Thursday, April 14, 2016

Not Excited

I finally have gotten the strength to confront this blog and delete delete delete anything related to my association with certain choral ensembles and their directors, since it just makes me sad.

Some of the essays are, I think and hope, valuable in and of themselves, so I've edited many of them to delete references to those ensembles and persons.

Ooh, just found this in my draft folder - what the hell. It's a few years old, but it's a perfect example of how even the highest standards for a choir mean nothing if there is no follow-up to hold people accountable. And how the double standards and inconsistency can breed discontent and resentment among those who do invest in doing the right thing. It used to matter to me, I guess. Funny how angry I was, when in the end it did not matter at all.

I woke up this morning with an odd mix of anticipation and annoyance. My mind quickly moved on to a review of everything I need to do today, but the anticipation/annoyance feeling remained in the background and insisted on being analyzed. So here it is.

Anticipation – Tonight the [choir name redacted] performs Mendelssohn’s Elijah. We’ve engaged the [orchestra name redacted to protect the innocent] to accompany us, and we’ll be performing in the splendid [big fancy concert hall] at the [major performing arts center in the region]. In its 40-something year history, the [ensemble] has not performed Elijah, so it is a landmark occasion in that regard. For many of the singers, including me, this will be the first time we’ve performed the entire work. So all this is very nice. /s

My anticipation is moderated by the realization, formed over several weeks of rehearsals, that this is not great music, not in the same plane as the Requiems of Brahms, Verdi, or Duruflé, for example, or anything by Bach. Perhaps I am still too-imbued with Bach after [another choir]'s recent transcendent performance of the Saint John Passion. In any case, little of Elijah moves me. A few of the choruses, primarily the songs of praise, are imbued with tenderness or grandeur; most of the others just feel silly and melodramatic.

I suppose the real problem is that the story itself is ridiculous. Given that all gods have shown themselves to be capricious and prone to fits of pique, is there really anything interesting in the fact that one god (Baal) doesn’t answer, while another (Jehovah) does? I keep wondering what would have happened if Baal had actually given an answer! Whatever. Just stupid. Of course, the Passion story is ridiculous too, but Bach’s topping (yes!) music elevates the text out of the stupid and into the sublime.

My disappointment in this music has surprised me, because usually I respond warmly to Mendelssohn’s music. As I write this, it occurs to me that my experience with Mendelssohn has been with smaller forms: piano music, the largest being the fugues, and choral music (motets, part songs), of which I have sung a great deal, with great pleasure. Perhaps his strength is in these smaller forms, where his natural sweetness contrasts with the moments of poignancy that catch at our heartstrings. Well, what about the symphonies, the septet, and other larger instrumental forms, all of which I love? Hmm. In any case, the oratorio Elijah has not found its way into my heart, and as a result, the anticipation I’m experiencing for tonight’s performance is very mild, indeed. And this makes it all the easier for me to become annoyed.

Annoyance — The [ensemble] requires quadrennial re-auditions for each of its members, and this spring, all Soprano Is will have to re-audition in order to maintain membership. I’ve been in the [ensemble] for ten years, and have re-auditioned twice, so this will be my third go-round. The process is fine, and gives everyone – singers and “management” – an opportunity to reassess membership. I plan to undergo the re-audition, and I’m trying to muster the courage to express my dissatisfaction to the “management” about the overall artistic experience.

Issue: Scores. Weeks before we begin rehearsals for any project, we are given access (online) to edit masters, from which we are expected to transcribe the director’s marks into our own music. This is not optional; each singer is required to mark his or her entire score. As I’ve written here many times, this is a wonderful system that ensures that everyone has the same marks, and saves enormous time in rehearsal. The [ensemble]’s director gives a great deal of thought to score marking, provides clear instructions, and reinforces the markings in rehearsal. And as I mentioned, we have many weeks to get this task done before the first rehearsal. Fine. But there seems to be no follow-up with the singers (at least in my section, Soprano I) to ensure that the scores are actually marked. It really makes a difference, artistically and communally, as was evident at the two orchestra rehearsals prior to the performance. The person next to whom I am positioned on the stage has not marked her score completely; she has not transcribed the edit marks from the edit master (I can see her score), and she has not made up the deficit by marking during rehearsals. As a result, her cut-offs are all over the place, she is breaking lines where they ought to be carried, she is carrying lines where they ought to be broken, and in some places her dynamics are wrong. As it happens, she has a rather strong (strident) voice, so her errors are obvious. And she’s not the only one. Why is this allowed? It is, frankly, a slap in the face to every other person who has expended the effort to mark his or her score and has kept up during rehearsals. At first I was annoyed, then angry, then apathetic. Why should I bother singing precisely if the person next to me is not? Does the [ensemble] have any process in place to check on compliance? If not, why not? If so, then it’s not very effective. I’ve raised this issue before, however, and I can’t see that it is taken seriously, or that any effort is made to correct the problem. Really frustrating.

