Monday, August 7, 2017

Love and Death - Brahms' Requiem

Friends who attended tell me that it was a good performance. I wouldn't know. I was there, too, but I was standing up high, in the back, with the sounds moving away from me at every level. From that vantage point the performance seemed rich, nuanced, profound. But in the intensity and alertness of the moment, suddenly everything sounded better and more interesting.

We'd been rehearing the piece twice a week for four weeks--150 singers, seasoned veterans and novices alike--and we'd also rehearsed with the orchestra that afternoon. Like everyone else, I'd been going over my part at home, working on those elusive German vowels, straining my voice in pursuit of the very high notes, trying to match the words to the notes in the furious fugal sections, penciling in the moods here and there: "consoling," "scornful," "scary but march-like."   

The reality remained unmistakable: there were too many things to lasso and corral at the same time. We'd leave the hall on the West Bank after every rehearsal—Hilary and I along with friends Becca, Debbie, and Emma—in a state of mild elation, having focused our attention as well as we could all evening, but the talk as we crossed the foot bridge to the parking lot was always the same—things we needed to work on, things we couldn't keep up with, notes we couldn't find, much less hit.

It was a feeling akin to guilt. Mom asked you to take out the garbage, but you didn't. But you meant to. Maybe later. Yes, but later it will be too late.

Director Matt Mehaffey knows all the ins and outs of motivation, and the lack thereof. He tactfully (and sometimes not so tactfully) implored us to improve our diction, learn our parts, open our jaws, and attend to the dynamic markings, sugar-coating the bitter pill of criticism with amusing references to Darth Vader, "Stairway to Heaven," The Swedish Chef (a character on the Muppets, a friend told me later) and other lowbrow cultural icons.

On another level of interest, he also urged us to familiarize ourselves with the texts Brahms had chosen. Though drawn from Biblical sources,  they offered a grave and sophisticated handling of the grieving process and the hopes the faithful might entertain. There were fiery passages and plaintive passages, beatific sections and hell-bent-for-leather romps. In short, the Requiem was a cornucopia of emotions if not a game-plan for salvation.  
A glance at the translated texts served to underscore the truth of these remarks. But would probing those depths (which would take a long time) really improve the pitch or quality of my voice?

I asked myself more than once: "Am I really enjoying this? Am I really contributing anything?" My answer to the first question was always yes, albeit a qualified and reluctant yes. And as for the second, I couldn't believe I was that much worse than some of the other singers who had signed up for the four-week program. I just needed to work harder.

During the course of the regimen, I drew support from a succession of singing companions—that is to say, whoever happened to end up sitting beside me in the back row. At the first rehearsal I met Alan, an optometrist from Brookings, S.D. Though an experienced singer, he hadn't sung in a choir in recent years.  On another occasion it was Jordan, a student from Brainerd who also sang in Matt's choir during the school year. And during the last week, I landed next to a gentleman of Dutch extraction named Ben who had just moved to town from NW Iowa, where for many years he had been not only the choral director, but a professor of choral directing, at a small college.  

During our final week of rehearsals, two thoughts often crossed my mind simultaneously: a) things are really starting to come together, and b) I have never seen these pages before in my life. Yet that couldn't be true; my pencil marks were all over the score. The effect was uncanny. 

The final trial (as if this were some kind of medieval contest out of the pages of Chretien de Troyes!) came during the afternoon rehearsal with the orchestra on the day of the performance. It was a long rehearsal. The lights were hot. Many of us in the back row had no place to sit down, and were forced to stand, largely motionless, during long stretches when Matt was discussing details with members of the orchestra. As we finally marched off the risers, I felt that I was coming off the trail from an arduous backpacking trip. 

During the two-hour gap between rehearsal and performance a bunch of us sat out on the terrace talking about anything but music. Debbie and her husband, Jim, were leaving the next day on an extended road trip that would take them eventually to Newfoundland. Dave showed me some photos he'd taken on his phone of the new freeway bridge over the St. Croix River. We discussed the creative environment at nearby House of Balls, where his wife, Lisa, would be playing the saxophone, perhaps at the very moment that we were intoning "All flesh is grass..."

We finally made our way back to the rehearsal rooms, where people were knitting or huddled in small groups muttering like passengers in the hold of a ship making its way to a new world, or like soldiers in a landing craft about to meet their fate on the beach.

The calm before the storm
The performance itself was the opposite of an ordeal. The robust sounds of the orchestra reminded us that we were parts of a very large ensemble, where the quality of our singing would probably count for more than its volume.  And during the thunderous sections Matt urged us on with a force far more dramatic than anything he'd exhibited during rehearsals, as if he were wrestling with an imaginary lion. No stopping, everything forward, I heard harmonic relationships that I'd never heard before. I felt that I was singing inside the piece. It was a good feeling. And with all the sound moving away from me toward the audience, I was hearing a slightly subdued and etherealized Requiem, a personalized version, tenors only admitted.

Many details from my part continued to surface at odd moments in the days that followed. For example, I often found myself humming a gentle passage from the fifth movement that goes like this:

It sort of flutters out of nowhere at the end of a measure, like a bleating lamb, descends pleasantly, pauses, comes to rest at a lower level. In a later iteration an additional murmuring off-beat landing is provided. No one would call this passage the heart and soul of the Requiem. And the altos have the same line a little earlier. But it's a good example of the deft poetic touches Brahms has distributed throughout the voices, which for the listener can easily become obliterated by the more dramatic parts of the composition.

Just this morning I deleted the emails I'd saved from the Oratorio Society carrying titles like "more home practice resources" and "Concert Day Coming!" Parts of my brain are now drifting free or being reassigned in new directions. It's refreshing.

I'm tempted to give the Requiem another listen—I mean the professional version with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the solo roles and Otto Klemperer at the podium—but I'm afraid it might discombobulate the little angels still fluttering around in my head.  

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