Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A More Profound Messiah

Ivars really gets into it!

Ivars Taurins

I have just returned from my first rehearsal with Ivars Taurins. Maestro Taurins is the conductor of Tafelmusik and a Handel expert.  In Toronto he dresses up as Handel when he conducts it, I don`t  think he will do that here.  The first time I saw him conduct was in the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra 2011/12 season where he offered a complete evening of Handel. Little excerpts from this work and that, orchestral and choral, it was the best MCO concert I have attended. From that moment on I was looking forward to working with him.

We have 4 rehearsals of the Messiah with him prior to our two performances with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
During the rehearsal today I experienced joyous laughter and such profound emotion I had to work hard not to cry.  First off I have to say that it was so touching to find out that he likes altos. He thought we had important parts to sing and had us come out in lines that have never been pointed out to me before, and I have sung the Messiah for more than a handful of times.!( Although I can't compete with Ivars who has performed it over a hundred times and is still excited still inspirational about it.) For example in the "His Yoke is Easy Chorus" he said every line the altos sing is important. What? Us? OOOO La La.  At one point he called our sustained A in another chorus the rib cage of the whole section.  Yes, the altos are supporting the whole choir for those 5 beats.   Go Altos!

I have never worked with a conductor who is so animated! He swoops and scampers across the floor encouraging us to create life out of the notes on the page. He tells us the Messiah is an attempt to bring mystery and prophecy back. The whole work is obliquely telling us there was a prophecy and it came true. Obliquely because there are no characters or narrator to tell us but the orchestra, soloists,and chorus work together  to tell this story.

The images he gives us to tell the story are like no other. When we come to the word "grief" in "Surely" he tells us to sing it as though we are Italian Grandmas, who have lost their precious grandson in the shopping mall, wailing with fist in  mouth.  Okay, yes, we can do that!   When he wants you to strike a note and then gradually diminuendo he tells us that "this is the moment the pelican hits the plate glass window and slowly slides down"  After he gave us this image each section could perform this beautifully.  SPLAT, scare the audience and then slowly fade out. Of course each image is acted out with grandiose gestures and a highly animated face.   In the "Glory to God" chorus he tells us we start off mezzo piano as the heavens have just opened and the angels are far away then they come and scare the shepherds while the orchestra flutters along with angel wings and the chorus sings the steady Peace on Earth.  and then at the end we diminuendo because of course we are ascending back into heaven.  Lovely.  Every technical bit of information he gives comes with a picture (Pelican, blue whale for a swell etc) and a reason for that particular action.

 Another one of my favourites is "For Unto us a Child is Born" which he has dubbed the golfer's chorus with all the shouts of  'For" "Fore" Fore".  He instructs us here to draw a heart above the quarter note on the word "us" when we sing "unto uuus"   and over "a son is given" to remind us to sing like loving and parents.  What a beautiful way to mark a swell on a note in a song such as this.  We are proud parents who repeat what our spouse has just said,( as spouses do), 'yes, unto us a son is born"  "Yes, unto us a son is given",  A loving dialogue.  sigh. When your voice section gets to that part he shapes a heart with his hands and holds it towards you.

Ivars provides so many profound moments of text interpretation you feel as though you are in a play.  After his instructions I felt as though I needed to go and ponder it for half an hour instead of applying it immediately.  Ivars Taurins breathes new life into the Messiah making even the rehearsal a profound spiritual experience.   This is a link to Ivars discussing the Messiah. He recorded Messiah with Tafelmusik recently and it is on You Tube so I encourage you to play it or buy this recording - it is a beauty

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Voice Lesson: So Much to do; so Little Time

Today I am attending my second session with my voice teacher who will attempt to steer me in the right direction so that neither I nor my misguided conductor will regret that I said "yes" to doing the Alto solo mentioned in my previous posting.  Yes, I know this blog is called Choral Confessions but my having to sing these few solo notes have bumped the entire choral section off of my radar screen.    Really, am I going to be able to enjoy this concert at all? 

