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.

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.

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.

BSO Classics: the BSO goes private label

The BSO announced yesterday that it was kicking off a series of recordings on its own BSO Classics label. I’m on three out of the four initial recordings as a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus: the Brahms Requiem, Bolcom Symphony No. 8, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The recordings are available at the BSO’s download store now and will be on iTunes and other services next month.

As any observer of the classical music portion of the recording industry knows, it’s a rough time for classical recordings. The bigs aren’t doing much symphonic music any more, partly owing to fees owed to players unions (though some, like Philadelphia, appear to be working around that with revenue sharing agreements).

So the prospect of an orchestra entirely self-releasing its own material is interesting, to say the least. It will be interesting to see which way the BSO’s hedged bet on digital only releases (two of the recordings are also available on CD) will go.

Simon Boccanegra: the restraint of power

The BSO’s run on Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, in which I’m singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, has been eventful so far. Thursday was opening night, and both José Van Dam and James Morris had bad colds, taking the edge off the extremities of their ranges and generally blunting the dramatic momentum. Add to that the normal panoply of nerves and the show felt … well, not rough exactly, but not great.

What a difference two days make. Just before the opening of Saturday’s performance, the BSO management came out and announced that Morris had a bad cold and was withdrawing; taking his place would be Raymond Aceto, who had sung the relatively minor role of Pietro in rehearsals and opening night. Another singer would fill in Pietro’s role. In the chorus bleachers, I don’t think anyone was surprised that Morris wasn’t in, but there was a certain amount of anticipation for what would come next.

And Aceto’s performance made a world of difference. Where Morris played Fiesco as a menacing but relatively immobile force of nature, Aceto’s performance was resonant and dynamic, his acting vivid, and it sparked something in each of his collaborators. (I learned without surprise afterwards that he had sung the role at least once before, in Houston.) Everything snapped into focus in this production: for the chorus, crisp entrances and clearer diction; for the principals, more dramatic gestures and even better vocal control. Three cheers for Aceto, whose last-minute substitution saved the performance, if not the run.

So much for the performance. The opera itself is still working its way through me. Like a Shakespearian “problem play,” it does not categorize easily. Is it a political drama? Yes, but there’s also a substantial theme of family responsibility. Is it a comedy of mistaken identity? Well, it is right up until it turns tragic. (One backstage wit summarized the plot thus: “Boccanegra is a corsair, Fiesco hates him, Paolo is the bad guy, the tenor’s a bit dim, and the soprano needs to stop keeping secrets.”)

But the center of the play, first expounded in the council chamber scene and then echoed in Boccanegra’s reaction to his assassination, is about the restraint of power. Boccanegra could have set the hounds out and turned the mob on those that kidnapped his daughter and caused chaos in the streets, but instead settles the people and deals with the matter in private. Poisoned, he confronts his old enemy Fiesco and reveals Amelia’s identity, returning her to her family and settling an old grievance, and sets up a peaceful succession.

Is it then a political play? On paper, perhaps–and certainly, in the modern context, the temptation to make explicit parallels with modern history is strong. Ultimately, though, it’s the rediscovered connection between Boccanegra and Amelia that forms the pivot of the work, and for that one can only sit back and listen as the old doge’s love for the dead Maria is given new life in the duet with his daughter.

Hitting the boards again: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra

I’ve been a little busy lately with work and have let my link-posting take over the site. This week I finally got a break to do something a little different again. I’m singing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, with James Levine directing and José Van Dam in the title role, with Marcello Giordani and James Morris in key supporting roles.

The last Tanglewood Festival Chorus production I sang in (aside from Holiday Pops) was the Brahms Requiem, and the last opera was Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Needless to say, the Verdi is a different animal from them both–an opera both political and personal, on a much smaller scale than Les Troyens but with its own share of intense moments.

It’s been…interesting preparing this opera with the head cold I have right now. I hope I have a voice by the time the first performance is done tonight.

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.

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.

Brahms Requiem: gearing up

I’ve been in rehearsals all week at Symphony Hall for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s first concert of the 2008-2009 Symphony Hall season, the Brahms Requiem with the Boston Symphony under James Levine. It’s an amazing work–I’ll try to describe it in more detail after our performances. But the two really amazing things for this weekend for me are the same things that Jeremy Eichler flagged in his review of Wednesday’s season opener, namely, Levine himself and the windows in the Hall.

Losing Levine to two months of cancer treatment after the opening of the Tanglewood season was a blow to audience and performer, although some of the resulting performances under guest conductors were still pretty spectacular. But it’s great to have him back and he is as energetic as ever.

The clerestory windows … well. Eichler gives the background in his article (part of the original design of the hall, they were covered over during World War II to comply with blackout requirements and never reopened). But what he doesn’t mention is the effect on the hall’s sound. The window openings had actually been plastered over, and the removal of all that plaster and introduction of glass (albeit a special glass that doesn’t resonate) means that there’s a new brilliance on the sound in the hall. Levine remarked on it, our director remarked on it, and it was even apparent on the stage in the reflected sound during our rehearsal. We’ll see tonight whether it makes as much difference when the hall is full of people.

It certainly has a striking visual effect, especially for a daytime rehearsal. I only had my iPhone on me so the picture I got was pretty poor, with lots of streaks from the light sources running through the pictures, but you can still see how alive the hall looks now.

Around Boston: new light, old park

Two stories caught my eye in the Globe, one with proximity to my vocation and one to my avocation.

The first was regarding the undeveloped land to the south of our offices in Burlington. Pointedly subtitled “city can’t develop land in Burlington, Woburn,” the story details the ongoing dance between citizens of the suburbs who want to see the Mary Cummings Park maintained as parkland, and the City of Boston, which was deeded the land by Cummings on the condition that it stay a “public pleasure ground,” who apparently would prefer that nothing ever be done with it. If the city can’t develop it, that is. A word to the Friends of the Park: better keep a close eye on the docket. Boston’s actions here smell like a delaying tactic until they can get a judge to break the conditions of the deed and allow them to sell the property to developers.

Speaking of delays, the second article regards the removal of the blackout panels over the top windows in Symphony Hall. I remember looking up at the interior panels from the stage during a rehearsal this spring and wondering about them to my fellow tenors, none of whom agreed that they were really windows. And no wonder; there’s no living memory of them ever having been windows. The panels were put into place in the early 1940s, and their removal, I imagine, leaves the old hall emerging blinking into the sunlight like Hiroo Onoda. But the removal, as the article highlights, indicates the profoundly conservative attitude of the BSO regarding the hall’s acoustics. I wonder what the impact on the aesthetics will be?

Heading for Tanglewood

It’s always hard to get on the road for a bunch of days away from the family; this time I have the compensation of what’s on the other end of the road. It’s time for the Tanglewood season opener, where the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus will reprise this spring’s performance of Berlioz’s magnificent Les Troyens in its sprawling entirety. Should be a fun time, and there are already signs that the BSO front office is having fun with the production. Witness: the 10-foot-tall Trojan Horse (no doubt stuffed with a pair of ninjas) that will grace the opening night gala. Now all we need is someone to play the role of Cassandra and predict great doom should the caterers wheel it into the tent.