Beethoven 9 with Lorin Maazel

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was supposed to be Maestro Levine’s first complete Beethoven symphony cycle (he’s never conducted the 4th). But he ruptured a disc, is still out following surgery, and so the entire cycle has been taken by guest conductors. For the orchestra, it’s been a high profile opportunity to show their musicianship under a variety of batons. For me, I’m getting used to Lorin Maazel‘s style and getting ready to head into our last rehearsal prior to tonight’s performance.

He’s got an interesting style. During last night’s piano rehearsal, he put us on our toes by asking for adjusted dynamics, entrances, pronunciation, and balance in a number of sections. I think some of the chorus, who sing this work every summer at Tanglewood, were surprised. I’ve only sung it once before and was more or less rolling with the punches. After the orchestra rehearsal following, he turned to the basses and said, “You sang that part better than I’ve ever heard it sung”–high praise indeed.

The whole run is sold out, but it should be on Boston area radio on Saturday night.

Double-header: Symphony of Psalms and Mozart Requiem

3952753911_08c85589d0_oIt’s been a few days since I posted anything, but I have good reason. Not only did we push a big release at work at the end of last week, but it’s season opening time at Symphony Hall. This week’s concerts feature two choral masterworks, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the Mozart Requiem.

Both works have particular demands on the singer. The Stravinsky is challenging because of the combination of rhythmic precision and intensely fervent power, not only in the loud passages but in the quieter fugues of the second movement. Theologically, Stravinsky’s re-imagining of the Psalms reclaims both the desperation of Psalms 39 and 40 (“Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry”…”I waited patiently for the LORD”) and the ecstasy of Psalm 150 from their normal status as platitudes. The texts are made over into cantica nova, new songs, and the singer’s challenge is to bring those songs to life against the structural challenges of the work, which include unusual harmonic modes and slow tempi that can either transport the listener or bog the work down into the mire.

When those challenges are surmounted, the work can be amazing, a deft 25 minute masterpiece. I felt good about our Saturday performance but am keeping my wits about me for the final show tomorrow night.

The Mozart Requiem has a different set of challenges. The harmonic language is more familiar, though certainly Mozart’s writing was breaking new ground at the time. But the real challenge is breathing a distinctive life into a work that by turns flirts with overuse (the first movement was used as background music for a mock tragedy on “30 Rock” last season) and obscurity (the little homaged “Hostias” movement). I’ve written about the work before, in my performance on September 11, 2002 and my Tanglewood performance in 2006. This time, the major difference was that I knew the work from memory, mostly, already, and that I knew my vocal instrument well enough to keep from blowing it out in the early movements. (Interestingly, this, the beginning of my fifth season with the chorus, was the first performance that repeated repertoire I had already sung with the choir.)

At the end, the big unifying factor in the two works was the expression of deeply personal faith in two very different times and styles. The Stravinsky grabs new life out of old psalm texts, while the Mozart breathes a very real personal terror of death into the mass for the departed. It’s perhaps no surprise that singing both in the same concert wrings one out like an old washcloth.

The food court model of capacity planning

hmart

I just got back from the craziness that is the opening week of the new H Mart in Burlington, MA. It was instructive on several levels, not least of which was the personal (note to self: wait three weeks after the opening of a new highly hyped destination before attempting to visit). But there were also some business lessons in capacity planning to learn.

I was curious about the supermarket’s general offerings — always happy to find a new place to get specialty vegetables like galangal and lime leaves, and the prospect of picking up a carryout pint of kimchee fills me with something like culinary concupiscence (Korean takeout being thin on the ground in the northwest Boston burbs). But this visit, at noon on Monday, was about the other big letters on the sign out front: Food Court.

Takeout options are thin on the ground in this part of Burlington, with only a handful of places (Ginger Pad, Fresh City) within walking distance of my office, and only one or two more (Panera) within a reasonable drive. So I was excited that a new prospect was available. And I wasn’t the only one. When I parked (and the amount of time it took to do that should have been a warning flag) and got inside, I saw the big food court, about six counters in all covering various Asian cuisines, packed full of people. I parked myself in the line at the end for Korean food and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

There were some real operations problems happening behind the counter. The wait time to place the order was about twenty minutes, and when I got to the counter I found that about half the selections were marked as unavailable (“No pork,” the harried cashier explained). Average order fulfillment start to finish was on the order of thirty minutes or more, with about ten of that cooking time. The rest was consumed with waiting for someone to pack the order and get it out, a problem exacerbated by un-bussed trays and dishes, only two visible line cooks, and short supplies.

