Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fear of Judgement

Rehearsing the Beethoven Mass in C Major with the First Mennonite Church Choir has not gone as well as expected.  There seem to be many trouble spots.  This is surprising since this choir has mastered more difficult works, like Bach's St. John's Passion and Brahms Requiem better than this. 

I have had my own pet difficult spot and it has been the syncopated entry of the word Judicare which occurs in the Credo movement.  One look at my score will show you the trouble I have had.  First there is the circled note which I marked early on telling me to please look at this area.  Then there is the marked counting from the two bars preceding the entry.  I don't recall having had trouble with this entry last time I sang it so I must have had stronger counters sitting near me that just led me along.  
It seems the more pencil marks I make the more anxiety I get as this section approaches.  The more I count the more confused I am.

Last rehearsal my conductor saved me. Yuri put down his baton and said, "Just stop counting.  Listen to the orchestra and when they are done their 3 chords, gasp in fear of judgement and sing"  He demonstrated this with a loud quick breath and eyes open wide.   Now, Judicare means judgment and it appears Beethoven deliberately placed the word in this syncopated style where the judgement comes upon us unexpectedly.   Since I also live in fear of judgement at this point in the movement it is easy for me now to listen to the orchestra, gasp out my fear by a quick sharp intake of breath and sing out "judicare".  After our conductor's demonstration the choir tried again, and lo and behold we all came in at the correct time.  It seems a fear of judgement is something we can relate to.

I am sure this is not a problem for most choirs but for us Mennonites syncopation is unnatural.  We can sing out a Bach Choral in the steady style of kneading bread but ask as to venture into an area that might lead to dancing and we just can't do it.  Maybe that's why I didn't have a problem with it the last time I sang this.  That choir didn't have the word Mennonite in its name. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beethoven, Mass in C Major

Ah Ludwig!  That most ironic of men.  A great Deaf Composer, who conducted his own 9th symphony without hearing a thing, nor the applause that erupted afterwards. 

The Mass in C Major, however, did not receive applause from the man for whom it was composed.
Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy is said to have approached Beethoven after the performance asking, "My Dear Beethoven, what is it you have done here?"  It seems that ever since then it has been an underperformed work, but I am happy to say that I am in the midst of rehearsing it.   I stand apart from Prince Nikolaus in that I find the Mass, simply beautiful.  Although a much easier sing than the later composed Missa Solemnis, it is still absolutely divine in beauty.  The opening of the quiet awe-filled sanctus can put me in tears.  It is not dramatic but has a melodious orchestral beginning and then a few bars of acapella choir - gorgeous!  The  Kyrie eleison sets a beautiful tone in the call for mercy arranged for both choir and soloists.
The Mass is much more singable than the 9th Symphony, which I love to perform based on the sheer thrill of the performance but vocally it is very high and very fast for all voice parts; feeling like a scream fest much of the time.  In the 9th Beethoven appears to be more of instrumental composer than a friend of the singer.  In the Mass in C, the alto will feel none of that, however, I have heard the sopranos complaining about spending too much time sitting on their G's and A's.  Do I feel sorry for them?  Not a chance, they are sopranos after all, and if they aren't enjoying those high moments then what are they there for?
I will be performing this work with the First Mennonite Church Choir in Winnipeg on November 27th. Rehearsals until this point have been quite slow going, with much note pounding, but we are approaching the time where the conductor can spend time colouring and shaping our lines and I look forward to that!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

James A. Richardson International Airport Opening

     A performance like no other.  Choir and Orchestra drive to certain shopping centre where they are put on buses and driven to the new James A. Richardson International Airport.  After we passed the security gates, we were ushered into the new facility, which I must tell you is gorgeous!  I would say it is the best part of Winnipeg.  I think we should just keep the tourists here for their entire visit. 

     Choir and Orchestra are then put behind a black curtain, which we learned is actually called a  kabuki.  At dress rehearsal there was much talk of the kabuki and the accurate dropping of it.  The poor sod assigned the task of doing the kabuki drop appeared to feel the pressure and needed the dress rehearsal, which was earlier this day.  He wanted to watch the Maestro's downbeat several times so he would be sure to drop it at the right time.
     Now at Performance time we can hear Tom Jackson's deep voice inviting Winnipegers on board. and when he intones, "Ladies and Gentlemen prepare for take off"  the Orchestra, from behind the curtain begins the dramatic Strauss"also sprach zahursta"  As that ends Alexander Mickelthwaite gives the downbeat for "O Fortuna" (the opening number in Carmina Burana) and the nervous kabuki string puller drops the curtain and a collective gasp is heard from the crowd as chorus and orchestra launch into the work.
   In the interests of time the flirting number where the sopranos beg to be looked at was dropped.  Poor girls.  The Robust, "tempus est iocundum" was left in and this is where baritone soloist.  Mel Braun  did a whole-hearted job that increased every one's enjoyment of the piece!
   The choir was in fine form, most notable were the sopranos who are asked to come up with several high B's at a piano dynamic. They did it in most ethereal fashion
     Although we were singing for the Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper, we didn't actually see him as the stage lights were much too bright to see him during our performance and as it was a high security affair we were whisked on and off the stage like the hired help we were and could not so much as say, "good evening" to the man.   The last time I sang for a Prime Minister I was 10 years old, and at that time I actually saw and spoke with the man.  That man was....aw shucks, I'll let you guess.

     Thus ends my first performance of excerpts from Orff's Carmina Burana.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

First Orchestra Rehearsal - Carmina Burana

Yippee!  I thought I was having fun rehearsing this before, but last night with the orchestra I actually got the giggles!
The part where I feel like I am singing in an Italian Restaurant was even more hilarious with full orchestra backing and I mean full orchestra.  All the horn players, a piano and even Mr. Triangle Man was there klinging away. 
Alexander Mickelthwate requested more words from the choir which is rather amusing since there is not a word in it that any audience member will know, but yes I realize that good enunciation will add greatly to the crispness of the performance but I feel like giggling when I am seriously and accurately singing out, "Na za za" which is a nonsense word even in the Latin/German mix we are singing.
Alexander confessed that his favourite part of the piece is when the Sopranos are singing, "Seht mich an"  (Look at me), this follows the part where all the women are asking for their make-up to help attract a man.  Once the make-up is applied it is left to the sopranos to call out for attention while the Altos have given up.   The Orchestra sounded great and appeared to be having as much fun as the chorus, there were smiles all around.  In the end Alexander,  in usual fashion, pronounced it all "good, good, good."
One more rehearsal at the airport itself, and then the performance.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Carmina Burana

The first  performance of the new choral season will be at the official opening of the James A. Richardson International Airport in October 2011.   We will be performing selected works from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana together  with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Mickelthwaite for an audience of invited guests only, so I can't even sell you a ticket.  For security reasons we will be brought in by bus, not sure if they will issue fake nose and glasses.
The Songs of Burana or Carmina Burana are poems that were found in a Bavarian monastery in 1803 but the poems were written way before that in the 11th and 12th centuries.  Before you get the wrong idea let me say there is nothing monk like or spiritual about these poems.  Our choir is only performing excerpts from it but I have not encountered anything sacred in it.   It is a fun sing with some bawdy lyrics.
Speaking of lyrics., they can be a bit challenging.  Some of the poems are in Latin, some in a old Bavarian style German which hardly resembles classic High German in any way.  Our conductor spent some time living in Bavaria and although he spoke High German he could not speak with his landlady as she spoke only Bavarian German which sounded like gibberish to him.

