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" 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.