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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sweden – January 29/30/31 February 1

Today was a shifting of gears for RK, from Pizzetti, Pärt & Penderecki last week to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. As I noted last week, given their schedule, this is a regular occurrence for them. Still, there was some adjusting from the big sound required for Pizzetti and Penderecki, at least, to a “slimmer” sound for the Bach, which took awhile to accomplish.

As usual, I have to guess what an orchestral conductor might want, with no instruction or marked score. Daniel Harding is conducting, so having heard his Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri last year (where he took extraordinary care with text and phrasing—often asking the orchestra to listen to the choir for guidance—and asked the strings to play with little vibrato) and his recent Rameau Suite (strings without vibrato and a very dramatic approach to the double-dotted sections), and his general musical approach, which is dramatic and exciting, I’ve guessed that he’ll want a similar sound from the choir, particularly with less vibrato, but with great attention to text. I would say that one general weakness of Swedish choirs is diction—quality of sound and intonation always takes first place—so that’s one area to concentrate on.

I also decided to run short scenes with the recitatives connecting them, so pacing and connections are clear. Perhaps not necessary, since most have sung the work, but I knew that RK hadn’t done the work in a long time and the singers (usually singing for the Radio during Holy Week) may not have done as many outside performances either. Conny Thimander did an admirable job of singing the Evangelist recits—particularly since it was unexpected and 9:30 in the morning at A=440!

Not knowing specifics from the conductor, I can only give my ideas for drama in the turba (crowd) choruses, and hope that the shape, dynamics, pacing and diction are in the right direction. Certainly it’s better to have some musical shape than to hand off a bland preparation without any musicality at all! Otherwise, the conductor has to work very hard to get anywhere—if the choir is prepared with a musical conception, even the wrong one, it’s easier and faster to change. On the big choruses, I did the same. The chorales are the most difficult area to guess what Harding will do—there are so many different ways to approach fermatas, pacing, and dynamics. I worked alternating different ways of dealing with the fermatas and dynamics (just through gesture—RK is very responsive and there was no point talking about it or putting dynamics in their score), and worked on diction in some specific places, particularly with emotional words, but most will have to be left to the rehearsals with Harding.

As a side note, this isn’t unusual, and I’d guess that my experience is typical of what most of us face when preparing a chorus for an orchestral conductor. Of course, the final result would be so much better if the chorus was properly prepared before the first piano rehearsal with conductor with dynamics, articulations, breaths, tempi, and rhythmic values at the end of phrases (is it a quarter note, or an eighth note?). NO orchestral conductor would go into their first rehearsal of an orchestra without bowings for strings, and many travel with their own set of parts, with additional markings for articulations, dynamics, tempo changes, etc. Why not with the choir? My guess is: they don’t know enough about some of those choices (diction, where to put final consonants) and would rather leave it to the choral director. Or they’re satisfied enough with what they get from the preparation. We all know, of course, that it could be much better!

There are exceptions to the above, of course. I prepared the Brahms Requiem for John Nelson in 1994, and he sent his own full score so I could copy all his markings (which were thorough—of course, John was originally trained as a choral conductor, so he knows all the “tricks of the trade”) and also a recommendation for a particular recording as a guideline to his approach to phrasing. That makes our job so much easier (and the final result better)!

In the morning we went to Michael Tilson Thomas’s 2nd rehearsal of Mahler 6 with the Stockholm Philharmonic. This was thanks to Ragnar Bohlin, who also got us tickets for the performance on Thursday. Ragnar and his wife Tamara were there, along with Michael’s partner, Josh. A very interesting rehearsal, one long run-through of a movement they’d done the day before, then lots of detail work. During the break we went back with Ragnar and Tamara to meet Michael in his dressing room for coffee. He was incredibly gracious. While he and Josh had been in Stockholm briefly a few years ago, this was his first time conducting here. The Philharmonic does long rehearsals—in this case 10-12:30 (we left at the lunch break), an hour’s lunch break, then another 2 1/2 hours. Great fun to watch his rehearsal.

