Saturday, August 8, 2015

On Singing in a Choir - Oratorio Society Summer Chorus

Sure, I can belt out "Blue skies, shining on me" from the stern of a canoe, and I can sing "Away, away, with rum, by gum" around a campfire with the best of them. But singing in a choir, in parts, is not something I have done or had a burning desire to do in recent years. But Hilary thought it might be fun. Perhaps a church choir—though we haven't been to church in years—or one of the many local choral societies.  

On our first foray into that realm together—a December sing-along Messiah at Central Lutheran Church downtown—I got caught up in the majesty of standing in the midst of a few hundred powerful voices, even if mine wasn't one of them.

Then we heard from our friend Debbie that the Oratorio Society Choir was sponsoring a Summer Chorus (along with the U of M's School of Music) that might fit the bill. Auditions were not required, though the promo literature made it clear that prior experience singing in a choir was essential. The commitment would consist of two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals twice a week for a month, followed by one Saturday dress rehearsal with full orchestra and a performance later that same evening. Could be done.

To my mind the crowning virtue of the program was the repertoire—opera choruses!

I hadn't sung in a choir since my teen years, so I sent the organizers what I considered to be a delicately phrased email. My question was this:  If you loved opera but hadn't sung in a choir in forty years, weren't good at sight-singing, and didn't sing very loud at any rate, would it be appropriate for you to sign up?

The reply was pleasant and to the point. Sight-singing wasn't really required because they would send you Youtube videos of the choruses and Mp3 files of your specific parts to listen to. Nor was it important that you sing loud. (Probably just the reverse!) In short, if you could read music, carry a tune, and were willing to put in the time (and send in the entry fee) you would certainly be welcome to participate.

Thus I found myself one hot summer evening sitting on a chair in a large rehearsal hall at the University of Minnesota with 150 strangers. Hilary had also signed up, and so had Debbie, along with her daughter, and Becca, another good friend, so there were a few friendly faces in the crowd. I learned via Facebook that the sister of a friend was singing across the room in the soprano section, and I went over to chat with her during break once or twice. And I soon made the acquaintance of Doug, a mild-mannered man sitting next to me in the back row.

After a few relaxing warm-up exercises that first night, we dispersed into "sectionals," where the first thing we did was divide ourselves into 1s and 2s. When asked, I reported that I was a "tenor 2." I had no previous knowledge of this concept, but figured lower was the better place to hide. In the only choir I'd ever sung in there were only two tenors—me and my dad; dividing us in two would have been easy, but it probably wouldn't have been a good idea.

That first night the tenors and basses went over a few of the pieces in the program with Alex, one of the student conductors, at the piano. We were asked to sing a crisp "pom-pom-pa-pom" rather than the words in the score— S’intrecci il loto al lauro. This made it easier to move ahead without struggling with the Italian, and also more difficult to swoop lazily up to the proper pitch. "Hear the note in your mind," Alex advised us, "so when you open your mouth, it comes out clear." Easier said than done.

Later that evening we regrouped with the altos and sopranos, and several other grad students also took a turn at the podium. I was immediately impressed with how cheerful and competent most of them were.  I believe they may have learned this from maestro Matthew Mehaffey, who had a buoyant sense of humor and a vast assortment of one-liners, always delivered in a cheerful voice. "Don't sing it like you heard it in the movies; sing it like it's written on the page." "That was fair: Now sing it with your 'pretty' voice." "I'm getting paid to do this, and when you don't sing at my tempo, it hurts my feeling." "Altos, you have a whole measure to take a deep breath; don't wait 'til the last second."

Though I'm sure Matt had used many of these lines before, he was also clearly adept at developing humorous remarks on the spot to sugar-coat the bitter pill of any and every suggestion for improvement--and there were many.    

A key element of these rehearsals was to avoid wasting time. We were advised not to ask questions among ourselves; it was a distraction to others. And we were advised not to ask questions of the conductor, either. There wasn't enough time. They'd be available during breaks to help us with whatever questions we had.  

