It’s performance week of Handel’s Messiah. It’s crunch time; little, if any, can be changed about the choir’s rendering of the oratorio in these final hours. You know this. It’s too late to change the past, but I hope with a bit of constructive criticism to improve the future.
In short, I have some bones to pick.
Perhaps this seems unfair. You are not Jerry Blackstone, and one can’t expect all the same things of you. His are huge shoes: everyone said it when he stepped back from conducting CU, everyone said it as we auditioned 6 potential conductors, everyone keeps thinking it this season.
We understand that you aren’t Jerry. Given that fact, here’s how to make the best of it.
I. Understand that you have limited rehearsal time, given several performances.
As conductor, you have had about 47 hours of rehearsal time with us this semester. That is not a lot of hours, especially considering that 5 rehearsals were mostly devoted to the Beethoven Choral Fantasy; 5 rehearsals were half-devoted to the Halftime show; and there are only 9 rehearsals devoted to Messiah, including the dress rehearsals this week.
You do not have the time, nor the necessity, to teach us this music. Consider how often most of us have performed this piece: the only thing you need to do is determine how best to polish it, how to set it as a gem for the audience’s delight. You do not have time to run each movement, start to finish, several times. You do not have time for dumb jokes, or for long extraneous asides, or for wondering at the noise in the hallway. There are opportunities for wit, but keep it relevant. Don’t break the mood when we’re all focused. Over 200 adults have offered up their time to you; for pity’s sake, use it well.
How best to do that? Plan. Do the markings in advance, and get them to us in advance, so we have time to put them in before Monday evening rehearsals. Anticipate and identify problem spots; if you know that the basses always scoop here, the sopranos always go flat there, the tenors sound weak in this movement, and the altos sound like children during that movement…why would you not work to change it? What do you observe? If you don’t know what goes wrong and where – or need to hear it several times to discern mistakes – record the first few rehearsals for analysis, and send us all your notes. Consult with the section leaders. Mark the especially problematic sections with Post-It Notes. Start and stop each movement, polish our entrance notes and cutoffs and very particular vowels in between: short chunks, which can be smoothed out until excellence is not a fluke, but a habit.
Likewise, be sure that each movement gets attention. Rehearse the movements in reverse order half the time, so we know we’ve sung “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Since by man came death” with as much energy and attention as we’ve sung “And the glory of the Lord.” This is especially beneficial for Handel newbies; give them a chance to grow as familiar with the end as with the beginning.
II. Look at your life; look at your choices.
I know you wanted us all to have a fresh score, with fresh markings. None of us want to be the odd man out, sustaining a note which is meant to have an earlier cutoff, or singing marcato where everyone else sings legato. That said, the Bärenreiter score is nearly a pound heavier than the Watkins-Shaw edition (why?! For the love of God, Montresor!); it cost us all twice as much as a fresh Watkins-Shaw would have; it leaves out the scriptural references and is thus an inferior resource; and its musical changes are so minor that I cannot understand how you think it worth the trouble.
Nor can I understand why you would encourage us to de-emphasize consonants, “except for d sounds…and the K of king…and two t’s here…” Those consonants took ages to put in, and now we’re all singing “All we lie she” instead of a phrase that makes any sense. To quote Jerry, “The words will never get to the ends of the world without enunciation!” De-emphasizing sibilants makes sense (such hissing), but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater there.
Lastly, I don’t understand how you relate to the work as a whole. You downplay its religious significance as if it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it doesn’t, to you; perhaps you have worked at churches and cathedrals ironically. The fact is, the dogma is the drama: we are telling a hall full of people how God became man, suffered, died, was resurrected, and intercedes for us. The realities behind this music are the biggest and most significant drama that has ever existed.
That should be obvious from the text. That should be obvious in how you conduct it, and how we sing it. Why doesn’t this come through in how you talk about the music? Sometimes you treat Handel as though he’s cheap. This music doesn’t matter simply because it’s a venerable tradition, in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, but because of what it says about the Incarnate Word of God. Jennens himself prefaced the libretto with 1 Timothy 3:16 and Colossians 2:3, saying “Let us sing of great things!”
