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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An Appreciation - Helen Pedersen

Helen Pedersen just died at the age of 98. From her obituary:
Helen Hunter Pedersen, ninety-eight, born in Miles City, Montana passed away December 9, 2008. She was a graduate of West Seattle High School and the University of Washington, class of 1934, and taught primary and secondary school Music and English in Wrangell, Alaska and Ann Arbor, Michigan before returning to Seattle. She was a devoted partner to her husband of 68 years, Willard S. Pedersen, who preceded her in death. They spent many of their wedding anniversaries at Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park which they treasured. She especially valued her small-town upbringing in Miles City, Montana which included daily horseback riding and summer camping trips to Yellowstone National Park, but also special nights for reading everything from children's books to classics with her parents. Her special interest became music which led to piano lessons, opportunities as an accompanist, and ultimately a life-long passion for teaching and choral conducting. She participated in, formed, and directed many community choral groups in north Seattle including a well-regarded women's chorus in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Haller Lake Methodist Church High School Choir which grew to more than 60 members during her twenty-year tenure. While good musicianship was always important to her, she was also interested in exposing both singers and listeners to fine sacred and secular music. Music appreciation made for a richer life.

I sang in Helen's High School Choir at Haller Lake Methodist church. During the time I was there (from 8th grade through senior year) the choir sang every Sunday morning at the early service during the year, doing a variety of anthems, introits, etc. Because the church was close to Ingraham HS, which had an outstanding choral program under the direction of Wallace Goleeke and later Jerome Semrau, there were some wonderful singers in the choir, which numbered 50-60 during my time.

Helen ran a disciplined rehearsal and we covered a lot of repertoire. I have no idea what we really sounded like (and have no recordings), but it must have been fairly impressive at the time. Certainly I learned a lot from Helen and also took a few piano lessons with her before entering the University of Washington.

We kept in touch from time to time and she never seemed to change. I think the last time I saw her was about five or six years ago when she came to a Christmas concert with Choral Arts at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood, north of Seattle.

She was always proud of her former singers who went on to a career in music--and I'm certainly proud to have worked with and learned from her. She had a rich life.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Should you conduct secco recitative?

This is a brief, but connected, detour from my posts on conducting Orfeo. It’s brought about because of a review of Rinaldo Alessandrini’s guest conducting stint with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

The review is on the on-line music review site, the San Francisco Classical Voice, which by the way, is a terrific site. It should be copied everywhere since newspapers are giving less and less space to classical music (and it seems that SFCV soon be expanding the kinds of things they do--see the chair's letter this week).

Alessandrini is the very well known leader of Concerto Italiano, an ensemble specializing in 17th and 18th century music (I’ll have something to say about their recent recording of Orfeo later).

As the reviewer notes:

It was a bit unfortunate, though, that Alessandrini insisted on conducting the recitatives. With a continuo group as accomplished as Philharmonia Baroque’s (including David Tayler on theorbo, Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord, and cellist [Tanya] Tomkins), and a singer as fine as [Marta] Almajano, I did not see the purpose. In some cases, the result was a bit confusing, as the singer sometimes seemed to desire more time than Alessandrini gave her. The continuo dutifully followed the conductor, who was not always together with Almajano.

In works with secco recitative, it’s long been my practice not to conduct those recitatives, but to conduct the beginning and the end (into the recitative from the previous movement and out into the next one), so I can control the overall pacing of the performance.

Of course, I’m involved with coaching the recitatives and helping shape the internal performance of the recitatives, too. In the case of Bach’s Johannespassion, for example, this means working with the singers for the Evangelist and Jesus roles, the organist and continuo cellist (and other continuo players if you have them). This then becomes the kind of collaborative process I’ll speak more about with Orfeo: we have to decide about what kind of freedom the singer will take and how they will shape the drama and narrative, whether continuo notes will be long or short, connected or not, what kind of realization the organist does, etc.

We know, for example, that even given long written note values in the continuo, that the notes were usually played short. But how short? With what kind of dynamics? Should some of the notes be connected and not separated?

