Between a week-long vacation in Asheville and a residency at Tanglewood, plus the usual work and family stuff, posting on this blog has ground to a halt. But it’s not as if I haven’t been busy.
Take the Tanglewood residency, for instance. This was my third performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; my first Mahler 2 was with Seiji in 2006, my second with Christoph von Dóhnanyi in Symphony Hall. This was my first performance of the work under the baton of Andris Nelsons, and my first time through the piece with James Burton, the new conductor of the TFC.
It was a pretty magnificent experience, all told. Besides the improvements to tuning, diction, and affect that I’ve come to expect with Jamie, the chorus also found its way deeper into the work than we’ve done in the past. We talked about the difference in vocal tone required in the “Bereite dich” to ensure that we were strong and assertive but not aggressive. We were more attentive to the maestro than I remember being before.
This performance of the Brahms Requiem was unique in a lot of ways for the TFC: luminous piano and pianissimo singing, intricate moving lines, and of course our hashed formation. I thoroughly enjoyed singing Saturday but had some difficulties on Thursday and Friday; I think the novelty of singing hashed made it challenging for me to relax sufficiently to provide the right level of vocal support for piano singing, and as a result I had tightness of the voice that affected my high range. But all’s well that ends well, right?
Review time! Generally the reviewers were receptive to our hashed approach, with one significant exception.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by guest conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, generated plenty of power but didn’t exhibit the kind of precision and command evident in previous performances. There were messy entrances, unsteady pitch, and blurry diction. The dynamics were mostly limited to loud and soft, without much middle ground, and balances between chorus and orchestra were sometimes askew.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, expertly prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, brought out this humanism. From the opening “Selig sind…”, the propulsive certainty of faith and hope kept growing. This nuanced take included polished solos from baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Camilla Tilling. The special qualities are rather difficult to quantify; it goes beyond great musicians making great music. Rather, there was a meditative quality to the more circumspect passages. While the first half of the fourth movement was glorious, the true range of the TFC emerged in the sixth movement, “Oh death where is thy sting?” where the full power and force of this mighty chorus came into full cry. Any choir can sing loudly, but even in the most fortissimo passages, this choir enunciated with precision and control, yet they never lost sight of the narrative.
The heroes of this performance were the singers of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the ensemble found the soft elegance and stirring emotionalism of Brahms’ score. There were a few tentative moments in the final chorus “Selig sind die Toten,” where the soft passages suffered from some unfocused attacks. But elsewhere the ensemble sounded at its full, resonant best, singing with warm buttery tone in the most famous movement, “Wie lieblich sind die Wohnungen,” where the serpentine lines crested and broke over one another like waves.
The biggest reason for this owes to the excellence of the TFC’s singing throughout the evening: it was warm, focused, and perfectly blended. Excellently prepared this week by Lidiya Yankovskaya and singing with the music in front of them (a departure from the John Oliver days of total memorization), the Chorus sounded notably confident and, even if enunciations of certain words (like “getröstet” in the first movement) were, to begin, questionable, the group gained in Germanic fluency as the piece progressed.
I learn something different each time I perform the Brahms Requiem. This time, what I’ve learned is that singing hashed is wonderful in the chorus room and slightly scary on stage. But once you get past the fear of exposure, it’s still pretty darned glorious.
We’re singing this one with Thomas Hampson and Camilla Trilling. Some of us caught Ms. Trilling singing the sixth movement fugue with us, quietly, from memory. Some pieces are made to be internalized.
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.
I sang on stage several times with Botha during the James Levine era at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was on tap for the most heroic roles: Waldemar in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Florestan in Fidelio, Walter in Meistersinger. His was a magnificent voice: as I wrote in 2007 about his Florestan, his voice could convey both sheer power and powerful emotion. His rendition of the “prize song” from Meistersinger has always stayed close to my heart for its sheer magnificence.