In No. 8 Carmer, gip die warwe mir" (Friend give me the paint)  we women are to act like 18 year old flirts as we ask our friend to pass the paint so we can make up our face and attract a young man.  This is all fine and good for the college kids amongst us,  but when you get to my age  all the paint in the world can't help in that department so the lyrics feel ludicrous.  Women my age should not be batting their eyelashes in public and any come hither looks coming from my part of the alto section would have our young tenors running the other way.  Still we try.  Of course it is the Sopranos who at the end of each verse sing out "Seht mich an jungen man"  (Look at me young man) oh brother - sopranos; always clamouring for attention.

No. 1 and No. 10  the O Fortuna Choruses, are by far the most common numbers in this work.  Many a movie score has used them and advertising as well.  At the first rehearsal I just felt foolish singing this but by now I feel rather part of an epic.

All this music to these old poems was written by Carol Orff.  The music is not difficult and the excerpts we are singing do not have much subtlety to them but it is great fun to sing in a raucous fashion.

In the No. 22, Tempus est iocundum, there is a section where I feel like I a singing in a cheesy Italian restaurant with red and white checkered cloths on the table and Chianti bottle candle holders in the middle of each table.  There is a moustached accordion player beside me, smiling broadly.  I have way too much fun singing this part and am quite surprised my conductor has not told me to shut up - yet.

Does this music speak to my soul?  No.   Does it overwhelm me with it's beauty?  No.  Am I having fun? 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer; A Choral Dry Season

What does a addicted choral singer like myself do during the dry season?
The first thing I do is suffer withdrawal symptoms.  This usually involves feeling jittery and anchor less.  This can often be solved by a good Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is difficult to not have any rehearsing to do.  Sometimes I solve this by fantasizing that Daniel Barenboim may call me up to do solo work for him next season and I work through the alto solo pieces in Bach, by singing loudly with my recordings, just to be ready for him.  I can fantasize this prior to any wine being  consumed. 

Now that the summer is in its last stages I can permit myself to look ahead.  I have not been informed of the works we will perform in church choir but I do know that Brahms Requiem is on the menu for the upcoming Symphony season and this is sure to soothe any anxiety one may have.  Is there anything more comforting?  Brahms is the first full work I ever performed.  I was a young university student and singing with the Winnipeg Symphony, and I was hooked on this piece. 

It is now safe to look ahead and know that soon rehearsals will envelop and hold me. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Oh, ya, I know him."

     An interesting fact about choral conductors is that while a chorister gets to know the conductor and feel connected to him a conductor cannot be connected to the individual chorister, only to the choir as a whole.  For example, I go around saying I have worked with Jane Glover and Bramwell Tovey, and Boris Brott and I feel like I have an acquaintance with them, but does Maestro Brott ever tell his buddies, "Did you know I worked with Lori in Winnipeg?"  How many times do you think Bramwell Tovey has told his dinner companion, "Lori and I have done the Beethoven's 9th several times."  The truth of the matter is that none of these conductors would  know me if they tripped over me on their way down the concert hall stairs.
      Of course, in smaller choirs like the church choir your conductor can choose to get to know you and your rehearsal conductor for the visiting superstar conductor may also be someone who knows his individual chorister, but even then, he is working with the choir not the singer.  The sound he is shaping is the choirs.
Bramwell Tovey
     I thought I would share a bit about these conductors I "know".  Bramwell Tovey, for example, is the director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.  When he was the conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra I worked with him several times.  Together we did the Beethoven's 9th twice (and I was pregnant both times so when I was called up to do the 9th a third time I thought, "Oh no, am I pregnant again?)  I have also sung the Sea Symphony with him.  Bramwell, oh of course I am on first name basis with this conductor, is an easy conductor to work with.  He is wonderfully animated and relates humorous anecdotes with his wonderful English accent accent and vocabulary. He tells stories of his school days in England, his Mennonite in-laws, and his children, all with such wonderful warmth.  When I have worked with him as part of a Mennonite choir he will even use some low-german words which are incomprehensible when spoken with an english accent, but the attempt is endearing nontheless.  (How can I not feel like I know him when he reveals so much of himself?)   His whole body is involved in all he tells.  I so loved the time he was rehearsing the Verdi Requiem with the Mennonite Festival Chorus and in the Dies Irae section he was trying to get us to sing the "Quantus tremor est futurus, quando judex est venturus" in a diabolical whisper.  He hunched his back, curled his fingers bringing his hands up near his face, bent his knees and began to tip toe towards us, hissing "Quantus tremor est futurus..."  That evil troll image pops into my head every time I hear or sing that phrase in the Verdi. 
       Boris Brott was also somewhat playful.  I worked with him for the locally infamous 500 voice Handel's Messiah in the 1980's at the, now torn down, Winnipeg Arena.  This performance was known more for the squeaky bleacher seats every time the choir rose and sat than for the singing.  He was easy to follow, had an animated face and took the whole thing as a lark.  I don't remember him taking one part of text seriously and when we sang "All we Like Sheep" he said it reminded him of the Woody Allen movie,  Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex  where it seems some people do like sheep.
 Then there was Andrey Boreyko with whom I have worked on several pieces.  We (yes, "we", just ask him) worked on Brahms Requiem, Arvo Pärt's  Cecilia, vergine romana,Patrick Carrabré  Creation Stories, Beethoven's 9thDvorak's Stabat Mater and probably more that I can't recollect.  Boreyko was more god than human.  He glided to the podium, the respect coming to him from the orchestra was palpable, he spoke in a German accent and we hung on his every soft word.  He was demanding but made us eager to please.  As you would expect from a god, he was not revealing.
      It is impossible for me to imagine he would have an every-day life to talk about.  I cannot picture him going shopping or mowing the lawn.  If I were to picture him off the podium it would be in black turtleneck sweater, cigarette in hand, brandy glass on table, poring over scores. and periodically pushing his hair off his face.  He is not of our world, and the passion he brings for the music is overpowering. Working with him ranks in the top of my choral experiences.  After a performance with him one feels as though they have been on a journey to another world and have returned shaken to the core and emotionally spent.
     However, he can be very cutting in his remarks.  I remember shaking on my riser as, during a rehearsal of Stabat Mater by Dvorak, Boreyko lambasted the timpani player accusing him of having arrived without a sense of rhythm when he couldn't mimic a heartbeat. For many uncomfortable minutes the poor sod had to pound it out and then be met with a withering look from Boreyko. When Boreyko looks at you his gaze cuts right through you, leaving one quite weak kneed, for better or worse.
 Maximiano Valdes
    The opposite is true of the Chilean conductor Maximiano Valdés.  He most certainly thinks he is God but he is the only major conductor I have worked with who failed to move me at all.  He gave me nothing.  From him I learned that it is extreme torture to sing with someone who is not exuding anything.  He was robotic and uninspiring and it was such a great disappointment as he came with such an impressive discography.  When we met him for the first time I thought maybe he was sick and that by dress rehearsal he would give us something.  Nothing.  I worked and worked during the performance but felt nothing.  The performance was utterly unsatisfying.  This was sad as the work we sang, Mozart's Requiem, is one of my favourites but Maestro Valdes was so cold that even Mozart could not penetrate him.  This performance was the first and last one where I have cried tears of disappointment.
Alexander Mickelthwate

