Beethoven 9 with Andris Nelsons

Last Sunday’s Tanglewood season ender was in some ways not out of the ordinary: a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. But there were some exceptional things about it.

First was the pairing of the work with Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City,” featuring some stunning playing from Tom Rolfs and Robert Sheena. Then there was the conductor, Andris Nelsons, marking (as the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler remarked) one of the first times in recent memory that the BSO’s music director has conducted the season ender. James Levine did it once, but at the beginning of the season, and otherwise left it to guest conductors. Maestro Nelsons was totally engaged. From the first movement there was an electric energy on stage. The announcement he made from the beginning that he would be in residence for a full month next summer didn’t hurt either.

Then, there was our performance. The Beethoven capped a month of work by the chorus with guest conductor James Burton, and his skill showed in our diction and attention to detail. It was the first time in my memory that the men of the chorus didn’t completely immolate the tenor soloist when we made our “Laufet bruder…” entrance, and overall the singing felt spectacular on stage.

The BSO released the clip above not half an hour after the concert ended, and I love how it plays out—although I wish there were a little more of the performance captured. Maybe when the radio clip is posted (update 9/6: here it is).

PS Confidential to Andrew Pincus: the chorus only numbered 140, not 200, and I think at no time were we in danger of covering the soloists.

Tanglewood, 2011

I’ve been indulging myself at Tanglewood this week for the TFC’s opening weekend performance. I used to do several residencies a summer; with two young kids at home and a lot of other family vacation planned I’m limiting myself to one this year. It’s been a worthwhile residency, despite the compression, because I’ve actually had time to sit and think and read and digest.

Our repertoire for the run has consisted of one old friend, the Berlioz Requiem (which I last sang over ten years ago with the Cathedral Choral Society–man, how time flies), and a new one, Bellini’s Norma, from which we sang excerpts. The Bellini performance was last night as part of the opening night show. Musically the opera is not particularly complex, particularly compared to the Berlioz, but it has some beautiful moments, including of course the “Casta Diva” aria which we sang. (Opera newbie that I am, I didn’t realize until this run what that aria was, though I heard it often, including in sampled excerpt at the beginning of Shannon Worrell’s song “Witness.”)

The Berlioz is a whole different matter, in ambition, scope, and energy required from the singer. For this run the most taxing thing about it has been forcing the Latin text into my brain. I have the music fairly well internalized but the texts are, as always for me, a different story. When I sang it at age 25 it was taxing for a completely different reason: I simply didn’t know how to sing.

I’m envious of my friends in the chorus who have formal voice training. It took me about ten years of singing in amateur choruses to find the person who would set me on the road to vocal health–Christina Siemens. She finally taught me that sound is produced with the whole body and amplified through the facial mask, and that truly resonant vocal sound isn’t forced. It’s a lesson every singer should learn, that I hope Frank Albinder is teaching the current Virginia Glee Club, and that I learn over and over again under John Oliver’s tutelage. I need that lesson for just about every minute of the Berlioz. While as a second tenor I don’t have some of the most thrilling vocal lines of the work, there are plenty of cases where we’re called upon to provide power and volume in a high range. As long as I remember the words it works, as I can keep the vocal production forward and resonant. If I have a brain cramp and forget part of the text, oddly, the instrument has trouble working too; the vocal production falls back in the mouth and suddenly everything’s forced. It’s literally easier to sing correctly. I hope I can remember that tonight for the actual performance.

At Tanglewood with the Brahms Requiem

stormy green for blog

It was a dramatic day at Tanglewood yesterday. I took the day off from work to attend two rehearsals for this weekend’s performance of the Brahms Requiem. The sky was obligingly threatening for most of the afternoon, but the sun was out and the juxtaposition of green lawn (greener for all the rain we’ve had this summer) and stormy skies called out to me.

We sang the piece through from start to finish once yesterday in piano rehearsal with Maestro Levine (omitting the fifth movement, as our soprano, Hei-Kyung Hong, was not at the rehearsal and because there’s not so much for the chorus that it merited visiting without her), and then re-ran the first, second, fourth, and sixth movements with the orchestra. With that much time immersed in the piece, I had a chance to revisit my thoughts about performing the Requiem as a chorister from last fall, and got some clarity on the technical challenge of the piece. Last fall, I wrote:

… 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.

