Life in the Chorus

Life in the Chorus

This will be an ongoing account of vignettes of life in the chorus, updated approximately whenever something strikes me as entertaining.

Tales from Harmoniemesse - May 7, 2005

This week, we have been performing Haydn's Harmoniemesse. Two anecdotes that I'd like to share that I think people will find amusing.

On opening night, the alto soloist walked out on stage in a form-fitting skintight top. Not scandalous, but a little bit unusual for symphony soloists. The men's section of the chorus erupted in a torrent of whispers and discussion at the fashion audacity. I leaned over to my seatmate and said "We are so gay!" Of course, since the vast majority of the men are, in fact, gay, this isn't really a surprise, but I still found it amusing. (Last night, she switched to a black gown that I think the chorus approved of).

The other funny moment of this series was last night. Two nights ago, the bass section blew one entrance entirely. It's a tricky bit, coming out of a section where we've been sitting for a while, and the orchestra part has a deceptive cadence, where it sounds like it will finish before we start, and instead we come in over the top of it. And for some reason, we were a bit dazed, and the conductor failed to give us a cue, but there's still no excuse for missing that entrance. All the basses were beating themselves up over it after the concert. The conductor was apparently beating himself up for missing the cue as well.

Last night, we get to that section. All of the basses are concentrating ferociously. I was even following along in the score with my finger to make sure I didn't drop a bar someplace. We get to the entrance, he gives us a big cue, we come in blazing. However, I think we looked a little bit too self-satisfied with our entrance. And I think McCreesh, the conductor, was a little too proud of having given us the cue. So he stuck his tongue out at us. I almost lost it on stage right there. I had trouble singing the rest of the movement, trying to keep the laughter inside. After the concert, I was like "I didn't just imagine that, right? He did stick his tongue out at us, yes?" I was reassured that, yes, other people had seen it. We all thought it was pretty funny. I'm sure some people in the audience were wondering why half of the basses were laughing during that movement. And if they find this page, they'll know.

Five years - 6/26/04

This is the end of my fifth season singing with the Chorus. Kind of amazing how fast the time goes. One of the nice things that the Chorus does is have an end-of-season party where people who have served in the chorus get recognized at five year intervals. So, in honor of my five years with the chorus, I received a certificate signed by Vance George, the chorus conductor, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Very cool.

Even better, it was the day before my birthday, so I got Happy Birthday sung to me by 200 wonderful singers. Sometimes it ain't so bad being part of this chorus, y'know? :)

Chopsticks - 1/24/04

Marc Shapiro has served as the accompanist to the chorus for most of the past twenty years. So when he announced that he was leaving the position to pursue his own interests, it was a shock to most of us who had never known the chorus without him. So after the final Faure Requiem performance, we had a party in honor of his service to the chorus. We generally like to honor our guests of honor musically in some way, but were struggling to think of something appropriate for Marc a couple days before.. Somebody yelled out "Chopsticks!" and the chorus immediately launched into an impromptu attempt. So we did that at the party. A full choral rendition of Chopsticks. Totally silly. Totally entertaining. We were amused.

Fun in the Fugue - 3/22/2003

In the
Schubert Mass that we're performing, at the end of the Gloria movement, there is a fugue to the words of "Cum Sancto Spiritu, in Gloria Dei, Patris, Amen" (approximately: with the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God, the Father, Amen). Schubert was not particularly inclined towards fugues, but apparently the convention was very strong to always set those words to a fugue. So he took a shot at it. And it's pretty good - it's got a strong theme, and several "episodes" where he goes off to explore another melody before returning to the main theme.

It's also fairly long and strenuous for the chorus. You have to pay attention, because there's a lot going on, and you have to stay in rhythm, catch your entrances, and so forth and so on. And the conductor, Bruno Weil, took it pretty darn fast. But after you've done it a few dozen times, it gets easier.

So anyway, by Saturday evening of this set of performances, we knew the fugue pretty well. While we were racing through it, I looked up and over at the rest of the chorus (I'm way out at the end so I have as good a view of the chorus as I do of the audience). And each of the 160 singers was moving to the beat in some way - some of them bouncing up and down, or side to side, or back and forth - but all moving, with their eyes up and looking at the conductor and alight with the challenge and joy of the music. It was wonderful. It was definitely a combined effect - if one person was doing it, it would have been neat, but with everybody moving together, it was hypnotic. You could focus in on individual people and see them singing with conviction, or focus out and see the chorus as a single organism moving in all these different ways. I just got this huge smile on my face seeing that effect, and thought I'd try to put into words what it was like.

Messiah fun - 12/19/2002

We're doing the Messiah again this holiday season. It's a fun, fun piece. Especially with a good chorus like this one. We basically have one rehearsal, and then we're ready for concert week. And we all know it well enough that we can have fun with it. Like this evening. We had our dress rehearsal with the orchestra and the guest conductor, Christopher Seaman. Very entertaining guy. British, polka-dotted bow tie and all, and a sense of humor to match. For instance, we started For unto us a Child is Born, and he looked up and saw everybody kind of nervous and scared (because the movement has lots of long difficult sixteenth note runs). And he walked over to the sopranos, who lead us off, and reminded them that we were supposed to be celebrating the birth, not thinking "Oh no, not another mouth to feed!"