I think, though, that I’ll always remember him for his approachable humanity. He always was glad to see the chorus, and could be relied on to liven rehearsals, especially as he grew more comfortable: clowning during Don Carlo, or bringing beer steins onto the Tanglewood stage for himself and James Morris. (They drank water from them.)
And, of course, in this miserable 2016, the cause of death was cancer. It was just six weeks ago that he headlined a cancer fundraiser in South Africa at which he was prominently billed as a “cancer survivor” and having been given a “clean bill of health.” That performance now stands as his final bow.
The video at the top is an audience film of the intermission bow from the 2006 Symphony Hall performance of Gurrelieder under James Levine, featuring Karita Mattila, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, and Botha. The latter two have been taken from us, both by cancer, and Levine himself will never again walk as nimbly as he does in this footage. It’s a sobering reminder that none of us are allotted much time.
The Adams work was commissioned for the first commemoration of the 9/11 attacks and was first performed September 12, 2002. It’s a powerful work that combines symphonic and children’s choruses, orchestra, and tape of voices reading names of 9/11 victims, fliers that were left, and interviews with families. From a performer’s perspective, the great thing is that the music is so rich and demands so much attention for pitch and rhythm that it’s very unlikely that we’ll get swallowed by the subject matter and become too choked up to perform—which might otherwise be a very real danger.
It’s going to be a very atypical performance for the TFC, as it is not a BSO performance and is held in an unusual venue for us—though not a new one for me, as I performed in Sanders Theater in 1993 with the Virginia Glee Club, almost 23 years ago.
Some free tickets are still available. It should be a hugely worthwhile event. I’m only sorry I won’t be able to see Wynton Marsalis in his part of the event the night before.
Coming back from Tanglewood is always challenging, and doubly so after a weekend like the one we had August 19 and 20. As I told a co-worker, it feels weird to walk into our office and not hear the magnificent Aida trumpets heralding our approach.
I go back out tomorrow for a Prelude concert (music set to the words of Shakespeare, mostly by British composers) and the Beethoven 9. Before I lose the music in my head, here are a few reviews that came in.
Rossini Stabat Mater with Charles Dutoit: I had never sung this piece before, and surprisingly the BSO had never played it at Tanglewood, and had only played it twice before, in 1974 and 2010. It turns out to be a fairly monumental work that blends sacred and operatic choral traditions, with some seriously intense solo writing (the tenor’s high note in the second movement comes to mind) along with choral writing that runs the gamut from amazingly delicate pianissimi to operatic descending lines. The fifth and ninth movements, sung a cappella, might have been my favorites.
Boston Classical Review (Lawrence Budmen): Dutoit, BSO serve up a Rossini rarity along with a heartening solo appearance at Tanglewood. “Under guest choral director James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus brought gleaming vocal sonority and subtly terraced dynamics to their a capella voicings of the ‘Eeia, mater’ and the lamentations in ‘Quando corpus morietur.’ Dutoit skillfully blended both chorus and vocal soloists with the orchestra’s highly charged playing.”
Boston Musical Intelligencer (James Prichard): Stabat Mattered at Tanglewood. “The choral work that opens the masterpiece (Stabat mater dolorosa) immediately established the high standard that was to prevail throughout the performance. Prepared by guest chorus director James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus once again displayed the smooth voice blending and comfortable control over a wide dynamic range that Boston audiences came to expect from them during the long tenure of founding director John Oliver.”
Verdi, Aida (Acts I and II) with Andris Nelsons: This was an astonishing piece even in performance of only half the opera, with a huge chorus and orchestra supplemented by offstage banda and, of course, the Aida trumpets. We were with a stellar crew of soloists including the stentorian Morris Robinson and Met soprano Kristine Opolais, who happens to be conductor Andris Nelsons’ wife. (The performance featured a total of 17 married couples among the soloists, orchestra and chorus, a fact which did not go unremarked-upon.)
Boston Classical Review (Lawrence Budmen): Uneven singing but thrilling moments in Verdi’s “Aida” at Tanglewood. “For the second night in a row (following a strong showing in Rossini’s Stabat Mater), the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was a tower of strength. The sumptuous sound of the female voices was particularly outstanding in a splendidly coordinated ensemble under guest choral director James Burton.”
