Thursday, November 13, 2014

Christmas 2014

Ivars Taurins as Handel
      So this Alto is happy to be in full swing rehearsals again!  As mentioned in previous post Ivars is coming back and we have begun Messiah rehearsals so as to be in good form when he arrives. He will conduct a Sing-Along on Dec. 12th in Handel costume and persona and the following day he will come as himself and conduct us in his characteristic exciting performance.  We have markings in most every bar so there is something to do with each and every note and when each chorister manages this you get a brilliant performance.  When he was here in 2012 I heard many positive comments from the audience.  The main sentiment was, "That was the most exciting Messiah I have every heard." 
      The WSO will hopefully remember that they liked him and won't give him their customary cold shoulder at the first rehearsal.
      At the choral rehearsals I have a new seatmate, and if you are a chorister you know how tricky that can be.  Some singers blend beautifully together and some don't.  Some singers lean too heavily on you and some allow you to lean.  I am happy to report that my new partner has a beautiful voice and is 10x the sight reader I am.  She is young and has not sung the Messiah before but this did not stop her from getting every entry and every note right.  I am sure I will learn that she is a professional soloist somewhere and was flown in to help us out.  On the other side of me is my faithful partner of many years.  We are obsessed with sitting together at every rehearsal and live in fear of being separated for performance.  Yup, we are those type.
    In the First Mennonite Church Choir we are performing Schubert's Mass in G which I have not sung before and so I am happy to have the opportunity and surprised to learn that I really like it.  This is the link to a good performance of it.  It is so simple but melodious.  That performance is Nov. 30th, 7pm at the church 922 Notre Dame Avenue, if you want to experience it LIVE.  Franz Schubert was but a teenager when he composed this Mass but us old timers will do our best to do it justice.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Summer Fallow

Here I am in another summer dry season.  No performances nor rehearsals.  The usual depression was staved off by copious amounts of German beer
whilst cheering on the German team during World Cup 2014. I share three loves with Pavarotti:  music, food and football. (soccer to our North American minds)
Now that Germany has hoisted up the cup I must return to normal life and this, said normal life, is harder to bear without the sweet hours of rehearsal in it.
What is a chorister to do? 
Time to look ahead at the upcoming Season.
1.   First off will be rehearsals for church Advent concert, but I don't know what that will be yet. 
2. in mid December will be Handel's Messiah with Ivars Taurins!!!  I posted about this great Handel conductor in a previous posting and I am thrilled he is coming back and is working with our choir again.  Now that we know what he wants, his markings still relatively fresh in our minds, we will certainly be able to deliver a memorable performance.  Who can forget his unique musical marking of a squiggle over a group of notes.  Don't remember that from your theory classes?  Nope.  It is an Ivar marking meaning, "Do Something with these notes."  He also appreciates altos which gives him bonus points and clearly shows his worth as a conductor.  There will be two performances with the WSO, one will be a sing-along, which will have Ivars in Handel costume! Good times! 
3.  Britten's War Requiem in March with the WSO and Alexander Mickelthwaite, who, have I mentioned, is becoming better and better at conducting choirs and seeing that we are also part of the concert.  He has also raised his passion up a few notches and so I find him less Peter Pan-ish than I used to.  This will probably be the most challenging work for me in that it is not from the baroque or classical period and I have never performed, rehearsed, nor listened to this work.   The Symphony Orchestra season guide has this to say about it:
Using massive forces of musicians and singers, English composer Benjamin Britten had a message when he composed his War Requiem in 1961: “My subject is War, and the Pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity...All a poet can do today is warn,” the title page shows in poet Wilfred Owens’s words, on which the work is portrayed. Owens was killed during the last days of World War I. Britten’s War Requiem is among the most powerfully eloquent testaments to Owens’s universal message of peace.
4.  Good Friday performance of Rutter's Requiem.  I have performed this once before but don't remember anything about it.  Last season our church choir performed the Rutter's Magnificat after which a conductor from the audience named us "the Rutter choir of Winnipeg", so I am confident that after many note slogging rehearsals we will be able to deliver a respectable version of this Requiem.

So what will this chorister be doing this summer? 
1. Sing along to favourite Arias in my living room just to know my voice is still there.  This last activity requires strategic timing, unless I don't mind my son bellowing in the background, "Turn that down! Stop singing!"
2.  Get a thrill when writing down rehearsal dates in my Calendar.  Might do this in two stages so as to prolong the pleasure.
3.  Listen to the two Requiems
4.  Perhaps order the Britten score

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

It's Passion People!