The rehearsals invariably started slowly, but then went by in a flash, and afterward, as we walked with our friends across the pedestrian bridge from Ferguson Hall to the parking lot through the warm summer night, I was twice as alert and not nearly so tired as when we'd arrived three hours earlier.

At the second rehearsal I was distressed to find that Doug, who had been sitting beside me the first night, was down in the third row. "What are you doing down there," I lamented. "I was leaning on you all the way."

"No, I was leaning on you," he replied, and we both laughed. (At the next rehearsal Doug was gone.)

I was now sitting next to Tony and Dale, who were long-time buddies. They were cordial but mostly interested in talking to one another rather than me. Little by little I gained Tony's ear, and that was important because he was an experienced singer. In the course of later rehearsals I learned that he used to rebuild pianos for a living and was once a choir director himself. So when Lukas, the German specialist among our student conductors, would slow the music down and then say, "Put a fermata in there," I would glance over Tony's shoulder to see what he was doing. I know what it means to slow down; Tony knew what a fermata looks like.

One thing I found it hard to accept was how high Tony was singing the first few bars of Wagner's "Treulich Gefuhrt." The note was a D above middle C, eventually rising to a G. Tenors could not be expected to sing that high, could they?

Working it out on a piano when we got home that night, I discovered that he'd been right. And a little online research led to the discovery that tenors are expected to sing far higher than that. I started to wonder if perhaps, over the years, I'd become a baritone.

Practicing at home proved to be more difficult than I expected. The Mp3 for the grand finale of Aida, to take an example, started at a place where we weren't actually supposed to sing. They'd included the solo part.  The score for Pirates of Penzance had about twelve staffs, and I had no idea if I was supposed to be singing the Tenor, the tenors, or the chorus of pirates. And the two tenor lines in Tannhauser's "Pilgerchor" were both on the same Mp3 file, making it difficult to hear the lower line I was supposed to be singing. (Admittedly, it all became easier once I figured out that on the score the second tenor part was marked with staffs pointing down rather than up.)

At times it seemed we lived in a madhouse, with Hilary pounding out an alto line on the piano in the living room and me in the office, two closed doors beyond, trying to figure out how to parse "Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside, Che il sacro suol protegge!" among fifteen notes of varying length and emphasis.

Somehow, everything became easier once we'd reassembled with the group. In part this was because we were once again focused on very small sections of a score, but it was also sometimes easier to find the correct path with confidence in the aural context of the fuller harmonies all around you. And who knows? Maybe the at-home practicing also made a difference.

By the end of our second rehearsal, the complexity of the task ahead had largely been revealed. We were set to learn eleven choruses. And it wasn't merely a matter of hitting the right notes. Phrasing (in German, French, or Italian), emphasis, dynamics, diction, mood—they all needed to be attended to, as well as the vocal "sound." The appropriate staffs of my score were soon highlighted in yellow. I scribbled Ks over the Italian "che"s, and "oink" above the German "euch." The pages were littered with "stop," "go to the top of 13," "breathe," "staccato," "quick page turn," "same as soprano end-note here," "dramatic volume," "sing piano, but with fortissimo consonants," and numerous other bits of advice, some of them incomprehensible to me now.    

Several of the student conductors were with us during the last part of the third rehearsal, listening, conferring. As it came to an end and I walked slowly down the risers, I had a vision of Matt, the Oratorio Society's director, pulling a few twenties out of his wallet (my entry fee) and handing them back to me.

"You did your best," he'd say in his kindliest voice, trying for once to suppress his exuberance, "But we really can't use you. It's not working out."

No such event took place, and in time things started to gel a little. Or so it seemed to me. At the next men's sectional, I had the good fortune to be joined by one of the graduate students. He strode up behind me and took the empty chair next to mine. "What section is this?" he asked quietly. "Second tenor? Do you mind if I join you? I don't really have much to do tonight." He had a beautiful voice and with his help I made my way for the first time fairly convincingly through the rich inner textures of Tannhauser's  "Pilgrim's Choir."