Now I have not taken a voice lesson in a long time and I was a bit nervous about my first lesson but my knowledgeable teacher just had me dive right in and began to offer advice.  "Why are you punching every note?  How do I answer that?  I am not normally an aggressive person but apparently when I sing I turn into a prize fighter?  This does not make for a very nice sound and is not like Maureen Forrester at all. Who knew?  All I have to do is stop punching the notes.  As for not liking the way my phrases end she has this to offer.  "how do you stop your sound? "  "I don't know" is not the right answer.  The correct answer to this is "by inhaling."  So she advised me to simply inhale when I want the sound to stop.  That is all fine and good but it also happend that I am not breathing from the right place, so inhaling and exhaling have to be re-learned. (Oh is that all?)  Then there is the recitative that has a note I don't so much hit as 'scoop up.'  So she tried to teach me to put down my scoop and go on the attack.  Actually this had been frustrating me before I ever got to my lesson and her advice was clear and rather easy to follow.  I was saying the initial consonant on the preceding note and then the vowel on the right note which made for the Scoop Sound.   So after she pruned at me for 29 minutes the last minute managed to get a fairly acceptable sound out of me.   I am hoping that this week I will be able to remember at least one of these things without her having to remind me.  I can choose from the following:

1.  Don't breathe the way I normally breathe.

2.  Refrain from punching; try bow across a cello image instead.

3.  Inhale when I wish to stop sound.

4.  Leave scoop at home.

When rehearsing at home I find I can get an acceptable sound about 40% of the time.  I don't think I will be lucky enough to have one of these times occur at the concert  when I will have to throw up, I mean, throw my nervous tension into this mixture.  Today I will probably get an additional 4 bad habits to break and the  Concert is only one month from today!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Plucked from the Choir

Oh, Oh. "Why did I say yes?" When my conductor's voice on the phone said, "May I ask you a favour? Could you please sing the Alto solo for the Saint-Saens Christmas Oratorio?" All he heard from me was silence. My heart pounded my stomach lurched and then after a few seconds I could hear myself saying, "yes."
Now, two days later, I am thinking, "What have I done?"   Obviously the choir is under severe budget constraints in order to pluck me from the choir to sing alongside professional soloists. Also obviously there are no big arias, but if my stomach gurglings are any indication you would think I were singing the Queen of Night aria at Carnegie Hall. I alternate from the ego boosting thought of, "I can't believe he would choose me" to the deflating, "I will sound like a complete idiot up there!"
For someone who has been a solid choral singer for 40 years I have become an expert at that. Choral singing is NOT solo singing, I can't see how the skill set will transfer over. Of course, I have played soloist in my living room, piano room many a time. Much the way a  9-year old prances around Brittany Spears style I am there, score in hand, belting out Aria after Aria with Renee Flemming or Cecilia Bartoli, or Anne Sofie van Otter or Maureen Forrester accompanying me in the background. They are great partners for me because when I take a breath Maureen keeps the sound going, when I lose the key Renee finds it for me. Our phrasing is sublime. Singing solo lines without these girls in the background is like riding a wild horse without saddle or reins. I will fall off after the first bar. I know this because I have already practiced with myself and I need a breath after every bar, that is when I sing imagining I am in front of the audience. If I just sit on the couch, slouching and singing casually along I can hold a phrase quite nicely. Stand me up again with soloist posture and my voice will not cooperate. It knows I am not a soloist. "Get back in the choir where you belong!", it shouts. It refuses to provide me with my entry note, preferring to be led there by the beautiful Anne Sofie instead. It will not get a full sound out, it refuses to hold the tone from start of note to end of a 3-beats, it sabotages every attempt at creating something beautiful. "Oh, Girls, we used to make such beautiful music together, why must I be thrust out from you and stand alone?"
Anne Sofie

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Said by No Alto Ever

I thought I would provide another attempt at defining an alto using the approach of a list of things that were never said by any Alto. If you hear these things mentioned below coming from a choir they are usually coming from the soprano section. If you hear it from the alto section you can rest assured the culprit is really a mezzo-soprano.
1. That note is too low for me. 2. Could the sopranos please join us in bar 34? 3. I wish there were more unison parts to this song. 4. I need to apply my lipstick before I can sing this properly. (flip of hair) 5. I don't like using my chest voice. 6. I would rather sing this duet with a tenor than a bass. 7. The sopranos are singing too quietly. 8. Please don't ask me to help out the tenors in their beautiful tenor line on page 4. 9. What page are we on? (this is only and always heard from the Bass section) 10. Can we sing this in a different key?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Plans Change