Yesterday I found what may be the real culprit of the sixth movement, for me at least. It’s not just the overall arc of the piece, but specifically the tenor part immediately preceding the fugue, where all choral voices respond to the baritone’s “…wir werden aber all verwandelt werden; und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick, zu der Zeit der letzen Posaune” (we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye). The choral text that follows is at the heart of Brahms’ conception of the work, and speaks of the Resurrection:

Denn es wird die Posaune schallen, und die Toten werden auferstehen unverweslich, und wir werden verwandelt werden. Dann wird erfüllet werden das Wort, das geschrieben steht: Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg. Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?

…for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

And the text is sung at absolutely full volume over some of the thickest orchestration in the work, and in the high part of the tenor range.

This is the rub, at least for me. The need to support the voice is strong, but at that volume and emotional fervor it’s very easy to tip over from supporting to tightening, and then the battle is lost and the voice closes progressively until it is difficult to get any sound out at all. Once that happens the following fugue is unsingable.

I will work for the next few days on avoiding the tightness, but I definitely have proof that this is a key danger area. We sang through once and I experienced the effect I describe above. Then we stopped for a bit to discuss some issue in the orchestra, and I collected myself and caught my breath. When we returned, Maestro Levine started us on the last “Wo? Wo? Wo ist dein Seig?” — and despite its starting at a high F, I was singing it clearly and unencumbered. I had relaxed and allowed my vocal apparatus to resume something like a normal position, and my voice was back.

It’s days like yesterday that I remember all too well that I’ve only had about four voice lessons in my life, and they were over 20 years ago. Maybe it’s time to go back and learn some proper technique. I’m starting to get a little too old to figure this stuff out on the fly.

Off to Tanglewood – Wagner’s Die Meistersinger

I’ll be in the Berkshires this week with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, preparing for a performance of Wagner’s only mature comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. We’ll see some old friends among the soloists–Johan Botha, Matthew Polanzani–and of course Maestro Levine, whom we last sang with in February. Meistersinger is totally different from Boccanegra, and it will be fun to see how Jimmy brings it to life.

This being Boston, of course the chorus will also hold an informal discussion group one evening on Wagner’s antisemitism. So there’s that to look forward to.

But seriously–I can’t wait to get out to Tanglewood, though I’m already missing family. At least it will be a beautiful week.

Tanglewood Beethoven weekend roundup

There’s a brief roundup of reviews, among other things, of this weekend’s Beethoven concerts below. The reviews do a good job of pointing out something that we all felt through the residency: this was no quick dash through familiar repertoire. Both conductors brought an insistence on careful preparation and respect for the material, and I think the end product showed it.

Some more thoughts on the two pieces. As choral events, they couldn’t be more different. Our conductor likes to point out that many call the Mass in C “Beethoven’s Haydn mass,” and the nature of the commission–for Prince Esterházy on Haydn’s recommendation when the older composer grew unable to write another mass for the Princess’s name day–reinforces that. So does the Mass’s structure: traditionally set, with many quiet moments throughout, it’s no Missa Solemnis. But the uncertainties of the Credo, the leaping harmonic language used to set “God from God, Light from Light,” and a host of other clues show us Beethoven wasn’t phoning this in. It may have been a commission in a traditional manner, but Beethoven’s result was anything but traditional. For me, the work is a window into a search for faith. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos did it justice by ensuring that the performance exposed the conflicts as well as the clear statements of faith and allowed the searching structure of the piece to be heard.

The Ninth Symphony, written almost twenty years later, continues that search. Twinned as it is with the Missa Solemnis, the work represents the summation of Beethoven’s faith journey. The Missa Solemnis carries the questions raised by the earlier mass to dark places, and ultimately finds, at best, unsettled comfort in traditional religion and religious forms against the drums of war and the awful finality of death. By contrast, Symphony No. 9 confronts war and death head on, tries on chaos, stern struggle and romantic religion, and ultimately finds all of them lacking, choosing instead to take a simple drinking song about the brotherhood of man and rise to the stars with it.

My instinct all weekend was to take the late eighteenth century Enlightenment questions of the role of religion in the fate of man into both the Mass and the 9th Symphony. (It helps that I was finally reading the Jefferson Bible all the way through.) But you don’t have to look very hard to find Beethoven struggling with the same questions that Jefferson seemingly effortlessly addressed through his bold redaction, namely: how much of our received religious tradition is “real” and how much of it has real value? The Ninth’s unity of humanism and religious expression in a divinely inspired joy that enables us to reach to God is of a piece with Jefferson’s insistence on the greatness of Christ’s teachings quite apart from the question of his godhead.

