Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Confronting Composers of Reluctant Religious Persuasion

In 2007, I had the pleasure of researching and writing an extensive program note [7200 words!] for a presentation of Johann Sebastian Bach's B Minor Mass, a performance in which I was also privileged to sing. The entire process – research, listening, writing, rehearsing, and performing – became an intensive, weeks-long personal seminar in Baroque music form and style. Moreover, through the research and contemplation necessary for production of meaningful program notes, I gained a clearer understanding of the strength of Bach’s very personal Christian faith. Bach’s open and well-documented piety – almost child-like in its simplicity and directness – makes it fairly easy for modern performers to understand and interpret his sacred works: they are exactly what they appear to be.

Understanding the sacred works by composers of more reluctant religious persuasion is less straightforward. How are we to approach the sacred works of composers who were known to be “of little faith”?

In an earlier essay, I wrote about how Beethoven’s bitterly private faith creates challenges in understanding and performing his Missa Solemnis. In the last several weeks, I’ve been confronted with this challenge on three fronts. With one choir in which I sing, I recently performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers). With another, I’ve been in rehearsals for Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. With the church choir in which I sing (where I am engaged as section leader), I will perform sacred works by Ralph Vaughan Williams soon.

Rachmaninoff was rather at odds with the Orthodox Church and was not an especially religious man. Yet in the remarkable All-Night Vigil he achieves an intense and authentic spirituality, communicating the Russian liturgical texts with genuine understanding and appreciation, even though he may not have experienced personal conviction of their veracity. Perhaps, like Beethoven, Rachmaninoff was possessed of a very private faith that was not to be burdened by, or constrained by a “church.” Reviewers, program annotators, and listeners often believe the All-Night Vigil to be Rachmaninoff’s expression of his religious faith, and react to it accordingly. In fact, he composed it primarily as a means of exploring modern choral treatment of what he called the “magnificent melodies of the Oktoechos” chants.* Nonetheless, participating in a performance of this work, whether as singer or as a listener, can be an unforgettable experience. And for singers and listeners who are members of the Christian faith (regardless of sect), experiencing the All-Night Vigil must be tremendously moving.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was described by his second wife Ursula as “an atheist… [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.”** When we perform his Dona Nobis Pacem, Benedicite, and O Clap Your Hands on April 27, we will sing ancient words of the Church; how do we reconcile and interpret their meaning when we consider that Vaughan Williams did not hold them sacred? Indeed, he interweaves the still-modern, still-grieving secular voice of Walt Whitman in a way that shatters our complacent familiarity with the Christian texts and makes us consider them in an entirely new way, as commentaries on the utter brutality and inhumanity of war. Perhaps because Vaughan Williams forces us to confront our own inhumanity, the traditional but frail words of faith are imbued with a new poignancy and, in Vaughan Williams’ musical settings, a profound spirituality. We hear in this music “a fundamental tension between traditional concepts of belief and morality and a modern spiritual anguish which is also visionary.” ***

At one performance of the Rachmaninoff Vespers in which I sang, one man in the audience stood quietly for the duration of the Vigil, as is traditional in the Orthodox Church. For this man, our performance was clearly a worship experience, a quiet hour of contemplation and spiritual renewal. Others in the audience may simply have enjoyed the wash of sound, the surging dynamics, and the endless variety of choral color that Rachmaninoff creates with his innovative scoring. Each response was entirely valid . . . our goal was to bring pleasure to our audience and to create an oasis of beauty in a troubled world.


* Rachmaninoff’s Recollections, told to Oskar von Riesemann. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934, page 176.

** “Ralph Vaughan Williams,” by Hugh Ottaway and Alain Frogley. GroveMusic online, retrieved April 22, 2008. (subscription required) www.grovemusic.com

*** Ibid.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Leave Your Ego at the Door: The Choral Compact

In a recent discussion on ChoralTalk, choral directors discussed matters of discipline, constructive criticism, and how the attitudes of the singers affect rehearsals, for good or ill. The exchange got me thinking about the miracle that can happen when a diverse group comes together for the shared experience of choral singing. Of course, the miracle happens only when the group enters fully into what might be called a choral compact, wherein each singer – and the director – agrees to a series of expectations and commitments for participation in the ensemble.

