Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Taken by Surprise

Last night (Monday July 20) the 130-voice chorus of CONCORA’s Summer Festival, which this year is devoted to works of Maurice Duruflé, had its second rehearsal. Marvelous! In two sessions, we made our first pass through the Requiem and started on the Motets, all in preparation for our July 25 performance. (See below for more about the performance, including a repertoire list and ticket information.)

Musically and intellectually, I am thoroughly prepared for this festival: I marked my scores according to Maestro Coffey’s edit masters, and I read the translations and penciled them into my score (read more HERE about my obsessive "score-keeping"). I learned the music thoroughly and listened to several recordings of it, as well as many other recordings of music by Duruflé, his mentors, and his contemporaries. I read James Frazier’s fascinating new biography of Maurice Duruflé (read about it HERE) and conducted additional research to support my preparation of the program notes that will be printed in the concert program. As part of that research, I spent a fair amount of time looking up the old Gregorian chants on which Duruflé based this music, singing these to myself, and tracing the chant melodies through his scores. (Read HERE about Duruflé’s use of Gregorian chants.)


Well, not entirely.

As any singer can tell you, all this intellectualizing, though important and valuable, cannot prepare one spiritually and emotionally for the visceral experience of being inside extraordinary music. What do I mean by inside?

Consider that in addition to being a musician, a singer is also a musical instrument. When we sing, our vocal cords (little folds of muscle, actually) vibrate rapidly. The vibrations are amplified in our lungs, throat, mouth, sinus cavities, and hollow bones, much as the sound box of a guitar or piano amplifies the vibrations of the strings. Admittedly, this whole-body resonance is a very subtle sensation, but if you are paying attention when you sing, you can become aware of it, and it really is extraordinary. (Read HERE about what this feeling was like during a recent sensational performance by CONCORA.)

Now imagine standing in the midst of a choir of 130 voices, where each person is generating this exquisite vibration…. If you’ve never sung in a chorus, especially a large one which is singing well in tune (thus increasing the sympathetic resonance) well, you’re really missing one of life’s extraordinary sensations.

This phenomenon was particularly exquisite in the closely intertwined melodic chant-passages where Duruflé creates the most delicious dissonances; in these moments, where we sang pitches slightly higher or lower than others right next to us, the beating of the sound waves created a most delightful frisson... And when we sang the Sanctus from Duruflé's Requiem, where all the voices soar to their highest ranges... well, the air fairly vibrated around us (and in us!) as those high B-flats rang out, evoking the bright and joyous Sanctus bells. (How glad I am to be a soprano!)

As a former clarinetist, I can attest that this phenomenon also occurs in instrumental ensembles. I can only imagine what an orchestral contrabassist experiences!

Our first Festival rehearsal, which took place on Sunday, gave a glimpse of the delights that lie ahead of us this week. It is always, always fascinating to me to observe how quickly Rick can create a chorus, and a unified choral sound, from a large, diverse group of singers, many of whom had not laid eyes on each other until that first rehearsal. Until the first warm-ups, when he can start to get an inkling of our collective sound, and when he can assess how quickly we, as a group, can respond to his instruction, it's really a mystery as to what the week's music will be like. This group came together very quickly, and I think we were all moved by how far we came during the afternoon. How wonderful to end Sunday’s session with that uplifting Sanctus.

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

On July 25, CONCORA’s Summer Festival Chorus and organist Larry Allen, directed by Richard Coffey, will present the Requiem and other works of Duruflé. Mark your calendar to be at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford on Saturday, July 25, 2009, at 4:00 p.m. to hear this wonderful music and to see the results of a remarkable week of music making. Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website, http://www.concora.org/, or purchase tickets at the door.

On the program:

Notre Père (The Lord's Prayer) (Op. 14, 1976)
Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Grégoriens (Op. 10, 1960)
Ubi Caritas – Tota Pulchra es – Tu es Petrus – Tantum Ergo
Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’ALAIN (Op. 7, 1942)
Requiem (Op. 9, 1947)

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