H Mart had, famously, months to get ready for the launch. How’d they goof it up? Chalk part of it up to opening week snafus, perhaps. But easy things like staffing the counters should have been solved problems by four days into the process. I think the real operational lesson is that H Mart neglected to anticipate all the potential sources of demand for its offerings. They didn’t have visible staff problems or lines elsewhere in the supermarket, and even had fully staffed demonstration tables nearby. What they didn’t count on was a large number of office workers eager for a new lunch option. That left-field demand spike apparently swamped their available capacity of workers and their foodstocks.

The general lesson? When doing capacity planning, consider all the possible uses of your service and think day by day and hour by hour how they will be consumed. Then ask: am I ready?

Season over

Tonight was the last concert of the regular Symphony Hall season for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with our final production of Berlioz’s Te Deum. (For those keeping track at home, that’s two seasons in a row that we’ve closed out with Berlioz, though the Te Deum is a different order of magnitude–literally–from Les Troyens.)

It was a good concert. Before the performance, our Fearless Leader shared a few quick thoughts about our Friday afternoon show, saying, “And second tenors! Your entrance at the beginning had real beauty! For the very first time!” Aside from being a great example of John Oliver’s wit, the comment was also 100% correct. I am slowly realizing that with this chorus I can bring every ounce of my musicianship to every entrance, bring my voice to its limits every time, and it will almost be enough.

One thing I like about how things are going with the TFC is that I still have my voice intact after this concert run. In the past, I would have bellowed my way through a concert and blown out my pipes. There’s something nice about (a) knowing one’s limits and (b) recognizing when you are surrounded by 139 other highly gifted voices that can also help carry intensity and passion in the climactic moments.

The wonderful thing about a TFC season “ending,” of course, is that we never really are done. I’ll be at Tanglewood in July for Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and a reprise of the Brahms Requiem, and we get to start all over again just a few months later. Right now that sounds pretty good. I’m looking forward to the next run already. I haven’t sung Wagner yet.

On the charts and on stage

Billboard Top Classical Charts, 2009-05-02
Billboard Top Classical Charts, 2009-05-02. See #3 and #8.

Last Friday’s Billboard classical chart featured the debut of the two BSO CDs on which I performed, the Brahms Requiem and Ravel Daphnis et Chloé. (A third BSO recording in which I participated, Bolcom’s Symphony No. 8, is only available as a download.) The Ravel was at number 8 on the top 10, and the Brahms was at number 3, behind The Priests and Amore Infinito: Songs inspired by the Poetry of John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) by Placido Domingo.

The recordings are available digitally or physically from the BSO. I am still trying to see where the discs are distributed–they don’t appear to be on Amazon right now, but they are on CD Baby (Brahms, Ravel) and ArkivMusic (Brahms, Ravel) at the moment. That they are getting this kind of sales traction without Amazon’s presence is kind of impressive to me.

The charts are timely, because the Tanglewood Festival Chorus will be on stage again this week with the BSO, performing the Berlioz “Te Deum” along with the PALS children’s chorus. The work is massive, with two choirs (140 voices in our performance) plus the children, and full orchestra and organ. The BSO’s podcast last week gave a good introduction to the work.

For my preparation, I have been sweating the words. One doesn’t get to sing a Te Deum too often, and I haven’t done one with the TFC and didn’t memorize the traditional text when I last performed one (Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum with the Cascadian Chorale in Bellevue, Washington five years ago). But we have a few more rehearsals this week so I have time to get the text into my head, I think. Should be fun.

I’m alive

I apologize for the plethora of linkblog posts here over the past little bit, and for their relative paucity. It’s been a busy few months. I got a new boss and transitioned from a “second product manager” to more of a lead role, at about the same time that we launched a set of significant initiatives (c.f. press release if interested, if not, c.n.f.). We launched last night, a day after I got back from a holiday visit to my in-laws, and two days into the rehearsal cycle for the last Boston concert of the 2009-2009 Tanglewood Festival Chorus season, the Berlioz Te Deum.

Like I said: busy.

Not too terribly bad, though. I’m batching it for a few days and enjoying the ability to just sit and catch my breath. Did you know that there’s this thing called television? And that, mercifully, Google Reader maxes out at reporting “1000+” unread items?

