Review roundup: Rossini Stabat Mater, Verdi Aida

The TFC lines up at the back entrance to the Shed prior to Aida.
The TFC lines up at the back entrance to the Shed prior to Aida.

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.”

Berkshire Eagle (Andrew Pincus): With Nelsons’ return, BSO goes adventuring. “The chorus, prepared by James Burton, was a consistent presence as troubled citizens of Memphis.”

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.”

Summertime rolls

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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.

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.

Star time with the Pops

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.”

Tanglewood Festival Chorus: 40th Anniversary

TFC 40th Anniversary

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.

John Oliver on memorization

John Oliver, founding director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, was on a great roundtable on WAMC about the chorus, memorization, Michael Tilson Thomas, his garden, and a bunch of other topics.

[audio:http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wamc/news.mediaplayer?STATION_NAME=wamc&MEDIA_ID=912057&MEDIA_EXTENSION=mp3&MODULE=news&ext=.mp3]

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.

Backstage at the Hatch Shell, July 4, 2010

At rehearsal at the Hatch Shell

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.

See also: my photos from the weekend.

My first Pops Independence Day concert

This Fourth of July will be a first for me. After five years of membership in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I’ve hit the big time. Bigger than singing with James Levine? With Sir Colin Davis? With Renée Fleming? Maybe. I’ll be singing my first Fourth of July concert with the Boston Pops, as a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

I don’t know yet whether I’ll be on stage, but I think just being there at the Hatch Shell on the Fourth is going to be reward enough. I grew up with local Independence Day concerts at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, but even I knew that the Boston July 4th was The Real Deal. But somehow I missed my opportunity the last time the TFC performed with the Pops, and for a few years they haven’t sung.

But now–the year of the 125th anniversary of the Pops, and the 40th anniversary of the TFC–I’ll be there. You can even watch me on local TV — though, alas, not the national broadcast, as all our numbers will be in the first half of the show. But if you’re in the Boston area, set your DVRs!

Probably not what he had in mind.

In other musical news, the first ten seconds of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms makes a pretty good ringtone:

[audio:http://www.jarretthousenorth.com/wp-content//1PreludepsalmXxxviiiVerses13And14.mp3|titles=Symphony of Psalms (1931 recording)]

Recording courtesy the Internet Archive, who had a copy of a 1931 78RPM recording of the symphony conducted by Stravinsky the year after it premiered. I’ll be singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Orchestra when we perform the work, alongside the Mozart Requiem, at Tanglewood on July 16, reprising our performance from last fall.

On winning a Grammy

Last night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Levine conducting, won a Best Orchestral Performance Grammy for our 2009 recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. I blogged our nomination a while ago but am still delighted that we won. All the hard work seems worthwhile today.

Not that my work, as a member of the chorus, is onerous. In fact, I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world today. We all come from our day jobs to Symphony Hall or Tanglewood, rehearse, and perform, and get to be part of something great together with musicians who train for decades to take that job.

So today, I’m grateful to the musicians of the BSO for letting us come along for the ride, and to our maestro James Levine for leading us down paths of excellence. (Even if, during the concert run for this recording, he did get mistaken for Keith Lockhart.)

More MacMillan

There’s a fair bit of chatter about the MacMillan St. John Passion, so I thought I’d do a quick roundup. I’ll lead off with three other TFC bloggers, two of whom I’ve already linked, then include a few other notes.

  • Tenore (Len): Free tickets available. Len writes, “While some of it is tonally challenging and a bitch to sing, most of it is quite melodic and beautiful.” Which of course drew a comment from the composer (seriously).
  • Angelina Calderón: From the depths of Symphony Hall. Angelina writes a little about the rehearsal process.
  • Jeff, aka Just Another Bass, has a set of great articles about the process and the piece.

Then there’s all the other writings, some of which stem from the piece’s first round of performances, others are more contemporary:

  • The Guardian, James MacMillan charts the progress of his latest composition The Passion. Interesting diary in progress of the work. My favorite bit from the article: “The scene where Jesus is brought before Pilate is the work’s biggest movement. It’s pure drama. This is the first point where I’ve wondered if I need more soloists. Instead, I’ve decided to give the role of Pilate to the basses. His music has a particular colour – a desiccated, dry clicking sound, col legno strings, temple blocks with low bassoons and parping trombones. It’s a challenge to write this music for chorus rather than soloists; I’m trying to write what I feel the part needs while making sure it’s still manageable for an amateur chorus. I’ve just written a tricky F sharp up to F natural interval for the basses – the music has to prepare and help them in some way, so I’ve outlined the interval in the timpani which sets up a kind of context so they can feel more relaxed about it. They’ll still scream when they first see it, I’m sure.” (For what it’s worth, the TFC basses are doing just fine with the part.)
  • The Jewish Daily, Forward: MacMillan and strife: a new ‘St. John Passion.’ The article calls out the orchestration and the inclusion of the Reproaches text in leveling a charge of antisemitism against the work.
  • Boston Globe, An act of ‘Passion’. Good introduction to the piece for American audiences, including the perspective of Sir Colin Davis, our conductor for the run.