     The major conductor I work with the most these days is Alexander Mickelthwate who is a look alike to Kevin Bacon.  He is a complete delight to work with and together (ha, ha) we have performed Beethoven/s 9th, Beethoven's Choral Fantasia, Beethoven's Mass in C, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Verdi's Requiem, Haydn's Creation, Brahms Requiem.  He speaks to us with an exquisite soft German accent.  He is complimentary and not very demanding of the chorus.  He is tiny and boyish as he perches on the podium like a sprite and I always have the distinct feeling that I am being led by Peter Pan. He is exuberant and bouncy during performance and makes the whole experience enjoyable!  My most memorable Mickelthwate moment is that he gave in to a rehearsal conductor.  In my experience the performance conductor always over rules the rehearsal conductor.  The general rule is that anything you may have rehearsed in the lead up weeks can be changed the first time the performance conductor meets you.  During the Verdi Requiem there are 7 bars that the altos love to sing.  They occur near the end of the piece when they interrupt a Soprano soloist and steal the show by singing in operatic fashion, on a C above middle C,  all by themselves, 'LIBERA ME DOMINE DE MORTE AETERNA IN DIE ILLA TREMENDA".  This is how we rehearsed it, this is how we wanted to do it.  Imagine how our hearts sank when at rehearsal with orchestra Alexander tells the Altos to just sneak in quietly , hardly noticeable.  What?  Hardly noticeable?"  That is what we have been doing our whole lives,  we can do that but surely not here, not in these 7 bars when we are so longing to shine.  Of course, being choristers and not divas, we dutifully whispered our Libera Me.   When leaving the rehearsal hall an alto friend and I were confronted by Yuri Klaz, our rehearsal conductor, who furrowed his brow and spat out, "What happened to you Altos?"
 "Just doing what the Maestro instructed", I said. 
"No,  no", he shook his head, " this cannot be." 
Just then Mickelthwate appeared and with score in hand Klaz attacked him and I swept out the door.     
     At dress rehearsal the next day I could have shouted for joy when the instructions from the podium were, "Okay, altos sing it like you rehearsed it!"
     Other major conductors I have worked with have been discussed in older postings here on this Blog.  Jane Glover and Noel Edison.  Edison in the Handel's Messiah posting and Glover in the posting called Jane Glover and the St. John's Passion.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stop Insulting Us!

     There is a movement, that has been around for a long time, to remove traditional 4-part hymn singing from the churches and to replace it with unison chorus singing.  When one tries to have a discussion of it the chorus singers always come down to " Well, it's okay because God loves all music.",  seemingly missing the point completely.  After all,  God loves our naked bodies too but that doesn't mean we all show up to church naked; at least that movement has not reached my congregation yet.
      People like myself do not only support the idea of keeping 4-part singing for the obvious comfort it gives to the old and vulnerable in our congregation but also because it is the job of higher institutions to give the masses something to aspire to.  If we dumb down the sermons or music we are insulting our listeners.   I really appreciate how the writer Daniel Gregory Mason explains this concept.
     I wonder if you have ever heard the story  of the great nature-lover, Thoreau, and the Indian arrowhead.  It was told by a friend of his who went with him on one of those long walks which he so loved to take all about the country  near Concord, and in the course of which he saw and heard such wonderful things.  The two men fell to talking of those rude arrowheads, chopped from stone, which are almost the only relics now to be found of the Indian tribes that used to hunt in that region; and Thoreau's companion expressed his surprise that any one could ever see, in those wide fields around them, such mere chips of quartz.  "Here is one now," replied Thoreau, stooping and picking one up at his friend's very feet.
     Thoreau was justly proud of his keen powers of observation and  used to explain it by saying that he knew what to look for.  "nature," he writes in one of his books, "does not cast pearls before swine.  There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate- not a grain more....There is no power to see in the eye itself," he insists, "any more than in any other jelly.  We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads."
     What is here so well said of the eye is equally true of the ear.  As there is indeed no power to see in the eye itself, so there is no power to hear in the ear itself.  We cannot see until we know what to look for; we cannot hear until we learn how to listen.  Yet how few people realize what care and study, what love and enthusiasm, are needed to make a good listener, especially to that rarest, subtlest form of sound - music!
      We often hear people say, for example, that they are fond of popular music but that what they call "classical music" is too dry and heavy for them.  They say this complacently, as if it were entirely the fault of the music, and their state of mind couldn't possibly have anything to do with it.  Yet the reason for their preference for the commonplace is that they are not yet trained to seize the more delicate beauty of a melody by Schumann or Chopin.  Let them cultivate their power of hearing by listening with their minds as well as their ears, and these rare, finer beauties will charm them more each day, while the old popular favourites will in the same proportion grow to seem more and more noisy, meaningless and stale. (taken from The Canada Book of Prose and Verse)
     I myself, am one who has only the most elementary form of musical training.  I have that aggravating amount that lets me know there is something there but what that something is, is usually beyond me.  I am still in the stage where I appreciate music with words more than pure music and that is because I need that guidance to understand the music.  I am not yet a sophisticated listener.
     Many of the advocates for unison simple singing in my circles are classically trained musicians.  They can afford to play these simple songs in church because they are exposed to classical music in other settings, but for many the church is their place of live music.  It is their only chance to expose their listening minds to more complex forms.  Popular music is available everywhere, you can't get away from it.  It can be used in Sunday School and Youth nights and all informal gatherings, so you don't need to come to a formal worship service to hear more of it.
      As stated. I have no formal music education and sing at the top of my lungs when watching the Mama Mia movie but because of exposure to good music in my church and home I can discern  that Bach's Mass in B minor is slightly more complex than ABBA's  Chiquita.  I know I am only catching a little of what Bach intended and the fact that there is so much more to discover is exciting to me.
     I really want our institutions like churches and schools to give people something higher to aspire to in all aspects of life.   Athletics, Art, Music, Academics, and Spiritual fulfillment.   If they don't, who will?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bach St. John Passion Performance

     Our local newspapers chose not to review this concert, it seems.  I, at least, have not seen one and this surprises me as I thought they would want to document Jane Glover's WSO evening.
     From my perspective I was happy to have performed the "wohin" section in Aria No. 24 and come out of it unscathed.  I was quite exhilarated by the fact that I did not miss a single one nor did I add in any extra "wohins".  I feel I could take this show on the road, so if you need a Wohinner I'm your alto.   
     In Chorus No. 23 "Wir haben keinen Konig" my companion and I were the only ones to come in on time singing out the "WIR" but to our chagrin no one else came in so it looked like we were wrong.  I was relieved when a tenor approached me after the concert to say, "you know you were right on that entry in No. 24, I didn't come in since she didn't look up at the choir"  He was right about that, the conductor did not cue us for this entry as she had been doing for all the others but I still did not appreciate being left high and dry in front of all those people singing "WIR" as a duet. 
     Backstage, prior to concert, Ms. Glover came to address the choir which not all conductors do.  She said she knew she had not paid us much attention in the dress rehearsal and that was because we were actually quite good and she had other things to attend to.  However, she wanted us to be
1.  more sneering in "sei gegrusset"
2. more ugly in Kreuzige
3. more personal in the Chorales
4.  more lawyer-like in the Hohenpriester choruses

     I think the choir managed to fulfill all 4 requests but since there is not the benefit of a post mortem with her I cannot be sure. 
   The Concert Hall was not sold out and this was a bit of a downer when we first get out there and saw the empty seats but once the orchestra began to weave the magic of the opening chorus started I forgot about that.

     I am not a musician so my opinion will not mean much but I thought the continuo was so well done by our principal cellist, Yuri Hooker, and the oboe playing was absolutely divine.  Principal oboist, Bede Hanley was sitting within arm's reach of me and I was basking in the sound. 
Soloists, Lawrence Wiliford, Christopheren Nomura, Karina Gauvin and German born Eva Vogel all did their parts well.  Although Bach really does not give the solo women much to do, the arias they do sing are gorgeous.    
      So that is another Easter concert season finished.  Advent seems a long way off.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bach Dress Rehearsal

     Lawrence Wiliford - tenor
     Have just returned from the Bach Dress Rehearsal and must say there were some improvements since last rehearsal.  Our little "wohin" group is now standing together instead of us 3 altos being so far away from the tenors and sopranos.  We are closer because the 3 of us have been plucked from the alto section and plunked down in the middle of the tenor and bass section.   We are standing there throughout the whole Passion which makes it a bit awkward for us in that when Maestra Glover gestures towards us for an entry it is the men she is gesturing and not the altos.  When she means us she gestures far to the left of us, so that took a bit of getting used to but it is so much better to be able to do the "wohin" with the Nonet together.   That part of the rehearsal went well.
     Glover continued to instruct the orchestra on finer points and demanded more from the choir.  The choir had some very feeble unacceptable entries that will have to be corrected for tonight.  Most notably in "lassest du diesen los" and "wir haben ein gesetz", the Chorales did not have enough text and intonation was a problem in some parts.  Gratifying, though was that Chorale No. 28 will be sung a cappela which must say that the intonation was fine enough.
      The soloists, most notable the Evangelist Lawrence Wiliford, are the real bright spots of this rehearsal and I hope the choir will do their part tonight. 


