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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Off to Sweden again!

I'll be back in Sweden again (leaving January 1), my trip this time split in two this year, the first from early January to mid-February (when I head to Edmonton to prepare my February concert, and then the Good Friday concert), then back again for my second stint from late March through mid-May.

I was invited by the Radio Choir to prepare works again for other conductors, but also to conduct their Spring Concert, which is a lighter program, shared with a well-known Swedish jazz duo (Chapter 2 - trombone and guitar). We're still working out repertoire for that, but the choir will sing about 35 minutes of music. The preps, however, are substantial, so I have a lot of work to do learning scores!

Peter Dijkstra, new Chief Conductor of Radiokören, will have a concert January 17, so I'll be able to watch all his rehearsals for this program, with a chamber orchestra and repertoire of Mozart Litanae Lauretanae and Haydn Harmoniemesse. It'll be great to be able to meet him and particularly to watch him work. If you don't know about him, check out his website--his career is going spectacularly well and the repertoire he's conducting is amazing! (

During the week of January 21st, I prepare RK for a program that they will doing jointly with the Latvian Radio Choir and their conductor, Kaspars Putnins (the concert doesn't take place until March 16). Pro Coro members know from the festival in Toronto just how good the Latvian group is--and Kaspars is terrific. For this I'll be preparing Pizzetti's Requiem (a great piece), Penderecki's Stabat Mater and Agnus Dei, and Arvo Pärt's The Beatitudes.

The following week begins with two rehearsals on Bach's Matthew Passion, which the choir will do March 20 and 21 with Daniel Harding (note that they're doing this just four days after the concert with the Latvians!). Harding is the principal conductor of the Radio Orchestra (you can read my description of his performance of the Schumann Paradies und die Peri elsewhere on the blog--he's amazing). RK has only 3 rehearsals before meeting with Harding, so my 2 will have to take them through the whole work.

The 3rd and 4th rehearsals that week will be Rachmaninov's The Bells and numbers 1 & 3 of his Three Russian Songs (op. 41), to be done the 16th of February with Jukka-Pekka Sarasate (who did the unbelievably good performance of Sibelius' Kullervo last time with Orphei Drängar and the Stockholm Philharmonic). This is just 2 days after they will have done the Rachmaninov Vigil with Risto Joost from Estonia. The score they sent for The Bells has only Cyrillic, so in all ways I have my work cut out for me! The performance with Jukka-Pekka will also have the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, but I'll only be rehearsing RK in January.

Unfortunately I'll be gone before all of the performances. Too bad not to hear the fruits of my labors directly, but I have other work with Pro Coro that I'm looking forward to as well!

I should also be able to observe a few of Joost's rehearsals on Rachmaninov before leaving for Edmonton.

I'll get back to Stockholm and begin work during the first week in April on the Verdi Four Sacred Pieces, which they're doing with Peter Dijkstra along with the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Rezidentie Orchestra at The Hague in May. I'll also do more work on the Pizzetti Requiem, which Peter's doing with them (on their own), also at The Hague. In addition, I rehearse them on music for their domestic tour, which will include Lars Johan Werle's trees (which Choral Arts members will remember), Sven-David Sandström's April och Tystnad and Bo Holten's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (30-minute set for 12-part choir--some Choral Arts members will remember Holten's Regn och Rusk och Rosenbusk). Somewhere in there I also introduce the music for the Spring concert!

I have a little break until the week of April 21 when rehearsals begin in earnest for the Spring concert (and Kathryn and I will visit her sister and family in Kristiansand, Norway during that time). Nothing the next week (the choir is doing Larsson's Förklädd Gud), then two more rehearsals the following week before the concert on May 9 (in between the last two rehearsals I do a rehearsal on Brahms Requiem for a later tour with Valeri Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic--expanded RK of about 48 voices). The week after the Spring concert I do one more rehearsal on Verdi Quattro Pezzi and the Pizzetti Requiem before they head to Holland with Peter.

All in all, an interesting January-mid May!

I'll be blogging about what I see and hear.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Presenting new styles or works to your choir

I talked briefly in the last blog about presenting unfamiliar works or styles to your choir. This can be a challenge, particularly with works in a completely new style, works that are difficult to sight-read, or works where the choir’s role is only a part of what makes the piece significant.

This can take many different forms. In 1985 at PLU I found out the University’s Artist Series had booked Robin and Rachelle McCabe for a duo-piano recital. Both had grown up near PLU, Robin had gone from the University of Washington to study at Juilliard and built a career as a concert pianist, her career helped by a New Yorker profile that became a book called Pianist’s Progress by Helen Drees Rosencutter (Robin’s now Director of the School of Music at the UW). Rachelle also went from the UW to Juilliard, then to the University of Michigan for doctoral work, then teaching at Oregon State University. I asked my Dean if I could propose doing Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer with the McCabes and the Choir of the West, did so, and the idea was accepted.

