Singing Verdi's `Requiem'...[ cf. ...in concert ]
FOR 14 weeks we had been trying to bring Verdi's ``Requiem'' to life. In the week remaining until our first and only performance, we would be singing with the 50-member Pro Arte Orchestra and four professional soloists for the first time. I had been rehearsing every Monday night from 7 to 10 p.m. as a tenor in the 100-member Back Bay Chorale. The cost of rehearsing with the paid orchestra and soloists limited our time with them to only three evening practices before performance. In that short time, the three parts of the ensemble - soloists, orchestra, and chorus - had to come together into a harmonious whole.
The initial joining of these three parts can be a rough experience. Double fortes get swallowed by the blare of woodwinds and brass. Comfortable standing room becomes such a scarce commodity that music has to be held right up to one's face or cautiously stretched out between two heads in the next row.
Not only were there physical constraints, but the chorus also had an initial feeling of neglect when it began working with the rest of the musicians. But the sense of being ignored by our conductor, the Rev. Larry Hill, who spent three months carefully nurturing our every chord and staccato note, soon gave way to a more important sense - listening.
Although Larry's attention was mostly focused on the instruments and soloists that formed a sea of sound between chorus and baton, one couldn't help feeling the music - even on a strictly physical level. Low vibrations from the oboes and cellos and the fervent dancing of the violins resonated through the chests of even the weariest chorus members.
Putting three parts of an ensemble together only a few days before performing seems like an impossibility. But the task was simply the natural culmination of months of work and practice. The chorale members in their church basement, the orchestra members in their private practice rooms or together in some other part of Boston, and the professional soloists in their New York studios had all been concentrating on one thing - how to make their individual components of music fit perfectly and meaningfully into the whole.
The process of tempering the Pro Arte Orchestra and the four soloists' pieces to fit the chorale's is something of a mystery to me. Perhaps, because they are professionals, it was quicker for them than it was for us.
Nonetheless, if the tempering process holds as true for the other musicians as it did for the chorale, there must have been many subtle ways of bringing the separate arrangements of sound together. Even though our chorale used only a single, slightly out-of-tune, upright piano for rehearsals, Larry was our direct link to what the orchestra (which he also conducts) was doing. In a sense, though we never saw a string or woodwind before that final week, the orchestra was with us during our Monday night rehearsals, whether we knew it or not.
The way our singing was sculpted to work with the rest of the music was to make it precise in rhythm and pitch - an ongoing process. Sometimes we spent five minutes fine-tuning a single note or chord. When serious rhythmic problems showed up, Larry might get us clapping, counting the beat, shuffling around in a circle, or all three at once. This repetition was all part of the process of bringing each individual chorus member in sync with the group. The better the unity, the less muddy the pitch and rhythm. The more precise the group, the better it would work with the rest of the ensemble.
Other adjustments were more directly linked to the soloist and orchestral parts. Dynamics - changes in volume - were most directly affected. Some sections marked double piano (very soft) had to be sung mezzo forte (medium loud) to be heard over the crescendoing horns. Other sections marked forte had to be brought down to mezzo forte to focus attention on the soloists.
The nuts and bolts of Verdi's ``Requiem,'' was, of course, not the only facet of the music that the chorale needed to develop. From the time we first opened our 144-page scores, Larry and our pianist tried to convey the most meaningful interpretation of the music, as they understood it, to us. Just as the chorale's mechanics had to work with those of the orchestra and soloists, so did the changes in mood also have to be coordinated among the three parts of the ensemble.
Where the music swells to an operatic vigor, all three parts have to be creating a sound, at precisely the same moment, that calls up images of mountains or cathedrals. Where the music quietly trembles in despair, the sound from each musician should conjure impressions of a wet prison cell or a child fearing the dark.
Some of the chorale's preparations were related directly to fusing its measures of music with the whole piece, but the best preparation is developing the skill of listening. This skill underlies two of Larry's oft-repeated instructions: ``Sing softer if you can't hear your neighbor. Sing louder if you can't hear yourself,'' and ``Resist the forward momentum.''
Adjusting pitch and volume to those around you is an ongoing exercise in listening. Each member of the chorus needs to sing without timorousness, but also without trying to show everyone else how to sing the part. At the same time, the chorus has to work together to generate the emotional momentum of whatever we're singing without rushing beyond the beat, or blasting through a soft dynamic level.
WHETHER or not he knows it, Larry practices this skill of controlling strength during most of our rehearsals. Sometimes his methods are frustrating. Just when we are about to move forward into a favorite tenor line, we stop, go back a few measures, and fine-tune one measure for five or 10 minutes before moving on. Although we do this primarily to improve the one measure, it also readies us for working with the entire ensemble by exercising control over the strength we want to let loose.
Having controlled strength in singing a demanding piece like Verdi's ``Requiem'' is, for me, the best part of singing in a chorale. The measured release of physical energy that results in beautiful or engaging music is why I have continued singing in choral groups.
When we finally performed, the months of practice on individual notes and movements gave us confidence to sing strong - in both the soft and loud sections. Even though I stood behind the cellos and French horns in our final rehearsal and performance, I became more aware of the significance of my personal responsibility to the music we were making.
Despite the amount of sound generated by the 50-piece orchestra and my more than hundredfold chorale companions, I started to realize that, although I was only one among many, I could make one mistake that might mar the music. Instead of making me afraid of singing out, however, I rely on the skill I've gained. I listen to the rest of the music that fills the air around me. I don't think all of these thoughts as we perform, but on reflection, I realize the circle of learning how to listen is complete - at least until our next concert.