Back at Carnegie Hall today, for the fifth time, and the first since 2015, to perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This will be the second time I’ve sung Russian here. Previous visits:
Each of those performances brought something different. The first two, conducted by James Levine, showed how the BSO had transformed under his conducting. The “Missa” was about frailty in the middle of the strength of that monumental score; after Kurt Masur withdrew due to progressing complications of Parkinson’s, the performance was conducted by TFC musical director John Oliver, who would step down from the chorus he founded three years later and be dead in six. The Nevsky happened the fall after JO’s retirement and at the beginning of Andris Nelson’s tenure.
As part of the Boston Symphony’s ongoing (and almost complete) project to perform the complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, I’ve been able to participate in multiple concert runs over the last few years that performed his choral symphonies, and which were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon for eventual release as part of a unique partnership that began in 2015. The first two symphonies, Shostakovich’s Second and Third, were, candidly, hard to love. Exciting and loud, but the choral parts featured a word salad of Soviet propaganda.
The Thirteenth is a different beast altogether. Written from a set of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the subject matter touches on Soviet antisemitism, inextinguishable humor in the face of repression, the everyday hardships of Russian women seeking to provide for their families, the fear felt under Stalin’s leadership, and the sacrifice of principles in pursuit of a career. And the music is gorgeous and subtle, with multiple earworms that threaten to consume my brain.
And by glimpse, I mean listen—though you can only hear a 30-second preview of each of the six sides of the six-record set (from the 78RPM era). To hear the samples, click the Play button beneath the scan of the record label in the center, then hit the Next button (right triangle) in the header and click Play again. It’s clumsy but it works.
And interestingly, side 5 raises doubt that Harvard’s Glee Club in 1945 was substantially more musically sophisticated than its Virginia counterpart. The opening of the last movement, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” is here shouted with uneven pitch and vowel pronunciation (direct link to a downloadable 30-second sample). I hope to be able to compare the recording to the Virginia Glee Club’s 1943 premiere soon.
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.
Last Sunday’s Tanglewood season ender was in some ways not out of the ordinary: a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. But there were some exceptional things about it.
First was the pairing of the work with Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City,” featuring some stunning playing from Tom Rolfs and Robert Sheena. Then there was the conductor, Andris Nelsons, marking (as the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler remarked) one of the first times in recent memory that the BSO’s music director has conducted the season ender. James Levine did it once, but at the beginning of the season, and otherwise left it to guest conductors. Maestro Nelsons was totally engaged. From the first movement there was an electric energy on stage. The announcement he made from the beginning that he would be in residence for a full month next summer didn’t hurt either.
Then, there was our performance. The Beethoven capped a month of work by the chorus with guest conductor James Burton, and his skill showed in our diction and attention to detail. It was the first time in my memory that the men of the chorus didn’t completely immolate the tenor soloist when we made our “Laufet bruder…” entrance, and overall the singing felt spectacular on stage.
The BSO released the clip above not half an hour after the concert ended, and I love how it plays out—although I wish there were a little more of the performance captured. Maybe when the radio clip is posted (update 9/6: here it is).
PS Confidential to Andrew Pincus: the chorus only numbered 140, not 200, and I think at no time were we in danger of covering the soloists.
We reprised the work a few years later under Christoph von Dohnányi, in a totally different performance. By that time I wasn’t blogging as regularly so I don’t have any notes from that run. I remember a few things, though: his tempi were brisk, his interpretation totally unsentimental, and his demands on the chorus’s diction were fierce.
This run, which concluded a week ago, was to have been conducted by the great Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, with whom I was fortunate to sing a few times. But he passed away this summer, and the task of filling his shoes went to Bramwell Tovey. The chorus had sung with him before, but I had not, and had heard about his affability but not much about his musicianship. He turns out to be, at least with the Requiem, a conductor concerned not so much with putting an individual stamp on the work than with seeking how the text determines the flow of the piece. To that end he, like Dohnányi, asked the highest level of diction and pitch precision from the chorus. Our chorus conductor, Bill Cutter, helped with that, pitilessly letting us know when we could be doing better.
For this performance, my third time through the work, I had a pretty good idea of what some of the major challenges would be for me. I wrote about some of them in the post from Tanglewood:
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… 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.
Well, friends, I’m here to tell you that I had the right problem area, but the solution was both easier and harder than I thought.
The hard part was in placing my voice properly. I have never had more than a few hours of formal voice instruction since I got my full instrument, and so it takes me a while to learn things that I suppose most voice majors know inherently. (The hazards of being a sciences major and not taking advantage of the meager vocal instruction offerings at my undergrad, among other things.) Sometime over the past few years, though, I managed to learn about two important concepts in voice placement: singing toward and through the mask, and keeping the ceiling of the vocal chamber high. What follows is an embarrassing amateur’s assessment of how this works; I welcome correction.
The “mask,” or the frontal bones of the face, is where a good portion of the resonant overtones of the voice develop, due in no small part to vibrations through the sinus cavities (yes, they’re good for something besides infections). But the voice must be directed through this part rather than being allowed to linger in the back of the vocal chamber for the resonance to take effect. Once it does, the difference is startling: a brightness and sharpness to the sound that cuts through surrounding noise for far less vocal effort. The challenges are in keeping the sinuses clear (no small task thanks to the common cold) and managing the position of the facial muscles that support singing so that the placement happens properly.
The full vocal chamber, otherwise known as the front of the face, the cavity of the mouth, and the back of the throat, is important in developing the fullness of the sound. Again, my amateur guess is that this has something to do with developing the right resonant frequencies. It turns out that for me, one of the most important parts of this process, in addition to the mask, is keeping the soft palate, which forms the ceiling of the vocal chamber, high and out of the way. If it comes down, producing sound on pitch is much harder, the sound is muddied, and if you’re singing through the mask and not taking advantage of the full chamber you get a sharp thin sound rather than a penetrating fuller sound.
This leads me to the other thing that was much easier in solving the problem. One of the things that makes keeping the soft palate in the proper place extremely hard is not being prepared for the next vowel sound that is being produced. If you are unsure about whether an e or an ah is coming next, the palate doesn’t know where to go, and producing any sort of sound at all becomes a challenge of brute force.
In this context, my prior problem about my voice “tightening” had a simple diagnosis: I was not comfortable with the text. By that point in movement six my memory was generally unreliable so I couldn’t anchor the Den es wird die Pasaune schallen. I finally figured out what was going on in one of our rehearsals when we started on the second repetition, Der Tod is verschlungen in den Sieg, sung on virtually the same tune, and I had no difficulty in keeping the voice from tightening. Why? I knew the words better! I didn’t have to force the sound, and that meant I could keep the palate high and the muscles in the proper place! All I had to do to make this a general solution was focus on ensuring that I had the right words!
So for this run I managed, most of the time, to keep the apparatus such that I was producing the right sort of sound throughout, and it made all the difference in the world. I even sang in my church choir the following morning; usually after a Brahms Requiem run I’m a ragged baritone for at least a week.
Stay conscious of the mask and the ceiling of the chamber.
Learn the damned text. First, if possible.
This should be fun as we head into the Rachmaninoff that we’ll sing next. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn that much Russian.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.)
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.
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.