Summer has past and in that season I rehearsed the Bruckner (mentioned in previous posting) at home and then as the day when rehearsals with the choir were to begin I realized that I would not have the energy to start back to work, manage my household and join this choir. So after erasing all the previous markings in my score, buying the CD and spending hours rehearsing, I had to back out. This happens in a chorister's life. Plans change.
Just because I said good-bye to Bruckner does not mean that I am not rehearsing anything. I am back with the church choir and we are rehearsing Camille Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio and Mozart's Te Deum. Two short easy works that we should have no problem mastering. Although the performance is for First Advent we have already started rehearsing it. This is a "come one come all" choir so we are in that lovely note pounding stage. One voice part attempting to sing their line with the piano pounding only their notes and the other voice parts whispering and laughing until it is their turn. This is a link to the Mozart which is truly delightful, written by little Wolfie while only a young teenager. The Christmas Oratorio (published in 1877)was written by the parisian born Camille Saint-Saens who was also a very talented youngster. He played a Mozart piece, along with Beethoven and Handel at his first public concert which was given at the age of 10. he wrote his first piano piece at the age of 3. Oh boy! As an adult he taught music and counted Faure as one of his pupils. Camille was born in 1835 and died in 1921 so he was born in the romantic period and died in the flapper times. He himself was a great admirer of Bach and Mozart so I am happy we are performing his work together with a Mozart piece. Monsieur Saint-Saens lived through the turbulent French revolution spending some of that time in London as he surely would have been part of the elite that the Occupy Demonstraters would have killed had he stayed in France. is a link to the closing chorus of this Oratorio.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In the Beginning

This summer I am spending time rehearsing several pieces for the upcoming season. Mendelssohn's Elijah. Bruckner's Mass No. 2 in E minor and Stephen Chatmann's Songs of Remembrance. I have not sung any of these works before so I thought i would share my learning methods. After I pick up the scores I spend time erasing all the previous markings as I find the markings of others extremely annoying, although slightly entertaining. For example one day, during a Sunday worship service, our conductor could hardly contain his laughter as he turned the page of his score at a point where at the page turn there was a key change which rendered the tone written out from a G flat to a F sharp. In the score was written in all caps. SAME BLOODY NOTE!. In any case, funny or not, I delete them all. My own scores are full of markings that are meaningful to me but I abhor the markings of others. For example, I despise the cute eyeglasses that many choristers doodle into their music when they want to remind themselves to watch the conductor. I prefer to write "Look" or "Watch" or "Bill" the conductor's name. My scores, however, would drive others crazy with their detailed quotes from the various conductors I have worked with. For example: unravel the words - William Baerg in my Bach Mass in B minor score, from the same score comes sing with quiet pathos In my Messiah score I have written - a Melismas should not be stressful it should sound fun Still, the eraser must come out for the markings of others. I will often do the erasing while having the work play on my Cd player so I can begin to get the feel of the music into my head. This means, of course, that I have had to purchase the Cd's ahead of time. I listened to the Bruckner last night with score in hand and find I was not particularly moved by it, and found none of it very singable. Would love to hear from anyone who has performed this work who can assure me that it does get better as one gets into it. I will continue to play the Cd's at home or in the car whenever my teenagers allow, which is when they are not around. The car ride driving kids TO their activities has their radio station playing but as soon as they jump out Mendelssohn CD is cranked up. During this phase of rehearsal I will also be using to learn my alto line. I rarely pound it out on my piano first as I am not that skilled in counting out rhythms so better for me to rely on cyberbass. This time however, cyberbass has let me down as they do not have the Bruckner. I also like to read about the composer's life during the time of the writing of the piece which I feel really helps me get into the rehearsals and the performances. I have read a fair bit about Felix before but do not know anything about Anton so I should get a book from the library about him. I have played the Mendelssohn Elijah on my CD a few times and find that even the pieces I have not heard before stick in my ear better than the Bruckner so I think learning the Mendelssohn will be less challenging for me than the other. I have not begun to rehearse the Chatman which came to me as a photocopied pages paper clipped together which I shall have to get bound in order to use. So to do: 1. Bind the Chatman 2. Get book on Bruckner's life 3. Rehearse Mendelssohn on Cyberbass 4. Pound out Chatman and Bruckner on piano 5. Listen to CD's of all 3 works