…And so, somewhat to my surprise, we’re at the end of another Tanglewood season, the end of another summer. I have no idea how that happened so quickly. It seems just yesterday that we were setting our clocks ahead, and now the days are getting shorter and the kids are getting ready to go back to school.

And we’ll be returning to the basement chorus room at Symphony Hall. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be in the first performance of the season, the Brahms Deutsches Requiem with James Levine back at the podium, but I sure hope so.

I collected all my photos from Tanglewood this summer, including the ones I took last weekend, into a Flickr set for posterity (also linked from the photo above). The big difference this year is that all the photos were taken with my iPhone, because my good camera has been missing somewhere since the middle of the summer (alas). I like the iPhone better as a camera than my two previous camera phones–the image quality seems better and less smeary–but it suffers the same issues as they do, namely uncertain color balance when shooting in bright light.

Beethoven 9th rehearsal: snapping back heads

Yesterday was our “day off” between the Mass in C performance on Friday night and today’s 9th Symphony performance. Of course, the “day off” included the morning’s orchestra dress rehearsal of the 9th, which was a treat to be a part of. We had the best seat in the house to watch guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi (with whom I previously sang Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex) rehearse the first three movements. He’s a painstaking conductor, stopping in the middle of an open dress rehearsal to synchronize presto string entrances in several places.

The fourth movement was a lot of fun to sing. It was sometime around 12:30 when we hit the big fugue in which the tenors enter on a fortissimo high A, so I was finally in voice (when the rehearsal began with warmups at 9:30, I didn’t have much above an E), and I saw quite a few heads in the crowd bounce in shock when we nailed the note. It should be fun this afternoon.

Alone in the crowd

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There are some days where my love of Tanglewood bumps up, hard, against some of the less ideal aspects of the place. I speak of the crowds.

I think part of the reason I love coming here with the chorus is those glorious early days of the residency, when we and the orchestra are almost the only people here. But come Friday night and a concert in the shed (in which I’m not performing) and I find it a bit… overwhelming. Call it agoraphobia, but partway through the search for friendly faces among the blankets and lawn chairs I’m invariably seized with the urge to flee. So it was that I couldn’t hack the crowds for last night’s concert.

But of course I still want to hear the music. So this residency I’m taking full advantage of that secret of the Tanglewood experience: the open rehearsal. While they can still be crowded, particularly this morning with Yo-Yo Ma, the crowd is not as dense, and one can sit inside the Shed and feel insulated from the worst of it. And the best part is how cheap the tickets are–I mean, they let the chorus in for free, in recompense for our services, but even for the general public an open seating ticket is less than $10.

Small world

It was over four years ago that I wrote about my choral doppelgänger (aka doppelsänger), Scott Allen Jarrett, who directs the Back Bay Chorale among other musical responsibilities in Boston. In the meantime I’ve never actually met him. Until last night, when I was introduced to him by a fellow TFC member in Lenox.

The introduction, coming as it did after a marathon day of rehearsals that ended at 10:30, was an unexpected capper to the evening. Until I realized that on the other side of the restaurant were the guys from Chanticleer, whose performance I had been unable to attend because of the aforementioned rehearsals.

So, a red-letter evening: a successful (ultimately) series of rehearsals for Onegin, a great dinner when by all rights all kitchens in town ought to have been closed, finally made the connection with Scott, and got to greet the guys from Chanticleer. At this point, the only thing left is for me to bump into David Weinberger, who’s spending time out this way this summer, and the nexus of coincidences would be complete.

The gloaming

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So here I am back in Lenox. It’s beautiful but ominous skies and a day of Russian ahead; our residency for Tschaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin has begun.

I’m currently flashing back to my one encounter with the language, a class in 1986, and am very grateful that I was exposed to the soft consonants ahead of time. Some of our Boston-bred palates are having real difficulty with the vowel sounds, though you can’t tell en masse, thank goodness.

