And now for something completely different……

What a contrast!  From the grandeur of Brahms to the intimacy of Schubert and the earthiness of Ramirez.

There was not much time for musing during last night’s rehearsal, but I could not help but be struck yet again by the contrasts in the music we sing.  Especially for Choir members going to sing Ein Deutsches Requiem again in the concert promoted by Distinguished Concerts International New York, the sounds and feelings associated with our recent performance continue to resonate in our minds.  Indeed, I have a diary entry which reminds me that, after we sang the Brahms in 2013, the music was still buzzing around in my head six weeks later.

As we tried last night to sing the Schubert Mass with grace and style, and to engage with the complex rhythms of the Missa Criolla, it struck me that the nature of each piece could be represented by the ideal venue in which it should be performed.

The orchestral version of Ein Deutsches Requiem would sound best in the florid grandeur of a 19th century concert hall such as the Musicverein in Vienna, or in the vast acoustic of a Gothic cathedral, for which the Cardianl Cerretti Chapel is pretty much the next best thing available to us.

The Schubert Mass…..well, I can hear a small choir and a minimalist orchestra singing that in the comfort of the grand salon of a French chateau, or in the modest chapel of an English country house.  Its apparent simplicity and its transparency would fit well with the domestic surroundings.

Missa Criolla would sound great sung outside in a natural amphitheatre.  The rhythms, the energy, the sheer joie-de-vivre of the music might even encourage listeners to get up and dance.  It is very engaging music, and although, as we found last night, it is complex to put together, it is very easy to listen to.

But back to Brahms.  Some of our members have already left for New York, and others will be going during the course of the next week.  I am sure that everyone in the Choir will join me is wishing them safe travel, an enjoyable time in New York, and a thrilling experience singing Ein Deutsches Requiem in the wonderful Carnegie Hall.

 

 

Brahms re-visited

It was just turned one o’clock yesterday afternoon when I heard it.  From somewhere in the house, what sounded remarkably like the first movement of A German Requiem.  I went to investigate: it was indeed the Requiem, being broadcast on ABC Classic FM.  It was that time of day when they might have been doing just a single movement, or perhaps an entire performance.  There was a long pause at the end of the movement.  What would be next?  The announcer’s friendly voice telling us who had been singing, or the funeral march at the start of the second movement?  After an agonising wait, there came that unmistakeable deep, gruff, double bass note.  It was indeed the second movement.

At that moment, whatever else I was doing could wait.  Re-living last Saturday’s concert was the only thing to do.  Hearing the music was overwhelming.  The words, now I have some understanding of them, continue to be extraordinarily moving.  The music draws out and colours the words so well.  This is indeed the work of a genius and of a human being of great humanity.  I was also overwhelmed by the fact that our modest, unauditioned community choir had managed to put on a very creditable performance of this wonderful work, and that I had myself been a part of it.  What a privilege!

Then the phone rang.  The much awaited electrician was on his way to quote for some repairs.  Could he come now?  I suggested he might like to stop for a coffee en route, but he was keen to get on.  At least he had the decency not to arrive before the end of the sixth movement.  Regular readers will know that one of my favourite moments is when the trombones and tuba sweep upwards on arpeggios spanning three octaves, and we basses get the thrill of singing along with them.  So at least I got to do that again.

Then the electrician rang the door bell and I returned to earth with something of a thud.

Maybe last night we were all still in awe of last Saturday’s wonderful achievement.  Maybe that is why the rehearsal seemed a bit scrappy.  No doubt in a couple of weeks, although we might be unconsciously still humming tunes from the Requiem, we will be well down the track with the grace and style of Schubert and the ragged rhythms of Ramirez.

The morning after………

I came home last night drunk.  Not that my breath would have triggered any reaction on the RBT which often sits on Pittwater Road in Manly on a Saturday night, but I was nevertheless intoxicated, pie eyed, over the eight, or whatever other description there may be – well and truly drunk.

The reasons for this euphoria are easy to explain.

Firstly, I had just been a part of a stirring performance of a wonderful piece of music:  Brahms’  A German Requiem.  The more we have rehearsed it, the more I have come to realise that the combination of text and music are amongst the supreme examples of choral music.  The words are well-chosen.  They are profound in their exploration of the perennial human mysteries of life and death.  The music makes the words come alive in a most vivid and dramatic manner.  It imbues them with extra significance, painting colourful pictures in sound which etch themselves into the mind of the listener.

Secondly, I experienced a heady feeling that we had together done justice to the memory of our much loved late Concertmaster, Alexandra.  It was indeed fitting that this concert should be dedicated to her memory.  In preparing for and performing this concert, we somehow had the opportunity to come to terms with her untimely passing, perhaps even to allow ourselves to move on to the next challenges, as she would have surely wished us to do.