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Requiem Rehash

So, I have completed my Requiem weekend and the post-concert highs have long worn out but I thought I should post something about each performance. First, on Good Friday 2012, was the Mozart Requiem with the First Mennonite Church Choir (FMC Choir). This concert was highlighted by playing to a standing room only crowd which is always a wonderful thing to process into! Our conductor lowered his baton and the sombre introduction began only to be marred by a sour clarinet note. I thougt the Maestro would begin again as his wrist went limp and his baton dipped and his face - let's just say, were I the clarinetist, I would not have slept well that night. Inspite of this beginning the performance went very well. It was very passionately led by our conductor and emotionally sung by the choir. Orchestra supported us all superbly and a special note of thanks must go to our concert mistress, Karen Barg. On Saturday was the performance of the Brahms Requiem with Alexander Mickelthwaite, the WSO and the Mennonite Festival Chorus. The day began rather frighteningly with a collapse in the tenor section during our dress rehearsal that morning. Rehearsal was halted and ambulance called. By performance time he was still under observation in hospital. The Concert Hall was not sold out but it was a respectable showing.
Unfortunately I did not feel that the choir was at their best. Something seemed missing in each voice section. Perhaps it was the misfortune of the morning and maybe it was just me but I felt there seemed to be some kind of spark missing. Still there was nothing missing from the Maestro. Alexander sang along or at least mouthed the words, to the whole entire Requeim. He seemed in his element and we altos appreciated his looks of rapture at many of the alto solo passages. He guided us beautifully, being more attentive to a chorus than I have previously known him to be, but then maybe we needed it more.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mickelthwate in Harmony with Brahms

     Yesterday we had our first rehearsal with our performance conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate.  It was a piano rehearsal only so no orchestra to get in the way of the choir and conductor.  In the lead-up to this I tell some new comers to the choir that Alexander does not make too many demands on the choir and will most likely pronounce everything "good, good, good", the Maestro shows up and begins to surprise.
      The first surprise is how excited he is about Brahms!  He said it is in his top 4 favourite list.  The first change he makes is in our opening bars.  He wants it much slower than we have been rehearsing it and with  much more patience and emotion. We repeat the opening bars several times until it is perfected  . He really brings out the romantic elements of the piece, which of course is the whole point of Brahms!!  Brahms is forever yearning and it was nice to have our performance conductor keep reminding us to "be patient, take your time, take lots of time."  Usually conductors are saying "even though you are singing piano you must keep the tempo" or  "don't slow down just because it's a low dynamic"  etc, etc. so we are used to our internal tickers moving us along but here, with Alexander Mickelthwate we were given permission to sink into it and take all the time we need to sing with feeling, "Selig sind die da Leid tragen".
     Another wonderful surprise is that he had us change many of our vowel sounds.  We had rehearsed with a straighter brighter vowel and - hip hip hooray - the Maestro wants us to use a rounder vowel.  Not too much "a" in Selig.  The rounder vowel suits us much better! 
     Surprise number three was that when the Altos sing out the theme, "Herr, du bist Wurdig" he did not ask for a lighter sound as some conductors request.  He wanted a robust, dark alto sound, which of course is what we altos do best so we are in perfect agreement.  He also did not seem surprised that the Altos were given so many themes to sing but conducted us as if it were our natural right to belt out the significant texts!
Alexander gave full permission for the Altos to be Altos and to deliver all that Brahms gives us.  I could feel Brahms smiling too!
Now on to 3 rehearsals with the orchestra and then performance on Saturday Night at the Centennial Concert Hall.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beloved Brahms

On Sunday The Mennonite Festival Chorus 2011/12 rehearsed Brahms Requiem.  Ah!  Sigh!  To say I love Brahms would be the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  I do not only love his music, I love him.  Furthermore, Brahms loves me.  Brahms fell in love with several women in his life, and unlike the loves of Mozart, Brahms yearned for Altos!!  Yay!!   When does that ever happen?  It is very simple really.  I love Brahms because he first loved me. The fact that our conductor is married to a soprano was evident when during rehearsal  he asked,  "Why does the theme begin with the altos again?"   Oh Dear. 
In the Requiem Brahms presents the alto chorister with some of the most beautifully haunting lines to be found in choral music.  He lets them sing several passages alone!  He gives them a range of notes from the G below middle C to the E flat on top of the treble clef.  He has faith in the alto to navigate this wide range. 
The Brahms Requiem is a work that spoke to people from the very beginning. At it's premier in Bremen, Good Friday April 10th 1868, it was a huge success. It is reported that tears were flowing during the 4th movement and the audience left the cathedral with feelings of "awe and grace." (from Johannes by Swifford)

In fact, the Requiem spoke to people even prior to it's premier.
" In August 1866 Brahms was in Baden-Baden with Clara (that being Schumann) and her children.He finished the requiem except for the 5th movement which was an afterthought following the premiere.
On a memorable September afternoon at Clara’s house he played and sang through the whole piece. Clara noted in her journal “Johannes has played me some magnificent numbers from a German Requiem…I am most moved by the Requiem: it is full of thoughts at once tender and bold. (p.309 Johannes)

I was touched by a reference to the Brahms Requiem in a book by Oliver Sacks called Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain.  In the following passage the writer had lost a good friend (Lenny) to death but had never mourned this.
The performance of Brahms Requiem had a powerful effect on me. I went to Berlin thinking I would write about David Hume the waves of music poured over me- listening with my whole body, it seemed, and not just my ears - I realized I was going to have to write about Lenny instead. I had been carrying Lenny's death in a locked package up till then, a locked frozen package that I couldn't get at but couldn't throw away either..It wasn't just Lenny that was frozen; I had too. But as I sat in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, and listened to the choral voices singing (Brahms) something warmed and softened in me. I became, for the first time in months, able to feel again.

