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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Victoria Requiem -- Creating the right atmosphere

I just finished our Good Friday concert with Pro Coro Canada and the first half of the program was the Victoria Requiem.

This is gorgeous music, but never intended for the concert hall, so I was concerned with how to help the audience approach the music in such a way to appreciate its beauty. Our concert was in the Winspear Centre, a beautiful concert hall that seats 1600 or so people, but it's not a Cathedral or intimate chapel. I didn't want the audience to lose focus or simply be bored.

Several years ago when we did the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, the programs were inadvertently sent to the wrong hall by a new printer. I simply gave verbal program notes before the concert and then we gave the performance without the audience having anything in their hands or texts to follow. The effect was quite magical, since the audience had nothing to pay attention to but the music.

So, when I considered the Victoria this year, I decided to do a couple things to create atmosphere. First, we did not have texts printed in the program. I had a member of the choir who reads beautifully give short introductions with the title (Communion, Offertory, Gradual, etc.), sometimes a context ("in the liturgy this is sung as Holy water is sprinkled on the coffin"), and a part (not all) of the translation before each section. In addition, we set up the choir with stand lights, so we could take all the light out of the hall other than stand lights reflecting on their faces, a spot on me so they could see me (and so I could see my music!), and a spot at the front of the stage for the first section of the Victoria, which we did with a solo quartet. Of course, in my introduction I introduced the idea of this meditative, prayerful music and encouraged the audience to imagine themselves in a great Cathedral or beautiful chapel.

The crew at the Winspear is always a joy to work with and this concert was no exception. The lighting and sound techs had my plan and the narrations, so the mic could come on at the right time, lights up and down when desired. During my introduction, the lights gradually went out in the house and on stage (except for the spot on me), the stand lights came up to half, and the quartet came on stage quietly (no spot on them yet). As I finished, the spot on the quartet came up for Taedet. Then, in the middle of the movement, the choir came on stage quietly, in the near darkness (I should note that we didn't wear usual concert garb, but all black--the idea was again to help the audience focus on the music in a different way, not simply as concert music--so I didn't want any distractions from it). After this the quartet moved into their places with the choir, the stand lights came up full, and the introduction to the Introit began. We were also careful to turn pages at the end of each movement only after it was over, since turning early at different times was distracting (with stand lights, the page, as it was turned, reflected light upward). So each movement had time to come to rest before we turned to the next section.

This all worked magically and the audience response was fantastic--they absolutely loved the Victoria. Of course, the choir's performance was a major part of it, too, and they did magnificently! To do this music well, tuning needs to be pure and the choir must have a great sense of the text, word stress, and where each phrase is going.

I know I'm not unique in trying to find new ways to present music to our audiences. So if you have some wonderful ideas or experiences, please share them in the comments. Certainly all of us need to explore ways to do the music we love in such a way that the contemporary audience has the best chance of falling in love with it as well.


Liz Garnett said...

I found this post really interesting - and it sounds like a beautifully-crafted performance too. It strikes me that a lot of our standard concert rituals are all about making the music - rather than the performance of it - the central focus, and your adaptations to them here if anything intensified that effect. At the same time, though, the changes to the routine concert presentation would draw attention to themselves just by virtue of being different from usual. It sounds like you found a nice balance between disrupting the audience's habitual experience and thus refreshing their responses, without distracting them from the central point of the concert. Thanks for the food for thought.

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment, Liz!

I think it's a challenge for us to present ourselves in different ways for today's visually oriented audience. I don't believe you must do that all the time (the second half of the concert, Rutter's Requiem, was presented with the hall's standard lighting and the choir in their usual tuxes and gowns. But the Victoria really benefited from the changes!