Friday, December 29, 2017

Messiah 2017

G. F. Handel
This year is the Messiah that I almost didn't perform.  Some would say that is hardly a sad thing, but this chorister has yet to tire of performing Handel's great oratorio.  This great composition never languished in dust, as Julian Pellicano mentioned in his pre-concert talk to the audience, but was performed the year it was composed (1741) and every year after that.  I am thrilled to perform it over and over again. (although I came on the scene a few years after composition)

Imagine then, when earlier this year I scanned over the Winnipeg Symphony Season catalogue and found that listed under Messiah was WSO Chorus - a choir I was not a member of nor had ever heard of.  I went into panic mode!  Who was this choir?  Who was the conductor?  Why were the usual suspects (Winnipeg Philharmonic and Mennonite Festival Chorus)  taken off of this gig?
I messaged the WSO executive director who replied that the board was just looking at different choirs.  "yes", I anxiously replied, "a change can be good but who is this WSO Chorus?  It is their name that scares me!!  It sounds like if you ever want to sing with the WSO again you best be part of this choir."  To this there was no reply.

A few weeks later a friend texted me an image of their TV screen and on it were the words WSO Chorus auditions and an email address.

You can bet I emailed that very minute hoping to get in on my resume alone.  This group would have none of that and rather insisted I send in an audition.  They wanted to hear two choruses from Messiah.  Two from an approved list of 3.  Oh brother.  By now it was summer and my voice was in relaxed mode.  Having not sung for weeks I felt quite out of shape, vocally.  I sang around the house for a few days and then proceeded to record myself singing along with a recording.  Now, as my family knows, singing with a recording is what I do best - haha!  I blast out every choral part I can and of course bellow along with the soloists too.  So it was with my audition recording.  Yup - when the chorus was done the bass soloist and I rang out, "Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts" OOPS!  Now what?  Not being very electronically savvy and not wanting to re-sing the piece as this had been my 3rd go that afternoon, I decided to send off the recording with this very embarrassing bit at the end, indicating that I was also auditioning for the bass solo part.
After a few agonizing weeks of waiting I received the joyous news that I had passed the audition and was now a member of the WSO Chorus!  I was elated!

I arrived at the first rehearsal much like a young soccer player arrives at the provincial team's first practice. Happy to have made the cut, but anxious and insecure.  This feeling was palpable in the rehearsal room.  We were competing against each other, scared someone would take our spot, worried we wouldn't measure up.  There was not the usual choral camaraderie.   There were only 2 familiar faces in the room, which was odd considering I have sung in choirs in this city for 4 decades.  The 3 of us were from the Mennonite Festival Chorus which has performed the Messiah with the WSO many times.

The rehearsal conductor, John Wiens, indicated that this was only 70% of the choir and that the rest would come later.  The rest, it turns out, were members of Polycoro, a local elite choir.  This, 70% of second stringers rehearsed 2 or 3 times prior to having the pros join us.  For me the rehearsals were something like this:

first rehearsal:  I cried on the way home because the conductor had indicated, in my general direction, that vibrato was not a welcome sound in his choir. "Well", I thought," I guess I won't be singing in your choir then."  It was like telling a left-footed kicker that no left foot shots were allowed.  Now, I try to produce a straight tone and I know that too much vibrato is awful but I didn't think I was at that stage yet. So now I had two choices, I could quit or I could use his techniques to improve my sound.
After the tears I decided to keep practicing.  I took to heart his advice about balancing the body, opening up space at the back, letting the sound fall out, not worrying about sounding good,..etc. All the things my voice teacher, Diane Berger used to say.
Wiens Warm-up
2nd rehearsal: I thought I had landed in a choral comedy sketch.  John Wiens had us twirling our fingers around our lips then pulling hand back while pointing at ourselves and breathing out and then bringing our pointed finger right back to our lips while breathing in.  Say What?!?  I couldn't decide whether he was genius or idiot.  This was going to be a very different Messiah.  We second stringers were struggling to blend our sound.  In the soprano section was an 11 year old boy, in the tenor section was a woman, there were only 4 basses, among the altos was one old lady (that being myself) and a 16 year old girl.   I was singing about 50% of my capacity in order to blend with the voices around me, many of which had a Broadway musical sound to them, which it seemed is what he wanted.  On this ride home I predicted this choir would never be able to cut through an orchestra.  It is too small, and too weak.

subsequent rehearsals:  Then came the 30%!  And the difference they made was 100%.  Their professional voices were able to coat all of ours, fill in the gaps, and we began to have a blended sound.  I was feeling hopeful.  Voices like Sarah-Jo Kirsh in the soprano section and Sarah Hall in the alto took things up several notches.  John was fussy about voice placement and moved choristers around during rehearsals to get the right sound.  I had read about this technique but never experienced this in action and I enjoyed the process; because in the end I  received  two seatmates with whom I felt I could blend. I decided he was not an idiot.