Had he been sent to check me out? To help me along? To blot out the singing of Brad, the eager but fidgety  baritone to my left? Maybe he was telling the truth, just killing time.

When the rehearsal was over, I said, "You can sing with us any time." He asked me if I was in the regular Oratorio Choir (I had to chuckle at that) and when I told him I hadn't sung in a choir in forty years, he asked, "Are you enjoying it?" And I found myself answering, "It's a riot."

Of course, many members of this ad hoc summer choir were seasoned singers. Quite a few were members of the regular Oratorio Society Chorus. Hilary was sitting next to a woman who sang regularly  in the Twin Cities' Women's Choir. Tony's friend Dale had sung for years with the Edina Choir. I learned by chance from the tenor sitting in front of me that seven members of his church choir had joined up. These were the people that moved the music ahead and gave it body.

Yet there were certain places where everyone sounded terrible. For example, in the finale to Act II of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, there's a lot of shouting and fascistic, march-like exclamations, with everyone blaring out "Fearless, mighty, ruthless warrior, Hail!" The "Hail" is held for three and a half bars on a dissonant triad. Then, after a two-beat rest, the tenors and basses come in with "Sing his praise,"  starting on A-sharps an octave apart. That A-sharp is somewhat out of context harmonically with what has come before, and no one seemed to know quite where it was. A few courageous voices forged boldly ahead with rough approximations while the rest of us limped along behind, but the little phrase "Sing his praise" ended up sounding hesitant and slightly pathetic rather than boisterous and celebratory, as if they were being sung, not by enthusiastic followers but by salaries apparatchiks.

However, the next day I downloaded that piece as performed by Torgny Sporsen, Neeme J√§rvi, and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I wanted to burn a CD of the choruses included in the program, and I owned most of them, but not the Borodin (and not the Wagner). As I listened, it occurred to me that the Gothenburg Chorus didn't sound so hot on that passage, either. Indeed, listening to the choruses on my CD from Aida and Nabucco, I came to the conclusion that many professional choirs sound like holy hell when you really stop to listen.  

I shared that theory with Tony at the next rehearsal and he politely rejected it with a shake of the head. "It's not easy to record such things," he said, "but you can tell a good chorus when you hear one."

As a sentimental aside, I ought to mention that Borodin's Polovtsian Dances holds a special place in my heart. When I was a wee lad, my parents would occasionally build a fire in the fireplace on a winter night, put that LP on the hi-fi, and turn out the lights, at which point my big brother and I would dance in front of the flames. That's one of the most peaceful and enchanting memory from my early childhood. And even today, the tuneful sections of that piece sound lovely to me.

By the time we'd entered the fourth and final week of rehearsals, I was confident that the concert would go okay, that no one was going to kick me out ... and that I still needed to work on quite a few things.

As we began to rehearse larger segments and then entire pieces, things started to sound better. (Or could it be that things sounded better as the conductor less often stopped us to fix things?) But just when all seemed to be going well, yet another complication was added. During the last Wednesday rehearsal, several of the conductors made it clear that they expected us to look at them, more than occasionally, rather than at the notes and markings in our score.

How were we supposed to follow the notes, remember the weird phrasing, and make use of all the scribbling on our score, if we were looking at them? But of course it was necessary. They were providing the tempi, signaling the crescendos and the dramatic delays. The final touches of expressiveness came from the conductor's gestures. If you weren't paying attention, you could screw things up big time.

"I would rather that you mispronounced every Italian word while looking up, projecting your voice, and sharing your enthusiasm with the audience," Matt told us, "than sing every word perfectly with your nose buried in the score." This is something you tell the choir on the last day of rehearsal, not the first.

On the Saturday morning of the performance Hil and I were back at work at our parts. A few lines of Italian were still bothering me. They appear at the start of a movement, when I should be looking at the conductor, but they still weren't matching up very well with the tune, though at our previous rehearsal, Catherine, one of the student conductors, had made it clear we should long since have memorized the passage.

