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.

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.

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.

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.