With the Brahms, it wasn’t a problem of an unfamiliar musical language (the German took some work), but the question was how to familiarize the choir with Viennese waltz style. Brahms certainly appreciated and knew the waltz culture in Vienna and, when he met Strauss’ daughter, gave her his card with the theme from “The Blue Danube” written on the back, along with the words, “Leider nicht von Brahms” (Unfortunately not by Brahms). Certainly he knew well the traditional performance style for Viennese waltzes. So I began by playing waltzes as the choir came in for each rehearsal—I always had Strauss Waltzes playing in performances by the Vienna Philharmonic under Willi Boskovsky and others. This was, much as my listening to Russian choirs for Rachmaninov, to start building their unconscious aural picture of how waltzes were done—the “lilt” and rubato particularly. We also talked about the waltz socially in Vienna, the kind of Hausmusik that was taking place, and the great popularity of the Liebeslieder once they were published. We also had a waltz party with the PLU dance instructor there to teach the choir members how to dance a waltz (too bad we didn’t have the great popularity of “Dancing with the Stars!”). At any rate, it was great fun and I think it all made a difference in their performance.

A couple years later I felt we had the right forces in place for a performance of the Britten War Requiem, a work I’d long loved and wanted to do. The problem here is that much of the choral music is not easy to sight-read, some is difficult, much isn’t “pretty,” and the choral parts by themselves don’t make much sense without a context. In this situation, I need to “sell” the work to the choir so that they buy into all the work that was ahead in learning the music. I knew they’d love it once all the elements were put together, but to get as far as we could in terms of quality of performance, they had to “own” it from the very beginning.

For those that don’t know the Britten, it was written for an arts festival celebrating the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, which sits next to the ruins of the old cathedral, which was firebombed in WWII. In it, Britten combines the Latin text of the Requiem mass (sung by the choir with large orchestra and soprano soloist, along with boychoir and organ, who are to be placed in the distance) and the anti-war texts of poet Wilfrid Owen, who died in the trenches shortly before the end of WWI (sung by a chamber orchestra and tenor and baritone soloists). Britten very carefully interweaves the two sets of texts so that they comment on each other in moving ways. As in Britten's original performance, we did it with multiple conductors: I took the big orchestra and choir, Jerry Kracht (conductor of the orchestra) took the chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists, and Joe Crnko coordinated the boys from the back gallery.

In introducing the work to the choirs (we combined my Choir of the West, the second mixed choir, and also the Choral Union—an adult community choir), I made sure I did this with them all together, even though some of their rehearsals would be done separately. Since I’d been to Coventry, I had photos of the new Cathedral and the old. The new one is very contemporary in style and has liturgical art from around the world. As you enter the Cathedral there is a high wall of windows with etchings in the glass—so from inside the church as you look back you see the skeleton ruins of the old Cathedral through the glass.

I also introduced the poetry of Owen, which is so moving. As an example of Britten’s careful choice of texts, I first read and then we listened to the “Quam olim Abrahae” section, which is followed by Owen’s re-telling of the story of Abraham and Isaac. After the Latin text proclaims (in quite a jaunty fugue) “As Abraham promised to his seed forever,” Owen's re-telling adds a bitter twist: after God allows Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead of his son—Owens then says, “But the old man would not so, and slew his son, and half the seed of Europe one by one.” Frankly, I get a chill even writing those words right now. After the tenor and baritone finish with Owen’s section, the quam olim comes back, but in a piano dynamic and with the fugue theme inverted. Even though the music for the choir isn’t easy and not that rewarding to sing by itself, the choir now fully understood its significance and were ready to work on it.

Of course, I also want them to sing and experience some of the work immediately. So I had to choose some sections where they could make music quickly. One of the sections I chose was the end of the Kyrie. Britten uses the tritone with regularity throughout the War Requiem and this last section begins with the bells chiming C and F#. The choir picks up those pitches for this short, homophonic section, but the last time melts into an almost magical F major, which in that context is extraordinarily beautiful. Almost always I want to find some sections of such a work where the choir can experience its beauty of expression from the very beginning.

For everyone, I think our two performances of the Britten were an unforgettable experience.

As a postscript, I took the Choir of the West on a tour to England a year later and we did one performance at Coventry Cathedral—for all those who’d sung the Britten, that was also an extraordinary experience.

What ways have you found to get your choir to "buy in" to challenging works, or works that may not have immediate appeal?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Exploring the “New”

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed as a conductor is exploring and learning about a new style, period, composer, or individual work—and trying to communicate the essential elements of that to my ensemble (and ultimately to the audience).

One can think of this in terms of “performance practice,” but I think too many see that in a narrow way, simply as a series of prescriptions for the way one does ornaments or whatever in “older” music. However, most period instrument players and stylistically aware singers I know who are heavily into “HIPP” (“historically informed performance practice) know it’s much more than that, and are among the best at attempting to get inside the mind and culture of the periods and composers with which they work. The details (of instrument, pitch, ornamentation, language, etc.) are just the means with which to better explore the expression and emotions in the music.

Music doesn’t have to be that “old” to need this understanding of context and style, and any time you explore a new (to you) musical “culture” (even a contemporary one) it requires a sense of what that culture truly is and how it expresses itself.

