Chorale retreat: bratwurst, beer, and Old Church Slavonic

Chorale held its annual day-long retreat Saturday, September 15, in a new location:  Ellis Avenue Church, at the corner of 50th and Ellis, just a few blocks north of our usual rehearsal space.  A former Kenwood mansion, reconfigured as a worship space and community center, the church proved to be ideal for our needs:  an assembly area large enough to accommodate sixty singers, with good chairs, a piano, plenty of bathrooms, and plenty of room for eating and socializing.  The weather was gorgeous, and the group was in a good mood.  Rehearsal was divided into two parts, morning and afternoon; we had sandwiches for lunch, then a major grilling event for supper, with plenty of brats (with every imaginable trimming).   Attendance was great, and we made a good deal of progress on learning our new music, in addition to the obvious benefits of getting the choir, old members and new, together for a day of socializing.

One of the major pluses of this calendar arrangement is that we rehearse several times within a short time span:  Wednesday night, twice the following Saturday, and again the following Wednesday.  Our usual pattern is one rehearsal per week, on Wednesday night.  I haven’t measured the percentage of data and vocal edge that is lost from one week to another, but I am sure it is very high; too much time intervenes, too many other activities and priorities shove music, and vocalism, out of the way.  Consequently, a major portion of our time at each weekly rehearsal is spent working us back up to where we were, the previous week, before moving ahead.  I have found, singing in intense sshort-term programs, where the ensembles rehearse as much as six hours per day, that very little is lost from rehearsal to rehearsal, and that the entire ensemble is greatly exhilarated by the progress made in a relatively short time.  Chorale’s necessary structure, dictated by the lives of its singers, makes such an arrangement impossible; we build repetition and relearning into our rehearsal time, and don’t have that privilege. And the rehearsal pattern has to be “one size fits all,” which means some people are less stimulated than they might be, and others are pushed harder than they might wish.  So—I really look forward to those times when we do rehearse with more frequency, and schedule them as often as I can.

One particular aspect of our current preparation, Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel, which requires an awful lot of the aforementioned repetition, and profits from close and frequent encounter, is the language of our text:  Old Church Slavonic.   Our edition of the music has an incomplete and otherwise troublesome, inaccurate transliteration of the Cyrilic text, fraught with typos; we need professional help just to correct it, plus constant drilling and re-correction to get the thing right.  Our primary and essential resource in this is Slava Gorbachov, a professor in the University of Chicago Department of Linguistics; in addition to being native Russian and of Orthodox background, he specializes in this particular language.  We could not have done better, had we conducted a national search:  Slava is brilliant, enthusiastic, hard-working, and imaginative.  He has already spent countless hours working through the text, correcting it, translating it word for word, finding original sources, recording his own slow, careful pronunciation of the text, and discussing the project on tape, for the promotional video Chorale will release later in the preparation period.  One of his university students, Drew Boshardy, who sings with the group, works with us at rehearsals, reading the text to us, listening to phrases as we sing them, correcting us again and again; later in our rehearsal period, Slava will come to rehearsal, himself, and refine Drew’s invaluable work.

Careful, repeated, long-term work like this, begun early in the rehearsal period, is very important to Chorale’s success with this, and any, project.  We sing difficult, demanding music; and a great deal of our personal joy and satisfaction comes through doing the very best we can to present it honestly and conscientiously.  Only through meeting basic requirements and practicing basic disciplines can we enable the composers’ works to come alive—for us and for our audiences.