Making a hash of Brahms

We’re in the middle of a rehearsal run for the BSO’s upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem with Andris Nelsons, Thomas Hampson, and Camilla Trilling. On the one hand, it’s a work we’ve performed quite a bit in the eleven years I’ve been in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, starting with our 2008 performances under James Levine (later released on CD), then at Tanglewood the following summer, then a few years later with Christoph von Dohnányi, and then again just two years ago with Bramwell Tovey. One would think it would be old hat by now.

But there is no such thing as a routine performance of this work. The emotional load alone is enough to make it an incredible experience each time, and the technical aspects of singing the work (as I’ve written previously) both demand and reward close preparation and work.

This time is especially interesting, as we are in the midst of what will hopefully be the second and final transitional season between the forty-plus year reign of founding TFC conductor John Oliver and the selection of his successor. We are working this go round (as we did during the Adams Transmigration) with Lidiya Yankovskaya, who has also been a member of the TFC and worked closely with John.

For this go round, she’s working closely with us on diction (of course), but also on the production of a rich, supported piano/pianissimo sound and on overall blend. Her tool for working on blend is a simple one: the 130 or so of us have been sitting “hashed” for the last several rehearsals. Each individual sits near someone singing one of the other voice parts. There are others on your voice part nearby, but not right next to you. The effect is immediate: you have to listen better to hear the others on your part; you immediately find the places where you need to own and improve your individual performance; and you quickly learn to adjust so that your performance complements that of the other vocal parts next to you. We sounded better in places last night than we have done for quite a while.

Apparently John’s chorus used to perform like this all the time; I can only imagine a conductor of Seiji Ozawa’s great musicianship managing to work with directing such an arrangement. I wish we could do it more often.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.