BSO: Brahms Requiem recording

I finally got around to ordering copies of the BSO’s Brahms Requiem recording (BSO Classics 0901); thanks to commenter SteelyTom for the prompt. I don’t, alas, have a SuperCD player or even good speakers at my disposal and am listening to it in my car and over headphones. But I’m enjoying it nonetheless.

As I wrote earlier, it’s a marathon of a piece, and the astonishing thing for me listening from the perspective of the audience is how little it sounds like a marathon. The opening is a little tricky: it’s a slow meditative movement, and there are distracting audience noises. But the second movement… I was listening in my car, which has superior sound reproduction (I love my Sennheisers, but with or without noise cancelling they trim off too many high frequencies), to this movement this morning, and had the volume cranked up to hear the quiet opening “Denn Alles Fleisch.” Brahms uses low strings and timpani to set the stage for the first statement of the theme by the chorus, then adds horns and an implacable crescendo underscored by the heartbeat of the timpani. When the chorus enters at forte it’s still a shock, a wall of sound that pushes the listener back, but is totally under control and comes back down to a simmer until it erupts again into another reprise, and then into the first fugue of the work. And I knew what was coming, and I had listened to the radio broadcasts, and I still had tears in my eyes.

I’m not an objective judge of the performance, so I’ll just note that despite some technical glitches, the final movement had me in tears again. Regarding the recording quality, I will say that if the rest of the work sounds like the first and second movements did in my car, this is to be listened to on good speakers turned up, where it will transport you squarely into Symphony Hall. If Maestro Levine’s goal was transparency, he got it: if you close your eyes, you can tell from the stereo imaging that the chorus was arranged soprano, bass, tenor, alto on the risers, and each of the instruments are clearly audible, yet there is still that fine sheen of ambience from the hall that places you precisely in the room. It’s a wonderful recording and a great souvenir for me, and I’m hoping to hear how it affects you.

More snow, and bistro

3340621121_0a6322af85_oWords cannot express the emotions I felt, after a weekend in the 50s, I awoke this morning to see big fat flakes of snow coming down. I keep thinking that I’m used to it, but at heart I’m still a Virginia boy; snow is a rare treat at the beginning of winter and a stupefying chore at the end. I can tell my town is reeling a little bit too; our street wasn’t plowed, a fact I didn’t fully appreciate until I began the descent down the steep hill leading down to Mass Ave. The hill was completely covered in snow turning rapidly to ice, and I had to really jam on the brakes at the top of the hill to keep it a controlled descent.

We’re supposed to get four inches today. Sigh. I guess what they say about March is true.

March has been an insanely busy month for me already, so I was relieved to get a rare night out this weekend. We went back to Petit Robert, which I see I haven’t plugged yet on this blog. If there were ever a perfect combination of Parisian elegance and comfort food, it’s this place. Lisa had beef bourguignon. I started with a plate of mussels, then moved on to calf’s liver with onions and bacon. Let me tell you: it’s moments like these that made Proust a household name. I was instantly five or six and eating liver at my mother’s table, back in the days before cholesterol counting removed it from our diet. It was spectacularly earthy and tender, and I had to make myself stop before I devoured the whole thing; it’s deceptively easy eating, until the last few bites when you suddenly realize how rich it really is.

Now: snow. Sigh. Ah well, I have memories.

Snow days

3128568302_4154995dfa_oWinter sure came in with a roar. I didn’t go to the office on Friday–we had pushed a new release of our software late Thursday night, and I knew that the storms this weekend were going to snarl up traffic Friday afternoon. So I used the snowblower on the driveway Saturday morning–we had about ten or eleven inches from Friday’s snow–and drove into Boston on Saturday for back-to-back Boston Pops holiday concerts.

It wasn’t too bad, since we were in Symphony Hall all day long, and while there was light snow falling all day there wasn’t more than an additional inch of accumulation. The streets were slushy but negotiable. And Symphony Hall looks nice with snow accenting its features.

Then came Sunday. It was already snowing when I got up at 6 with our dogs, and it just kept coming down all day long. By the time it stopped, sometime between 6 and 9 pm, we had gotten another ten inches of snow on top of the ten or eleven that were already there. It was pretty, but pretty deadly too. I got so winded the third time I went out to shovel, in about 15° weather, that I started coughing uncontrollably and had to stop shoveling. Fortunately Lisa was able to clear the rest of the driveway–there had only been two additional inches since the last time I used the snowblower.