Here are my informally-articulated tenets for the choral compact:

A successful choral ensemble comprises individual singers who willingly leave their egos and vocal individuality at the door in order to create a unified and uniform choir. Singers’ respect for the music, for each other, and for the director (who in most cases will be the most experienced choral director in the room!) should prompt everyone to behave respectfully at every rehearsal.

For the same reason that a chorus wears uniform attire, singers must have a uniform attitude and be willing to receive instruction on how to produce a uniform sound and sing with “one voice.” Though a choir comprises individual singers, it is not a collection of individual voices; rather, it is a single choral unit. A good choral singer lives and breathes this understanding. A good choral singer does not show up at a concert in non-approved attire. Neither would a good choral singer come to rehearsal with anything other than a good "choral" attitude, ready to learn and ready to work toward a common goal.

Good choristers come to a rehearsal ready to learn how they can sing in a way that is good for the success of the choir. A choir rehearsal is not the time to show off your voice, your sight-reading skills, or your presumed knowledge of choral conducting.

Good choristers understand that the director's goal is to produce a uniform sound and to help all individual singers become part of the uniform whole. Good choristers support the director's goals. This can be as simple as sitting quietly and listening carefully while instruction is being given.

The larger the ensemble, the more important it is that every chorister be willing to do what is asked, and to do it quickly and quietly. Comments, quips, or mutterings from the choir are distracting, energy-wasting, and just plain rude, not only to the director but to the other members of the ensemble who are trying to listen and follow directions. (As a chorister, this is my pet peeve: chattering neighbors who prevent my hearing what the director is saying! Grr.)

There can be only one leader of a chorus, and that is the person on the podium, the director. If a chorister does not like the style, philosophy, rules, repertoire, etc., then perhaps that singer should find a different chorus in which to sing. Comments from the floor, disagreements with the conductor, etc., have no place in a choral rehearsal. Perhaps a very small ensemble that does not engage a conductor would be best for a person who does not want to work under another person's direction or who cannot keep quiet during a rehearsal.

That said, it is certainly the responsibility of the director to lead with grace, professionalism, maturity, expertise, and kindness, and to offer instruction that is supportive and not "critical." All of those things are possible – I know from my experiences with several great choral conductors and with several fine choral ensembles.

Read more essays about my experience -- and views -- as a chorister:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Daily Delights: My Backyard Birds

I love birds. While it’s exciting to travel far afield to seek out rarities, the familiar birds in my own yard provide daily riches of beauty and interest.

As winter warms into spring I appreciate:

· The brilliant black of a titmouse's eyes
· The wonderfully comic way the blue jay bobs up and down when it gives its "bell" call
· The watchful way the downy woodpecker waits patiently (just 2 feet away) when I put out fresh suet
· The endearingly tender way that the cardinals and blue jays feed each other as they establish or renew their mated bonds.
· The elegance, variety, and utility of birds' legs and feet.
· The bold beauty of a Flicker's bill.
· The iridescence of a Grackle, and its funny swaggering gait.
· The way the Mourning Doves' wings crack and whistle when they spring up from the deck.
· The bubble-gum pinkness of the Doves' little feet, and their soft "pigeon-toed" walk.
· The curious chickadees who come over to inspect me, then go off to tell everyone else all about it.
· The scarlet, scarlet SCARLET of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker's head and nape!
· The pugilism of the Robins tussling over property rights.
· The deep blackness of the male House Sparrow's bib now that he's in breeding plumage.