So all of these things come through a collaborative process and the performance begins to take shape. Do I dictate how all of this should go? No. I come into the rehearsals with very definite ideas, of course, but given talented and experienced singers and continuo players, I want (and need) to take their ideas into account as well. Each singer will feel the music in a different way and, unless I absolutely disagree with their approach, I want them to be expressive, and that comes from their own inner conception of the music. Do I make suggestions? Of course! I may have an idea they haven’t considered or, given two possibilities, may have one that fits much better with my conception of the whole.

So why the question of whether to conduct or not? First, let me say that I certainly think you should have the technique to conduct recitative well—you’ll have to in any accompanied recitative—and I talk about learning this for myself in another post.

Think of it from the player’s perspective (continuo cellist, organist—or chittarone player in Orfeo): they have to watch their music (and the line for the singer as well), and listen carefully to the singer so they can place each note precisely where it should be rhythmically. Sometimes they will watch visual cues (the bow of the cellist, a nod from the organist, the singer’s breath). They listen for the singer’s breath, too. Frankly, watching a conductor as well just makes things more complicated. In that sense, you, dear conductor, are simply in the way and can lead to a stilted, rhythmically square performance.

This assumes one of two situations: experienced players with enough rehearsal time (not as much as you might think) to get comfortable with what the singer is going to do; or with inexperienced players, lots of rehearsal time to coach how they do all of this.

I’ve worked in both situations, but in either, I’d prefer to get to the point where the players are working by listening intently, know the shape of the performance, what they’re going to do in terms of lengths of notes (which they can write in their parts), dynamics, etc.—and without me conducting them.

As I’ve said, it’s my responsibility in the coaching/rehearsal sessions to make sure all fits within my overall concept and I conduct into and out of every recitative to control pacing of the drama (or in some cases, somewhere in the middle, too). If you work with students or players/singers with no experience in this style, then it might take lots of rehearsal and coaching to make this work—but isn’t that what they’re there for? To learn?

The only exception might be where you have little or no rehearsal time, something I wouldn’t recommend! But if I had to, I’d probably conduct and say, “follow me no matter what—if we’re wrong, we’re wrong together.” But how expensive is it to have a few extra rehearsals with a couple players? Not much. The biggest problem might be the availability of your vocal soloists if they're flying in from out of town at the last minute. But I'd try to avoid that, too—it simply doesn't lead to the best performance.

If you haven’t tried leaving most of the secco recitatives up to your continuo team, consider it the next time you have the opportunity to do a Bach passion or cantata. It’s a lovely, freeing, and empowering experience for your players and soloists.

And, as is noted in the review, it can often be even more flexible and beautiful than with you conducting!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How in the world did I end up conducting a production of Orfeo?

My blog writing has been slowed mightily by my administrative responsibilities with Pro Coro—it seems that most writing energy is used up by writing far too many memos and emails about this, that, and the other. But . . . here’s the next installment on conducting Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

How did this all begin?

Miki Andrejevic was Executive Director of Pro Coro from 2000-2004, and I would say we had as perfect a relationship as one can have between the chief artistic and administrative people in an arts organization. In all ways we thought similarly about important issues and had similar goals for the organization. It was truly a collaborative effort. We quickly became friends as much as colleagues and have remained friends ever since.

After Miki left Pro Coro, he did some consulting for a period, organized LitFest in Edmonton, and was then hired to be Executive Director for a part of the University of Alberta’s centenary celebration, Festival of Ideas.

Miki has never been known to think small! If you look at the link to the Festival, you’ll get an idea of the breadth of activities and presentations, opening with a talk by Salman Rushdie.

So Miki approached me with an idea. He’d noted that Orfeo had lots of performances in 2007, the 400th anniversary of its premiere, but not in Edmonton, watched a DVD of a performance and was fascinated by the opera. He also knew there wasn’t a lot of activity in Edmonton with period instruments. Here was the first opera that has stayed in the active repertoire and it’d never been done here. So he asked me if I thought we could put together a production of Orfeo for the festival.

It didn’t take me long to say I thought we should try, but that the first thing was to bring Ray Nurse into the picture. Ray is a fixture in the Vancouver early music scene—I’d known about him for some time and he then put together the orchestra when I did the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers in 2001 (our Orfeo, Colin Balzer, sang the 2nd tenor solos in that performance, just before he was moving to Germany). To put it simply, Ray knows an amazing amount about an amazing number of things. For example, we knew that Ray had connections with instrumentalists and singers in the early music world, but didn’t know that he had a long history in opera as well. I knew he’d been a member of the Vancouver Chamber Choir for 10 years or so, but didn’t know he’d done a lot of singing small roles with various companies, including Edmonton’s, at a particular point in time. This meant he had enormous experience with the backstage and production aspects of staging an opera. And he’d been heavily involved in the Festival Vancouver production of Orfeo in 2001 (directed by Stephen Stubbs).