Preparing the MacMillan St. John Passion

It’s that time of year again. My colleagues and I in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus have put away our Holiday Pops scores in preparation for tackling more sublime repertoire. This upcoming concert, the US premier of James Macmillan‘s St. John Passion, a joint commission by the BSO and the London Symphony in honor of Sir Colin Davis’s 80th birthday and under his baton, should fit that adjective nicely.

The Boosey and Hawkes catalog entry for the Passion dryly notes the choral “level of difficulty” as “5 (the greatest).” Other singers have noted some of the challenges without going into details. At the risk of going in over my head, I’ll take a shot at describing both the difficulties and their payoffs.

Voices: The Passion is not shy in its use of choral forces, leveraging a small “narrator chorus” to perform the role sometimes filled by an Evangelist solo in the Bach settings of the Passions, in addition to a large chorus performing the traditional functions (Pharisees, crowd reactions, and chorales) and some more dramatic semi-soloistic roles (Pilate and Peter), with only one role for a true soloist, Christ himself. That’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of work for the chorus, which is not unusual for any Passion. What is a little more unusual is the…

Vocal writing: The text of the Passion is Latin and English, with traditional liturgical poems added to the Biblical text. The narrator chorus is written with plainchant in mind, but is generally written in four-part harmonies that are miles away from traditional Gregorian forms and rhythms. The chorus’s parts are even more gnarly, with vocal effects ranging from Sprechstimme and eight-to-twelve-voice chromatic passages to simultaneous juxtapositions of the Stabat Mater text with an English-language lullaby inspired by the Coventry Carol. The vocal ornamentation and rhythms are unusual as well, with Christ’s muezzin-like melismas reminding us that the original Biblical setting would have been more at home with the vocal traditions of the Middle East than that of Bach. For a chorus like the TFC, used to memorizing everything from the old warhorses like the Beethoven 9 to modern works like the Bolcom 8th Symphony, the combination of all of the above suggested that having scores in the performance might be a really good idea. That said, there are substantial portions of the work that are now firmly lodged somewhere in my cerebellum and won’t go away. And that’s due to…

The overall effect: MacMillan has a lot of forces and tools at his command, and he uses them to move the narrative of the story through to its inexorable conclusion with a lot of jaw-dropping effects along the way. Peter’s triple denial of Christ, sung by four-part men’s chorus, trips over itself singing, “I am not… I am… not,” dropping an octave down from vehemence into a piano unison in a strong psychological portrayal of the shame of the lie. The chorale on Judas’s betrayal of Christ (“Judas mercator pessimus”) begins gangbusters with a condemnatory declamation before improbably melting away to a jewel-like setting of his request of a kiss from Christ for the second sopranos and second tenors, then  sets the “Melius illi erat” (“It would have been better if he had never been born”) as a Renaissance motet accompanied by fast recitation of text (an effect not unlike the library scene in Wings of Desire). The Crucifixio employs the classic cross vocal motif as a starting point (a four note melody moving down and up around a central tone), suspending Bach chorale harmonies on long whole-note phrases that decrescendo into a stunned silence.

But it’s the Stabat Mater in part 7 that really brings home the genius of all the moving parts of the work, with narrator chorus describing the fate of Mary, the inner voices sing the Latin poem in a breathtaking melismatic canon of fourths and fifths… and the outer voices (soprano and bass) sing a gentle lullaby to the deceased Christ, all at the same time–before closing on a quote from Bach made utterly personal: “Your sacred head is wounded.” It’s one of those moments outside of time that don’t come along too often in symphonic repertoire. I’m looking forward to continuing to journey into the work. Hopefully some of you can be there for the performance with me.

Grammy-nominated blogger

The Grammy nominations for 2009 are out, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is on the list (along with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, of course). Our recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe with the BSO under James Levine got the nod.

I was kind of hoping that our Brahms Requiem recording would be nominated–it’s certainly a more prominent chorus role, and I think it’s one of the best recordings available of the work. But I’m not complaining.

The only question is: do I put “Grammy nominated” on my resumé now? (Of course not, but it’s fun to contemplate.)

Update: I would be doing my BSO colleagues a disservice if I didn’t note that the album is also up for Best Engineered Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance.

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.