And today it’s hard and bright and crisp and a balmy 23° F. Welcome to winter in New England. The days may be shorter but they feel a lot wider, as Charlie Brown once said.

Preparing for the deluge

It’s a perfect storm today: I have family commitments at home, significant redesign of our customer dashboard and our entire portal due tomorrow, a software release that begins at 9 PM tonight… and six to twelve inches of snow due starting late tomorrow morning, with up to 1 to 2 inches of snow per hour.

I think tomorrow will be a good day to work from home.

The crack in the world

Three things entwine for me this morning: the beginning of the Christmas season, the 100th birthday of Olivier Messiaen, and the crack in the wall of Old South Church.

I spent Monday night and Tuesday morning in rehearsals for the upcoming Boston Pops holiday concerts at Symphony Hall (my performance schedule: 12/12 4 PM and 8 PM; 12/14 7 PM; 12/20 11 AM and 3 PM; 12/23 8 PM; 12/27 8 PM), marinating in the secular version of the holiday. It’s always a colorful but thin broth: reindeer and snowmen, with the occasional “Hallelujah Chorus” bobbing by to provide sustinance. This season we add a new arrangement of music from “Polar Express,” the culmination of which is a pop ballad exhorting us to “believe.” In what, it’s not quite clear: the train? Santa Claus?

Last week, a crack was found in the wall of Old South Church, a long standing Boston institution that is quite clear about what it believes and is growing as it continues to celebrate the inclusion of all God’s children, not just the straight ones, in God’s kingdom. The crack, potentially a disaster for the church, has been made an opportunity for reflection on the potential for cracks in any institution or relationship and for thanksgiving for the wisdom of the church’s leadership in ensuring that the MBTA and their contractor, not the church’s insurance, must pay in the event of damage. And yet, there it stands, an irrefutable proof of movements deep below that may at any moment cause a fundamental shift in our world.

That shift, that crack in time, is what pulses through the best of Messiaen’s work, his pieces for solo organ (Le banquet céleste, Apparition de l’église éternelle, L’Ascension, La Nativité du Seigneur, Livre du Saint Sacrement) and a solitary choral motet O sacrum convivium! For Messiaen Christmas is something entirely different: a meditation, an epiphany, on a fundamental shift in the world. Hearing Messiaen in a candlelit sanctuary awaiting an 11 PM Christmas Eve service, the apparition of the eternal church sinking into my blood and bones as the organ opened the doors to the miracle: a transformation out of history that continues to transform us two thousand years later.

(Update: As always, Nancy Taylor’s sermon the Sunday after the discovery of the crack is insightful, and echoes some of my own thoughts in a more coherent manner.)

Happy Halloween

Random collection of thoughts this morning:

  • I just rode on my first Segway this morning. One of our QA engineers was an employee and got a pre-production experimental model as part of his severance, and he brought it in this morning. My question to him after tooling around a little on it: how on earth did W manage to fall off the thing? His response: a combination of his getting started before the diagnostic mode had finished, and “natural talent.”
  • Listening to the full Black Album for the first time, and while there’s no denying the brilliance of some of the beats, I have to say that I prefer Danger Mouse’s version.
  • How we got such a gorgeous October is beyond my comprehension. We’ve had astonishing sunrises and clear, crisp skies for a few days now. Now the trick is to find some time to get out and enjoy it.

Should Massachussetts abolish the state income tax?

The endgame of the 2008 election season is interesting in a few ways. First, I find it interesting that Obama’s numbers go way up after people get to see him in action (e.g. during debates), and start to edge back down when robocalls and other personal attacks start to hit. In particular, it’s interesting to compare the projected electoral map from the beginning of the week to today, when Florida becomes a toss-up state again, as well as seeing the effect of ebbing Obama support in West Virginia and New Hampshire (and a gain in South Dakota).

But of more interest to me at the moment is a local question: what if Massachusetts abolished its state income tax? What’s interesting to me is not the question itself, which as I wrote yesterday is an idiotic response to crisis (and the New York Times agrees), but rather how loud the voices are about the question. The question isn’t drawing the same urgent public outcry as the effort to get the legislature to put marriage to a referendum, but it’s a pretty loud outcry nonetheless. And it makes me wonder: what’s really going on? Does being a social conservative in a state like Massachussetts just get more and more frustrating until one feels compelled to hold the recipients of critical government services hostage to get one’s demands met? I sometimes think that if I were conservative here, I’d feel effectively disenfranchised and thus would be inclined to grand gestures.