Later this spring I’ll enjoy, as I do every year:

· The flash of Oriole Orange against a Brilliant Blue sky.
· The pure clarity – oh, like cool water! – of the Oriole's song.
· The velvety black of the Catbird's cap.
· The distant call of the Veery in the early morning, what my mother used to call "spiraling down a bamboo pipe."
· The tenacity of the female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak as she repeatedly returns to the same honeysuckle bush to select and snap off twigs and carry them off to the next yard, where she is building a nest
· The sweetness of the male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak's song as he watches her work.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Just Because You Can Doesn't Make It Right

When I’m not singing, I enjoy exploring music through research and writing. But my “real” work is as a consultant, providing technical research and writing services to clients in the insurance and risk management professions. My research service includes competitive intelligence; that is, gathering (through legal and ethical means) information about my clients’ competitors. One of the companies I track on a daily basis is…my own business! It’s important to know if -- and how -- my name or the names of my business ventures appear online and in "the press," including in blogs and via links from other websites.

Yesterday I was surprised to find that I had been quoted in an article that had been published recently on a major business information site. My surprise escalated into shock as I read the article. The writer had supposedly contacted "ten top-notch safety professionals" to obtain recommendations in answer to a specific management question. Not only had this writer never contacted me to obtain a quote, but she attributed specific words to me, located my business in the wrong city, and portrayed me as a safety professional, which I am not. While I do serve the safety profession with research and writing services, I do not have credentials or training of a safety professional, and I would never present myself as such. This is comparable to a medical librarian presenting himself as a physician, or a technical librarian presenting herself as an engineer. It is, as my daughter says, bad form.

Now, normally I would be delighted to be quoted as an “expert” in an article which appears on a prominent website and which is syndicated to several top news organization, as this one was. But the inaccuracies in this article could actually damage my reputation among my risk management clientele, all of whom take integrity and professionalism seriously (as do I). Free PR is great, but only if it is correct and ethically done and only if it supports one’s business goals.

I contacted the business web site and talked to a staff editor. I am sad to report that it took a fair amount of explaining to convince the editor that the writer had behaved improperly and that some action should be taken. The blatant lies in this article made me wonder about the veracity of the other quotes in the article, and by extension, I now question the quality and utility of all the reference materials on this well-known website. The site’s managing editor told me that it is "hard to keep track of so many bloggers and freelancers." The editor's workload is not a sufficient or acceptable reason for allowing this writer's blatantly fabricated material to be presented as sound business advice. The editor is responsible for ensuring that the material posted on the site is fair, accurate, and legal, and in this case, he failed.

I called the writer (an independent freelancer) and expressed my concern and outrage. Politely. She confessed that in preparing the article in question, she had "recycled" (her word) an article that she had written five years ago (!) in which she had also "quoted" me. When I confronted her on that, pointing our that she had never contacted me five years ago or at any time, she further confessed that she had taken my words from a post I had made years ago to an online risk management discussion list (now defunct). I had a few strong words for her about professional responsibility and her choice to forgo integrity and honesty in favor of cobbling together a quick article. (I spoke politely but with what my daughter calls “the icy daggers” in my voice.) Ironically, this “writer” is an insurance professional who, one presumes, would understand and employ good risk management techniques. If she cannot practice sound risk management, what business does she have providing risk management advice to others? The simplicity of electronic "publishing" makes it easy for her to set herself up as an expert.

The web editor promised to remove the fabricated quote from the article and from the several places where it had been syndicated. [As of April 16, 2008, the article is still available online because older versions are cached for several weeks. It's not easy to herd chickens.] He also promised to “speak to” the writer. Will a “speaking to” help her to choose ethical and honest behavior? Maybe my “icy daggers” will inspire her to be a good and honest writer from now on.

Electronic technology makes it easy to "create" and "publish" almost anything, but it does not necessarily help people achieve quality work. It seems that many people have confused technology with talent. They believe that because they can "copy and paste" with ease, they must be as richly creative as the writers whose material they have appropriated. They believe that because they can disseminate "information" quickly and inexpensively, they are "writers" and have "published" articles here and there.

