An Open Letter to Scott H

Dear Scott,

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.

Cordially,
A soprano

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!”

Earworm Alleluia

It’s that time of year when Choral Union prepares for Handel’s Messiah, which always confuses the inner calendar.  We skate from Isaiah’s prophecies to Luke 2 fulfillment, from Lenten sorrow to resurrection triumph, to judgment, and then back in reverse order because that’s how rehearsal works.  Truly, it is a glorious liturgical muddle.

This week, we ran through the happier movements of part 2 (“Lift up your heads, O ye gates” and the choruses following) and all the choruses of part 3.  Instead of picky melismata, there’s more emphasis on dynamic contrast and fugal exposition.  The music rises in one great crescendo, such that I left practice with “Worthy is the Lamb” resounding in my head.  There is such a fierce joy in proclaiming Christ’s victory over sin and death, a taste of what is to come.

That vehement delight also accounts for my aural addiction to Anuna’s “Dicant Nunc,” a new setting of an old Easter antiphon:

Christus resurgens ex mortuis          Christ, being raised from the dead,
iam non moritur:                         dies no more;
mors illi ultra non dominabitur.        Death hath no more dominion over him.
Quod enim vivit, vivit Deo.              For in that He lives, He lives to God.
Alleluia.                                    Alleluia!
Dicant nunc Iudaei,                      Let the Jews now say
quomodo milites custodientes            how the soldiers guarding
sepulchrum perdiderunt Regem         the sepulchre lost the King
ad lapidis positionem.                    sealed with a stone.
Quare non servabant                    Why did they not watch
petram iustitiae?                          the rock of justice?
Aut sepultum reddant,                  Let them either return him buried,
aut resurgentem adorent nobiscum    or with us worship him risen,
dicentes Alleluia.                         saying Alleluia.

This whole text makes me waggle my fingers in exultation.  Death has no mastery over Him!!  In the same way, we may count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

What welcome news at any and all times of year.  Alleluia indeed!

Humor in Handel: Music Markings

MH Sing in Canadian

Jerry insists that “sorrows” be sung with closed vowels. He called on the soprano from Windsor to demonstrate for us.

"I love what the tenors do here; they're so pleased with themselves!  So glad to be wicked."

“I love what the tenors do here; they’re so pleased with themselves! So glad to be wicked.”

Glorrrrrry doesn't sound the same as glow-rih, sadly.

Glorrrrrry doesn’t sound the same as glow-rih, sadly.

*holds up wine glass*  True story.

*holds up wine glass* True story.

MH Disdain

The sopranos were requested to sing "in a manner more alto...dian."

The sopranos were requested to sing “in a manner more alto…dian.”

MH Fabulous

MH Text painting

“We don’t need too much text painting here.”  Text painting, for the uninitiated, is when the music expresses what the words are saying. …it’s funny because in our attempt to sing very very softly, we sounded like a mortal wound kept us from projecting.

Messiah Miscellany: Humor in Handel

You can’t spend four autumns singing an oratorio without coming away with some stories about it.  Here are some snippets of things I’ve encountered along the way…

First off, there’s our conductor.  Jerry Blackstone is a beautifully dynamic man, and endlessly fascinating to watch.  This is convenient, as I have not yet met the choral situation which demanded that I look at anyone other than the conductor.  The plasticity of his face and the expression of his baton tell me more than my music (which, inevitably, I still hold up and turn when appropriate without so much as glancing at it).

Like any good music director, Jerry will use whatever cajoling or mental picture or example which proves effective.  Some of his exhortation follows:

(whenever we repeat a phrase) “You can’t sing it the same way twice!  You’re insisting – Did you hear what I said?  And the glory, the glory of the LORD!  It should explode!  It should be really really compelling!”

“The ness of righteousness should sound like Loch Ness.  The –ng of king shouldn’t spread the vowel; sing it as though the word were kitchen.  Don’t let the n sneak into since; the word is city.  THE WORD IS CITY.”

“Listen to you guys.  It’s like you’re afraid to stick out.  If you’re a real tenor, you go ‘I’m gonna stick out.  And they’re gonna hear me.  And it’s gonna be gorgeous.’”

“Not CHOStisement, ‘cause that’s not a word.”

“It’s hard to hide ugliness.  ….yes!  That’s a word that’s language!”

“I hope in Hill we have more vibrancy and more drama…right now it’s a little gentle, as though being taken captive were okay.”

(on how to enunciate “Hallelujah”)  “We’re always going to the lu, so to speak.”

(on the “Amen” part of “Worthy is the Lamb”) “You would sing that differently if you were thinking ‘First Noel’ instead of ‘This is the end of the fugue; I can relax now.’”

Movement 5: Thus Saith the Lord
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts; Yet once, a little while, and I will shake the heav’ns, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations

My choir director in college told us – right before a performance – how he’d conducted the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and Jackson Chorale for a performance of Messiah once.  Rehearsals had been fairly typical, and none of the soloists had given him any reason for concern.  When it came time for this movement during the performance, however, the baritone soloist suddenly branched out into musical theater or jazz choir: he held up and vigorously shook a hand through every melisma in the movement, stretched out an arm toward the ceiling and the floor to indicate heaven and earth, and even, it seems, fluttered his wrist to indicate the liquid nature of the sea.

We all teased our conductor for sharing this story before we processed in to sing it, as the baritone slated to sing that solo was always a bit of a red-haired wild card, and it did not strain the bounds of anyone’s belief to imagine him imitating the baritone of legend in attitude and gesture.

