Driving the choir

In kinder, gentler times, as a general description, “to drive the choir” might conjure images of the conductor, politely, with humor and good will, pointing toward the far horizon, reminding choristers of their responsibilities and generally steering in the proper direction. Then, short weeks before performance time, the metaphor explodes-- the conductor rips off the nice face, pitches his speaking voice a little louder and higher, and really drives the choir—as in, a barking dog nipping at their ankles, occasionally tearing hair and drawing blood, until they are either safely in their pen, or over a cliff and splattered on the rocks below. Chorale has entered the latter kind of drive. This Rautavaara piece is HARD. Every eighth note in the darned thing has its own incomprehensible Finnish syllable-- and these syllables go on without interruption, eighth note after eighth note, page after page. After a while, sixty singers, chattering at once, sound more like chipmunks than like vocally gifted adults intoning a prayerful text. I have to wonder what this is like for Finns—they probably rip thoughtlessly through this stuff, and wonder what the fuss is about. For non-Finns, making sense of this piece for ourselves is immensely difficult. Not for a moment do I, or any of the singers, doubt the work’s value: Vigilia has masterwork written all over it. A word I have come to hate over the past few years is really the best descriptor: AWESOME. Take Pärt, Gorecki, Tavener, Hovhaness, the lot of them, shake them up together, skim off the cream that rises to the top, put it way up North where the sun doesn’t shine, and you have Rautavaara. I am head over heels with this piece.

As if this were the only thing on our program… The Shchedrin movements feel like opera chorus crowd scenes-- huge, long lines, impossibly slow tempi. Music for the rebirth of the world. Our Slavic language coach, Slava Gorbachov, came to rehearsal last week and told us our [l]s were too jolly and light. To satisfy him, we have to choke on our own tongues… And sandwiched between these monstrous challenges, we have this delicate Lalique crystal Poulenc motet—that’ll be a ppp high A flat, sopranos, thank you. Oh, and the Paulus motet—tone clusters down in the grumbly part of everyone’s voice; if they are wrong, they are wrong, and they sound wrong; no hiding behind “atmospheric.”

So the next few weeks will be hell for Chorale. I fear there is no other way to get it done.