When The Hartford Chorale, with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the “Choral”) October 24 and 25 at The Bushnell Memorial in Hartford, we (the choristers) will be singing from memory.
The HSO’s music director Edward Cumming usually conducts from memory, a feat I find impressive. When The Chorale performs with the HSO under his direction, our seats on stage afford an insider's view of what transpires in the orchestra. I enjoy watching him working in his memory, especially in anticipating and delivering cues even for the smallest musical gestures. I saw this at last night’s orchestra rehearsal, where in the instrumental development of the fourth movement (around measure 485 and following), he really pulled the second violins out of the rush of sound; all of a sudden, there was a gesture that Beethoven intended us to hear, which I had never really heard before. His memorization of the entire score seems to enable him to experience the music more holistically, and to better understand the composer’s intentions, than can the rest of us.
At our final piano rehearsal with The Chorale earlier this week, Maestro Cumming offered his perspective, and some advice, on performing from memory. All his advice was very good, but because it evolved from his experience as an instrumental performer and conductor, he did not mention the element which is probably most difficult for the vocalist who must memorize music: text.
I can sing almost all of the music of the Choral symphony from memory (including the first three movements), but I am challenged to memorize the text. Beethoven doesn’t make this task any easier, as he combines lines from different stanzas of Schiller’s poem, and repeats material here and there. In talking with other members of the Chorale, I find that many others face the same challenge; that is, mastering the text.
I’ve come up with a few ideas which I hope The Chorale and The Symphony will implement to help the singers deliver the text with confidence. In order of preference:
Project huge holographic images of the score, page by page, as the movement progress. Use some sort of blocking device so that these images would not be visible to the audience. On second thought, perhaps they’d enjoy following along, too. Maybe the HSO could charge premium rates for seats with the best views of the images.
Install a gargantuan TelePrompTer in the vast space over the heads of the orchestra players, or perhaps two big ones side by side. Scroll the text, along with cues such as “Stand in four measures” or “Soloists enter next, not you” or “Remember the sforzando in this next passage” or “Don’t grimace at the soloists; they’re doing the best they can.”
Use reverse supertitles. If opera audiences can get text fed to them line by line, why not us? The equipment is already in the building; just turn it around so the choristers can see it instead of the audience. This shouldn’t cost too much. During the first three movements of the symphony when the chorus does not sing, perhaps a few jokes could be projected to keep us from falling asleep.
Equip each chorister with one of those box-under-the-jacket-and-earpiece devices such as we saw George W. Bush use in a presidential debate a few years back. Four prompters, one for each voice part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) could help us along. We could have elegant black ear buds to match our concert attire.
Make full use of percussion instruments. The bass drum is situated right in front of the first sopranos. Why not paste some easy-to-read large-type cheat sheets on the head that faces the choir? I'm sure the percussionist wouldn't mind.
Paste a cheat sheet on the shoulders of each chorister, so that the person behind can follow along. The choristers in the first row are out of luck, of course, unless they can convince the brass and wind players to accommodate them.
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