Mendelssohn ist Vergangen

The choir of First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg has completed their Mendelssohn Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang and is on a high!  The performance went well, it was majestic, and emotional.  The orchestra was superb. 
I am so grateful that in 2011, when so many local Mennonite churches no longer have a choir, our choir can continue to perform these wonderful works.  The Lobgesang, being new to all of us in the choir, was a risky and unconventional choice for Good Friday but we did it justice.
      There were some dramatics leading up to Good Friday's performance.  On Wednesday the soprano soloist called our conductor, Yuri Klaz (pictured above), to say she had no voice.  Hmm , what to do?  Yuri calls our de facto General Manager, but who in fact is a very dedicated volunteer who pulls these concerts together with rarely any recognition, (and her name is INGRID.)who manages to fly in a gifted soprano from Montreal who has ties to our congregation, Ellen Wieser who does an admirable job of rescuing us at this late hour.   
     Our conductor was visibly emotional at the post-concert reception and was grateful to the choir for the concert's success.  The post-concert high continues.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rehearsal #1 with Orchestra (Bach)

The first Orchestra Rehearsal for the Bach's St. John went down like this:

1. Maestra Glover was exacting with the orchestra, as she had been with us the night before.  To the violas,  "Just because my back is turned to you doesn't mean I can't hear you."  Having the 1st violin section play 8 or so bars over and over until everyone in the section got it.  Those satisfying things that make such a difference between a "so, so" performance and a stellar one.

2.  The "Wohins" in movement 24 went as badly as I had expected.  For one thing the three of us altos are all alone at one end of the stage with the cellos and double basses while the 3 tenors (no not those 3 tenors) and 3 sopranos are at the other end with the first violins.   I cannot hear the other 6 at all.  The fact that I am an AMATEUR singer is coming out quite clearly.  It shows in that: a) -when I am not hearing the other two voices in the chord I have trouble fitting in my note.  b)my internal organs convulse when the Great Glover says, "alright then let's do No. 24".
      She was not too impressed with our Nonet and made it clear to us that we would have to work on intonation.  "We will rehearse it one more time now, and this is just because of you, I really don't have this kind of time to keep working this thing."
     My rehearsal conductor was somewhat reassuring in the post mortem saying, "It was good, I mean I didn't hear that the intervals were there, but you came in on time and who cares about the notes." 
     I cannot help but wonder, if I have this much internal organ trouble without an audience in the house, will I need CPR on Saturday night?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jane Glover and the St. John's Passion

I have entered Concert Week and I am in the midst of the experience of a lifetime.  I have not sung a St. John's Passion with this much depth before, and this is my 6th experience.  (I had missed one in my previous posting of Bach's St. John's which was 1986.  at my age there is much to forget)
     Last night was our first rehearsal with the great Jane Glover.  With her exacting manner and clear and precise, British accented speech, she was able to shape the Passion in a way we have not experienced before.  She spent most of her time with the Chorales, which is a surprising as there are several large and somewhat difficult choruses in the work, but her emphasis was on shaping the chorales into the monumental human condition statements that they are.  In her opinion one could spend 3 months just learning the chorales.  We were to feel the guilt of our sins and the injustice of an innocent going to die for them and then "tell me about that, but privately."   Prior to each Chorale, and there are 11 she would say, "I invite you to put yourself in it."
      One of several shaping tools is dynamics and here she tried to wean us off of our habitual "mezzo quel que chose" as she put it.    We most definitely have to work on our pianos and pianissimos, although somewhat difficult with our 90+ singers.  I encourage you to listen to this beautiful example of a Bach Chorale, just so you know how achingly beautiful a Bach chorale from this Passion can be. 
      We made so many markings last night that I am not sure I will be able to keep my seatmate, who was absent, up to speed with all we learned last night.  We did not rehearse the "wohin" movement, as several from our Nonette were missing.  We will tackle it tonight and I am most nervous about it as well as eager, since I look forward to her further revelations on the piece. I am comforted by the fact that she herself admitted it is a difficult piece to get right.
     She is the third revelation of St. John's telling of the suffering of Christ.  The first being St. John himself who wrote down this powerful narrative, then Bach who set it to the most glorious music thereby richly enhancing the story and now Jane Glover who has added further revelation by her detailed and impassioned immersion into the text. 
     Prior to an instruction we were sometimes referred to as "my friends" which softens us up for all her demands.  I am actually thrilled by all the demands, it feels good to be worked so hard and expectations set so high.  It was thrilling.  There is nothing blase about the Crucifixion story and there was nothing casual about her approach to it. 
    Then there was the revelation of a clearer separation between the crowd choruses shouting "crucify, crucify" and the choruses of the high priests, for example, "Schreibe nicht".    Now the music Bach wrote for each does automatically denote a difference since in the Schreibe Nicht we are accompanied by flutes which don't really suggest a bloodthirsty crowd and fits the higher learned priests but when the choir treats both as aggressive rabble rousing choruses the lines between the crowds and priests are blurred. Yet this is often how it is done and never has someone provided such a clear image as to how this chorus is to be sung.  Ms Glover asked us to sing it "lawyer-like", we are the rational  people telling Pilate, "listen don't write He is the King of the Jews, but rather He SAID, he is king of  the Jews".   Somehow it is so satisfying to be able to communicate this attitude with one's singing voice, and then to also be able to be the angry mob shouting, "Not this one, rather Barabam". 
     We will back to rehearsing with Ms. Glover tonight and will do our best to bring some shape to our phrases, clarity to our words, and varied dynamics instead of our "mezzo quel que chose" .  Our homework was to read the words of all the chorales and internalize them.  She urged us by saying,  "I would rather you sang some wrong notes than not mean these words you are singing."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wohin? Where to indeed!