Raconteurs who shared the story thereafter recognized the unique applicability of this movement to cocktail preparation, which is why I have begun making some effort to learn a recitative I will never perform with an ensemble.

Movement 6: But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?
But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth?  For he is like a refiner’s fire.

Not much of a story here, sorry; it’s just, whenever I hear this particular air, I want to go back to chemistry class and, you know, burn the dross out of something in a crucible.

Movement 19: Then Shall the Eyes
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing…

Our organist has a little pastoral scene that he sets up on the organ console in Hill.  He must get a new animal for it every year; he has some 6 or 7 sheep, as well as a miniature stag.  Last week, as the mezzo-soprano sang, Scott was left to his own devices.  His own devices evidently include making the little stag figurine leap, as harts do.

Movement 23: He was despised
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not his face from shame and spitting.

You probably think I am a horrible person for finding anything amusing in this movement, which typically runs between 7 and 9 minutes on account of the tempo and repetition.  It really ought to be grueling.  However, Thalia once pointed out that “smiters” sounds an awful lot like “spiders,” which, creepy though it sounds, is far less wrenching.

I carefully broached this subject with a fellow soprano on Sunday and she agreed, saying “I’d wondered why Jesus would give his back to the spiders.  Are there even spiders in the Bible?”

(In Job 8 and Isaiah 59, it turns out)

Movement 28: He Trusted in God
He trust in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, if he delight in him.

Quite aside from the abundance of third person masculine pronouns, this movement makes me both laugh and cringe because it’s so curiously pleasant to get wrapped up in the persona of a jeering bystander on Golgotha.  I may write more on this topic later; for now, let me just say that Jerry gets so involved and so in character that he begins to resemble John Noble as Denethor:

Jerry Blackstone delighteth mine eyenwordpress, why must you be divorced from the reality of my image-resizing?

Further silliness (and music markings) on the morrow!

A Foretaste of the Feast to Come

So I’m part of this choir that sings Handel’s Messiah in Hill Auditorium every year.  Sometimes that means we sigh at the fact that it’s December again and we’re singing Messiah for the 4th or 10th or 37th time.  Sometimes that means we pass over rehearsing Handel in favor of rehearsing more unfamiliar repertoire; this season, it’s MacMillan’s Tu Es Petrusthe finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and Milhaud’s Oresteia.  Sometimes we hold our scores but never look at them, which can backfire on the odd occasion our conductor makes changes to the dynamics or duration of the notes.

It can get a bit wearing, is what I’m saying.  Singing a piece year after year ought to make it more polished, but I’m convinced I get worse at the melismas every time.  Squishing onto the risers never really gets better.  I typically end up counting how many movements are left.  December doesn’t really get any warmer (well, okay, it did this year.  One-off).  I never get any less liturgically confused.   The Hallelujah Chorus always feels so relaxed and somehow that doesn’t seem right.

And yet, no matter how wearing it gets, the moments remain which remind me why I do this – why I’m part of a choir, why I sing, why music is:  The end and final aim of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.  In high school, we had choir tour shirts with this line from Bach on the back, but it hardly seemed so true then as it does now.

During performances this weekend, that nigh-wearisome familiarity with the score allowed for the music to glorify God and refresh the soul as I’d never before experienced it.  The notes, the rhythms, the dynamics, the diction: they were not abandoned, but observing them was drawn up into conveying the meaning, the truth of words heard so often over the years that we sometimes cease to attend them.  To paraphrase our conductor, each chorus must be sung as though for the first time these words have ever been heard:

For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders

Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.

Surely, surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruiséd for our iniquities.  The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healéd. 

Let all the angels of God worship Him!

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing!  Blessing and honor, glory, and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.  Amen!

When the final cutoff arrived, it seemed to me that we hadn’t yet sung enough…in fact, it seemed we never could.  The power and verity of those words provided a glimpse of what praising God in perfect heavenly harmony might be like.  To focus one’s energy on the One who is worthy of all praise: this is delight.  This is what we were made for.  This is a foretaste of the feast of thanksgiving to come.

The DJ in my brain is fired.

Just a quick follow up to the note about the disaster trip up north.

Apparently, the brain uses sleepy time to process things from the day. There’s research to support my college practice of reading things I had to know for a test the night before and sleeping on it. It does aid memory to read things right before bed. You mull it over.

If you have a really weird day, you can have really weird dreams. Like that time that the Dusty Thane dreamt that he was going to take out the town Vampires by riding stealthily in on wheelchairs with pitchforks. Or me dreaming my cat got out of a stranger’s car and ran off down some mountain being chased by an IT guy from my company.

After 11 hours in a car, clutching a rosary (another long story there. Lutherans need help with prayer routines too. Why reinvent the wheel?), and begging for mercy, clear roads and a coffee, my brain must have been in a strange place. When I lay down, my first thought was Kyrie. Then “Comfort every sufferer, watching late in pain…” then “Cooooooooooofort ye…”

 

Kyrieeeeeee yeeeee sufferer

Searchin for my lost shaker of salt

Watching late in pain

Some people claim there’s a woman to blame

Cooooomfooooort yeeee my people.

Into the side of his pretty little souped up four wheel drive

I carved my name into the leather seat!

Comfort every sufferer

(Shaker of Salt!)

watching late in pain

(Salt!)

Those who plot some evil

(leather seat!)

From their sin restrain.

COOOOOOOOMFORT YE!