 Our rehearsal conductor and our performance conductor, sometimes referred to as the real conductor, Julian Pellicano, were much concerned with this Messiah sounding crisp and light.  It had to be a contrast to many classic recordings of the works and to past WSO performances with larger choirs.  They were agreed on this.  Neither of them offered us much by way of passion or talks about their vision of the work except by way of technique. In other productions with the WSO there has been a fair amount of time spent talking about the message of each movement and how the text and music work together.  This was not the case here.   I do not know if this is peculiar to these two conductors or if this is  how one speaks to choirs with so many professional singers.  Still, I did use Ivars Taurins' (a conductor I have written about in past posts)  images of the various movements to help me and give me pleasure.  There were singers in this group who had never sung the Messiah and I wondered what they were using for inspiration.

It was this that gave me a revelation, (yes this old girl is still learning).  Technique and correct interpretation is enough.  The singer does not have to feel emotion to convey emotion.  The singer needs only to convey what the composer and conductor have asked you to do.   If one places the consonant at the exact right moment and crescendos and decrescendos at just the right point in the phrase, with the right notes in the right place emotion will be conveyed.  The singer's feelings are irrelevant.  The performer's attention to and execution of every detail is what counts.  

The soloists in this production were all local singers known and loved by Winnipeggers.  In my unprofessional opinion the soprano, Jane Fingler, sings the way she looks.  Angelic, pure and lovely. I do not know if her voice carried well in that hall.  Dan Peasgood was the counter tenor.  I have  never been a fan of counter tenors as they are competing for my job.  Isn't it enough that they can sing bass or tenor, now they want to go after my notes too?  I once sang in a choir with Dan and he is a very pleasant fellow but he kept singing my notes.  When I sing beside a man I automatically try and  harmonize with him and Dan refused to let me do this; he was always on my notes.  I am clearly not the one to assess his performance as to me, "He was Despised" needs to be sung by an alto. (said the alto) Tenor, P.J. Buchan was stellar and to my ears, far outshone all the others.  He was truly comforting in his opening aria and was brilliant in his "Thou shalt Brrrrrreak Them" later on.  The bass voice was Chris Kornelsen who was fine in his early offerings but in "The Trumpet Shall Sound,"  his voice did not ring out but was rather muffled. 

Julian Pellicano - WSO conductor in residence

It surprised me that on the performance podium Julian Pellicano was full of passion, mouthing and sometimes singing along with choir and soloists.  This side of him was not revealed during rehearsals.

By the end of the first performance some barriers in the choir had been broken and more smiles and words were exchanged.

There was no review of the concert in our local paper and I have not spoken with enough critical ears to know how it sounded in the hall but I enjoyed the view and the sound from my vantage point.  I am fairly sure it is the best soprano section I have every sung with.  They were able to beautifully sing high G's as mezzo piano which very few choirs can do.   I came away from this Messiah thrilled to have been able to sing with such fine singers, gratified that I had tried new vocal techniques, warmed by Handel's music and message, and grateful to perform with the huge talent that is WSO. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Schubert and Brahms

Franz Schubert
This month I was able to perform two pieces from the romantic period in one concert with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yuri Klaz.
Klaz is primarily a choral conductor but has conducted the WSO on several occasions. 
It was heartwarming for this chorister to see that the musicians behaved as though they had respect for Yuri's musical ideas and a genuine warmth seemed to emanate between the orchestra and conductor. 
I have seen many conductors mount the podium and gaze out over this orchestra, I have seen more than one wilt and be meekly led by the concert mistress herself.  On the other hand  I have shaken in my boots as tongue lashings occurred from podium to timpani and condescending remarks were hissed out at various instrumental sections.
The rehearsals for this concert had none of that.  Respect for the music and one another was the hallmark of these rehearsals.  Instruction and response seemed natural.
This conductor even handled the union master's annoying penchant for stopping rehearsals at just the wrong time with good humour.

Even if this respectful relationship had not been the case I feel the music would have smoothed over any difficulties. 

The glorious pieces we performed, the we being the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, are not that often performed here in Winnipeg, and in fact it was my first time for either piece!  Given my age it may also be the last, which is truly a sad thought!