     Tucked into the Bach  St. John's Passion is good old number 24.  It is a Bass Aria.  The Bass quite beautifully and often chromatically calls out "Hurry, hurry you oppressed souls."  Oh but were it only a bass aria one could be happy, but alas, while he is singing this there is a small chorus part that calls out "Wohin?  Wohn?"  (Where to?)  .  This is a part all choristers dread.  It is impossible to get everything right.  Some intervals are easy, some are hard but it is difficult for an amateur like myself to figure out  which interval is coming up as they come up so quickly, and since the bass is constantly singing "hurry, hurry"   the chorus is completely panicked and behaving as though we are truly lost; which we are.  This fits in  quite well with the whole drama but for some reason conductors prefer it to fit in musically.   They would like the right interval to occur at the right time.  The wohins are never on a downbeat, of course, that would be too easy, so there is a constant uneasy feeling.  A smart conductor will never have the whole choir sing, as they say it should be done quietly,  but really it is because it would be impossible to have 30 voices  saying the right wohins at the same time.  So, typically a small group will be asked to do this.  (except of course in the video I linked above where mere children manage it  I play this to myself often when I need taunting.)
        I have sung in the small wohin group several times and still have not perfected it.  Woe is me, this Easter weekend will be no exception.  Bill, my 2011 conductor was in the audience in 2010 when I cackled out the wohins quite chicken- like so he should consider himself  forewarned.   The thing is, although I have sung it several times I am not confident in my own sense of timing, so if I feel anyone in the ensemble take a sharp breath, as one must with these wohins I will assume they are right and  also breathe in and after that quick breath I will sing the "wohin" whether Bach says so or not.
     In 2010 my conductor, Yuri, graciously gave us each and every wohin as he knew full well that we would never be able to do it without him pointing his chin and hand at us for each and every entry.  We were spoon fed all the way, which was fine and good for a church choir performance but this 2011 performance will be at the concert hall with dear, Jane Glover, and the WSO who may feel that she has other things to do besides hold our hands.  Given the fact that we are singing "Where to?"  it is probably okay if singers call this out randomly like some lost souls who are really and truly seeking.  The bass does provide the answer after every series of 8wohins which is "to Golgotha".  When the audience hears the ensemble chaotically  shrieking their way through this piece they will feel like they are at Golgotha, place of horror, and I will certainly be doing my part to create the atmosphere.
     I could perhaps ask the conductor if we could sing this from off-stage.  I will tell her it is because the wohins should be coming gently from out of nowhere.  This will save me from actually standing up there visible to the entire concert hall as I lurch through the piece.  The whole thing has a rather desperate quality to it.  I notice on my John Elliot Gardiner recording that there is no such trouble.  I could bother the good Maestra with another suggestion, that she play the John Elliot Gardiner recording while I lip synch, in that big hall no one will notice that my lip movements do not match the singing.
     If any of you have "wohin" experience perhaps you would like to pinch hit for me?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

St. John's Passion

     I have begun Bach rehearsals - Joy!  Mennonite Festival Chorus is preparing Bach's St. John's Passion for performance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jane Glover.  I am excited to be working with her and will hopefully be able to share this experience with all of you.  It will be the first time I will have performed a major work conducted by a woman. 
     My First St. John's Passion was in the early 80's with conductor Henry Engbrecht and the First Mennonite Church choir. I believe it was part of a city-wide Bach Festival.  It is a difficult work for a church choir to tackle and I recall that some of the more demanding choruses were sung by a smaller group.  This group would often rehearse on Saturday mornings outside of the regular choir practice.  As a young University student I was thrilled to be digging into Bach in this way.
     I have also performed it twice with conductor Gary Froese, once as a member of the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir and once with First Mennonite Church choir.  The 4th time I performed it was Good Friday 2010 also with First Mennonite Church choir but then conducted by Maestro Yuri Klaz .

     Now for round 5.  Bach's St. John's Passion is a highly emotional telling of the story of Christ's suffering as told in the gospel of John, from Judas' betrayal, the appearance before Pilate, and the crucifixion. It is a very theatrical piece with parts for Jesus and Pilate and the Evangelist.   The most tender dialogue comes from Jesus on the cross.  When he sings  "Siehe das ist deine Mutter" hearts break.    Besides the dialogue soloists parts there are the angry mob scenes played by the chorus.  We sing the most piercing and shrill choruses screaming out "Kreuzige, Kreugize" in dissonant and intentionally painful harmonies.  The chorus also sings 11 chorales that stop the narrative action and are times of reflection on what has just occurred.  These are beautiful and personal.  Here is a recording of the first chorale. "O Grosse Lieb" http://www.youtube.com/watch?=nagRCkQKPzg&feature=fvsr The effective ways in which Bach matches music to text illustrates so well why Bach is sometimes referred to as the 5th apostle.   Jesus often speaks in solid authoritative fourths, the reflective chorus that follows a slap to Jesus' face is filled with first inversion chords which are the most tender of chords.  Another example of word painting is when the evangelist tells us that Pilate scourged Jesus.  The German word for scourged is "geisselte" and it takes the Evangelist 52 notes to sing geisselte, although we long to turn away this wrong doing goes on and on.
   Bach's St. John's Passion is book ended by two large choruses.  The opening chorus, "Herr Unser Herscher" and the closing chorus Ruht Wohl are both very satisfying to sing.  The latter being a tender graveside song.  It is difficult to sing with dry eyes.
     The Mennonite Festival Chorus is not a church choir and therefore this first Bach rehearsal was void of the note pounding that was so much a part of the Mendelssohn rehearsals a few weeks back.  This rehearsal chorales and choruses were sung all the way through and repeated for phrase shaping and dynamic clarity.  We also did some singing in circular formation which helps us hear the other parts of the choir better.  With only 5 rehearsals before we meet with the orchestra, choristers must come to rehearsals with a good knowledge of our notes and general feel for the piece.
      Our rehearsal conductor, prior to Ms. Glover's arrival is William Baerg who, together with his wife Irmgard, was the recipient of the WSO Golden Baton award.  Mr. Baerg's passion for Bach and for music-making make rehearsals enlightening and satisfying.  Walking out of this rehearsal I felt completely drained and peaceful.  I look forward to each of the next few rehearsals and then the performance.

Friday, March 4, 2011

When one is Flat.

Tonight at choir practice my conductor visibly winced at several notes coming from the Alto section.  ouch.  When this happened the last time, a few years ago I went home determined to perfect the offending passages.  I played it on my piano and could not hear where I had gone wrong, so I emailed the Maestro and told him, "I'm sorry I will not be able to change a thing for performance so I am not sure what I should do.  I cannot hear where my errors are."  He responded with, It is not you.  When you see me looking at your section I am just looking at the section leader but it was not you personally who was off.  Well, okay I was eager to believe that so I did.

As an alto I am used to being largely ignored by the conductor as we sing our part seldom needing correction.  The conductor's face does not turn our way often, and when it does it is usually of neutral expression.  There are the rare occasions where we elicit rapture on his face, during certain passages in the Brahms Requiem for example, but mostly he is content that we are there and that is the end of it.

Not so tonight.  There we were trying our best to bring a legato velvet sound to the Mendelssohn when his face did not so much turn towards us, as jerk with a painful wince.  Several times he stopped us and inquired as to our inability to take a whole step up.  Why did we think 3/4 step was enough?  Hmm, well.  I am beginning to doubt the veracity of his words those years ago.  I am most sure it was I who was off as the alto section was singing as one voice and I was singing when his face contorted.  To make it worse I could not even hear that we were flat even after he pointed this out. 

What to do?   Well I could try a smile which may remove constriction in the throat and that in turn may help me to avoid singing flat because it will require less air to produce the sound.  Less air means less cord resistance which should lessen the chance of a note going slightly flat. On the other hand I could look like a crazed fool smiling through "Er zaehlet unsere traenen"  or worse,  my director may think I am trying to charm my way out of having to sing the right notes.

