Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CONCORA Sings Bach! – The Aftermath

Three days after CONCORA’s “exceptional performance” of music by Bach with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra (read The Hartford Courant’s great review HERE), I’m still reveling in persistent aural memories of my favorite passages. (That’s the phenomenon that CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey calls “tune-be-gone.”)

I’ve also got a pile of scores, papers, books, articles, and programs to sort through before I can wrap this project up intellectually and emotionally. Let me explain.

One of the delights of singing with CONCORA is that we rehearse very efficiently. For this ambitious all-Bach program (a motet, a Mass, and a cantata), we had just two choral rehearsals, plus a single “dress” rehearsal with the orchestra. (The vocal soloists, all drawn from CONCORA’s ranks, had a separate rehearsal with Mr. Coffey and the orchestra, and Mr. Coffey had an additional rehearsal with the orchestra alone.)

This compressed rehearsal schedule always leaves me a bit sad because 1) I love good choral rehearsals and 2) we have so little time to immerse ourselves in this music together. Of course, the CONCORA singers are excellent musicians, so we form a cohesive ensemble quickly; and since everyone is fully prepared for rehearsals, we begin to make music together very quickly. (Read more HERE about how much I enjoy CONCORA rehearsals, and why.)

I make up for the short rehearsal schedule with substantial reading and research on my own, both to enrich my musical preparation and, if I’ve been engaged to prepare program notes, to aid in that preparation.

And indeed, there was much to learn in order to prepare — that is, to prepare thoroughly — for a program of this depth.

First of all, there’s the music itself. I had obtained my copies of the scores very early so I could get started with listening and analysis, because in addition to singing in this concert, it was also my privilege to prepare the program notes. (More on that below.) Before I started to learn the music, I had to edit and prepare my scores according to Mr. Coffey’s instructions. (Read HERE about how I prepare my scores for rehearsals with Mr. Coffey.)

I knew the motet Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228) already, and I was familiar with the cantata Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God) (BWV 80) from recordings. The Mass in G Minor (BWV 235), though, which is rarely heard and is not an “easy” sing, required learning “from scratch.” I am fortunate to be a very good reader and “music-thinker,” so one or two passes through the cantata was enough to get the first movement into my head and voice; the only other movement the chorus sings is the simple closing chorale. The Mass is very challenging vocally and required two or three sing-throughs before I got it “into the voice” and into my brain. Additional musical and vocal refinements would come after our first rehearsal, when I would learn how Mr. Coffey would shape and interpret the choral parts.

Though I’ve prepared notes many times for CONCORA, this was my first year to do so for this big Bach program, having assumed the job long held by the erudite and eloquent Louis G. Neuchterlein, a Lutheran pastor and church musician who served as CONCORA’s inspired Bach program annotator and lecturer for 16 years. I was very aware of Lou’s presence as I worked hard to prepare good notes for an audience that had come to expect the best.

So, in addition to learning the music for singing, I also had to learn enough about each piece of music — origins, texts, musical forms and analysis, and performance history — to be able to write cogent, compelling notes. And in addition to the three choral works, the program included an unusual work for organ, so I also had to learn enough about that instrument to write an informative note!

As part of this research and thinking process, I did the following:
♪ Listened to several recordings of the programmed works.
♪ Read or consulted several scholarly books on Bach, including one devoted entirely to the analysis and performance of the organ works.
♪ Conducted in-depth online research, using open-web and professional sources. (Remember, I am a professional librarian and research consultant, so this work goes way beyond the major search engine!)
♪ Consulted Mr. Coffey, Mr. Neuchterlein, and other colleagues on technical, musical, theological, and textual issues
♪ Drew on my own library of program notes, particularly my program essay on Bach’s B Minor Mass.
♪ Focused my research on several areas in which my knowledge was thin, such as the life of Martin Luther, Bach’s organ registrations, and the place of the Latin Mass in Lutheran church music.

All my learnings were communicated in a long essay (about 10,000 words) that focused on historical and textual issues; this document was distributed to the singers and to the Friends of Bach, a guild of CONCORA friends that generously supports CONCORA’s Bach performances. For the actual concert program, I pared down the long essay to the 1600-word maximum that the program editor allows. Though painful, this was a useful exercise, as it forced me to choose the fewest, best words to describe the program in the most compelling, enlightening, readable way.

This entire process was a delight, from learning the music, to reading about Bach's work as an organ consultant, to considering how Bach adapted some of his cantata movements to create the "new" Mass in G Minor. By the time we got to our dress rehearsal, I felt that I really knew this music and was ready to perform with the understanding and appreciation it deserved. I can’t imagine not preparing for a concert in this way.

Today I’ll compile my archive for this project – rehearsal and research notes, programs, invitation to the Friends of Bach reception, congratulatory letters, the terrific review from The Hartford Courant (read it HERE), and some other mementos – and file it away with my other CONCORA memories.

The last echoes of our performance may have died away, but the happiness will linger for a long time.

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:

Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

1 comment:

  1. One of the reasons I enjoy reading your blog regularly is the continuing insight into the life of a musician. I am astonished at the preparation for one concert (especially knowing how many concerts you participate in), and delighted that you enjoy it. And I really like the little musical note bullet points!

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