We sang the Brahms' Nanie and Schubert's Mass in Eflat.  Recordings of the pieces are linked to their titles.  The Brahms piece is a secular piece written for the funeral of a friend.  The text is a Friedrich Schiller poem. (same poet who wrote the Ode to Joy text)   It is written and was performed in the German language but here is the English translation of the text.

Even the beautiful must perish! That which overcomes gods and men
Moves not the armored heart of the Stygian Zeus.
Only once did love come to soften the Lord of the Shadows,
And just at the threshold he sternly took back his gift.
Neither can Aphrodite heal the wounds of the beautiful youth
That the boar had savagely torn in his delicate body.
Nor can the deathless mother rescue the divine hero
When, at the Scaean gate now falling, he fulfills his fate.
But she ascends from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus,
And she raises a plaint here for her glorious son.
Behold! The gods weep, all the goddesses weep,
That the beautiful perishes, that the most perfect passes away.
But a lament on the lips of loved ones is glorious,
For the ignoble goes down to Orcus in silence.

Just reading the text I can hear that it was meant for Brahms!
The Schubert mass, his last one, and in fact he died before it was first performed, is much more difficult to sing than his earlier ones.  I was quite surprised when I came to them that the fugues required a fair bit of work and were  trickier than one would expect of Schubert.  This made rehearsals fun, and provided great satisfaction when they appeared light and fresh at performance time - at least I hope so.
Schubert did not write much for the soloists to do.  He gave them only quartet /trio work and usually meshed them into a choral piece.  This meant that neither my voice nor body received much of a rest during performance, as there were no arias where a chorister could rest up!

The Philharmonic choir, most notably the alto section, was very welcoming to associate singers and I appreciate them for it.  I have been singing as an associate with this choir since 1980.  Back then they were known as The Winnipeg Symphony Philharmonic Choir and had their rehearsals at the concert hall with a grand piano.  Now they rehearse in a crowded high school theatre with an electronic keyboard and yet manage to yield good results!  Bravo!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

small glimpse into 2016

I have not posted in over a year.  I miss reflecting on my choral experiences but I have been so busy with career and family and singing that I have not had time to reflect. 
A choral highlight occurred in the spring of 2016.  It may be THE choral highlight of my life.  I have performed the 15 movements of the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil under the baton of a Russian conductor.  What I say about that experience is this:
Luxurious, heavenly and profound.

Rehearsals were deeply emotional with profundo basses providing a deep foundation one could wallow in.  It is sung accapella and the long legato lines can be challenging.  The alto section is split into 3 parts and I was put in the third part which made me very happy.

I doubt whether this chance will come my way again before I die  so I savoured every rehearsal and every minute of performance, feeling extremely empty when it was done.

Christmas 2016

Christmas 2016 brought me another Messiah.  I have been singing many of these lately as the WSO has decided to make this an annual event.  It is kept interesting for the chorister by having guest conductors coming in.  This time it was Tania Miller who presently works out of Victoria B.C.
The choir loved her instantly as she appeared to be very impressed with our tone at our piano rehearsal.  She gave us many compliments and we responded well to her suggestions.  She was clear in her direction and in tune with the text.

The next day we rehearsed with orchestra and although I love the WSO dearly, they, true to form, were stand-offish with the Maestra.  To be fair, not all players reacted this way but there were clearly some with great looks of disdain.  At one point the first violins were asked to play their line in a different way (wish I remembered more details) and the concert mistress argued semantics with the conductor, "You mean do a fill in some term here?"   and  Ms. Miller responded, 'I doubt it is called that but if you want to call it that".  They were counted in again and the passage still was not up to expectations and the Maestra turned to the concert mistress and said, "Look, if it is too difficult for you you don't have to play it."
Woah!  Looks were exchanged in the choir loft and we were grateful for the anonymity choral singing provides. 
Tania had a stroke of genius in the second half.Sshe announced to the orchestra, "Oh by the way Andrey says 'hi" to you all."  Looks darted around the orchestra,  um, did she just say Andrey?  Oh yes, she did.  Andrey of course is the WSO god Boreyko who is worshipped by most who have worked with him. By invoking him and her personal connection to him the orchestra would have no choice but to comply with the Maestra's wishes at first asking.
Now, as a chorister it is possible I misheard but it is what I heard and there was more compliance from this moment on. 
The next day was dress rehearsal with the soloists and the choir could get used to the new "sits" ad "stands", as one must with each new conductor of the Messiah.   It  all went very smoothly.
We  then  had two evening performances, which I always appreciate over just one.
They both came across quite well, I think.  Handel always able to deliver!