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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Making music with old and new friends

We had a wonderful performance of Messiah last night (odd to do it now, you think? Well, it was the 250th anniversary of Handel's death! Why weren't you celebrating Handel?). This came about because two friends were celebrating 40 years of making and bringing music to Spokane, WA.

David Dutton (oboe) and Beverly Biggs (harpsichord) settled in Spokane after David became principal oboe of the Spokane Symphony. They quickly became enmeshed in the musical life in Spokane and both tirelessly worked to bring other music to their adopted community: a concert series with guest artists or ensembles, plus their own friends with whom they made music.

In the mid-70s I got to know David when he came to Seattle to hear a performance of the Bach Matthew Passion I did with my Seattle Pro Musica group. He and Bev were already planning a Bach Festival in Spokane with period instruments, to take place in January and they were looking for a choral conductor.

So a couple years later this became reality and I worked in Spokane for at least seven years with a terrific group of people. Over the years the orchestra included musicians such as baroque flutist Janet See, violinists Stanley Ritchie, and Daniel Steppner, and many others. Vocal soloists included Nancy Zylstra and the Dutch baritone, Max van Egmont. In the seven years or so I was there I conducted a wide variety of works, from Bach cantatas, motets, the Magnificat, and Johannespassion to a scene from Rameau's Les Indes Galantes and Telemann's short opera Pimpinone. I had many wonderful experiences there, but especially remember conducting a performance of Bach's Ich habe genug with Max. I love accompanying a soloist with orchestra--whether a vocal or instrumental soloist--and conducting that particular piece with Max, who sang it from memory and felt it deeply, was a special moment in my musical life.

Even though Beverly lives in South Carolina now, she still takes part in some of Allegro Baroque's productions, and she and David had the idea of doing this big production of Messiah for the 30th anniversary of their making music in Spokane. There were certainly both old and new friends involved: most of the chorus was from Spokane (including a few I'd worked with before), with soloists taking part as well, plus a few extra singers from Seattle (the choir was 6-4-4-5). Most of the strings were from the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and leading the orchestra was Stanley Ritchie (on sabbatical from IU). Besides David playing baroque oboe was Sand Dalton, another old friend from early days in Seattle, and Margaret Gries, who came in as principal 2nd violin. I hadn't worked with any of these people for a long time, so it was truly "old home" week. To make it truly special, Max van Egmont came from the Netherlands to sing the bass solos, even though he is formally retired from his performance career. At 72, he still sings wonderfully, and it was a special pleasure to work with him. Max has such a wonderful approach and is so musical and expressive--pure pleasure. Everyone was a joy to work with.

I had a couple rehearsals earlier with the Spokane chorus members and then arrived after my Good Friday concert from Edmonton via Seattle. We had one rehearsal with the orchestra and chorus Sunday evening (my first time with any of the soloists or extra singers in Seattle), a rehearsal with orchestra and soloists Monday morning, then a dress rehearsal Monday evening--so not a lot of time, particularly since we were doing the work uncut (as it should be!). Everyone rose to the occasion last night and the performance went extremely well. Simply a great time.

Thank you, David and Beverly!

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.