Monday, November 29, 2021

Messiah - 2021 Many Firsts

  YAY! Wish come true, I did get the invitation to sing in the Messiah with the WSO this year. Though, nothing is the same as it once was.  Yes, it is true that we have sung the Messiah before, but never like this.  The following is a list of what is different this time around.

1.  Standing far from other choristers.  What's good about it?  I have space to breathe.  What's bad about it?  I have so much space to breathe I can't feel my neighbour inhaling thereby reminding me to get ready to sing.

2.  Wearing masks.  Good because conductor cannot see if I remembered to come in or not, and also I can yawn mid performance and nobody will know.  Also I find masks to be a great wrinkle remover.   Bad because the audience will certainly hear muffled words and how will they know I am smiling broadly during 'WONDERFUL COUNSELLOR"?

3. My Cousin, Matthew Dalen is singing the tenor solo part!  Ok, actually my cousin's husband, if you want to get technical. The beauty of this is that there will be many family members in the audience and I can pretend they came to hear me!  

Alto soloist is Kirsten Schellenberg, she of the velvet let-me-wallow-in-it voice. Soprano is Jessica Kos-Wicher and bass is Neil Whitehead.4. Dr. Janet Brenneman is the first local woman to conduct the WSO!  She is rehearsing us and performing with us.  I have sung under her baton many a time, for various works, and certainly the Messiah is one of them but I have NEVER performed under her baton.  It will be interesting to see how performance Janet compares with rehearsal Janet.  

Dr. Janet Brenneman (photo from CMU website)

Rehearsal Janet is well organized, efficient and relaxed. She is in her element. What I do know about performance Janet is that she will look like a million bucks, and will sport a commanding lipstick shade. Hopefully she will be unmasked. I am looking forward to experiencing all these firsts on performance night which is December 5th at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg. Get your tickets from the WSO Box Office.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Post COVID Choral Life?


Vaccination rates are above 50%, Winnipeg Blue Bombers are planning for full capacity crowds at the stadium and maybe, just maybe choral singing will return in the upcoming concert season.  It looks to me that the Corona Virus, named Covid-19, nightmare is coming to a slow end. ( I hope I did not jinx it by writing that.)   For the duration of the Pandemic choral singing was deemed to be a highly dangerous activity.  One of my choirs continued with a Corona version of itself and we recorded in small, masked voice part groups and our conductor was reduced to a sound mixing engineer.  This was better than no choir at all, but just barely.  The other 2 choirs did not even do this much, although one had a sing-along on Zoom, with us all on mute and singing to a recording which again, was better than nothing, but even less satisfying than the masked voice part recordings. 

When I looked through the upcoming Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra program I was delighted to see three choral concerts!  Handel's Solomon, Handel's Messiah, and Berlioz Mass.  I am hoping to sing in the latter two and am excited to attend the Solomon.  Ever since reading Jane Glover's book, Handel in London, in which she goes into some detail on his compositions, I have questioned why so few of his Oratorios are performed in Canada.  Perhaps, it's not just Canada but the whole world that is missing out?  Hopefully the WSO's inclusion of Handel's Solomon is the beginning of more Handel choral works to come.

A much more important question is:  Will I be included?  Will my conductors want me back?  Has this forced sabbatical given them an opportunity to discard singers?  Am I one of these?!  Will they realize that altos are easy to come by?  No need to stick with the old.  These anxious questions sit behind my latest need to do choral warmups in the shower, join Voce8 in their virtual rehearsals, sing the melisma passages in For Unto us a Child is Born and hold daily Happy Hours where cocktails soothe the anxious beast.  In answer to all the enquiring minds out there, yes, I sound much better after cocktail hour. 🍹🍸🍹

I hope my attempts to get in some kind of choral shape will be rewarded by a summons to sing with the WSO again and be allowed amongst the choristers, which is the most glorious place to be!  Everyone knows heaven is just one big angelic choir!  

Thursday, December 24, 2020



What a disappointment.  Christmas 2020 was to be a high choral point, booked to perform Bach's Christmas Oratorio with Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra players and the vibrant Ms. Brenneman at baton.  Cancelled.  Bah Humbug!