An example from my own work to illustrate:

In 1992 I decided to do Rachmaninov’s great All-Night Vigil (more often known as the Vespers) with the Seattle Symphony Chorale. We had an unusually long period in the Spring where the Symphony didn’t need us, so it was the perfect time to take on a big project of our own.

There are lots of questions when approaching such a work: language, style (phrasing, rubato, articulation, etc.), liturgical context, and many others. Of course I read biographies of Rachmaninov and began learning the music, but where else does one start?

I knew Vladimir Morosan’s dissertation, Choral Performance Practice in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, and this proved to be invaluable. It has lots of information about the liturgy, choirs (especially the Moscow Synodal Choir, which premiered the Vigil) and general performance practices (size of choirs, distribution of parts, how the choir was arranged, etc.), as well as information about the Vigil’s premiere and other performances with the Synodal Choir and its conductor at the time, Nikolai Danilin. This gave an extraordinary amount of information and context.

Vlad also owns Musica Russica and had published a new edition of the Vigil with his transliteration system (important when performing with a choir that won’t have the time to learn Cyrillic!). At that time, Vlad hadn’t yet published the Rachmaninov “monument” but was kind enough to send me copies of galleys to the notes on the Vigil, which had much more specific information about the liturgy, the chants (both ancient chants and Rachmaninov’s composed ones), etc. used throughout the Vigil.

Vlad also prepares pronunciation tapes/CDs for his works and this was very helpful for me to begin to get the sound of Church Slavonic into my ear and voice (he also allows copies to be made for your singers, which saves much coaching time in rehearsal). While getting ready to prepare a performance a few years later with my choir at PLU my wife said she heard me talking in my sleep and couldn’t figure out what I was saying—until she realized I was mumbling in Church Slavonic. A good sign that I was spending enough time with the language!

Another question has to do with the sound of Russian choirs, the general vocal sound, style and phrasing, and of getting closer to special issues of pronunciation and diction. For this, I listened to recordings of lots of Russian choirs, not just of the Vigil, but of other works, too. For example, one of the characteristics one hears in many Russian choirs is a “scooping” into the pitch at times, particularly when words begin with a “soft” or “palatalized” consonant. One of the advantages of listening to lots of Russian choirs is you can begin to sort out how wide a range there is—some choirs seem to scoop all the time and others not as much. It helps decide what is normal and expected for all native Russian choirs (and would sound “wrong” without it), and how much might be a matter of taste. Similarly, one can experience vowel colors and vocal styles and ideas of sound on different vocal parts (are sopranos typically more lyric or dramatic? What kind and how much vibrato is used?).

In Vlad’s dissertation he’d quoted a number of sources on the special “secco” style of performance of the rapidly “chanted” sections by the Synodal Choir, with very quick text delivery. Vlad mentioned a recording he had of the Synodal choir from the ‘20’s, I believe, and was kind enough to send me a copy. The quality of the recording was poor, but good enough to learn much more about the style of performance in these passages.

Finally, I was curious about Rachmaninov’s own “performance practice”—how did he shape phrases, what kind of rubato did he take, etc.? For this I listened to as many recordings of him playing his own piano works as I could. This is a case where we’re close enough in time to hear the way the composer himself shapes his music (not choral music, to be sure, but helpful nevertheless).

This kind of broad listening is important, since you absorb many things (without consciously realizing it) that can’t easily be talked about or articulated. As an example that was telling to me in another medium, in 1988 I was in Berlin and visited the Dahlem museum in West Berlin, but had only a couple hours. They had a nice Rembrandt collection so I decided to spend my time there, looking at about 10-12 Rembrandts during that time span. A month or so later I was in London and went to the National Gallery to see a special exhibit from the Hermitage. On the way to that exhibit, I saw a painting out of the corner of my eye and thought, “Rembrandt.” It was, in fact, a Rembrandt. I couldn’t have described to you the characteristics of Rembrandt’s painting or techniques. I’d never taken an art history class. It’s simply that my couple hours of staring at 10-12 Rembrandts gave me a sense (unconscious to me) of what a Rembrandt “is.” It was experiential rather than intellectual. In the same way, I’m sure listening to lots of Russian choirs and Rachamaninov’s recordings allowed me to absorb much about what a Russian choir does and what Rachmaninov’s style is—much more, in some ways than I could get through just analysis or reading about the style.

You can’t replicate the time you’ve spent in all of this research, listening and study with your choir, of course. I had to boil it down for them, so at the Chorale’s beginning of the year retreat I gave an introduction to the work, read some passages from Vlad’s dissertation about performance practice and responses to the Synodal Choir, and played recordings of several different Russian choirs doing selected movements of the Vigil. After this we worked on a few pieces and sections of the work. All of this was to get their minds and ears acclimated to some changes to the normal way they might sing and phrase. We also made copies of the pronunciation tapes for all of them and I encouraged them to buy and listen to some recordings of the Vigil by Russian choirs (I suggested several). Since we wouldn’t start rehearsing until later in the year, this meant that by the time we started working they would be a long ways ahead.

This kind of preparation for music in a different “world” than one normally works in is incredibly rewarding and fun.

Your thoughts?