Albany Times-Union (Joseph Dalton): A marriage of mighty forces for ‘Aida.’ “…as can often happen in a concert performance of opera, the inner workings of the score, especially the orchestration, were revealed as fresh wonders. Examples were the use of harps with the chorus, and an extended passage of dancing and swaying lines that started in the flutes and expanded into the entire woodwind section.”
Boston Globe (Jeremy Eichler): At Tanglewood, an ‘Aida’ both intimate and grand. “Bethany Worrell, a TFC member, did the chorus proud in her solo turn. Overall the TFC, this time prepared by James Burton, sang with a nuance and confidence that lifted its work notably above the level of other recent outings.”
Boston Musical Intelligencer (James Prichard): Celeste Nelsons, Opolais, Verdi, BSO, et alia. “Special mention is due soprano Bethany Worrell, a TFC member whose ethereal tone as the High Priestess enriched the texture of the production beyond the few measures of music in which we heard it.”
It’s entering the busy season of my summer, though in reality the whole summer feels both jam-packed and oddly relaxed. Last week: mid-year team offsite. This week: mid-year sales training. Next week: hacker summer camp.
Then there are rehearsals. In late August there’s Rossini, and Aida, and a Prelude concert and Beethoven’s 9th. So of course we’re in high rehearsal mode. I think I’ll have had over 18 hours of rehearsal in the last couple weeks of July by the time all is done.
But right now all I can think about is how much fun it was taking my kids around the Museum of Science on Sunday and watching the Tesla coils make music with The Girl. Turns out that you can translate AC frequencies directly into musical tones.
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.
We had an unusual Holiday Pops concert last night. It wasn’t the normal Monday night audience by any stretch of the imagination–unless your “normal Monday night audience” includes an active and a retired US Senator, the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and more than your average number of glitterati.
Last night friends of Senator John Kerry “bought the house,” and the program was a mix of a traditional Pops Christmas program, including “Sleigh Ride,” “White Christmas,” singalongs, and the TFC’s famous “Twelve Days of Christmas”; patriotic program (“God Bless America,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever”); and encomium to the senator on the occasion of his 25th year in office. And the tributes came from a bunch of different directions: documentary filmmaker Ken Burns spoke and presented a short film about Kerry’s career that came off like a campaign puff piece. James Taylor sang three songs and expressed his congratulations to the Senator. Governor Deval Patrick gamely read “The Night Before Christmas” while tossing out his best wishes. Senator Kerry’s Swift boat crew came and his second in command offered a salute that left the senator choked up. Former Senator Max Cleland (who had been shamefully swift-boated himself) did not speak, but got about as much applause as Kerry did. All the time the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was at the back of the stage, watching or singing.
And then there were the two musical highlights. Senator Kerry conducted the “Stars and Stripes Forever” with a surprisingly good sense of rhythm, though he occasionally gave his downbeat as an up-beat, but with an endearing amount of mugging self-mockery that left one in mind of an amiable crane; his face as the chorus entered was beaming.
And Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow, better known as Peter and Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary, gave a little lesson in folk singing, discussing the past and their connection with the Senator. They performed “A Soalin'” as a duo, then began “Light One Candle,” which the TFC has been singing this season. At the chorus they began to wave to the audience to sing along, so a few of us joined quietly; when they heard us, Paul waved us to sing louder. So we sang backup to two of the most significant living folksingers on that tune, and then on “Blowin’ In the Wind.” All my coffeehouse dreams of youth realized.
One of these days, I’m going to have to put my performance resumé together. It would have to include: “Sang with Renée Fleming, Dave Brubeck, and Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow” and “Sang in ensembles conducted by Robert Shaw, James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, and John Kerry.”