III. Expect More.
This isn’t a singalong, but a work of musicianship. We may be volunteers, but by golly, we have a tradition of excellence. That excellence is not spontaneously generated. It doesn’t just happen…but it CAN happen. You have to request and require it. Call for our attention, call for our energy, call for our eyes until we lift them to you. Conduct each of us, so that there’s some point to looking at you. Call us on our bullshit, on our muddled melismas, on our failure to sit in the woodshed with the tricky sections. Put us on the spot as voice parts. Use our pride. Suggest the altos join the tenors if the men sound wimpy. Suggest the sopranos who can’t avoid screechiness sit out for a few notes. Work on articulation and cull the bits where individuals bring us down. Point out what the MUSIC emphasizes. Trust us to follow where you lead, and start as you mean to go on, because practice makes permanent. We will only ever be as good as you expect and rehearse us to be.
Throughout the season and throughout the piece, demand beauty and we will provide it.
Not without reason is “beauty” scrawled in my old orange Watkins-Shaw score over and over. Beautiful notes, beautiful shaping, never louder than is beautiful: the beauty of the music was always at the fore. Identify the singing that isn’t beautiful. Call attention to it. Demonstrate what’s gone wrong (to your credit, you do this on occasion), and show us how to make it right, because we can make it right. You may have to learn to sing better to do this effectively. Use every tool in your arsenal. Ponder your metaphors in advance so that you can draw forth the desired pitch, tone, or vowel. We are a vast organ; pull the proper stops.
This is, I think, the most important point to get across. No one hears a note out of you, yet you are the conductor of this whole work. Demand more of yourself. You are our general, our coach, our fearless leader, our pickiest critic, our constant exhorter. You are Henry V, urging us on to glory. You are Jim Harbaugh, screaming in our face when needed. You are the sun, and we a congregation of moons reflecting what you shine forth (be it bright or dim). You are our witch doctor and our energy drink. This might well wring you dry. Singing is mental, not merely physical; lead us so that our minds join our mouths in the process. Every limb of your body, every line of your face, should display to us what ought to be happening at any given moment, tugging the music forth from us. Be the most fascinating thing on the stage, and you can bet that our eyes will be fixed on you.
Do not harp on the difficulty of the task before us so much as you emphasize how worthwhile the effort, how excellent a thing this music is in itself. Remind us what we’re doing here. Remember it yourself: that this grand work builds and builds in tension until that very last page of climactic, cathartic, resplendent “Amens.” Relish it. Cherish it, as so many looking on cherish it. Let the music thrill you! Let yourself be transported by it; in doing so, you will transport us, and thus every person in attendance.
PS – Talk faster. Get some caffeine if you need it.
PPS – It takes more effort for you to conduct our standing and sitting. It will take more time, and frankly, sounds like a power trip. Just don’t.
PPPS – On the biggest movements, JB emphasized that we not oversing – not to be “louder than lovely.” The fastest movements, he urged us not to rush; there’s always a danger of some dragging on the melismas, but possibly other voices with simpler notes are rushing ahead. Or perhaps everyone is singing a melisma, and the hasty singers are keeping us from lining up properly.
PPPPS – You’ve told us a couple times to raise our faces from our scores. It might also behoove you to ask us to hold our scores high and flat, lest they block our mouths, and to turn pages as quietly as possible. I don’t believe you’ve mentioned either yet.
PPPPPS – Per Jerry: “Perhaps you’ve sung this a million times. But it has to sound like the first time it’s ever happened.”
“SAY Something! Don’t just repeat nonsense phrases!”
“You would sing that differently if you were thinking ‘First Noel’ instead of ‘This is the end of the fugue; I can rest now.'”
“Now put all that in a smaller, more beautiful box.”
“Don’t be safe! Be beautiful!”