Friday, February 6, 2009

A Chorister’s Delight: Rehearsing with CONCORA

Since I first joined a junior church choir when I was about eight years old, I’ve always loved choral music and choral singing. I’ve sung in all sorts of choral ensembles, from one-on-a-part early music ensembles to huge symphonic choirs, and just about everything in between. I’ve had opportunities to sing under the direction of some of the world’s best choral conductors (and some of the worst!). I am fortunate that I sing now in several really fine choral ensembles, especially CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists), Connecticut’s premier professional choir, which is led by its founder and Artistic Director Richard Coffey. I was delighted and honored to be accepted into this fine ensemble in 2005, and the entire experience has been thrilling. Our performances are wonderful, of course (read a review of a recent concert here), but what I really enjoy are the rehearsals.

Expectations are high for this all-professional ensemble. We rehearse only a few times for each concert (depending on the program), so it’s important that our rehearsal time is well-spent. A great deal of preparation takes place well before we start rehearsing so that we can get the most out of our time together.

We receive our music several weeks before the first rehearsal, along with our part assignments, texts and translations, pronunciation guides (as needed) and all the logistical information we need. Maestro Coffey prepares edited master scores, in which he has marked all divisi assignments, breath marks, interpretive dynamics, and other important information; these are made available online. We are expected to transcribe all the edit marks to our scores, and learn all the music, diction, and translations entirely, before our first rehearsal. All solos are assigned well in advance, with auditions as needed. When we arrive at rehearsal, a seating chart is waiting for us, so we can be in our assigned places right from the start. And very often, we also receive an advance copy of the program notes, so that we can learn more about the music we are about to study together. At our dress rehearsal, we receive venue-specific instructions for where to sit, stand, process, etc.

All this preparation really pays off. There are none of the last-minute questions that eat up precious rehearsal time in most ensembles: “What part should I sing?” “Where should I sit?” “What’s the dynamic for this passage?” “Where do we cut off this note?” “Where do we breathe?” “Are we singing this in German or in English?” “How will we process and recess?” Because all these questions have been anticipated and answered before we even start, we spend nearly all our rehearsal time actually working on the music instead of talking about it.

Rehearsal-room decorum also serves to advance the music-making. We don’t chatter; we listen and sing. We ask questions only if we really need clarification. Each singer works with pencil in hand, and takes down each instruction as it is given. When any singer makes a mistake (and it’s pretty rare), he or she raises a hand briefly, to indicate “Oops, that was me, I know what I did wrong.” This simple practice saves enormous time, since Maestro Coffey doesn’t need to stop to address the error.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a good time — we laugh a lot, too! But that can only happen if we are well-prepared and working efficiently. Otherwise, our rehearsals can be fairly, um, intense. Woe to any singer who arrives at rehearsal without having edited and mastered his music!

Add to all this the solid musicianship of each CONCORA singer, the many beautiful voices, and the ensemble’s love for beautiful choral music — well, very often, the quality of the music-making in our rehearsals far exceeds what many choral groups achieve in performance, even after weeks or months of rehearsal.

Our recent rehearsals for CONCORA’s upcoming performance of choral music by Felix Mendelssohn have been a delight, a revelation, and a wonder of choral cooperation and mutual enjoyment. You won’t want to miss this very rare presentation of Mendelssohn’s choral music, which takes place on Sunday, February 8, at 4:00 p.m., at South Church in New Britain, CT.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

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