Anyway, one of the things he asked us to do was to emphasize our h's more. Put a bit more of an edge on them so that they would sound to the audience. We got to the Hallelujah chorus this evening, and some enterprising bass remembered this. It should be noted that pretty much all singers are sick to death of the Hallelujah chorus. It's kind of boring to sing, and repeats forever (and ever. and ever. and ever.). So this bass started over-emphasizing the H in Hallelujah (SFSC bass section motto: If it's worth doing, it's worth over-doing). So much so that it started sounding like the Ch in Chanukkah. Nice bit of phlegm action going. And several other basses started cracking up and imitating it. I was laughing so hard that I couldn't sing. After a couple more lines of this, the conductor waved us to a halt, and asked us politely to maybe cut back on the h just a bit. That's only because it was a guest conductor - our conductor would have told us to "Cut it out!!" Very funny. I'm sure the audience didn't have any idea what was going on (it was an open rehearsal), and why the basses were falling over laughing. Anyway, it amused me, so I figured I'd write it up.

Singing Happy Birthday - 4/17/2001

Today we had an afternoon rehearsal for Haydn's Creation from 4:30 to 5:30, and then a dress rehearsal from 7 to 9:30. So, between rehearsals, a bunch of us ran out to dinner. As it turned out, several groups of choristers had the same restaurant in mine - so we arrived in three or four clumps, each 4-6 people large. We all sit down at our several tables, and then one chorus member announced that it was another's birthday and that we should all sing. So we launch into Happy Birthday, in our typical 15-part, 4-octave-spanning rendition. The staff of the restaurant, not knowing that we all knew each other and were part of a chorus, looked awfully confused at all the tables singing together. People stopped in the street to try to figure out where this singing was coming from. And then we were done, and went back to ordering dinner.

Reading Creation - 3/5/2001

This was our first rehearsal of Haydn's Creation. We were mostly sight-reading through the piece to get a feel for it. But even as we're doing that, we're catching the dynamics, we're getting the notes, and it's already starting to turn into music. And I was struck again by how amazing it is to be part of a chorus of 120+ people that can manage to do something like that.

I was also struck by the realization that I had now sung enough to very clearly see the influences of Bach and Handel on Haydn. While reading Creation, I was noting the Bach-like chorales (and chord progressions), and Handel Messiah-like fugues. It's very much in the line of the great German music, and so it is very easy to sight-read because the chord progressions are all what you expect from having sung that sort of stuff many times before.. I also noticed bits which were lifted by others - in particular, one descending minor line describing the descent of demon souls into hell is very similar to one used by Elgar in his Dream of Gerontius. I mean, intellectually I know that all of these guys knew each other's work, but it's neat to see that my musical intuition is developing to the point where I can recognize it. Maybe I should actually take a music history class at some point so I can really appreciate this.

Fastest Messiah Ever! 12/23/2000

The fastest Messiah ever. The reviewer calls it brisk. It was just plain fast.

It was so fast that we finished the Messiah, a piece that normally takes over three hours, in 2 hours and 20 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission.

It was so fast that the sixteenth note runs were actually unsingable. And the conductor knew it. He said not to worry about it, just gliss as best as we could, because "it's all doubled in the woodwinds anyway".

It was so fast that one of the chorus members overheard one of the aforementioned woodwind players complaining that they had been playing the Messiah for over 30 years, and still had to go home and practice, because it was just too fast.

But, hey, I guess it sounded good from the audience. And it was a thrill for me because it was my first time performing the Messiah for real (as opposed to sing-alongs). Plus, I even got a chance to sit in the front row!

Take me out to the ballgame - 10/4-7/2000

While performing the Schubert pieces mentioned below, the members of the symphony and the chorus had a problem. To be specific, we all live in the Bay Area. And not one, but both Bay Area baseball teams, the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants, were playing in playoff games during our concert! What to do?

Well, some enterprising orchestra members set up a TV backstage and turned the game on. So you'd wander backstage and see all these guys in tuxes, playing their trumpets or whatever, while having their eyes glued to this little static-y screen. Then they'd go on and perform beautiful music, and at intermission, run off stage and find out what the score was. The contrast between the "high" culture of the symphony and the "low" culture of baseball really amused me for some reason.

The eighth note - 10/3/2000

In one of our final rehearsals for Schubert's Gesang der Geister uber den Wassern, we worked on the beginning of the piece. To be specific, our first entrance. To be more specific, our first eighth note. Our chorus conductor, Vance George, spent over 15 minutes trying to get this one eighth note to sound exactly how he wanted it to sound. We were singing the word "des" in German, but the hard d was too aggressive for the pianissimo that we were supposed to come in at, so he modified it to an n (nes). Then he didn't like the sound of the vowel, so he modified that as well (nuss). Then he played with the tone quality a bit, until everything was just the way he wanted it.

It wasn't until later that it struck me that we had spent 15 minutes on this one note. It seems ridiculous. I mean, it's just one note, that will last for a fraction of a second in performance. And we spent 15 minutes on it. But it sets the tone for everything that comes after it. And that sort of attention to detail is what sets this chorus apart from many others.

"You guys are so much fun!" - 4/2000

While working on Ite missa est, by Swiss composer Carl Rutti, we had a fun moment. The piece ends with a grand gospel-like 12-part fortissimo Amen. We got to that point, and Vance didn't quite like the balance. So he started playing with it. He directed a couple singers to switch parts, moving them into ranges where their voices would ring more clearly and bolster the parts that needed help, for instance, moving a few tenors up into the alto range, and some baritones up to the tenors. He'd switch a couple voices, give a couple directions, and we'd sing Amen! again. Then he'd think about it, change a couple more things, and try it again. After several iterations, he looked up, smiled, and said, "You guys are so much fun to play with!"

It was a moment where I realized that Vance is very much an instrumentalist - his instrument is the choir. The way Itzhak Perlman shapes the sound of his violin, Vance shapes the sound of the chorus. And he has a lot of fun doing it, too. Because the chorus is an instrument that thinks for itself, and will often do things that he doesn't think of (both good and bad :) ).

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