The passion season is a wonderful time for a chorister as it is filled with rehearsals.  I was put in the passion mood early as I have already completed a performance of Silvestrov's Requiem for Larissa in January and a concert of Taneyev's St. John of Damascus otherwise known as the Russian Requiem. in February. ( I wrote a post about it earlier)  Now, the month of March consists of rehearsals of Verdi's Requiem and Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ.

This is my third go around with the Verdi's very operatic Requiem and so I don't need to spend much time rehearsing at home so it  is causing me no stress whatsoever. A relief after the Silvestrov in January when I had to do so much rehearsing on my own and it still yielded minimal results.  Some may call the Verdi cheesy or over the top but I don't see why one would bother with those terms - it's quite simply called PASSION, people!  There is no more wrathful an experience as the Verdi Dies Irae, there is no more desperate a plea as his Salva me, no more copious tears flow than flow during his Lacrymosa.  The orchestra is huge, the choir is huge, and emotion is spilling out all over the place!  This is not a Deutsches Requiem by any stretch of the imagination, there is no contained resignation nor comfort in it whatsoever!  This is pure Italian Opera!   My score still contains the markings from my first performance of it with Bramwell Tovey - the mostly consist of the reminder "Think Italian".   This work also contains some of my best conductor memories as told in my post titled,"Ya, I know him."   I am loving being wrapped up by Verdi again and being held by all this passion and drama in order to release it all on April 19th with the WSO at the Centennial Concert Hall. 

Before that emotional release  comes Good Friday and the First Mennonite Church's offering of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ.  With apologies to Josef, this work does appear cheesy at times.  It was originally written as a string quartet (no words) for a Good Friday service at a Spanish church.  Each movement was to represent one of the Seven last words of Christ - which are not words at all but statements.  Later on the words were added in German.  We are singing an English translation of those words. Working with translation seems to have messed up some of the lyric/dynamic combo.  What I mean is that there is a sudden Forte for the word "gentleness".  I have not checked the German score to see what words accompany that "forte" so it maybe that this is just Haydn's sense of humour coming out.  He is known for injecting humour in his works, although I think a passion piece is an unlikely place for this to come out.    Upon reflection I should not call this work cheesy because the Passion story is just that moving and if the music reflects that then it is merely being true to text.  Jesus' words from the cross are extremely moving and the music does show this.  This link, Seven Last Words, gives you the whole work  in German language. Our performance is in English, however, so please feel free to attend on Good Friday at 7pm.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


To be voiceless is one of the most anxiety producing states for a singer such as I.  I need to sing.  For the last 10 days I have been quite nervous about the state of my voice.  From 2 days of only being able to whisper to 8 of speaking an octave below my usual register I am wondering if I will be able to perform in the upcoming Mozart/Taneyev concert.
I have received all kinds of advice and have followed most of it.  I have drank pots of tea with honey, lemon and whiskey in various combinations.  I have rubbed Vicks VapoRub on chest, back, neck and feet.
Last week I arrived in the rehearsal room ready to  go over my part with heart and brain.  My conductor did not want me to do even this as he said that alone could strain my vocal chords.  He said just thinking my line would tire out my voice so I only did a bit of that and mostly listened to the other voice parts.  It was during this exercise that I was hit by the beauty of the soprano line and the skill with which our nimble ladies navigated their Mozart Melismas.  In the end it was quite nice to have spent the rehearsal time really listening to the other voice parts but this did nothing to secure my part in my voice. I am quite worried about not being ready in time. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Taneyev and Mozart

     One of the wonderful things about the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir is that they open themselves up to accepting associate members for certain concerts.  I am pleased to say that I have joined them for many a concert since the 1980's and am doing so again for March 2, 2014.  On this day we will be accompanied by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and will be performing two contrasting works.       
     The first, St. John of Damascus by Sergei Taneyev, decidedly Russian sounding piece, while the second is the mass in C Minor by Mozart.  Rehearsing both side by side can be a challenge as one requires a full rich legato sound while the other a light and airy feel.  I sing the Russian much more naturally even though the language is unfamiliar the long mourning lines are part of my DNA.  Mozart, as they say writes for the voice, but it must be a light soprano voice. These long melismas of his in this work require a nimbleness that I may be losing.  Hopefully I will get it into my voice by performance time.
     Taneyev (1856-1915) was a student and later a friend of the great Tchaikovsky and was a concert pianist, being a Russian expert on Bach and Beethoven.  He was also a guest in the home of Leo  Tolstoy so he is certainly someone well surrounded by the Russian artistic types.  I love this work that we are singing, St. John of Damascus, it is also known as the Russian Requiem.  It is beautifully sad in that, oh so Russian of ways.  The lyrics are also written by a Russian, a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy, A.K. Tolstoy which begin:

 I travel along a path that is unknown to me,
I travel between fear and hope;
my sight is weak, my breast is chilled,
my hearing is dim, my eyelids droop….“
The short 25 minute work is full of love and compassion and is a meditation on the meaning of human existence, of life and death.  Play just a few seconds of the this link and you will be overwhelmed with the beauty of Russian pathos.  That is right, click on" Russian pathos" and Taneyev will be there for you.
     The  Mozart piece, written in 1782, is an unfinished work just like his Requiem.  We know the Requiem was never completed as Mozart died but why he didn't finish the Mass in c minor is a mystery.  He did write it to celebrate his marriage and had vowed to have a work performed at their first anniversary.  He did indeed premiere this work in Salzburg, a year after his marriage and his young wife was the soloist, but it was incomplete.  He never finished it and so, there we have it, we sing it in its incomplete form.  Yet another Mozart work shrouded in mystery.   I have never performed this Mass in C minor so I am delighted to have the chance to do it and to be accompanied by such a great orchestra and work with such a passion filled conductor as Yuri Klaz. The concert is on March 2nd at 3pm at the St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg.  Get your tickets in advance.  Information at the concert link above, and hear both these works side by side.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Larissa's Requiem - Valentin Silvestrov

Valentin Silvestrov
  I am in the midst of rehearsals for the Winnipeg Symphony's New Music Festival(NMF).  The NMF is a wonderfully successful venture on part of the Symphony - a week of merriment and showcasing composers from our time.
     Participating in the NMF is a "hit or miss" experience.  There have been some works where I have positively blushed performing them, wishing I were not inflicting this tripe on the audience but there have been times of supreme bliss, such as Arvo Part's Hymn to St. Cecelia a few years back.  Also, for me, the music for NMF is always difficult in that it is completely unpredictable and filled with dissonant harmonies, so that my limited musical abilities are highly challenged.
     This month I am very moved by the offering of Valentin Silvestrov, the Ukrainian composer, born 1937.  I have been rehearsing his Requiem for Larissa, which he composed from 1997-99 for his late wife.  He had thought at the time that this would be the last piece of music he would every write and indeed his complete heart and soul seem to be in this piece.  Like the other NMF pieces I have done it has been difficult to learn, perhaps the most difficult piece I have ever learned, and yet I am not turned away from it, instead I am at times weighed down by the force of his grief.
     The piece begins in a most profound way, the opening bar is a bar of nothing.  No choir, no solo, no orchestra, not a single instrument.  It is as though Valentin is saying, "My wife has died and now there is nothing."  This nothing is not a nice 4/4 nothing it is a very off-kilter 5/4 bar of nothing.  Yup.  Not only is there nothing to say, this nothing has unbalanced him.  The opening page contains 12 bars and the time signature changes 7 times!  See what I mean?  The man does not know how to walk through life without his wife. 
     The first word sung is "Requiem", the second is to be aeterna (eternal) and for 3 whole bars he tries to finish the word but can't, in the end the women sing only "aetr".  This device, of not being able to finish one's words, is used throughout the piece so that we as choristers are often left to sing only "a, oh, mm"; there is much humming and many a bar ends with an "mm".  All this fragmentation, and leaps and descents of 9ths contribute to the unsettling feeling that all is not right. For me the singer, it is a great task.  Often one does not get much support from fellow choristers either since in the 3rd movement the altos are divided into 6 parts!  One voice section - 6 different parts!!  Challenging, to say the least.
     In movement 4 we get some reprieve from this as  a lone tenor, from within the choir (as the instructions state) sings a complete poem by the poet Shevchenko, evoking a lovely Slavic melody filled with beauty and pathos, although even here the time signature keeps changing so that I can rarely look off the page, even though the altos are now only in 4 parts. 
     The 5th movement echoes Mozart and it is so" Mozartarian pretty" that it is difficult to believe the master himself did not write it.  A lovely, lovely piece of music played in turns by a solo violin or solo piano while the choir attempts to sing the Agnus Dei, but all the accidentals, fragmented words and time signature changes make this difficult, but there is much encouragement and comfort in the beauty of the solo violin and piano.  The 6th movement is much like the first and then the 7th and last movement contains 90 bars of mostly orchestration; 4 bars have the choristers singing "Requiem Aternam" this time finishing the word, although the altos are not yet ready to speak and say only (o) for 7 beats and then 5 beats all alone on our (m).
     We have had our first rehearsal with the performance conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate, and I was surprised at how much he seemed into this piece.  With all the running around he has had to do rehearsing and learning new music he seemed to have a special place in his heart for this work.   He gave the choir some brilliant instruction and I feel the piece is really coming along.  We have 3 orchestra rehearsals now and then - Ta Da- it will be performance time.  Here is the link for the NMF website.