What makes a musical performance special?

I asked myself this question last weekend after hearing the Fauré Requiem sung by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs accompanied by the SSO.  It was a stunning performance, leaving the audience awed and delighted in full measure.  No-one rushed for their bus or ferry at the end – we all applauded for several curtain calls and then chatted to the strangers sat around us, savouring a very special occasion.  A truly wonderful experience.

But how did they do it?  And are there any lessons for community groups such as M W Choir?

The obvious observations include the Choir singing precisely in pitch and time, with consonants synchronised across all 150 choristers; being able to sing loud and especially to sing softly, and to create crescendos and diminuendos, both rapid and gradual.  Lastly, the Choir clearly knew the music well and were able to look up from their scores for much of the time.

That is the technical stuff, but there was more than that.  The choristers clearly understood the spirit of the words of the Requiem, and realized they had a duty to communicate their meaning to the audience.  In this they were ably assisted by the conductor, Donald Runnicles, whose varied gestures and facial expressions brought nuances of expression from choir, soloists and orchestra alike.

M W Choir is fortunate enough to have just such a conductor in Carlos.  As we enter the final weeks of rehearsal for the Mozart Requiem, we can capitalise on his deep understanding of both the words and the music.  If we can link with his vision of the music, so ably portrayed in his conducting, like the Philharmonia Choirs and the SSO last weekend, we will give our audiences another very special experience.

The Sound of Silence

Carlos touched on a bit of a raw nerve for me last night.  In amongst the many gems he revealed during the course of the rehearsal, he spoke about the power of silence.  And at the beginning of the rehearsal he made us observe silence twice as part of preparing us to sing sections of this wonderful music.  It seemed to work.  It was another hard-working, effective and thoroughly satisfying rehearsal – for us choristers, certainly.

Why the raw nerve?

I can no longer experience silence.

For the past couple of years I have been living with tinnitus.  I had thought I was special, but it turns out from conversations I am by no means alone.  The symptoms vary.  For some, like myself, it is generally manageable, but for others it is a serious condition affecting sleep, social interaction and all sorts of fundamental human activities.  All levels of the condition produce constant sound.  Some people hear loud, high-pitched buzzing noises all the time which interfere with daily activities: others such as myself experience a continuous sound which is not unlike the ambient noise in an airplane.  My version does not affect me when there are other noises around, but does intrude when there is, otherwise, silence.

For all of us with the condition, silence – the absence of sound – is no longer available.  At the end of a Beethoven symphony, alternating loud chords and rests, the rests are now coloured by sound.  Dramatic moments in plays and opera are sullied by sound.  Out in the bush, far away from traffic and people, there is still sound.  Sitting or lying, meditating, there is sound.

Losing the capacity to be really quiet has been a revelation to me.  It is only when I became aware that I could no longer experience silence, that I began to realize its true value.

For those whose tinnitus is severe, you have my hearfelt sympathy.  I cannot imagine how you cope.

For those without tinnitus, I urge you to make the most of every silence you can find.  In this busy, noisy world, it is a truly wonderful experience.

Indecision.

I used to be indecisive, but nowadays I am not so sure.

There are two things I might write about this week, and I cannot decide which.  So I will start with one, the last lecture in the “Music and……” series at the City Recital Hall, and see where that leads.

Two psychologists presented some findings on the subject of “Music, Feelings and Emotion.” They had undertaken extensive research using facial finite element analysis coupled to sophisticated software, and come up with these conclusions.

  • If you are feeling sad, then listening to sad music will make you feel even more sad.
  • If you are feeling sad. then listening to sad music followed by cheerful music will make you feel less sad and possibly even more cheerful.

Now these conclusions will not come as a surprise.  It’s something most of us have worked out for ourselves over the years.  But in this day and age even the most obvious truth seems to be subject to the need of a formal proof.

Adding to the idea of music affecting mood and emotions, last night Carlos was bubbling over with infectious enthusiasm for the music of Mozart’s C Minor Mass.  It was impossible not to be caught up in his exuberance, despite the trickiness of some of the runs and the relentless rate at which they appear.  He describes the music as “affirmative”, and “full of positivity.”  It is clear that he would classify this piece as music to enliven the mood, reduce sadness and increase happiness.  And who could argue?

In his enthusiasm, Carlos worked with us to take apart the music, inspect, repair and polish the individual sections, and decide how and where to put them back together again, producing a perfectly working whole from the multitude of components inherent in a double fugue such as the “Osanna.”

As we rehearsed, I thought of a friend who restores vintage motorcycles.  His restoration process is very similar to our rehearsals.  It involves taking components apart, getting each one to work in its own right, then re-assembling them to make a working machine. There is a deal of fine tuning on the way, a lot of trial and error, and considerable re-working when things do not quite fit together.  Just like an MWC rehearsal.

And now we have come full circle, as this is the second thing I thought I might write about this week.  C’est la vie!

MWC Dinner 2019

Wednesday evening this week saw about fifty members of the Choir at Limani’s on Narrabeen Lagoon for a most enjoyable dinner.  The format was changed from previous years to reflect the different location.  There was no quiz, and the formalities were limited to a short welcome from our President, Naomi.

 

The food was up to Limani’s usual high standards, and the conversation flowed freely all evening.   It was lovely to be able to have those extended conversations which on a Thursday evening at rehearsal are cut short by the ringing of the bell summoning us back to our seats.  Once the meal was over, people seemed reluctant to set off home.

Many thanks to Judy Williams for organizing a relaxed and friendly evening, and to Cindy Broadbent for taking these photos.

 

A sense of superiority

We singers have a justified sense of superiority.  Scientific studies have demonstrated time and time again the benefits to our well-being of belonging to a choir.  Better physical health from all that deep breathing, better mental facility arising from the coordination involved in converting notes on a page into sound, and better social connection from a sense of common purpose – these are are just some of the many benefits which we all enjoy.

It seems a pretty exclusive club, with copious benefits which are not available for non-singers. This idea has recently nagged at the back of my mind.  Does this really mean that non-singers are at such a disadvantage in life?

But then a number of other activities have been studied recently for their beneficial effects.  Belonging to a sporting team, preferably but not necessarily as a player, is apparently good for you.  Gardening (and this I find particularly difficult to accept, from my own experience) is also supposed to improve one’s physical, mental and spiritual state.

Imaging my surprise at browsing the website of the composer, John Rutter, and finding a comment which, based on his experience of directing and playing music for weddings, is on just this topic.  Having once been a  choirmaster at an attractive village church popular for weddings, I empathise with his story.  The article is short and pithy so, rather than paraphrasing it, I leave you to click here and to read it for yourself.

And, of course, I leave you to draw your own conclusions.