It’s always a crapshoot, the lodging that our fair parent organization provides. Usually it’s just fine, but tonight my roommate isn’t here, they almost mixed up my room with a bunch of sopranos next door, and I had to manually configure my IP address so that I could get on the motel wireless. But I’m on now. (And it’s a good thing I’m not doing demos anymore; it’s slow, slow, slow.)

Mahler 2nd with Haitink, from afar

I wasn’t at Tanglewood this weekend, though I would have liked to be. You never get too many shots at Mahler’s Second, and the repertoire that I heard for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s Prelude concert was superb.

I’ve only seen two reviews so far, both of which make me even sorrier I wasn’t there. The first was the review in the Daily Gazette (Schenectady, NY), which gives the TFC a nice callout for Prelude, calling the chorus “so good by now that it can show off early in the summer. It opened the weekend with a virtuosic Prelude program Friday — all 20th-century, all appealing…”

The Gazette (which has had good coverage of the festival so far this year) also had nice things to say about the Mahler, as did the Berkshire Eagle, which wrote, “John Oliver’s festival chorus was made to sing music like this. The magical first entrance of the chorus, embracing resurrection, came through in an awed hush. When the roof blew off in the ending, the large audience, deprived of opportunities for applause between linked movements, erupted.”

(I wrote about my experience singing the piece under Seiji in 2006.)

A farewell to Troyens

I leave Berlioz’s massive magnum opus, which we gave our final Tanglewood performance this weekend, with reluctance. It’s such a tremendous work, full of enormous dimensions of art, drama, mythology, and humanity.

As I bid my farewell (aside from the reviews, which are rolling in and will show up in my daily links), a few thoughts about the work and our performances:

I previously called the opera a beast, but this description is, strictly speaking, only applicable to the first half (the capture of Troy). The first act plays the ill-fated celebration of the Trojans against Cassandra’s foreknowledge of the city’s doom, and the music continuously underscores the comparison–slashing punctuation from the orchestra under sunny arias, rising chromatic chords under the chorus’s premature victory march–until the terrible truth of the horse is revealed. The second half is a love tragedy, and has a broader palette on which to play out its psychodrama.

The whole first half hinges on the characterization of Cassandra. The soloist must strike a balance between portraying her fear and anguish and her love for Chorebus. In our Symphony Hall performances, Yvonne Naef gave a magnificently dramatic reading of the prophecy but was less convincing in convincing the audience that the love of Dwayne Croft’s Chorebus was more than a distraction. Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra was more equally passionate in both sides of the role, and her performance lent a warmer color to the love duet that deepened the calamity of the fall.

Berlioz may have intended the work to be performed in a single monumental evening, but there are so many parallels between the first and second halves of the work that the opera’s division works well in concert. There are repeated themes and motifs–the Trojan March is the most obvious example, but a more subtle and chilling parallel can be found in the descending chromatic scale sung by the Ghost of Hector in Part I and by Dido as she contemplates her suicide in Act II, as well as the muted French horns and piccolos denote the appearances of ghosts throughout the entire work.

The thing, then, with Les Troyens is that it more than adequately repays the listener for working through all its complexities (and in fact its sheer bulk). I hope I have an occasion to see it again in my lifetime. I would sing it again in an instant.

    Lenox rhythms

    lenox ma downtownIt can be really beautiful out here in the summertime before the crowds come. That’s what yesterday was like. While the chorus and symphony were here, there weren’t any concerts going on, just rehearsals, and the only people about were a few symphony families and one or two odd visitors who wanted to get a preview of the weekend’s concerts.

    Not only the grounds at Tanglewood were quiet (as you can tell from yesterday’s photos) but so was downtown Lenox (as you can tell from this shot). There were no crowds, it was easy to get a parking space even at lunchtime, and it was generally nice and quiet.

    That changes tonight when James Taylor rolls into the Shed for a two night residency.

    Already this morning Lenox was a mess. Tourists asking three or four times whether the local businesses took credit cards, parking and pedestrian hassles, long lines at the coffee shop. None of the wi-fi hotspots in town are actually functioning due to the large presence of freeloaders. It’s all kinds of fun, really.

    The shop owners are looking a little wild eyed as the crowds come and they prepare to make some serious money. The guy at the bagel shop says, “I wish it were Monday already and I survived this weekend.”

    We’ve got rehearsal this afternoon on grounds–it’s going to be a mess. But that’s the rhythm of Tanglewood. There’s always a different flood of people to share the town with.