Thirdly, it seemed to me that we had given of our best for Carlos, an important issue at every concert but particularly at this one.  It seemed that everyone in the choir and orchestra was committed to doing the very best they could to make the performance worthy of the music and of the concert’s dedicatee.  It worked.  Carlos commented afterwards, “Tonight the Choir was not just singing.  You were making music.  You were living the feeling of the music.”  There can be little higher praise.  Yet this is a modest return for all that Carlos gives to us.  He teaches and cajoles us, he shares his knowledge and love of music with us, he opens his inner self to us to reveal the secrets of the music we sing.  It cannot be said too many times:  we are most fortunate to have such an accomplished musician and generous individual as our conductor.

And lastly, I and all the evening’s musicians had been showered with compliments from audience members, who clearly more than enjoyed the performance.  “Wonderful!”  “The best concert ever!”  “Such a triumph for an amateur choir!”  “Full marks on a stellar performance!”   “What a magnificent achievement!”  It is both satisfying and hugely exhilarating to be part of a group whose collective efforts can move people in this way.

So that’s how I came be drunk last night.  And now, the morning after, it’s time to sober up.  A hangover due to alcohol can supposedly be cured by taking more alcohol – the proverbial hair of the dog.  So how will I be sobering up today?  By singing, of course!

It’s been a long time coming……..

Some things have to planned way in advance.  An overseas trip might be one example, an expedition to the outback another.  When you start the planning with, say, organising tickets or establishing a route, the event seems a long way off.  And it stays a long way off in your mind, through all the planning and preparation, right up to a day or so before the day of departure.  Then it suddenly rushes up at you, and it’s there.  It is time to set off.

A German Requiem has been a bit like that.  We have carefully rehearsed every movement several times over the course of fourteen long weeks.  Committee members have been preparing the logistics of publicity, tickets, venue, orchestra, soloists and a host of other details.  Until recently it has seemed that the concert itself was a long way off, almost over the horizon.

And then, yesterday evening, suddenly it all became real.  In the barn-like large hall at Collaroy Plateau Public School, we came together with the orchestra and soloists.  What a sound!  What fabulous music!

And then last night in the Cardinal Cerretti Chapel it all sounded even better.  We were confident, we did not fluff any notes (well, very few!), the orchestra sounded spot on, and the soloists were magnificent.  Carlos must have been well pleased as he did not ask us to repeat much and he let us off early – that does not happen often!

And the best bit?  We get to do it all again on Saturday, this time sharing our appreciation of this wonderful music with 300 people in the audience, who I am sure will derive just as much pleasure from our singing as we do ourselves.

Loud and soft, fast and slow

Wasn’t it another wonderful rehearsal last night!

Immersed in this incredible music, with Carlos directing us, Angela accompanying us and Anita soaring so beautifully over us, it seemed that the break was upon us almost before we had even started.  Yet in that time we had polished three of the movements to something of a gloss, focusing on all that the music contains – notes, words, and, above all, expression.

I arrived expecting to be on top of the music.  I had made space during the week to look through the whole work, ensuring that those dodgy intervals were secure, all the unexpected leads covered, and all the pronunciation correct.  What I should also have done, of course, was to check all the louds and softs, the lentos and allegros, the marcatos and legatos and, most of all, the crescendos and descescendos.

Singing to a given time or volume is pretty straightforward.  Singing loudly comes naturally to us all; singing softly not quite so naturally, but we can do it if we think about it in advance.  The tricky part is in changing volume, and especially in doing so gradually rather than snapping from one level to another instantaneously.  I find it helps to think about braking a car.  You have to assess current speed, desired speed and the distance you have to change, and apply the brakes to just the right extent.  Similarly, to change volume gradually, you have to think of current volume, intended volume, and how many notes or bars there are to get to the new volume – then you can make the change smoothly, just as you would when braking the car.

It is said that Alfred Brendel, the famous pianist, consciously developed twenty three distinct levels of volume in his playing.  Now that may be too many for us, but thinking of, say five levels, could help in judging how to get from p to f or from f to p over the space of one or two bars, as Brahms often asks us to do in A German Requiem.

In driving, you have to read the road ahead: in singing you have to read ahead in the music. In the Choir we have an extra aid which you do not have when driving.  Carlos  indicates with his hands, his body movements and his facial expressions what should happen and how we should be singing.

Watching Carlos is not an optional extra.  It is compulsory.  By all of us responding to him and by following the directions in the score, we will indeed thrill the audience with this wonderful music.