So Ray was brought in as Music Production Coordinator, but in fact he did much more than that (he spent an enormous amount of time early on, for example, in making budgets). We began discussions of what kinds of things and people we’d need. One of the first, of course, was a stage director. Ray recommended Ellen Hargis, with whom he’d worked for a good period of time in the Baroque Vocal Programme as part of the Vancouver Early Music summer workshops. Ellen has a fantastic career as singer, but had also done a little directing and has been assistant director for a number of productions at the Boston Early Music Festival—and she was interested in doing more. This was her first big production as full stage director and she was an inspired choice.

The four of us met in Vancouver in August of 2007 to begin discussions of what we’d need to do, production issues and needs, scheduling, possible performance venues (primarily Miki’s and my responsibility to vet, since we were in Edmonton), casting, etc.

We had a great meeting and tasks were set. Finding the right venue took a lot of time and held us up for quite a while. Many options were discussed and we finally ended up at the Citadel Theatre (Edmonton’s equity theatre) in their McLab Theatre—a thrust stage with no pit—more about that when I discuss rehearsals!

We’d made preliminary contact with a number of cast members at our meeting, since Colin Balzer and Suzie LeBlanc, among others, were at the festival singing, but most contacts were made later. Ray and Ellen, given their experience, know most of the people in the early music vocal world, and their knowledge was invaluable, as in so many other ways. I have to say that we were lucky to ultimately get our first choices in terms of casting—it was a terrific cast.

We’d considered rehearsing in Banff and doing a performance at the arts centre there, but it proved too expensive for the budget and it would have been difficult to commit my local singers to the chorus. So, attractive an idea as that seemed initially, it was dropped.

We’d originally planned to do a fully costumed version, renting the costumes that were created for the Vancouver production (now residing in Toronto). They are gorgeous, but for many reasons that idea was dropped for some relatively simple, modern dress variations. We also thought we might have to do a semi-staged version with the chorus in one place, but that idea was (thankfully!) dropped in favor of a staged production with all music memorized (my chorus members were worried about this!), but with minimal props and no real set. Ultimately it worked incredibly well—more about this later.

Gradually elements and people were set in place, including finding a local person with the skills and knowledge to set up all the elements necessary on-site: James Robert Boudreau, or Jim Bob, who took care of an enormous number of details, from finding a lighting director, stage manager, assistant, working with the Citadel (which doesn’t normally have guest productions), and dealing with moving instruments into the church where we first rehearsed, into McLab, and then out.

All principal singers were gradually cast (with some anxious moments as we thought we’d lose one or another due to schedule conflicts) and Ray put together a fantastic group of instrumentalists. I did some vetting of instruments available locally (organ, two harpsichords), but we also had long discussions of the possible need to rent a truck and haul instruments from Vancouver. I auditioned a 15-voice chorus.

I don’t know how many emails went back and forth between us, but I know that I had hundreds in my Orfeo file, even after deleting many shorter or less substantive ones.

Ray, Ellen, Jim Bob, and I all got together again in Vancouver this past August to discuss in person as many of the remaining details that we could. Ellen had thought she’d get out to Edmonton to see the stage and talk with the lighting designer, but that proved impossible. Jim Bob prepared video of the stage and we had lots of discussions about exactly where/how the orchestra would be placed, where singers could make entrances, etc., but Ellen was still quite nervous about the thrust stage and how it would work, dramatically and acoustically (we were, too)—it’s one thing to look at video and diagrams, but quite another to know how such a space will work in reality.

Finally, everyone gathered in Edmonton on Friday, November 7, 8 days before the opening performance, to begin work together—amazing!

As I noted in my first post, opera is the most collaborative of arts. Certainly this couldn’t have happened (or gone so beautifully) without the incredible talent, skill, and knowledge of all those involved. As a conductor, I was the beneficiary of all of that.