I could quit singing in choirs.  Gulp!  That is too much like saying I could quit living, and yet, do I want to be the person in the choir that is always flat?   Maybe, I will try wearing higher shoes next time.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Mendelssohn and Lobgesang

     At present my church choir is rehearsing Felix Mendelssohn's Lobgesang.  You are forgiven for not knowing it as it is not performed very often, but I guarantee you will know another of Felix's compositions - Hark the Herald Angels Sing!  My Mennonite and German Lutheran readers will also identify the chorale that appears in the middle of the Lobgesang, "Nun Danket Alle Gott".    I will post more about the rehearsals as it gets closer to the Good Friday performance but for this post I will tell you a bit about Mendelssohn.
     When rehearsing a major work I like to get into the "head space" of the composer and to that end I have borrowed several books from the library to help me do this and will share some of the stuff I have recently read.
      Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg, but spent most of his growing up years in Berlin, a city he had a love/hate relationship with.  Loved because his family was there; hated for several reasons one being they did not offer him the state choir director's job, although it has been said if the ladies of the choir could have voted, the job would have been his. 
     That part of the world seemed to be full of great musical minds at that time.   Beethoven, who died in 1827 was still alive when Mendelssohn was growing up and Brahms was born when Mendelssohn was 23 years old.  Robert and Clara Schumann also shared life space with Mendelssohn and had him as a guest in their home.  They were great admirers even naming one of their children Felix.  Felix was also an acquaintance of Goethe and set some of his poems to music.
     Felix was considered a child prodigy much like Wolfgang Mozart had been.  He gave his first concert at age 9 and when he was the ages 12-14 he wrote 12 string symphonies!  Not sure what you were doing when you were 12 but I was probably climbing trees.
     One of the reasons I am a Mendelssohn fan is that he re-introduced Bach to the world.  Bach had fallen out of fashion by Mendelssohn's time but Felix, being the skilled musician he is, was crazy about Bach and conducted the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 which provided Mendelssohn with a catapult into fame as a conductor. Wherever he went Mendelssohn announced the fact that he was a lover of the music of Bach and often included Bach and Handel in his concerts.  He made his living by performing as violinist and a pianist and by composing and conducting.
     Lobgesang  is also known as Symphony No. 2 and is a work that links a cantata to three symphonic movements.  It  had it's premiere on the date of my wedding anniversary, June 25th, although in 1840. (143 years before my wedding.)
     This structure of a combining symphonic movements and cantata is unusual and seems to show how Mendelssohn tried to break down the barriers between secular and church music.  Felix himself chose the texts for this work from the Bible to highlight the triumph of light over darkness; spiritual awareness over ignorance. "The Lobgesang marked Mendelssohn's most ambitious attempt to dissolve the barriers between concert music and functional church music"  (Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn)
It was written for the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig which celebrates the invention of movable type, largely seen as a light in the darkness of ignorance and was premiered in the Thomaskirche there.
It is no small miracle that Felix was able to complete his Lobgesang in 1840.  Felix wrote the composition at the request of a publisher's festival committee and chose the texts primarily from  the psalms on his own.  During its gestation Felix rarely expressed as much pleasure about one of his compositions.
     " In the middle of working on Lobgesang for the Gutenberg festival, Felix went to Weimar for a week to again rehearse and conduct his Paulus.  The last four weeks before the Gutenberg festival were truly hectic - Felix spent the hours from three in the morning until eleven at night standing at his desk, so he said.  He proofread the parts of Lobgesang as soon as he received them from the copyists.
...The Leipzig pastor Wilhelm Lampadius, who had sung under Felix's direction for the past five years, later described the audience's reception when they first heard Lobgesang.  'I sat next to the venerable Rochlitz and saw how his own and the general pleasure transfixed the dear old man's face...the composition evoked the greatest enthusiasm in the whole audience.
     One sentence in Lobgesang enthralled Felix so much that he mentioned it in several letters:  He wrote,  "One cannot imagine nicer words in the Bible than those that precede Die Nacht ist vergangen, and they fit as if they were written for this music."" (Felix Mendelssohn: out of the depths of his heart by Helen Martens)
Wir riefen in der Finsternis: Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin?
Der Hüter aber sprach:
Wenn der Morgen schon kommt, so wird es doch Nacht sein;
wenn ihr schon fraget, so werdet ihr doch wiederkommen
und wieder fragen: Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin? (Isaiah 21)

We called in the darkness,
   “Watchman, what is left of the night?
  The watchman replies,
   “Morning is coming, but also the night.
If you would ask, then ask;
   and come back yet again.”

     That may be one of Maestro Mendelssohn's favourite passages from the Lobgesang but my favourite sentence to be written by Mendelssohns comes from a letter he wrote to his friend in England letting him know he was coming for a visit.  In it he tells his friend to prepare for his stay and to  "incline the blondes to me."  This makes me laugh.   In his youth Mendelssohn loved the ladies and they loved him, but he did eventually marry and by all accounts had a happy marriage to Cecile even though his work took him away from home often and for months at a time.  He enjoyed spending time with his five children.  At the bottom of one of his letters to Cecile he changed to large-printed letters and addressed his five year old son, Carl,   My dear Carl, Thank you for your letter.  Be very good and do exactly what Mama tells you!  Greet Marie and Paul and little Felix, Auf Wiedersehen, mein lieber Sohn, F. M. B
      There is the rather bothersome matter of Jenny Lind, a soprano whom Mendelssohn was clearly enamoured and some say he carried on an affair with her although there is no evidence of that.  It is clear however that they had a deep friendship and after his death Lind would describe him as "the only person who brought fulfilment to my spirit."
     On 28 October, (1847) he was seated at lunch with Cecile when he suddenly started up, speaking with  great excitement in English.  He had suffered a mild stroke, and was taken at once to bed.  On 3 November he suddenly became restless and, at length, uttered a single piercing scream before falling in a stupor.  "  Felix's brother Paul was there and other friends as well.    "At 9:24 the following morning, Mendelssohn died."
     'Mendelssohn had described the afterlife as a place "where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings".'  (The Life of Mendelssohn by Peter Mercer-Taylor)  I for one wish that for him and hope it for myself.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Being an Alto: from the perspective of a lapsed soprano

Today I want to share with you a piece of writing written by E.  Wieler, a lapsed soprano who writes so beautifully about being an alto that one may be forgiven for thinking she was actually born alto and didn't realize it.  Ms. Wieler now sings in the alto section with me and when you read her piece below, you will agree - She Gets It! 
I look forward to reading your responses to this wonderful piece.

Being an Alto          
from the perspective of a lapsed Soprano
Singing the alto part in a grand piece of choral music (think Handel’s Messiah, Brahm’s Requiem) is to know the wealth of glorious harmony from the inside, to know the strength of a pillar supporting the roof of a temple, to be the moderation for which everyone purportedly strives.  An alto is the viola, the brunette, the soothing voice of reason.  The question remains: are altos born or bred, and, can a soprano ever really be an alto?
Every soprano with brown hair is still a blonde.  She flirts, she flits, she flies, and never apologizes.  She touches the sky while soaring over the lumbering voices of foundation and pillar (basses and altos- a real soprano can’t bear to think of that precious rarity, the tenor).  Some may find her flight frivolous, but when the conductor and audience gaze at her with helpless adoration, she knows her work to be sublime.  Moderation is anathema to the soprano.  She cries, she trills, she strives, and knows above all, she is heard.  She is the melody.
Listeners leave the sacred hall of the performance with music ringing in their ears.  It is never the alto part.  The richest harmonies that make music worthy are simply a supportive framework for the easiest part of all, the soprano.  Altos must be content to be the hardy verdant greens beneath sweet rose and mauve blossoms in a much loved tapestry.  For every time the alto sings alone, she supplies the dominant merely to provide a suitable entry to the tonic, a resolution inevitably gifted to the soprano.  Having her momentary spotlight snatched from her again and again, she returns steadfastly to her best supporting role: the middle range, the tones that never trouble, always soothe; rarely excite, always appease.
The alto knows her audience.  While the majority of listeners focus on the soprano’s melody, connoisseurs and master musicians resonate to the alto’s resolute vibrato.  While the soprano prances for the masses, the alto sings to the few.
Among altos, it is generally agreed that she is born to her part, that she loves the ease on the ears of the lower range.  Most particularly, she maintains the pre-eminence of harmony to melody.  To her, a melody without its diverging line lies flat and empty.  She is born to hear a multi-layered symphony of sound withheld from mere melody singers.  That sopranos do not even feel their lack provides the basis of an alto’s superiority.  She knows and doesn’t flaunt it.
To slide down the bench from the soprano section in order to become an alto is to run the gauntlet, join an elite sorority, and withstand aloof disdain until the test is passed.  A sisterhood exists in this corner of the choir, miles from the competing prima donnas a few feet away.  Altos may at first seem haughty and arrogant toward a lapsed soprano, but if so, she is misinterpreting their strength of character for a supercilious nature.  If she allows enough time and demonstrates strict dedication to perfect harmony, the circle of altos will open to accept the newcomer.
And although she may occasionally feel a slight shiver of woe as the sopranos shimmer in the limelight, the altos around her stand firmly, feet planted, no regrets. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not Meant for the Spotlight