Instead I sang some Christmas Carols in my closet into my iphone microphone and sent them off to my church conductor at First Mennonite, where he tried to mix this and 20 other tracks into a whole for the Christmas eve church candle light service.  When one is doing their performance singing alone in the closet one needs to keep the end result in mind and imagine fellow singers around the city doing likewise, or else it is just too depressing.

This Christmas Eve day, I could not travel to the country to spend the day with my in-laws so I did this:

Brought my blue Baerenreiter score to the treadmill, put on this performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio and proceeded to walk and sing.   Usually I watch Karajan and his impressive sing- from- memory choirs but this choir from Lucerne was holding the same score I was so they made me feel welcome.  Benefits of this type of performance over traditional one.

1.  Lack of breath control?  "Uh, Maestro, I am on a treadmill don't you know?"

2.  I was able to give the bass soloist support during Grosser Herr, Starker Konig without the conductor kicking me off the stage.  In fact, I am pretty sure he gave a nod of approval.  But it was hard to tell with sweat in my eye.

3.  Can perform the Jauchzet Frolocket whilst looking at the joyous faces of my fellow choristers!  Very fun!  

4.  Notice that the women, demurely have their scores open on their laps during arias while the men have them closed, thumbs in position and bright blue blasting from their laps. Classic.

5. Goes without saying that everyone in attendance loved my renditions of Bereite dich Zion and Schlafe mein Suesser with the support of the Swiss soloist on the screen of course. 

6. Doo-Doo- ed the first violin parts during introductions without consequence, although the guy in First Chair did raise his head and look around for a second, he did not give me the icy stare I would expect from the players here. 

Other musings while walking and singing:

When the flute began to usher the shepherds down their hills I missed seeing WSO's Jan, he of the great hair, rising from his chair,  Instead in Lucerne it was a woman around my age.  

Soprano soloist sang from the back balcony for her little part in Teil II and does not come to stage at all until Teil III  She doesn't sing in Teil 1.  Thanks Bach, for giving the alto soloist all the good part in this piece!  Even on my basement stage, a soprano I am not.

It was an ok way to have a choral performance experience but it was just one notch better than nothing.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Social Distancing and the Choral Life

This was a requiem season like no other in my choral life.  Due to health directives issued in response to the COVID-19 virus, it was a concert free zone.  That very condition requires a requiem of its' own.  Choirs have attempted ways to carry on in the new environment. I am sure you have seen the laughable attempts to hold a choir rehearsal on Zoom or even sing a simple Happy Birthday.  It doesn't work.
Besides the loss of not being able to rehearse together with others is the loss of concerts I rehearsed for but could not perform. Their dates passing without the requisite concert week marathon rehearsals preceding them and no dressing in performance wear meeting backstage in nervous anticipation.  Among these were Berlioz Messe, Beethoven Mass, Dvorak Te Deum all with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, a collaboration I treasure.  In addition was the much anticipated and so beloved Brahms Requiem with the First Mennonite Church Choir.
Some of these concerts are cancelled, some postponed.

One would think I had used my rehearsal free evenings to look at the scores and prepare for postponed concerts but one would be wrong.  The singing I have done, much too loudly, has been belting out tunes with Elton John and ABBA and I do a pretty good rendition of Brown-Eyed Girl.
My concert scores have remained closed receiving only glares as I pass them by.

