Monday, December 7, 2015

Making the Case for Scaglione

Photo of CASE SCAGLIONE by Christian Steiner
I have just finished two nights of Messiah - yup - 'tis the season.   Our conductor was Case Scaglione.  I was singing it with the Mennonite Festival Chorus and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.   This was not our most inspired Messiah - that belonging to Ivars Taurins, and perhaps not the most strange and interesting interpretation - that was Noel Edison but neither was it lacking in charm.
It may have appeared slightly lacklustre as the orchestra was clearly void of most of its principal players and it seemed rather obviously so at the first two rehearsal. Adding to the less than stellar rehearsals was the Maestro's laryngitis which left him unable to make any demands on us. 

In spite of this I enjoyed the process because he was a very generous soul, conducting a good beat but never over conducting leaving soloists, players and choristers somewhat free.  He didn't make strong demands on diction but he strongly favoured legato singing and asked for it in places not usually required.  (Let us break their bonds, With his stripes, Amen, and others)  He blew us kisses from the podium and was generally kind with his praise.  He wanted more from the alto section and the powers that be should perhaps consider auditioning more singers for our section.

A distinguishing feature of his Messiah was, that he laid down his baton for the "And with his stripes" and conducted the choir bare handed and required no orchestra whatsoever.  Something he witnessed Sir Colin Davis doing in London.  A Capella singing in a concert hall is a rare event and I hope we pulled it off.  There was no critic, unless I count my husband, in attendance so no review in our local paper therefore not sure what the audience made of this feature. 

Although some may feel bored by performing Handel's Messiah every year, I feel lucky to be able to sing this great work under various batons and getting something new out of it each time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Of Cake and Trumpet Jabs

Below I have re-printed the review from the Winnipeg Free Press of my latest completed concert even as my mind is looking towards the Good Friday Concert 7pm at First Mennonite church.  There we present Schubert's Deutsche Messe and Rutter's Requiem. 

I thought today I would take you behind the scenes of the Beethoven 9th concert to a view from my spot in the choir.  Like the fact that I was repeatedly being blinded by the baritone soloist's shiny shiny shoes.  The soloists for this performance were unusually placed i.e. they were not in front of the orchestra but rather relegated to stand with us  in the front row of the choir, on a little raised podium in case the shiny shoes and fancy gowns were not enough to let you know they were the soloists.  Mr. Baritone also owned a very nice collection of striped socks. ( His beautiful opening to the 4th movement of the Beethoven's 9th is wrongly credited in the review below to the tenor - which is a sad thing since tenors already receive more attention than is necesssary.) 
During this rehearsal I was disheartened to observe the little respect was given to the Maestro by the players.  Granted he does remind one of Peter Pan but he loves Beethoven and so we should allow him to present the Beethoven he wishes instead of opposing him every way we can. 
During one rehearsal "Unbirthday" cake was served for a returning viola player, the Maestro's baton landed in the cake at downbeat and icing was flung on face for beat 2.  So, yes it may be difficult to take seriously the instructions of a conductor with icing on his face but I was hoping they would at least try.
There was decidedly  much chit-chatting from the brass section during rehearsals, and I thought they would never be able to do this if Andrey Boreyko were still at the helm.  The withering words oozing over one who dared cross him is not a comfortable thing to witness. 
I will not reveal all the antics witnessed from this privileged position as some items are best left on the stage but will reveal one last moment that was quite comical. 
The third movement of the Beethoven's 9th is a beautiful serene piece that requires no trumpets until the very end.  During the performance, as we neared the end of it I see the 2nd trumpet player lifting his instrument from the stand preparing to play, he then suddenly jabs his trumpet into the tuxedoed leg of the principal trumpet player who jerks himself awake picks up his instrument and 3 beats later is playing beautifully.  The trombones and the first row altos shake with laughter as Beethoven goes on.