Just returned from a rehearsal where it happened again.   I don't know what it is with conductors, if they get a kick-back from sopranos for bars sung or if they just can't bear to hear a melody line without the sopranos in it?  Tonight our little church choir was blissfully rehearsing some anthems for Sunday morning.  We sang through Don Besig,'s  I Will Serve the Lord All My Days where in bar 35 it states Alto only.   Now what does that mean to you?   It seems that our conductor used some creative interpretation of the phrase "alto only" because he turned to the 9 sopranos and said, "in bar 35 where it says alto only,  just join in."  Pardon me?  There were 11 Altos and let's see, the range in the 'alto only' section is from the A below middle C to the A above middle C - hardly in the soprano's bag of tricks.  But all 9 of them raised up their music and dutifully joined in.  Where is the respect for the composer's markings? 
Does the conductor think the Altos can't handle melody line?  Is he afraid they will spontaneously begin harmonizing with themselves?  Does he think the sopranos will get up and leave en mass, soprano noses in the air, if the altos get to sing a few notes without them?    It seems he just does not see that as much as altos are good at blending in and  hiding in the chord it does give us a little thrill to see the notation "alto only", it is like being allowed to be Prima Donna for a day.   He does not know that by saying, "sopranos join the altos" he is taking the spotlight from us.  I guess it is just going back to where it belongs.  Why upset the order of things?  The heroine is always soprano.  Turandot as a mezzo?  Could Pamina ever sing below middle C?  Don't make me laugh.
 I did notice that the Besig Anthem ends in a high A?  I wonder if the conductor would object if the Altos joined the sopranos for the last bar, just to help them out, you understand.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Voice Parts

For this post I thought I thought I would post something I found on the web about the different voice parts in a choir.  I was hoping to write something like this myself but someone has beat me to it.  There was no author given for this so I cannot give credit, but only to say that the words below are not written by me but I endorse them! 

THE YOUNG PERSON'S GUIDE TO THE SATB CHOIR In any chorus, there are four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Sometimes these are divided into first and second within each part, prompting endless jokes about first and second basses. There are also various other parts such as baritone, countertenor, contralto, mezzo soprano, etc., but these are mostly used by people who are either soloists, or belong to some excessively hotshot classical a cappella group (this applies especially to countertenors), or are trying to make excuses for not really fitting into any of the regular voice parts, so we will ignore them for now.
Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very different personality. You may ask, "Why should singing different notes make people act differently?", and indeed this is a mysterious question and has not been adequately studied, especially since scientists who study musicians tend to be musicians themselves and have all the peculiar complexes that go with being tenors, french horn players, timpanists, or whatever. However, this is beside the point; the fact remains that the four voice parts can be easily distinguished, and I will now explain how.
THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they think they rule the world. They have longer hair, fancier jewelry, and swishier skirts than anyone else, and they consider themselves insulted if they are not allowed to go at least to a high F in every movement of any given piece. When they reach the high notes, they hold them for at least half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires, and then complain that their throats are killing them and that the composer and conductor are sadists. Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior. Altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins - nice to harmonize with, but not really necessary. All sopranos have a secret feeling that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound essentially the same, and they don't understand why anybody would sing in that range in the first place - it's so boring. Tenors, on the other hand, can be very nice to have around; besides their flirtation possibilities (it is a well-known fact that sopranos never flirt with basses), sopranos like to sing duets with tenors because all the tenors are doing is working very hard to sing in a low-to-medium soprano range, while the sopranos are up there in the stratosphere showing off. To sopranos, basses are the scum of the earth - they sing too damn loud, are useless to tune to because they're down in that low, low range - and there has to be something wrong with anyone who sings in the F clef, anyway.
THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth - in their opinion, at least. Altos are unassuming people, who would wear jeans to concerts if they were allowed to. Altos are in a unique position in the chorus in that they are unable to complain about having to sing either very high or very low, and they know that all the other sections think their parts are pitifully easy. But the altos know otherwise. They know that while the sopranos are screeching away on a high A, they are being forced to sing elaborate passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is noticing because the sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually are too). Altos get a deep, secret pleasure out of conspiring together to tune the sopranos flat. Altos have an innate distrust of tenors, because the tenors sing in almost the same range and think they sound better. They like the basses, and enjoy singing duets with them - the basses just sound like a rumble anyway, and it's the only time the altos can really be heard. Altos' other complaint is that there are always too many of them and so they never get to sing really loud.
THE TENORS are spoiled. That's all there is to it. For one thing, there are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their souls than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they're always ready to unload a few altos at half price. And then, for some reason, the few tenors there are are always really good - it's one of those annoying facts of life.. So it's no wonder that tenors always get swollen heads - after all, who else can make sopranos swoon? The one thing that can make tenors insecure is the accusation (usually by the basses) that anyone singing that high couldn't possibly be a real man.. In their usual perverse fashion, the tenors never acknowledge this, but just complain louder about the composer being a sadist and making them sing so damn high. Tenors have a love-hate relationship with the conductor, too, because the conductor is always telling them to sing louder because there are so few of them. No conductor in recorded history has ever asked for less tenor in a forte passage. Tenors feel threatened in some way by all the other sections - the sopranos because they can hit those incredibly high notes; the altos because they have no trouble singing the notes the tenors kill themselves for; and the basses because, although they can't sing anything above an E, they sing it loud enough to drown the tenors out. Of course, the tenors would rather die than admit any of this. It is a little-known fact that tenors move their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing.
THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody. This basically explains everything. They are stolid, dependable people, and have more facial hair than anybody else. The basses feel perpetually unappreciated, but they have a deep conviction that they are actually the most important part (a view endorsed by musicologists, but certainly not by sopranos or tenors), despite the fact that they have the most boring part of anybody and often sing the same note (or in endless fifths) for an entire page. They compensate for this by singing as loudly as they can get away with - most basses are tuba players at heart. Basses are the only section that can regularly complain about how low their part is, and they make horrible faces when trying to hit very low notes. Basses are charitable people, but their charity does not extend so far as tenors, whom they consider effete poseurs. Basses hate tuning the tenors more than almost anything else. Basses like altos - except when they have duets and the altos get the good part. As for the sopranos, they are simply in an alternate universe which the basses don't understand at all. They can't imagine why anybody would ever want to sing that high and sound that bad when they make mistakes. When a bass makes a mistake, the other three parts will cover him, and he can continue on his merry way, knowing that sometime, somehow, he will end up at the root of the chord