I typed out the phrases, and then highlighted the points of emphasis.  

"sembra una vedova che al-fin si togli-e i bruni panni ond’ e-ra involta."

An even more phonetic rendering would have looked like this.

sem-broo-na vey-do-va Kal-fin-si tow-ley-ee ...

But time was getting short, the lines amounted to about five seconds in a ninety-minute performance—and I was getting a little sick to my stomach. So I decided to drop the effort and read a book for a while.

When we arrived at the theater that afternoon, whatever butterflies I'd experienced fluttered off for good. It was fun sitting in the empty seats of the theater watching Matt, Alex, Catherine, and others rearrange the kettle drums and move the music stands here and there. The performance was still six hours away but there was already a hint of electricity in the air.  

Orchestra members started to arrive, among them my friend Dave, a trombonist who performs regularly with the Minnesota Opera. We got to talking about the Borodin piece, the shouting harmonies of which I characterized as "Sythian." I was thinking less about the Sythian mode than about Prokofiev's bizarre and seldom-performed Sythian Suite. Dave is an expert at sustaining a conversation on the strength of half-truths, puns, and imaginative digressions and he asked me where the Sythians came from. I replied "central Turkey," though it occurs to me now that "central Asia" might have been a better response. Dave had just finished reading a book about the origins of the fez, and  we were on the verge of extending our conversation in new directions when the time came to take our seats for the final rehearsal.

I was relieved to find I was still seated in the back row next to Tony and Dale, with Brad the Baritone to my immediate left. (During rehearsals Brad and I had always had a chair or two in between us.) I'd gotten to like Brad during our month of singing together. All the conductors knew him because he sang in one of the university choirs, and he told me he also gave saxophone lessons to kids. I was especially pleased to note that the tie he'd chosen for the performance was much louder than mine.  

Tony had looked a little bedraggled at some of the rehearsals but he now looked well-rested and sharp. "I enjoy the rehearsals a lot more than the performance," he told me with a sigh. I also learned that he'd once taught English in Thief River Falls, though he was now in IT. When I mentioned that I edited and designed books for a living, he said, "You should talk to Dale, here. That's what his daughter does."

Leaning over I said, "Dale, what's your daughter's name?"

When he told me I said, "I've known Kelley for years. She was with Beaver's Pond, then went to Lerner, as I recall. She even brought an intern over to the house once—I'm self-employed—to introduce her to a 'designer' at work."

Small world.

Such incidental familiarities may be uninteresting to a seasoned vocalist, but to me they were important, in so far as I had no idea how I was actually doing; rehearsal time is largely spent singing or listening and responding as a group to bits of advice. Personal interactions are only likely to take place with the people you already know and the people sitting next you.

In the end, I found that I enjoyed the rehearsals, but perhaps enjoyed the performance even more. This may have been because during rehearsals, one part of your brain is removed, gathering information about what went wrong and how little things can be improved upon. During the performance that chunk of brain power is released from such tasks and can turn itself toward the job at hand—singing expressively. If you flub a line or lose track of a pitch there's nothing to be done but move on ahead, and that's a liberating feeling. Most of the things I'd learned during rehearsal seemed to be coming back to me unbidden (though all the pencil markings helped) as part of the natural flow of the music.

The addition of an orchestra didn't hurt either. The soloists and conductors in tuxedos gave the event a touch of class. And with seven hundred people in the audience, I couldn't help feeling that, aside from being a lot of fun, what was about to take place was really going to mean something, with everyone contributing freely, anonymously, to a single powerful and pleasing effect.

We met some friends in the lobby after the performance and I was pleased to see that even Sheila, who sang opera professionally in Germany for twenty years, now gives voice lessons, and refers to herself as "hypercritical," claimed to have loved the show.

"I cried all the way through Puccini's 'humming chorus,' " she said. In fact, her eyes still looked a little moist. Maybe the encore sing-along of "Va Pensiero" had also gotten to her.

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