Issue: Intonation. Has anyone else noticed that the [ensemble]'s ability to sing with good intonation seems to have declined? The problem seems to be mostly in the women’s parts. Over the past several weeks as we’ve rehearsed Elijah, I have given a great deal of thought to this issue, and will share some ideas in a separate essay. My general impression is that very, very few [ensemble] singers even consider intonation; they just open their mouths and let fly. The sour looks from the podium last night were a justly deserved reflection of the sour sounds we emitted. During Wednesday's rehearsal, the opening phrases of “He watching over Israel” were particularly horrible, and the reason was crystal clear, but as no one takes time to think (or to explain!!), the problem will probably never be addressed. Just prior to this chorus, a children’s choir sings “Lift thine eyes.” They sing from the upper balcony, unaccompanied, and they end in D major. The next movement, “He watching over Israel,” is also in D major, and opens with a two-bar orchestral introduction. Here’s what happened: When the orchestra began the intro to “He watching,” it was immediately evident that the children had lost pitch during their singing, and had ended up somewhat below D major. But the [ensemble] sopranos, who have the first entry in “He watching,” pitched their entry to their memory of the under-pitch ending of the children’s chorus, instead of to the truly-pitched orchestral intro, and thus they came in about a quarter-step below pitch. Oh, it was ugly. It took several measures to get into the right intonation. The whole transition was made more difficult by the fact that our stand cue is on the downbeat of “He watching,” and the sound of 160 people getting to their feet from metal chairs on noisy risers makes it difficult to hear the orchestra. What a difference it might have made if we had been instructed to 1) disregard the ending pitch of the children’s choir; 2) take our pitch from the orchestral intro; and 3) stand as quietly as possible. This incident is a perfect example of how achieving good intonation is often more of an intellectual exercise than a vocal one. [During the performance the children held their tuning, and as a result the [ensemble] did better in the succeeding chorus. Perhaps the incident during the rehearsal was frightening enough to inspire caution and attention during the performance.]

Issue: Attention and Attitude. Dear  singers, please stop talking. Just stop. Keep your mouths shut unless it is your time to sing. Keep quiet and pay attention, so you won’t have to say, again and again, “What? What did he say? Where are we starting? What?” There is a constant ripple and murmur of whispered conversation. And if you had your score marked, you would know where rehearsal letter A is, and where the cuts are, and when to stand and sit, and you wouldnt have to ask!!

Issue: Coughing. OMG, does the coughing never stop? I’ve written about this before, and I have since come to the conclusion that the excessive coughing is caused by poor vocal technique and over-singing. It’s so obvious what is going on. Why is no instruction given?

The [ensemble] is a good amateur ensemble. For the most part, I enjoy my membership, and I am grateful for the opportunity (the only one in the area) to sing symphonic choral repertoire. But we could be so much better if these issues were dealt with for the entire ensemble, and if each member took his or her responsibility, and commitment, seriously. Seriously.

POST SCRIPTUM, post-concert — I doubt that I’ll bring up any issues during my re-audition. I’ve mentioned the score-marking item several times in the past few years, expressing my concerns at various times to (as I recall) the director, board president, vocal section leader, and personnel manager. The fact that nothing has been done to enforce the score-marking policy is a fair indication that my concerns are isolated and perhaps anomalous, and that status quo will remain in force. So, if I’m going to continue in the ensemble, I’ll have to adjust my expectations and dial back my annoyance meter. (I heard a rumour that the Verdi Requiem is on tap for next season, and that, along with other reasons, will make it worthwhile to continue.)

Am I getting curmudgeonly? I don’t think so. Isn’t it reasonable for me, a paying member, to expect that the artistic standards that the ensemble creates for itself should be upheld? I’m doing my part –paying full annual dues, keeping my performance commitments [even for the musical selections that I loathe], scrupulously marking my scores, attending all rehearsals, being on time, paying close attention and taking marks during rehearsals, practicing as needed at home, mastering every aspect of the music, singing my best during rehearsals and concerts, and promoting the ensemble and its events – so shouldn’t I have a reasonable expectation that the ensemble’s artistic standards should be upheld by every member, for every member? If not, why not? I suppose one might argue that the ensemble does not have the resources to, for example, check every singer’s score to ensure that it is marked. (but, but, VSLs!!) But why not have a few spot checks, say, two weeks after project rehearsals begin? That would communicate a great deal. 

During last night’s concert, I tried to just sing for myself and for the music and for the director and for the audience, and not be distracted or annoyed by what I heard behind and around me – not only the sloppy singing, but the surprisingly indecorous behavior** on stage. I just couldn’t do it; how can I close my ears and eyes during a performance? The last movement was spoiled because the singer next to me missed every early cut and oversang those around her, including me, who were singing the correct rhythms. Yes, I take it personally. Maybe I’m too spoiled by other, better choral experiences that I've had.

*light bulb moment*

Discipline! Or rather, self-discipline. Bingo. OK, there’s no reasonable expectation for self-discipline these days, even among adults, so I give up, I give in, whatever.

** Texting during the concert? On stage? Really? In an adult choir? Not to mention waving to members of the audience, talking during the concert, coughing during the quietest, most poignant moments (self-awareness, anyone?), tapping feet during quick movements, and applauding at the end of the concert. And I am positive that one singer behind me was sleeping during a long stretch between choral movements. The nature of the breathing I heard made me suspicious, and then it sounded as though the sleeper’s neighbor nudged her to wake her up. Unbelievable!!

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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