mass (sung by the choir with large orchestra and soprano soloist, along with boychoir and organ, who are to be placed in the distance) and the anti-war texts of poet Wilfrid Owen, who died in the trenches shortly before the end of WWI (sung by a chamber orchestra and tenor and baritone soloists). Britten very carefully interweaves the two sets of texts so that they comment on each other in moving ways. As in Britten's original performance, we did it with multiple conductors: I took the big orchestra and choir, Jerry Kracht (conductor of the orchestra) took the chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists, and Joe Crnko coordinated the boys from the back gallery.
In introducing the work to the choirs (we combined my Choir of the West, the second mixed choir, and also the Choral Union—an adult community choir), I made sure I did this with them all together, even though some of their rehearsals would be done separately. Since I’d been to Coventry, I had photos of the new Cathedral and the old. The new one is very contemporary in style and has liturgical art from around the world. As you enter the Cathedral there is a high wall of windows with etchings in the glass—so from inside the church as you look back you see the skeleton ruins of the old Cathedral through the glass.
I also introduced the poetry of Owen, which is so moving. As an example of Britten’s careful choice of texts, I first read and then we listened to the “Quam olim Abrahae” section, which is followed by Owen’s re-telling of the story of Abraham and Isaac. After the Latin text proclaims (in quite a jaunty fugue) “As Abraham promised to his seed forever,” Owen's re-telling adds a bitter twist: after God allows Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead of his son—Owens then says, “But the old man would not so, and slew his son, and half the seed of Europe one by one.” Frankly, I get a chill even writing those words right now. After the tenor and baritone finish with Owen’s section, the quam olim comes back, but in a piano dynamic and with the fugue theme inverted. Even though the music for the choir isn’t easy and not that rewarding to sing by itself, the choir now fully understood its significance and were ready to work on it.
Of course, I also want them to sing and experience some of the work immediately. So I had to choose some sections where they could make music quickly. One of the sections I chose was the end of the Kyrie. Britten uses the tritone with regularity throughout the War Requiem and this last section begins with the bells chiming C and F#. The choir picks up those pitches for this short, homophonic section, but the last time melts into an almost magical F major, which in that context is extraordinarily beautiful. Almost always I want to find some sections of such a work where the choir can experience its beauty of expression from the very beginning.
For everyone, I think our two performances of the Britten were an unforgettable experience.
As a postscript, I took the Choir of the West on a tour to England a year later and we did one performance at Coventry Cathedral—for all those who’d sung the Britten, that was also an extraordinary experience.
What ways have you found to get your choir to "buy in" to challenging works, or works that may not have immediate appeal?