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Monday, December 5, 2011

NCCO and Bach/baroque music - Jesu, meine Freude

I was able to attend the NCCO (National Collegiate Choral Organization) conference in Colorado Springs in early November.

It was a marvelous conference with both excellent concerts/choirs and sessions.

Paul Carey has posted beautifully on content of the sessions on his Musical Mayhem blog, so I won't attempt to do that.

Helmuth Rilling was the headliner, working with James Kim's excellent CSU Chamber Choir. Everyone knows Rilling's work, of course, from his Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart and his work since 1970 with the Oregon Bach Festival.

Certainly, his work had a big impact on me. As an undergraduate I was tremendously interested in baroque music and got to know his recordings and those of Wilhelm Ehmann, among others. In 1971 the University of Washington Chorale, under the direction of Rod Eichenberger, took part in one of the Vienna Symposiums organized by Paul Koutney. This meant two weeks in Vienna, each of the seven American university choirs doing a concert in a different church, plus combining for performances of the Kodaly Psalmus Hungaricus in the Rathaus and Mahler's Symphony #8 in the Konzertverein (quite a fabulous experience, with the Vienna Boychoir). Afterwards, the choir toured, ending up in Paris. I stayed over after that, among other things going to Ehmann's Westfälische Landeskirchenmusikschule (unannounced, I should add, as were all the things I did on that trip--more about that in another post!).

When I was in Herford, I mentioned to one of the German students that I'd really like to see Rilling work . . . and they said, well, we'll call him and find out what he's doing! So I found out that he was doing a Kantat-Fest at the Gedächtniskirche the following weekend, then the weekend after rehearsing with the Gächinger Kantorei for the first time on some repertoire for a concert about a week after that. So, off to Stuttgart I went.

The first weekend I watched rehearsals on Saturday for the Kantat-Fest, which simply meant that anyone who wanted showed up on Saturday to rehearse a Bach cantata (about 100 people) and they would then sing it in the service the next day. I didn't stick around for the service, as I'd already arranged to visit two friends from the choir, Greg and Nancy Vancil, who would be studying at the Mozarteum in Salzburg for the next year, but enjoyed watching the rehearsal. I then came back to Stuttgart for the rehearsals with the Gächinger Kantorei the following weekend. The Choir was doing an unusual program for Rilling as I knew his work, all a cappella: Debussy and Ravel Trois Chansons, Schoenberg Friede auf Erden, Schumann Talismane, and Genzmer Südamerikanische Gesänge, if I remember correctly. Great fun!

The next summer, 1972, I  attended the Oregon Bach Festival, which was truly a mountain-top experience for me in many ways. We sang an all-Schütz program (big Schütz year) and Bach's Mass in B Minor. The Bach, in particular, was life-changing in many ways. By that point, I'd already conducted Christ lag in Todesbanden, and was about to start doing a project inspired by the Kantat-Fest weekends. But it was Rilling's knowledge, expertise, and passion which truly inspired. At that time, he told us it was the 50th time he'd conducted the Mass--one can hardly imagine how many times it's been now! The style was fairly romantic, compared to what he or we would do now (although not at the time). It's also been interesting to see how his style has changed: the phrasing in the opening Kyrie fugue, for example. While I never went back to the OBF as a participant, I've occasionally gone to hear a few concerts and, in fact, heard the Mass when the Gächinger Kantorei came to the OBF for their 50th anniversary. Fascinating to hear how the concept has changed, and what has remained not too far from what I remember way back when.

(I should also say that I was able to catch Rilling sitting outside of the hotel one afternoon and thank him for the inspiration he's provided and mention that long-ago couple of weekends in Stuttgart, as well as the early OBF experience--it's always nice to be able to do that!)

Since I've done lots of work with period instruments (it's one of the reasons the job at UNT was intriguing to me, and certainly one of the reasons I got the job)--the Bach Ensemble in Seattle from 1978-80 began using period instruments--my ideas about performance have changed as well.

With that in mind, it was interesting to listen to the concert at the NCCO, which had two motets (Singet dem Herrn and Jesu, meine Freude) plus the Magnificat. I found that there were two things that struck me most strongly: some aspects of phrasing and the tuning of major thirds. As I mentioned, Rilling has certainly changed many things about the way he phrases baroque music (with the example of the Kyrie in the B Minor), but there are other aspects where my way of phrasing has changed.

In addition, I've gotten so used to different tuning systems that my ear now wants a considerably lower/pure major third, particularly at cadences. For me, the thirds I heard in Colorado were far too "jangly," the only way I can describe the difference between the "beats" of a tempered third and the beatless relative calm of a pure third (the purity refers to a major third which matches the third heard in the natural harmonic series.

Since I'd just done Jesu, meine Freude with my Collegium Singers at UNT, that was very fresh in my mind. Given what I've said, it's only fair that I provide a link to what we did, not that I'm claiming anything for it, but it represents in a more concrete way what can only be expressed poorly in writing. You can find that performance here: the Bach begins at 1:04 (that's one hour, four minutes). You'll know it's live, not only because it's on video with no possibility of editing, but also because our organist (the fabulous Christoph Hammer) played a decidedly non-picardy third at the end of one of the movements! We were using Vallotti for tuning the organ, a decent compromise for this program, which was mostly mid-baroque from northern Germany (Buxtehude, particularly). For other repertoire (Monteverdi Vespers, for example) we've used quarter-comma meantone, which has extremely pure thirds (in some keys!).

We'll shortly have a video up with a performance of the Vivaldi Gloria with this choir and our period instrument baroque orchestra and I'll post a link when it's up. Strangely, I'd never conducted the Vivaldi before (perhaps because I'd heard so many terrible performances!), so it was great fun to approach in as fresh a manner as I could. More about that later.


Rick Roe said...

Hi Richard. I am a NTSU alum (BA 1983) and am quite familiar with Helmuth Rilling, having studied with him from Summer of 83 to Summer of 87, also singing in the Gächinger Kantorei. I remember the first Gächinger rehearsal I sang in, it was shortly after Xmas in 1983, the weather was terrible, snow and ice everywhere. But I was so completely engaged by HR's rehearsal, style, manner, atmosphere, and of course, the sound and capability of a grown up professional choir, I paid no attention to the cold outside. We rehearsed for about 8 hours, during which time I'd say about 4 inches of fresh snow fell on HR's silbergrau Mercedes, covering a quarter inch of solid ice. When I left the rehearsal to return to Frankfurt with colleagues, the car was pointed out to me. I was so impressed with what my teacher had done (and so this day) that I cleared his windshield and windows, snow and ice and all, with my bare hands.

Best egards,

Rick Roe
Rockville, Md

Richard said...

Dear Rick,

So nice to hear from you! And what a nice comment about your first experience with Rilling. I'll blog more about it later, but one of the great things for me at the time (1972) was that Rod Eichenberger was my teacher at the time (and a good mentor/model). However, Rod's personality was much different than mine--I was quite shy--and Rilling's rehearsal approach, with a slow build-up and little emotion expressed at the beginning . . . but with some amazing things happening near the end, was an important lesson for me that I didn't have to have Rod's personality to be successful.

What are you doing as a conductor these days?