A passion for the music

Last night’s rehearsal was all about passion in music.  Not just about notes, but about communicating the essence and meaning of the music to our audience.

Carlos took no prisoners from either soloists or choir.  He worked us harder than usual, ensuring that we sang the words and not just the notes, putting feeling and passion into this dramatic music, which is all about those most human of experiences:  the loss of a loved one, and eventually our own mortality.  It is not something which can be dealt with apathetically: the combination of words and music demand to be treated with the respect, passion and cherishing which Carlos dealt out in equal measure.  Taking up his cue and singing in response to his direction, left us with a great sense of a job well done, and made at least this chorister return home to not only the usual quiet drink but also then an unaccustomed long night’s sleep.

Naomi has captured Carlos’ remarks very neatly in this week’s Bulletin:

  • “Be confident”
  • “Concentrate”
  • “Make music”
  • “Get into the spirit of the music”
  • “Create something beautiful”
  • “Look at me”

If we follow Carlos’ words, and match his passion for this incomparable music with our own, we will indeed treat our audience to another memorable performance.

Chromatics a la Car

No, not chromatics a la carte (ie each having our own selection) – which is possibly what Jim heard us singing at rehearsal last night, but a la Car, Nicole Car to be precise.

Returning from another stunning concert this afternoon by the ACO, I was struck by three points of resonance with Manly Warringah Choir’s forthcoming concert.

The first was their playing of Mozart’s Symphony No 27, which was the original choice of symphony for our concert.  However, as the Requiem and Symphony No 25 feature together in the film Amadeus, it seemed appropriate to settle on No 25.

The second point of resonance is about singing quietly, as Jim reminded us is the instruction at the opening of Ave verum corpus.  Nicole Car gave a master class in the art.  She sang the whole of an aria (Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello) so quietly that at times you could have heard a pin drop, yet the music was full to overflowing with pathos and yearning.  What is more, the ACO’s accompaniment was even quieter, yet also full of musicality and meaning.

And lastly for those readers patient enough to wait until now, here is the reason for today’s title.  In two arias sung by Nicole, there were chromatic passages.  Again, as you would expect from someone who has wowed opera audiences in London and Paris and is about to star at the New York Met, she gave an object lesson in this tricky technique.  In one aria, the Ave Maria by Verdi, she sang a slow downwards chromatic passage, pianissimo and perfectly in tune.  In the second, Chi sa, chi sa by Mozart, both upwards and downwards passages featured, louder, much faster this time but still delightfully and perfectly in tune.

Why am I writing about this concert?  Well, it was an absolute delight, the sort of concert you wish would go on for ever.  And, if you read this before Sunday afternoon, you can hear the Melbourne performance live at 2.00pm on ABC Classic FM.  Should you read it later, I suspect that the ABC’s streaming service will make it available.

Happy listening!

Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin popularised an older saying that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.  No one to my knowledge has written music about taxes or their effect on human life, but many pieces of music have death as a theme, or as a driver in their composition.

It just so happens that we are singing one such piece at present, Mozart’s Requiem.  Death permeates the work.  It sets to music the words of the Catholic Mass for the Dead; it was commissioned to by a nobleman to commemorate the very premature death of his beloved wife; and in the later stages of its composition the composer must have been aware that the chances of his recovering from a severe infection were very low.  All this shows in the powerful setting of the words, where the music lights them up and colours them to reflect their deep meaning.  There are angry sections, times of pleading, moments of sheer awe, and portents of eternal rest.

I was fortunate to hear two other pieces of music recently with deathly connotations.  Firstly, the SSO played Mahler’s 10th Symphony, which was incomplete when he died at the age of 51, Like Mozart, he was at the peak of his compositional powers, and, like Mozart, his illness was the sort of infection which nowadays would almost certainly be treatable with antibiotics.  Whereas in Mozart’s case, Sussmeyer had to complete the harmony and word setting of almost half of the work, in the case of Mahler’s 10th, the short score was complete.  Deryck Cooke’s role was to orchestrate the short score, using his knowledge of Mahler’s other symphonies.  It is a fascinating work, as usual with Mahler covering a whole gamut of emotions.  There is, for example, a huge orchestral scream in the first movement, but this is said to represent not a view of death but Mahler’s anguish his own shortcomings leading to his wife’s infidelity.  The symphony ends with the scream again, but then dissolves into a love song which, despite hints of bitterness, is compellingly beautiful.