Those of us who are professional researchers, readers, and writers have learned to veer past the fluff and get to the information that real people create with real thinking and real effort.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Getting the Most out of a Choral Rehearsal

Most community choral ensembles rehearse only once a week for two or three hours. Professional choirs may rehearse together only a few times before each performance. In any case, singers can do much to maximize rehearsal time.

Be on time. Arrive at least 10 minutes before rehearsal begins. The scheduled rehearsal time is the director’s start time, not the singers’ arrival time. Look for new music or other handouts that you should pick up. Get these as soon as you come in; put the music in the right place in your folder. If there is a break during rehearsal, keep track of the time allotted and return to your seat as soon as the Director signals that rehearsal is about to resume. Stay for the entire rehearsal unless you have cleared an early departure with the Director.

Be respectful. Be respectful of the music, the rehearsal process, the Director, and your fellow singers. Turn off any noise-making devices. If you must receive a call during rehearsal, let the Director know ahead of time. Set your device to vibrate only, then leave the room discreetly and return as soon as you can. Do not wear any perfumed products. Be clean; practice good physical and dental hygiene. If you have ever suffered by having to sit or stand very close to a noisome chorister, you will understand. (Look up noisome; it does not mean noisy.)

Be prepared. Bring the right music, organized in program order or in the order that the Director has specified for the rehearsal. Have at the ready a sharpened pencil (or two); your calendar; any supplies you need during rehearsal (water, tissues, cough drops); and a professional attitude. If, like me, you can’t stand a dull pencil, consider using a mechanical pencil which will stay sharp.

Be thorough. Be sure to get all advance markings and annotations into your score. While marking your own part is of primary importance, consider taking time to edit all the other voice parts, too. There are at least three good reasons for doing so: First, your voice section may be asked to sing along with another voice part. If your score is fully marked, you’ll be ready! Second, you will benefit by learning more about the score and how the voices work together. Finally, singers who may use your score in the future will thank you. I like to use “sticky notes” to record instructions that pertain only to a specific performance, such as sit-stand cues or notes about performance-specific cuts. Look to a future essay for more thoughts about score preparation.

Be ready to sing. Warm up at home before coming to rehearsal. Choral warm-up exercises (if they are done at all) are an opportunity to come together as an ensemble, to meld our voices into a unified sound, and to focus our intellectual and artistic selves on a common goal. Some choral directors eschew vocal warm-ups altogether, choosing to use stretching or mental exercises, or nothing at all. Do not count on rehearsal warm-ups to get your voice ready to sing.

Be mentally attentive. Give your full attention to the Director, even when your part isn’t being rehearsed. Learn from what is being taught to others. Respect others’ desire to listen and learn. Minimize talking during rehearsals. If you cannot see the Director well, move your chair. Negotiate with your neighbors so that everyone can see. It is the responsibility of the singers in the back rows to position themselves to see around the front row singers.

Be physically attentive. Use good posture when singing, whether standing or sitting. When sitting, sit forward on the chair, with both feet on the floor; many singers like to position one foot forward and one foot back, as this extends the torso vertically and facilitates the breath. The forward posture has another benefit: it keeps one alert, focused, and ready.

Be responsive. Use your pencil. Mark all instructions, interpretations, dynamics, corrections, pronunciations, etc., from the Artistic Director that apply to your part. It is impossible to remember all the instructions; you must mark your score. This will prevent the Director from having to repeat instructions at subsequent rehearsals. Consider marking in your score the instructions for other voice parts, too, so that you can understand the Director’s interpretation of the entire score and better understand how your part fits in. Some singers like to make tape recordings of rehearsals for later study; if this appeals to you, check with your Director for permission to use a recorder during rehearsal.

Be responsible. Take responsibility for your personal musical preparation between rehearsals. Choral rehearsals should never be regarded as opportunities to learn music; rather, they are opportunities for the ensemble to receive the Director’s interpretation and to learn how to present the music, and this interpretation, together. I use “sticky notes” during rehearsal to flag “sticky spots” that need my attention outside rehearsal. This method makes my private practice sessions more efficient, and provides a small but visible reward as the “sticky spots” are mastered and the sticky notes removed and discarded.