Then came the unexpected.  My work-life mandated a Wellness Morning as part of a professional development day.  We were to watch videos sent by our boss, reflect on them, and choose a wellness activity in a mindful purposeful way.  This is easier said than done.  What to do?  Can't go for a manicure or a massage.  Could go for a walk but this is part of my daily routine already.  A helpful sister suggested I watch Judge Judy since hearing her call out, "idiot" can sometimes be as satisfying as a massage.  I realized that I would rather spend my mornings working than relaxing.  I am a work first, then relax sort of person.
In the midst of the stress of deciding how to practice wellness Haydn and Brahms called out to me and I got them off the shelf.  I laid out some of the scores of music I will, hopefully be performing in the next concert season.
Beethoven called out the loudest so he and I headed down to the TV where I pulled up a performance of the Mass in C.  This was not as easy as it sounds.  I am fussy.  I wanted one where I could watch the singers and the conductor, and I wanted them to be good.  Finding none with Herbert van Karajan, my go-to YouTube conductor, I opted for this one out of Germany  I usually choose European choirs. The reason being they are most likely to sing without score in hand.  This choir, sadly did not.  Nor did the soloists.  Still I didn't want to waste anymore time finding the "just right" sing along choir.  
As the opening Kyrie began I became distracted by the treadmill visible from the corner of my eye, so I got on it and proceeded to sing and walk simultaneously.  The treadmill hummed in the wrong key, loudly, and my huffing and puffing did not allow for breath control required in most movements. This was less than ideal for rehearsal purposes, but since the performance of this will be way in the future it sufficed.  
Some pleasant surprises.  In spite of not rehearsing for weeks my vocal range has not suffered and my memory of the piece was solid.  Coming across my various pencil  markings made me smile and I took heed of them:  "tempo" "torturned soul"  "NN" (there are 2 n's in Osanna), the circle around the time signature 12/8 of the Agnus Dei and the ever present arrow pointing up indicating to not sing flat. ( Oh dear, the cardinal sin that requires a blogpost of its own.)  When at last we reached the Dona Nobis pacem, the anguished demands and cries for peace, my soul was moved.  Beethoven was writing this during the Napoleonic wars therefore his cries have gravitas.
After the applause and the soloists and conductor had taken their bows I got off the treadmill feeling grateful to Beethoven and all performers who have kept his music alive over the years.
Did I derive meaning from choral music without my choir?  yes.  Is it enough?  No.  I yearn to gather with fellow choristers and look forward to the first post COVID-19 rehearsal.  What a day of rejoicing that will be!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Advent Season 2019

This Advent season I sang in two major concerts.  The first, on December 1st,  being a church concert with 5 small pieces.  2 Stanford Magnificat settings, 1 Schubert Magnificat setting, 1 Mozart Magnificat setting and Mozart's Coronation Mass.  Yes, all this in one concert.  We had beautiful soloists in Howard Rempel, Michael Martens, Anne Marie Dueck and Karis Wiebe, and a lovely little orchestra all under the direction of Yuri Klaz.
This was my first time singing Stanford, and although we are not Anglican I think our mainly Germanic choir did okay with is pretty pieces.  I do feel the these beautiful reflections of Mary, the Magnificat, are lovely words to sing out during Advent.

Maestra Jane Glover, this concert was my 3rd with Glover whose gaze can cut you to the quick.

      The second of my concerts was with the CMU Festival Chorus as guests of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, under the baton, make that, under the baton-less hands of the indomitable Jane Glover!  Jane performed the entire Messiah without baton and score!   She took some glorious liberties with tempo as in a grand ritard (not at the end) in the Hallelujah Chorus which she described as 'vulgar and Victorian" and thanked us for indulging her.  She called the opening of Worthy is the Lamb a choral recitative and declared there was no regular tempo there so we would all just have to watch her.  To the orchestra she said, 'I am still hearing bar line.  I want to hear syntax.  This is choral recitative."
      Her lovely expressive hands, body and face conveyed everything instrumentalists, soloists and choir required.  During "they rebuke" Ms. Glover's face was near collapsing, whereas in the "he trusted" movement she looked so vile and horrid that it scared even the basses in the back row!  Jane pays homage to Handel with every movement.  During, the soprano aria, "I know that my Redeemer liveth" Jane looked completely radiant.  She gave much of herself and expects, nay demands, the same from all of us!  She can be completely terrifying and is not one to mince words.  At the dress rehearsal, where conductors are always pressured by the union clock, she stated at the end , "there have been a lot of intonation problems in the orchestra tonight and if I had the time I should like to go over then but I trust you to take responsibility for intonation when you are getting paid."  Of course, this kind of talk gives a little boost to unpaid amateur choristers.
At the opening of our concert at the Centennial Concert Hall, Saturday December 7, 2019 the Symphony's executive director, Trudy Schroeder actually thanked the choristers for giving their time and talent to this Messiah.  This is the first time, that I can recall, the Symphony publicly thanking us like this.  It was very appreciated.
The CMU Festival, although able to perform great works, is a collection of amateurs who are all busy with their day to day lives and who sing for pleasure.  They spend a full work day at their real jobs and then come together to rehearse works as a labour of love.  When we perform, it is our happy place.   This is in contrast to the WSO players who are actually at work when performing and do other things for fun.
Soloists for this performance were Andrea Lett, soprano, Andrea Hill, mezzo, Zach Finkelstein, tenor and Stephen Hegedus, baritone.
You can read a review of the performance here.
A little tidbit from our first choral rehearsal with Ms. Glover:    Anytime we were singing a long U vowel sound such as in Hallelujah or the to of Unto Ms. Glovers discerning ears heard an umlaut.  She was quite visibly affronted by this sound.  She asked, quite incredulously, if this was a Manitoba accent and without waiting for an answer said to, "get rid of it."  Then it led her to tell, what she thought was an utterly hilarious anecdote about the mezzo Janet Baker who was so accustomed to singing Lieder that when needing a ride to the concert hall in London asked for someone to call her an Über.  Some of us offered some polite laughter but inwardly we puzzled, "you mean its not pronounced Über?"