WSO brings the spirit of Beethoven to life

Standing ovation for inspired performance

There is some music that seems to grow only richer and more resonant every time you hear it -- and particularly when performed live.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, popularly known as the Chorale, is one of those whose message of universal brotherhood based on Schiller's Ode to Joy has also grown more timely -- and more needed -- than ever.

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven's 9th
Centennial Concert Hall
Friday, March 27
Attendance: 1,234
Four stars out of five
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's latest Masterworks concert held Friday night featured the stirring work with its last performance held in May 2013. The program led by Alexander Mickelthwate included guest soloists: Joni Henson (soprano); Elizabeth Turnbull (mezzo-soprano); John Bellemer (tenor); and Stephen Hegedus (bass-baritone) performing in both the evening's programmed works.
Also showcased were two of this city's busiest and hardest-working choirs this year: the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir (Yuri Klaz, director) and the Canadian Mennonite Festival Chorus (Rudy Schellenberg and Janet Brenneman, co-directors).
The first of two weekend performances also caps the WSO's 2014-15 series of several concerts informally dedicated to human rights, in turn celebrating last autumn's long-awaited opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
It's always a pleasure seeing a conductor lead music from his homeland. The German-born maestro approached Beethoven's magnum opus with gusto and conviction, setting a brisk tempo during opening movement Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso.
The following Scherzo: Molto vivace -- Presto hurtled breathlessly to its own double-bar close, including exuberant brass and bone-rattling timpani strikes.
By contrast, the Adagio molto e cantabile presented calmer vistas including mellifluous winds and noble horns evoking the peace of a German countryside. Still, this central movement that provides a measure of repose could have ebbed and flowed even more, before the trumpet fanfare toward the end that signals even greater things to come.
After the low strings' delicious opening statement of the principal theme that launches the finale, Bellemer introduced the chorale with his soaring, recitative evocation to "friends."
The four soloists presented as a remarkably well-blended ensemble throughout, with Bellemer a particular standout with ringing high notes and legato phrasing. Each singer only added to the whole gestalt in a satisfying performance.
It's one of classical music's most thrilling moments when the chorus dramatically rises for their first entry -- and this performance did not disappoint. Hearing the totality of the epic work's four movements unbroken by applause by a clearly enthralled audience would have only heightened its overall, cumulative power.
Nevertheless, those same 1,234 souls leapt to their feet at the end, awarding the maestro, WSO players and the full stage of choristers and soloists a rousing and well-deserved standing ovation.
The first half of the concert also featured Anton Bruckner's Te Deum, another mighty work composed in 1883-84 as a heartfelt hymn of praise and thanksgiving. It's one that isn't heard often in this city, with its last WSO performance in 1987.
Balance between chorus and orchestra is often very tricky with these types of concerts, akin to walking a musical tightrope. The choir's words could be clearly heard during the more lightly scored sections with strings; however they were often obfuscated whenever the brass came in it. They were at their best during the several a cappella sections.
Still, including this equally memorable work with its soaring choruses and "cathedral sound" added to the overall spirit and ethos of the inspired evening.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2015 B5

Friday, March 13, 2015

Requiem Season 2015

For this chorister this is a great time in the Choral season-  Requiem Season.  Requiem music is usually the most beautiful of all the compositions.   This season I am delving into Rutter's Requiem, Verdi's Stabat Mater, Faure's Messe basse and my all time favourite Brahms' Requiem.  As a Bonus I will also be performing the, Decidedly not Requiems,  Beethoven's 9th and Bruckner's Te Deum
I have and am so enjoying them all!

The Rutter is being prepared by my church choir to be performed on Good Friday 7pm while the Verdi, Faure and Brahms were performed on March 1st  with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir..
As I have mentioned on this blog before, Brahms writes so beautifully for the alto voice and his music is so heart searing that I leap at any chance to sing this work and have been fortunate enough to sing it many times.   The choir has many non-german speakers so it is not like rehearsing with my Mennonite church choir.  One hears many mispronunciations along the way which can be jarring to both Brahms and I.
 Jarring to my conductor during rehearsals was how we sound.  Ha!  He was obsessed with getting the choir to rid themselves of, what he calls, "the bowtie sound".; the childlike sound produced by a fallen palate has opposed to a raised one.  He will mention it 6 or 7 times in a rehearsal and it is very embarrassing when he looks my way, gestures the pulling of a bowtie around his neck, and asks, "Why are you singing like that?"  I comfort myself by looking down and assuming he is referring to the bowtie singer behind me.  : )
In spite of this the concert went off well and you can read a review of it here.