This year’s CD release of Tanglewood Festival Chorus: 40th Anniversary marks a number of interesting milestones. First, it is the first time the TFC has headlined a recording (rather than participating alongside the BSO or Pops, or on a soundtrack) since 1983’s Nonesuch recording Kurt Weill: Recordare/Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia (surely a collector’s item now). Second, of course, it celebrates the 40th anniversary of the chorus in a significant, tangible way.
Third, and best of all, it collects examples of the superb Prelude concerts that the TFC has put on at Tanglewood over the last ten years in the evocative space of Seiji Ozawa Hall. (Disclaimer for all superlatives: I don’t sing on any of the performances on this disc, so my conflict of interest as a reviewer is minimal.)
The repertoire is a mix of old friends (the Lotti “Crucifixus”, Bruckner motets, Bach’s “Singet dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied”) and slightly less familiar works (the Martin Mass is performed in its entirety here). Reception to the disc has been good; Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe singles out the Bruckner “Virga Jesse Floruit” for “robust and hearty singing,” and calls the Bach a “wonderfully vibrant performance” and “the highlight of the disc.”
For me, the highlight is the closing work, Copland’s “In the Beginning.” I’ve sung the work twice in performance with various groups and the TFC performance recorded here is simply superb, beginning with the performance of soprano Stephanie Blythe and carrying through all the chromatic chord changes, tricky rhythms, and shifts of mood as the Genesis story unfolds.
And that’s no small trick: the Copland is a work with many layers. The piece is in no specific key or meter, but visits about twelve different tonalities throughout, all with hummable melodies and each yielding to the next in a slow chromatic rise of pitch throughout the piece until the final lines are sung in an ecstatic seventh above where the music started. And the work embodies multiple shifts in musical voice, neatly signalling the (presumed) change in authorial voice from the P author (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) to the Redactor (Genesis 2:4a, “These are the generations”, which Copland’s performance direction indicates should be sung “rather hurriedly,” as if to get it out of the way), and then the conclusion, the story of the creation of Man as told by the J author, the oldest part of the story, which seems to rise out of the mist like the clay that is fashioned into man and breathed full of the divine breath. (Wikipedia has a good summary of the theory of differing authorial voices in Genesis.)
The TFC performance neatly captures all the layers of the work–the differing sections are full of the excitement and exultation of creation and then, in the end, its mystery and a more solemn gladness. Until now, I don’t think I had a good reference recording for the work; this certainly qualifies. The overall effect of the recording is captured in the summation of the brief Globe review: “Oliver conducts eloquently in this well-deserved recognition of the chorus’s anniversary year.”
Originally written for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus newsletter.
It makes me want to head off to Tanglewood right now.
In other news, I am heading to Tanglewood. Tomorrow, actually, to sing the Mozart Requiem and Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms with Michael Tilson Thomas. I’ve never sung with him before, but based on how the performances of the Mahler went last week, we should be in for an exciting ride.
This weekend I had one of those eerie experiences where you step into a picture you’ve always watched, but never imagined yourself in.
When I was growing up, the Fourth of July meant band concerts at Fort Monroe–if you’re growing up in Tidewater Virginia, military base concerts are your best bets for live music and fireworks–but it also meant the Boston Pops on TV. I remember vividly watching in the late Fiedler years, then later in the John Williams era. I made a pilgrimage to see the event in person in 2001, at the dawn of this blog. When we lived in Seattle we’d watch the show televised from the Hatch Shell and think about being in Boston. When we moved back to the area, we watched on the big screen at Robbins Farm Park, or else simply flaked out in front of the TV (the best place to watch the Aerosmith spectacle from a few years back).
But I never dreamed I’d be singing on the stage, in front of about 800,000 people. We had a warmup concert on the 3rd with an audience in the tens of thousands, but it was no preparation for the crowds, the heat, and the excitement. The music for a July 4 concert can be expected to be the usual patriotic numbers, and this year did not disappoint, but there were also some truly moving moments, such as the tribute to the Kennedy brothers–which, judging from the feedback on Twitter was a highlight of the show (at least for some). I hope we get a chance to do the show again soon–maybe with a few more lyrics and less humming.