The morning began with a walk to the Radio to watch RK rehearse with Peter Dijkstra. I also got welcomed back by the choir, which was very nice, and I look forward to working with them in a couple weeks.
While Peter will just turn 30 this year, he’s very clearly in charge, but with a warm, relaxed approach. I already knew the Radio Choir likes working with him very much, and it soon became clear why.
Since his upcoming program is not so difficult technically (Haydn Harmoniemesse and a Mozart Litany with chamber orchestra), today became an “ensemble” day—a time to work on vocal sound, blend and intonation, much of it with separate sections of the choir, to let the choir know exactly what he wants and is working towards. While the rest of the choir left for sectional rehearsals elsewhere, he began with the basses singing Bach’s arioso, “Am Abend, da es kühle war” from the St. Matthew Passion. Playing the accompaniment (he’s an excellent pianist), he had placed the bass section alternating basses and baritones and worked for a unified sound, not too heavy from the basses, and not too bright from the baritones. He also took care with equalizing high and low notes. Peter’s a baritone or bass-baritone himself with a superb voice and technique (wide range and easy head voice), so was able to easily demonstrate what he wanted with “a nice balance between chiaro and oscuro.” As an exercise he also had them do a section all piano and then mf/forte. This was terrific detailed work and he then put them back in bass/baritone sections to work on keeping the same sense of color and blend. Finally, he arranged them in a circle to work on the beginning of the chant, Pange lingua. Again, work towards better blend, good intonation and here, working without conductor and listening and breathing together for better ensemble.
After a half an hour tenors came in to work on the Benedictus from the Mass in B Minor and the same chant. Similar work, but also stressing the need to match dynamics—the one singing louder and sticking out isn’t always at fault, but perhaps the others who hold back.
The full choir then joined for the Bach chorale, “Wenn Ich einmal soll scheiden,” also from the Matthew Passion. Here he began with them singing on “nü,” which he said he likes for the mix of forward and round vowels, then “nu”, then “na,” and finally with text. Again, attention on blend and quality of sound, but much more here on intonation, too. He was also detailed about German pronunciation. Following this the choir worked on the 3rd movement of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine, almost entirely on intonation, and all on neutral syllables (not text).
After break, the same process was repeated with altos (who sang “In deine Hände” from Cantata 106) and sopranos (with “Quia respexit” from the Magnificat). They worked on the chant as well, of course.
I’ve taken a little more time than normal to describe this rehearsal, because I think it’s interesting (well, for conductors, anyway!) to see this approach, but also because it outlines how necessary it is to continue to work on fundamentals, no matter what the level of choir. It’s not something you can ever just “forget about” because you’ve got very well trained singers with terrific musicianship and wonderful ensemble experience. It was also interesting to see the choir’s response—in so many ways, they’re hungry for this kind of work, since it gives such direct feedback about what the conductor is after. One can also forget as a conductor, that as a singer inside the section or ensemble, you can’t always hear clearly how it’s blending, or whether your color is matching another singer four people down the line. And this work causes the singers to listen so much more intensely, which will no doubt pay benefits in the next few rehearsals as well.
It’s also necessary to repeat work on fundamentals because they are fundamentals—they are “fundamental,” or the ground, or basis of everything else. My great friend and dear departed colleague, Jim Holloway, used to talk about two ways to look at education: one held that as you learned things, you simply stacked them up on top of one another as your knowledge became more sophisticated (which obscured the things on the bottom of the stack, the higher you got); the other looked at education as climbing a circular staircase, so you could regularly pause and look over the railing and look back at the fundamentals everything was based on.
This is why this kind of rehearsal is important: for me, at least, it reminds me not to take too much for granted, but to remind myself and my singers of the important fundamentals that make music work. It’s easy to get caught up in getting done what needs getting done especially with few rehearsals. Certainly that’s true for me (and most of us!), where there is rarely the luxury of “too much” rehearsal time—but it’s something to think about whether it’s possible to plan for when budgeting.
I think the rehearsal also shows why RK likes working with Peter so much. He is a terrific musician himself with total command of the music and what he wants; working with such good singers, he can vocally demonstrate what he wants from them; and this kind of work shows how much he’s concerned with raising their level (and thinking long-term, beyond just any given concert). Having been without a chief conductor for some time, it’s absolutely what RK needs: someone who they trust and is dedicated to developing the choir to reach its highest potential. One simply can’t do that with a series of guests.
After rehearsal, I walked over to Eric and Monica’s, where I had a lovely lunch and coffee with them. They are both such dear people and have always made time for me whenever I visit—and fairly regularly, when Eric was traveling much more, I’d get a postcard from him from Paris or Prague or wherever he was conducting or leading a masterclass, just to say hello. I think both are doing very well: as I’ve said, Eric has slowed down physically, but is still so interested in what’s happening musically. He was excited today, since he’d just gotten an award from the Swedish government yesterday for his efforts to take Swedish music all over the world—and that he’s certainly done! He was also looking forward to some guest conducting in the spring in Poland and Spain. There are already big plans being made for his 90th birthday celebration next fall. It certainly ought to be an amazing celebration!