The Bruckner and Beethoven will be performed by two choirs who are being prepared by two different conductors and then will be presented to Maestro Micklethwaite at the appointed hour.  This will be interesting because both conductors have very different styles and different ways of pronouncing the Te Deum text, which the WSO has said must be sing in "German Latin" and not the regular type Latin we used for the Verdi.  This means the word coeli is pronounced Tsuli and not chelly.  At least that is what our conductor is saying.  Who knows what YK is doing over with the other one, but I have sung German Latin with him before and I know some things are different from what I am being told to do this time around.   When the two choirs come together for the first time on the 17th of March I will be chuckling to myself as we hear the not so unified pronunciation of the text, which will then have to be drilled and  corrected right up until performance time.  Yup, been there; done that.   For this concert I have left the Phiharmonic and am rehearsing with the Mennonite Festival Chorus. Uncharacteristically, we have a shortage of singers it seems in the Soprano, tenor and bass sections.  I certainly hope we will not adopt the Philharmonic practice of dropping in professional singers at the last minute.  It is annoying if one of these "saviours" gets dropped in your section at the dress rehearsal and proceeds to sing through and oblivious of all previous choral markings made - sounding beautiful of course but, ah," the whole rest of the choir is breathing here so would you mind not solo-ing through?"  Thankfully the alto section is usually bursting with us kick ass old lady types so reinforcements are not usually needed.

The Beethoven's 9th is tiring and laborious to rehearse best described as loud fast and high.  It does not sound it's best with piano only  but is absolutely stunning to perform with a full Beethoven orchestra!  The best part is you get to sit beside the orchestra as they play the first 3 movements and get all in the mood for the choral finale of the 4th movement which is so glorious!  It is the anthem of the European Union, was sung to mark the falling of the Berlin Wall, with Leonard Bernstein conducting and has been part of my choral repertoire for many years! 

For each one of these years there has been a problem entry for the women  that clearly  proves why I am not a professional chorister.  The altos on a high E , the sops on a G and we come out of nowhere with no men around to anchor our sound.    I have never produced this sound to my
cursed note
satisfaction.  I have come in at the right time but flat OR late but right note since I took it from my neighbour.  All female choristers are nervous wrecks in the beats preceding this entry hoping we don't come in early, hoping we can reach our note - and all this nervous Nellie behavior assures a screechy late entry.  Ah, well maybe this will be the year!

Of interest is that my rehearsal conductor with the MFC is that rare thing - a female!  May I say wonderful to rehearse with.  She is very organized, has her rehearsals so well thought out.  She knows just what sections to rehearse first in order that these motifs can be built upon later on.  She also shows good humour, such as when the tenors were loudly belting out their line marked pp ,she averted her gaze, walked over to the women's section, all the while conducting the beat, and said, "women, the tenors are like the tuba players; don't look at them it only encourages them."  My alto seat mates are completely wonderful competent musicians and I can lean on both in any given bar.  Thank you!
She does not let us get away with sloppy singing and states quite forcefully that what you just did was unacceptable and would you please adjust it.  If she has any passion or emotion about the piece she has not let us see it, keeping the rehearsals very technical.  I suppose this is a good thing for learning a piece but is so unlike YK, the conductor I sing for most often, who was crying at the very opening bars of the Brahms Requiem to the point that I feared he would not make it through the 7 movements.
Although I need the Passion of the conductor during performance I am learning that passion-free practice can be good.
(I have not talked about the Rutter, but maybe I will get to it after the performance)