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Requiem Report

Here I am in the slump between Requiem season and Advent.  Yes, I know it is a rather long slump and it surprises me every time how sad I feel after the last big performance of the season.  By now you know I need to be working on a choral work, no matter how busy I am in my other life.  I won't be rehearsing a major work until September!
One way to get out of the slump is to relive the recent choral experience by writing about it.
VERDI REQUIEM -a choral highlight was performed in March 2019 with the CMU Festival Chorus and the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir conducted by Daniel Raiskin. I had earlier worked with Raiskin, notice how I can say that even though he is oblivious to my existence?  I continue to be intrigued by the individual chorister's knowledge of the work personality of a conductor while he/she remains ignorant of the individual  chorister and sees only this large mass of singers.   So back to Raiskin.  I was looking forward to working with him again because I had rehearsed and performed the Messiah with him in December and found him to be an excellent conductor for choirs!  This was a surprise because many orchestral conductors are not so.  Raiskin has a very clear beat combined with passion and the occasional jumping jack from the podium.
The venue, however, was not ideal and although the chorus was large we had to be slightly "miked".  This is not the best and some audience members did complain about the rather tinny sound in some parts.  This is because the Centennial Concert Hall is still without it's acoustic shell.  This is a travesty!
Giuseppe Verdi
Still the Verdi Requiem is a dramatic, grand scale work, with soloists and a huge orchestra and choir blasting away together, and then plaintively coming apart.   It is stunningly beautiful in parts and also downright frightening in others. I was thrilled to have a 2 night performance of it!  In fact I wish I were part of a permanent installation of it so I could sing it night after night to my death!  The Verdi does not come around that often, I sang it last 5 years ago, so I don't know how many more Verdis I will be allowed to be part of.  5 years from now I will be quite an old lady and the thought of being rejected from the choral stage is anxiety producing!  Mama Mia please let there be a few more Verdis coming from me!

Anton Bruckner
Bruckner Requiem is the next piece I worked on.  Never heard it before and yet I liked it from the first rehearsal on.  It has some beautiful parts in its short little life of 30 minutes.  Most notable is the men's chorus singing Hostias.  This work was performed with my wonderful non-auditioned church choir and a small orchestra which boasted WSO players amongst them.  Soloists Anne Marie Dueck, Karis Wiebe, James Magnus, and Howard Rempel were lovely!  The stellar Yuri Klaz was our conductor. It was truly enjoyable to learn a new work.  Alongside it we also presented Mendelssohn's unfinished oratorio, Christus.  This follows the Bach passion recipe of a tenor evangelist, (James Magnus) narrating the scene of screaming chorus crowds.  First Mennonite Church Choir loves performing anything by Mendelssohn and so of course we only wished it was a finished Oratorio so we could sing more of the same!  If you clink on the FMC choir link above you will hear us in a performance of Christus.

Now that it is over I must look ahead and see what is on the choral horizon for me.  I certainly will be joining the incomparable Jane Glover in presenting Messiah in December 2019 and I am crossing my fingers to receive an invitation to sing the Berlioz Messe Solennelle.  A work I have never sung nor heard until just now when I used it as my soundtrack to write this blog post.  Fingers crossed that next year at this time I will be performing it!  It's on the WSO listing for April 24, 25, 2020!

Monday, March 26, 2018

All Good Things 3 Times!

Two contrasting pieces, two French composers, two conductors, add in one orchestra and the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, in one French cathedral and you have a wonderfully interesting week!