In the afternoon, back to RK and more St. Matthew. This time I didn’t work at all on chorales and did only short lead-ins for the turba choruses. I split the rehearsal, Choir I for the first 50 minutes, full choir for the middle of the rehearsal, then Choir II for the last 50 minutes. If you know the Matthew Passion, you know there are a number of choruses for just choir I or II. So this served several purposes: to work on those choruses without the other half of the choir having to just sit there; to focus on smaller details of phrasing; and with only 16 singers present, to get further towards the chamber sound necessary for the work.

I met with Gary Graden briefly in the morning to take care of some business and set up some things for later. I also met Lisa Rydberg, the violinist on the Folkjul CD, who was there to discuss repertoire for an upcoming trip to Hungary with the St. Jacobs Chamber Choir.

Now to new repertoire with RK and another shift of gears, to Rachmaninoff’s great Klokorna (The Bells) and two of his three folksongs, op. 41. A big shift of gears! We’d unfortunately just gotten (Tuesday) the scores with transliteration—I think I mentioned earlier the only score I had was with Cyrillic—but very fortunately, Maria Goundorina was present to be expert help with the Russian text. Maria is Russian, finishing up in the diplom program at the Royal Conservatory, working with Anders Eby. I saw her work last year when I attended one of Anders’ classes—she’s very good (and had led the rehearsal with EEKK on Tuesday). So I began with the two toughest movements of Klokorna and we alternated working on music and text. Tiring work, and some of the choir members (we had rented scores) had scores with stuff scribbled throughout, so spent more time erasing than marking. I also paced too fast—when I have a lot of work to do in a short period of time, I sometimes push pacing beyond where I should, or where it helps—but we still got a lot done. I let the sopranos and tenors go with about 35 minutes left so we could begin work on op. 41, number 3, which has just altos and basses. Good work, but I pushed too fast and sensed the choir was a bit frustrated.

Immediately afterward we walked to Konserthuset and met Tamara, who had the tickets for the Mahler performance. Ragnar was staying with the kids tonight and preparing for a lecture the next day—he’ll hear the concert on Saturday. Tamara was glad to have the evening off from the opera to attend—and noted lots of her colleagues in the audience.

The format was a 30-minute lecture from MTT on the Mahler, then a full intermission, followed by the performance, without interruption. MTT is a very good lecturer, demonstrating examples at the piano, and with a hilarious account of his meeting Alma Mahler when he was about 10 years old at his godfather’s antiquarian bookshop in Los Angeles. She had come in to see about the value of some manuscripts she owned (oh, just a few trifles like the scores to Mahler 9 and Berg’s Wozzeck). MTT described her still amazing personal charm (at 87), when introduced to him she flirted a bit, talking backwards over one shoulder or the other. This is impossible to describe in words, but hilarious in effect—and apropos, since Alma’s ‘theme’ in the sixth symphony is almost always performed more slowly than Mahler asks—Michael said her way of flirting and talking led him to always strive to perform it at the asked-for, faster tempo.

The performance was fantastic. MTT got a great sense of style from the orchestra, which of course changes rapidly in Mahler’s usual mix of both high and low culture. Individual sections and soloists were also wonderful, especially the first horn, who was simply amazing tonight. All-in-all, a great performance—we were lucky to be there. We went back afterwards to say thank you to MTT, who was as gracious as ever, although I’m sure looking forward to getting somewhere for something to eat and drink! Many thanks, too, to both Ragnar and Tamara.

My last rehearsal with RK on this trip today. One of the choir members confirmed what I’d thought about last rehearsal, and asked for things to move a bit more slowly, so I tried to do that. We worked on the other two movements of Klokorna before break, then concentrated on the most difficult afterwards. I left time at the end to finish working on op. 41, number 3, then let altos go so basses could work on number 1, which is for just them. It’s been an intense couple of weeks of rehearsal! Next week, Risto Joost takes over for his own performance of the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil and more rehearsals on Klokorna. It’ll be interesting to watch him work.

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