Friday, January 14, 2011

First Rehearsal

Lest one would think that my choral life exists only with the 2 or 3 symphony concerts a year, may I assure you that I sing in a church choir that rehearses on a weekly basis.  Tonight we had it -  The first rehearsal of a work that nobody knows.  This time it is Mendelssohn's Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) which, you would think, being a good Mennonite choir that sings German works,  would be in our repertoire.  Judging by the choral sound we produced not a one of us has ever sung it before - except for movement 5 which we have sung as a stand alone piece.  This bit of knowledge did nothing to help us along the patch of syncopation and accidentals and we certainly had our share of accidents.
Being the church choir's first rehearsal  it was a night of NP (note pounding) and sounds of off-key and off-rhythm - in short - everything one would expect of a first rehearsal..  Tedious?  Oh, yes.
  First the ladies pound out a few bars, then the men, then together, and then the next section.  This is repeated every ten bars or so with slight variations.  The conductor may say, after the ladies have struggled through their 10 bars, "I need to hear the altos alone"  and as much as we try to convince ourselves it is because he just can't get enough of our sound somehow the look on his face suggests the repetition is for another reason. 
On First Rehearsal night the conductor, after suffering through 30 minutes of bellowing, will say "sotto voce, sotto voce", which is music speak for shut up, shut up.  The choir convinces itself that he wants us to save our voices but really, it is his ears he is worried about.
Tonight we rejoiced because we had more than 1 tenor, it may have been as many as 3.  If you know any tenors please send them our way.  This is the standard and eternal plea of all choirs.  Then, because it is a church choir throughout the rehearsal there is the sound of altos chatting about new grandchildren while the basses are having their notes pounded out.  The ladies must speak quite loudly to talk above the pounding of the piano.  The sopranos are giggling about something or another, as sopranos are wont to do.
The one line I heard most often today was "where are we?"  this can most often be heard coming from the bass section.  We have just finished a 10 bar stretch with women and men separated and the conductor says, "okay let's try it all together."  "Where are we?" comes the question, and then for the 7th time that night will come the discussion whether we are talking about page numbers, bar numbers, bar letters, or the new page numbers which we just wrote in?.
May I say for the record that this does not come from the alto section, somehow, the altos just know where we are at all times.  Where we are is secure in our knowledge that we are necessary to the piece even if no one else thinks so. 
You wonder sometimes why the conductor doesn't  kick over the music stand and walk out but something, (pay cheque perhaps?) keeps him there till the clock releases us.
I have been through many first rehearsals and so am not worried.  I know by Good Friday we will stop having accidents with the accidentals, the mood will be right, and the basses will know where we are.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Handel's Messiah

     The most well known oratorio in my part of the world is Handel's Messiah.  Even people who have never sung in a choir love to sing along to many parts of this great work:   Hallelujah, I Know that My Redeemer Liveth and others.
      As a young child of about 10 years of age and lying sick on the couch, my Mom put on our recording of it and handed me the words.  She told me how this was a favourite of my Uncle Ewald and since he was a favourite of mine, I was already favourably disposed to it before the needle hit the vinyl.  She also told me the very intriguing part about the King rising during the Hallelujah Chorus and how audiences have continued to do it ever since.  I know there is no definitive answer as to why the king arose, and as Bill Baerg says, he was probably just stretching his legs, but I cling to the version my Mother told me of an earthly King being so moved by the majesty of the story Handel was telling that he rose in homage.
     Lying back in my sickbed Handel's composition swirled around me.  I was somewhat frustrated that one line of text took so very long to sing.  The single word Amen took even longer!  I am sure I fell asleep and woke up several times during the Amen Chorus alone.  Ruth Smith, who wrote the program notes for  Paul McCreesh's CD of Handel's Messiah, says that  "...a setting of the single abstract word, 'Amen', which combines contrast of instruments and voices, harmony and polyphony, counterpoint and chordal statement and a seemingly infinitely expanding span of melody.  But whether or not the listener is aware of this complexity, the dominant effect is stirringly emotional."

     I have been part of many performances of the Handel's Messiah, some better than others, but all special.
I have sung it with Boris Brott as part of a 500 voice choir at that, oh so ridiculous venue - The Winnipeg Arena.  Each chorus had a five minute start up and ending as one waited for the subsiding of the squeak of the chairs as choristers stood and sat.  Luckily I was in a non-squeaking chair as part of the then Winnipeg Symphony Philharmonic Choir now , known affectionately as The Phil.  We were lucky enough to be an "inner chorus" and were allowed to sing what they called "turbo choruses" such as "For unto us a child is Born" and "He shall Purify" and others by ourselves.  I was so lucky, as a young university student, to be able to sing with this group.
     Much more recently, in December 2008,  I sang a memorable performance of it with Noel Edison and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.  Maestro Edison brought a unique interpretation to a work that I had, by now, sung for at least 6 performances if not more.  It was fresh and exciting, even though it seemed hokey at first the performance worked for the choristers and audience alike.  For example, his version of  With his stripes we are healed"  had us working very hard to do the following:  Every time your voice part sang 'and with his stripes" we were to sing stridently and mezzo forte with an accent on each word, then when you sing the next phrase, we are healed we sang it softer and legato. The diference between the two phrases was more dramatic than any other conductor had previously demanded and the stark contrast between side by side phrases  took a lot of energy to do it to his liking, but it worked.  Most memorable was his idea that the sheep in All we like Sheep were not the dumb fluffy sheep, we had always sung about, prancing through the meadow, but menacing sheep who were dirty and depraved.  We had to sing the song in a more disgusted tone than previously or since.  ( I sang it with the WSO and Rudy Schellenberg in December 2010 and the sheep were in the meadow again.)

For all performances, the audience plays a large part.  It is more difficult to sing to empty seats, therefore it was most gratifying when on December 18, 2010 Rudy Schellenberg made his WSO debut, to a sold-out house.  Just when this alto feared she may have become slightly jaded about the Messiah she sees the full house and becomes nervous about the alto entries.  After all, in both the first and second halves of Messiah the Altos make the opening statement, (gulp),  and when the tenor sang Thy rebuke has broken his Heart, I felt mine surely would break as well,  and wasn't I surprised when during the opening of the Hallelujah chorus I had a lump in my throat and things appeared slightly blurry before me. 
The alchemy of composer, music, performer and audience is a powerful thing.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Treble Teens

As a 14year old I set off through the streets of my small town, wearing a burgundy skirt, pink sweater and uncomfortable pantyhose clutching an address in my hand.  The address was that of Shirley Penner, the director of a girls singing group called Treble Teens.
I was nervous and had no idea what the audition  would involve.  My Mom had just handed me the address after school and said she had booked this time for me.  I knew my older cousin had sung in this group and I had seen them perform but I never thought I would be one of them.
When I arrived at the house I was taken down to the basement and was asked to sing some scales and a familiar song.  I don't recall what I sang as I had no preparation ahead of time.  It was something like "Happy Birthday".    I was told I had a mezzo voice (having no clue what that meant)  and was put in the First Alto section of the senior choir.  We sang in a 5- riser arrangement - The first three risers were for first and second sopranos the fourth was the first altos and at the end were the second altos.  I sang with the first altos and am seated in the middle of that back row but secretly I longed to be a second alto.  Of course we sang many songs together as we did 2 and 3 part singing, but in the 4-part songs I looked longingly over at the second alto section.e of the back row of the first alto riser.

I loved my time with the Treble Teens, especially when we had intensive weekend long rehearsals.  I loved the feeling of us all working together to create something great.  I felt like a professional! 
We even had a choreographer although pretty much all we did was "step touch step touch" but I was feeling more proud of myself by the minute!  It's not easy for a Mennonite without rhythm  (and we all are) to do the "step touch" while singing!

1975 Treble Teens sang with Piero Gamba and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.   It was a Christmas special together with Will Millar, member of the Irish Rovers.  Of course, I was thrilled to be assigned to the "Back Stage Entrance" and have a dressing room with lights around the mirror!  Yes, the dressing room was shared by all 40 of us but thrilling nonetheless
Treble Teens also appeared in the ill-fated Peter Gzowski hosted show on Television.  (he was much better on radio) and we recorded an album which was not as easily done in the 1970's as it is now.  We also recorded in a studio on vinyl.  This was an interesting experience as we had to sing better than we had every sung before but no audience to relate to.  A good part of Treble Teens training was spent on stage presence and facial expressions none of which helped us in the recording sessions.  Here we had to rely on techniques learned in our weekly voice training.  It was harder than one would think.

Treble Teens was a great way for a young girl to catch the choral bug and this old lady has still not recovered.