Two composers and their contrasting pieces are Francis Poulenc's Gloria, at once playful and stirring and Faure's melodious long-lined Requiem.  Monsieur Poulenc's score has some French cinema / restaurant style music coming from the orchestra.  It was composed in 1959.  At the first rehearsal I thought I would never be performance ready as the musical lines which are playful in performance are just unpredictable accidents in rehearsal.
Francis Poulenc
As an amateur singer, a score full of accidentals and multiple time signatures like this one just makes me fearful!  With some one- finger keyboard pounding at home and time spent with my best friend,, I came to be able to playfully hum all the movements from the Gloria while going about my day.  It really is in my ear, head and heart now.
 In movement 5 I couldn't help feeling that I was walking in Paris at night, the Notre Dame Cathederal near me, crepe stands around the corner, a cabaret in sight and Edith Piaf singing in my ear.  As an overtrack to that comes the soprano plaintively calling "Domine Deus"  (Lord God) "Qui tolis pecata mundi"(who takes away the sins of the world)  Here in the French night, plaintively and uncertainly calling out for redemption.  It haunts me.  I challenge you to listen to the opening bars of movement 5 and see if you are not immediately brought to Paris. Other of Poulenc's movements, such as the 2nd are light and playful, with the composer having imagined monks playing football (soccer).  The light footwork, passing back and forth, and the joy of the game are evident.
Our soprano for this concert was Lara Ciekiweicz.  Lara has a dramatic singing style which immediately draws in the audience.  Lara has a charming practice of sending a card on opening night to the choirs she works with.  I find this to be a nice touch.  In her earlier life, before fame, she was a chorister alongside me with the Mennonite Festival Chorus.

Lara Ciekiewicz

Gabriel Faure  

The second half of the concert was the melodious and comforting Faure Requiem.  The popular Pie Jesu movement is perhaps the best known and is only soprano soloist and orchestra. Faure did write a beautiful requiem here but he really did not give much for the alto chorister to do, and there is no alto soloist either. In  2 out of 7 movements I was forced to stand there, score in hand and mouth closed for practically the whole piece.  In the Sanctus the altos sing only the last two bars, literally!!!!  Does he have unresolved issues with an alto and this is his way of dealing with them?   I don't get it!  Why make us stand there while the sopranos and the men sound so beautiful around us, clearly stating, ALTOS ARE NOT NEEDED and then at the last Sanctus, giving us one note to sing just to round out the chord.  HUMPFF!
The altos do have a nice duet with the tenors in Movement 2, that is, it could have been nice, but as our conductor told us after the first two performances, "Altos you are having trouble with intonation, well, sorry but you are flat, I have to say it, sorry."  Not exactly the thing you want to hear.  I am sure not much changed at the 3rd and last performance but our conductor was much too kind to tell us this.  Maestro Klaz has a firm practice of only stating the positive, once there is nothing left to be done.  He will teach and coax and reprimand right up until the last possible  moment of the last performance but once it is done, he has left it all on the stage and will insist that you were absolutely lovely!
So the very odd thing about this concert is that we performed it 3 times instead of the usual 2 and that we had 2 performance conductors.  This, I have never experienced.  The two conductors, Alexander Mickelthwate and Yuri Klaz  are quite different.  This was Alexander's last choral piece as WSO conductor and most likely the last time I will ever work with him.  Although he is a very pleasant man and not demanding of the choir, he is seriously lacking a downbeat and for this reason I am always nervous when performing with him the last 12 years.   In fact at the second performance the second movement, yes the one where the altos were flat, he was so seriously off the rails that the tenors, orchestra, and altos were all in different parts of the score.  So, this second performance was on a Saturday night, but earlier that same day we had a dress rehearsal with the other conductor, Yuri Klaz, whose tempos were quite different from Alexander's and whose conducting style is so much clearer.  It is a challenge to  rehearse so thoroughly with director 2 but perform a few hours later with director 1, then the next afternoon you are back with 2.   I heard from many choristers that they wish Alexander had attended the third performance as he would have heard a more passionate and much more accurate rendition of the concert.  There was no uncertainty on entries or endings at this last performance which was a big contrast to the other two.
Lara was the soprano soloist for the Faure and Matthew Pauls, the baritone.

All 3 concerts were sold out and this is a thrill to a performer!