Hitting the boards again: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra

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

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

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

BSO and TFC: Brahms Requiem, September 26-27, 2008

As promised earlier, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about our performances of the Requiem this weekend, now that I have some distance on the music (meaning: the third movement fugue is no longer obsessively pounding in my head).

I have a long history with the Requiem. I first almost performed it in the late 1990s with the Cathedral Choral Society in Washington, DC, but a family death took me away from the performance after I had almost completely learned it. I finally got a chance to sing it in 2004 with the University Presbyterian Church choir in Seattle, but in English and with a bad head cold. The first time I performed any of it in German was our tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at Tanglewood in 2006, when we sang the fourth movement (“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen”).

But of course, any performance of a full work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is different from any prior performance of the same work, for the simple reasons that (a) you’re singing with one of the best orchestras in the world and (b) you’re doing it from memory. In this case, that’s seventy-five minutes of German, including two bloodying fugues, by heart.

So my perspective on the Requiem has two aspects: one rather like a marathoner’s perspective regarding his last run, and one of a participant in the creation of great beauty.

From the former perspective: pacing is the biggest problem in singing the Brahms, because there are three Heartbreak Hills. The first and fifth movements are calm and fairly easy to sing, the fourth and seventh are louder but also even tempered. But each of the other movements has its own unique challenges. The second movement has those stretches of the funeral chant (“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras…”) that are sung over the full orchestra at forte volume, down in the bottom of everybody’s tessitura. And then there’s the “Aber des Herrn” at fortissimo, followed by a nice fuguelike section which is thick and inspires a certain tendency to shout. And the third and sixth movements have full-on fugues and climaxes–they’d both be finales in a lesser composer’s hands. Plus, even in the low and medium movements, you have challenges — for the tenors, there’s the high A near the end of the first movement and the final “wie lieblich”, which calls for the tenors to do a very controlled crescendo at a very high point in the range while keeping extremely beautiful tone. So the profile of the work from an emotional perspective is low – high – very high – moderate – low – very high – high, but the technical difficulty profile is basically high – very high – very high -high – high – very freaking high – high, and you have to really husband your emotional and physical energy accordingly.

The alternative: you hit the wall sometime around the sixth movement, the real uphill battle of the work, before you even get into the fugue. And in that fugue, as our director said, there is inevitably “blood on the walls” in every performance thanks to the demand on the singers and the difficulty of the preceding music. So the secret is to remember what’s ahead and never, ever, ever go full volume. If the director asks for more in a climatic crescendo, focus the voice up into the face so that it projects more clearly, rather than simply opening up to full vocal throttle.

From the second perspective: I’ve never sung in a performance where every chorister was so on top of the music, and so together–total telepathic connection from person to person. And every one of them singing right to the limit of the safe range of the voice, without going into the danger zone, thanks to lots of “marathon” experience. And with the improved acoustics of Symphony Hall, being able to hear other voice parts as though they were standing right next to you. So performing it was a joy. I can’t pretend to be able to provide an objective review of our own performance otherwise, but if the hall was enjoying it half as much as we were, it’s no wonder they applauded as vigorously as we did.

Brahms Requiem: gearing up

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

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

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

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

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.

The gloaming


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.

Heading for Tanglewood

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