Then there is Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden.” This was played stunningly by the Australian Chamber Orchestra with the score augmented to fit – a format which does not always succeed but which worked extraordinarily well on this occasion.  Schubert composed a song based on the elegant short poem “Death and the Maiden” early in his career.  In the poem, death is not a masculine entity authoritatively summoning someone to his presence but rather a feminine voice inviting someone to a happy occasion, seemingly even with the option to refuse.  Then towards the end of his life – and in this case he completed the work and it is likely that he knew that he did not have much longer to live – he used the feeling of the poem to inspire this string quartet.  Each movement has a theme in a major key representing life and one in the minor representing death, and right at the end of the last movement the music oscillates so rapidly between major and minor keys that you can imagine Schubert wrestling hard with contrary feelings about his own situation.

Listening to these two pieces of music highlights the intense feeling and meaning of both words and music in Mozart’s Requiem, features which no doubt Carlos will draw out in rehearsal as we make final preparations for our own performance of this amazing work.

At last!

Wasn’t it great to sing through the whole of the Requiem last night?

It always sends a chill down my spine when we finally get everything sufficiently together for Carlos to have us sing through the entire work, even if, as last night, we did not start at the beginning.  It makes you realise what a great piece of music we have the privilege of singing.   It emphasizes our good fortune at singing it under a conductor with such a deep understanding of the music, and what’s more, the willingness and ability to share his musicality with us Choir members.

Carlos’ enthusing last night about the meaning of the words behind the music made me  check out the libretto again.  It’s stern stuff in places – Day of wrath, day of anger will dissolve the world in ashes. It’s triumphant at times – The trumpet will send its wondrous sound and gather all before the throne.  At many points in the score there is pleading – Lord have mercy on us; Grant them eternal rest O Lord.  And, as Carlos says, the music reflects and colours the words at every turn.

It’s good to know that we have a few more weeks to polish the corners which may be a bit rough at present.  And if we do that well, this will be yet another concert which will send the audience home inspired by the music and impressed by our musicianship.

A question of attribution

There was not much time for musing at last night’s rehearsal.  Carlos kept us very busy, focusing in particular (and with more than a little justification) on us basses.  I hope we were singing more in tune at the end of the evening than we were at the beginning!

However, earlier in the week I heard something which really set me thinking.  After playing the well-known Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Russell Torrance of ABC Classic FM calmly announced that nobody knows whether this work was actually composed by JS Bach himself, by one of his musical family, or by one of his pupils.

Really?  And then I remembered that not long ago someone had cast doubt on the true composer of the Bach Solo Cello Suites, citing evidence that they may have been penned by one of Bach’s wives, Anna Magdelena.

It is a not uncommon situation.  We are currently preparing to sing a work whose composition is shrouded in some mystery, and yet we still call it Mozart’s Requiem.

Next week, Anne and I go to hear Deryck Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.  Unlike poor old Sussmeyer, who seems to receive little credit for completing Mozart’s Requiem, Deryck Cooke is always given programme billing – maybe because, although his is the most frequently performed, there are alternative versions.

And then there is Elgar’s Third Symphony.  Elgar wrote most of the first movement and sketched out the remaining movements, so this is always billed as Edward Elgar: the sketches for Symphony No 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne – long winded but accurate.

These are all wonderful pieces of music, whatever their attribution, and well worth listening to.  In contrast, a few months ago I watched a TV programme about trying to decide whether a  painting was really the work of one particular old master.  It was fascinating, because it seemed that the proof depended on every single brush-stroke being quite definitively the work of the old master himself.  One stroke by someone else, however close to the old master, would render the painting inauthentic, reducing its artistic integrity, and thus its value, by a considerable margin, however beautiful it might be.

So in one art form, painting, attribution is everything.  And in ours, music, a more expansive view is taken.  And a good thing, too, or we might not have the thrill and satisfaction of listening to and singing many pieces of doubtfully attributed, but nevertheless wonderful, music.