I feel this power of Brahms at every rehearsal and am usually on the verge of being overwhelmed by it during performance.  Two more rehearsals before we work with Alexander Mickelthwate on it.  I have performed the Requiem many times but this will be my first with Mickelthwate.  I am expecting him to be his usual non-demanding amiable self.  Performance at the Winnipeg Concert Hall, on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mozart Requiem

     I am grateful to be rehearsing Requiem, by Mozart again.  It is like greeting an old friend.  This will be my 6th go around with it and the third with this conductor.  This means that it will be stress-free.  I already know what the conductor wants in virtually every bar, I listen to the recording to and from work so as to keep the whole thing in my ear and that is probably all the work I will have to do on it at home.
     I am reading about Mozart's life as well.  The book I am reading now is called Mozart A Life by Maynard Solomon.  Last year I read the conductor Jane Glover's book, Mozart's Women.  Both books provide insight into Wolfgang's life.
     It is no doubt that Wolfgang was a child prodigy who astounded people wherever he went.  Not a child prodigy who burned himself out but rather displayed great creative genius in his adult life as well.  While I am aware of the genius, as I am reading, I am now more  affected by the immaturity and selfishness of Mozart's Father, Leopold Mozart who cannot seem to understand that Mozart is grown up and can have success outside of his Father's sphere.  He is unable to share in the joy of his son's success unless he can attribute it to himself.  Mozart does spend much time and energy trying to win back his Father's love and respect.  The two commodities he lost when he became a success outside of his Father's town of Salzburg.
      Mozart died at the young age of 36 while in the midst of composing the Requiem.  Although the Requiem was requested of him he often felt as though he were composing it for himself.  I quote form Mozart a Life by Maynard Solomon, "...Mozart began to speak of death, and declared that he was writing the Requiem for himself. Tears came to the eyes of this sensitive man..."
      As if to prove his prophecy true he did indeed die prior to finishing the work but  "Mozart's friend, the singer Benedict Schack, claimed to remember that in the early afternoon of the day of his death Mozart asked for the score of the Requiem to be brought to his bed and that he, Schack, Gerl (the first Sarastro) and Hofer sang through it up to the first bars of the the Lacrymosa at which point Mozart began to weep violently and the score was laid aside.:
  and also "on the day of his death he asked for the score to be brought to his bedside and said, "did I not say before that I was writing this Requiem for myself? After saying this he looked yet again with tears in his eyes through the whole work."
       Thinking upon this during rehearsals of the piece does give it a certain pathos. Here is a link to an excerpt from the movie Amadeus which shows Mozart dictating the score to Salieri, which has no basis in fact but did make a nice movie.  I love this scene.
        As to the Requiem and it's relationship to the Alto I can only say, Mozart is no Brahms.  But then who is?  Brahms' Requiem is filled with delicious alto lines for the chorus that are often song alone and even when not it is a line with a large range and beautiful melody.  Of course Johannes fell in love with an alto or two in his life whereas Mozart was in love with sopranos.  Still, it is the altos who introduce the first melisma passage in bar 34 of the first movement so there is something to be savoured there.  In the 4th movement, Rex Tremendae, altos are again the first to sing the theme and are often asked to sing along with the tenors when they have their go at it since there are rarely enough tenors to blast it out.  Not sure if we will be seconded for this duty this time around or not. 
     If you are the alto soloist in the two quartet movements, (and I have been her many times in my dreams and in my living room), you do have the honour of beginning both of them by yourself.  The Benedictus is particularly beautiful.
     So it is that the alto section does not have much to do but to do their job which is to provide a springboard for the sopranos to leap up on, and a nice little filler cushion so that the tenors don't stand out too much and become grating. And yet...
     I love singing Mozart.  The whole work is melodious and significant.  The Confutatis will bring you to hell and the Lacrymosa will make you weep.  The Benedictus will soothe you and you will close with the longing for eternal rest with the Saints.  After all has been sung and done my soul will weep with gratitude for having spent this bit of time with the genius who is Mozart.