Be receptive. Be receptive to, and supportive of, the Director's instructions, corrections, part assignments, seating or standing arrangements, etc. Be willing to try the Director's musical or textual interpretations even if you don’t agree with them; you might learn something.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Getting Inside Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

In the case of a large symphonic chorus, it is nothing short of amazing that 160 people with widely varying musical and vocal experience can bring to bear the skill, discipline, and commitment necessary to master a complex work such as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

There’s so much more to this work than the notes on the page! The weight of history – not only the composer’s history, but the history of Western music and the Catholic Church, and yes, our own spiritual histories – must be assimilated as we work together week on week. As individuals and as an ensemble preparing this music together, we might consider several overarching concepts that can affect our understanding of this music and our ability to communicate it convincingly to our audiences: Time, Spirituality, and what I think of as Monumental Intimacy.

Time. As we prepare this music, can we remove ourselves from the here and now? Beethoven composed the Missa between 1819 and 1823; that’s 185 years away during which music, and our aural understanding, developed in ways that musicians and audiences of Beethoven's time could not have imagined. Can we listen from the perspective of Beethoven’s contemporaries, and not with our modern anything-goes ears? For example, if the opening contours and harmonies of the "Kyrie" remind us of Brahms, can we eradicate all thought of Brahms, and instead consider that to Beethoven’s audiences these passages would not have been warmly familiar, but daringly colorful? As mentioned in an earlier essay here, Beethoven pulled, pushed, and stretched the musical conventions of his time; we can appreciate his innovations and courage only if we can transport our aural imaginations to that earlier time, leaving behind our modern sensibilities.

Spirituality. What do we know about Beethoven’s spiritual self? How does this understanding influence our connection to the composer and our performance of his sacred music? We know that Beethoven did not attend church, yet there is ample evidence that he was a deeply spiritual man. He clearly invested considerable time and energy to create this monumental religious work, but unlike conventional Masses composed by many of his contemporaries, it was (and is) entirely unsuitable for use in worship. As we sing these ancient texts and hear Beethoven’s musical interpretation, how do we reconcile his faith with our own beliefs? Is it possible to offer the Missa Solemnis purely as a concert work? Or do we present it from Beethoven’s perspective, as a public (yet very personal) expression of his faith? (Not our faith, but his?) What about our audience? How many of them will come to these performances primarily to hear the music? Or primarily for the spiritual message? Or both? Do we consider the audience perspective during our preparation and performance? If a participating musician is a Christian, is performing the Missa Solemnis a spiritual experience? If a participating musician is a nonreligious musician, or is from a different faith tradition, how would that person approach this work and other Christian sacred music? (That’s a topic for another essay!)

Monumental Intimacy. The Missa Solemnis is enormous. Huge. Gargantuan. In your face. In the scale of its musical architecture and spiritual design, the Missa might well be called a musical and theological edifice, and, like a public house of worship, it is certainly big enough for everyone. Yet it is also an intimate and entirely personal expression of faith. This intimacy is evidenced not only in the quieter musical moments, but in Beethoven’s abandonment of conventional Mass forms and styles in favor of music that suited his own interpretation of the Mass texts. In this duality, the Missa may be understood as a musical and spiritual portrait of its composer, for Beethoven was possessed of a huge, in-your-face, unapologetic personality, even as he kept his most intimate feelings and religious beliefs in close reserve.

Beethoven offers intense challenges – musical, vocal, and spiritual – on every page and in every note of the Missa Solemnis. The journey to understanding this work is risky and fraught with peril, as is a climb to a high mountain peak. On the way, you will get tired. You might get hurt. You will undoubtedly get lost and have to find your way back to the path. You will feel utterly alone and wonder where everyone else has gone. You will experience bewilderment. But when you reach the top – oh, then you will understand. For the view from the top will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen! And it will seem all the more beautiful by your knowledge that only those who make the climb are privileged to enjoy the view.