Nevertheless, there are quite a few people I’ve heard from who think it would be a good idea because it would make the legislature “pay attention” to their concerns about waste. To which I reply: there are more constructive ways to pay attention, and more constructive ways to reform. Specifically, I urge anyone who’s thinking about voting Yes on Question 1 to try making the cuts yourself first, with the Boston Globe’s Massachusetts Budget Game Calculator. The brilliant thing that you learn as you go through the budget item by item is just how limited the options are, and just how many challenges are in your way.

And there are challenges, because the budget is non-linear. Reducing spending in some areas leads to reduced state revenue and federal grants, making the job that much harder. Here’s an example: cutting 25% from the $32.2 billion state budget across the board (a chainsaw of a budget cut, if you will) nominally removes $8 billion in expenditures but only closes the budget gap by $4.9 billion, thanks to losses in federal funds and inability to get revenue. In fact, even a 50% cut across the board still leaves a $2.5 billion deficit.

The irony is that we’re already seeing big cuts in state government, thanks to the market meltdown, and we’ll see more. So even with a nationwide progressive sweep on November 4th (and that’s an unlikely scenario), the state is going to have to be fiscally conservative to make it through the coming recession. And that’s without a yes vote on tax abolition. Proponents of the abolition of the tax claim it will make the state a more attractive place to live and work, but the massive hatchet of Question 1 could ruin us.

BSO and TFC: Brahms Requiem, September 26-27, 2008

As promised earlier, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about our performances of the Requiem this weekend, now that I have some distance on the music (meaning: the third movement fugue is no longer obsessively pounding in my head).

I have a long history with the Requiem. I first almost performed it in the late 1990s with the Cathedral Choral Society in Washington, DC, but a family death took me away from the performance after I had almost completely learned it. I finally got a chance to sing it in 2004 with the University Presbyterian Church choir in Seattle, but in English and with a bad head cold. The first time I performed any of it in German was our tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at Tanglewood in 2006, when we sang the fourth movement (“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen”).

But of course, any performance of a full work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is different from any prior performance of the same work, for the simple reasons that (a) you’re singing with one of the best orchestras in the world and (b) you’re doing it from memory. In this case, that’s seventy-five minutes of German, including two bloodying fugues, by heart.

So my perspective on the Requiem has two aspects: one rather like a marathoner’s perspective regarding his last run, and one of a participant in the creation of great beauty.

From the former perspective: pacing is the biggest problem in singing the Brahms, because there are three Heartbreak Hills. The first and fifth movements are calm and fairly easy to sing, the fourth and seventh are louder but also even tempered. But each of the other movements has its own unique challenges. The second movement has those stretches of the funeral chant (“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras…”) that are sung over the full orchestra at forte volume, down in the bottom of everybody’s tessitura. And then there’s the “Aber des Herrn” at fortissimo, followed by a nice fuguelike section which is thick and inspires a certain tendency to shout. And the third and sixth movements have full-on fugues and climaxes–they’d both be finales in a lesser composer’s hands. Plus, even in the low and medium movements, you have challenges — for the tenors, there’s the high A near the end of the first movement and the final “wie lieblich”, which calls for the tenors to do a very controlled crescendo at a very high point in the range while keeping extremely beautiful tone. So the profile of the work from an emotional perspective is low – high – very high – moderate – low – very high – high, but the technical difficulty profile is basically high – very high – very high -high – high – very freaking high – high, and you have to really husband your emotional and physical energy accordingly.

The alternative: you hit the wall sometime around the sixth movement, the real uphill battle of the work, before you even get into the fugue. And in that fugue, as our director said, there is inevitably “blood on the walls” in every performance thanks to the demand on the singers and the difficulty of the preceding music. So the secret is to remember what’s ahead and never, ever, ever go full volume. If the director asks for more in a climatic crescendo, focus the voice up into the face so that it projects more clearly, rather than simply opening up to full vocal throttle.

From the second perspective: I’ve never sung in a performance where every chorister was so on top of the music, and so together–total telepathic connection from person to person. And every one of them singing right to the limit of the safe range of the voice, without going into the danger zone, thanks to lots of “marathon” experience. And with the improved acoustics of Symphony Hall, being able to hear other voice parts as though they were standing right next to you. So performing it was a joy. I can’t pretend to be able to provide an objective review of our own performance otherwise, but if the hall was enjoying it half as much as we were, it’s no wonder they applauded as vigorously as we did.