The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around—I remember that phrase as a song title from the 1960’s—“Love is lovelier the second time around…” Frank Sinatra and other singers of that era recorded it, and it seemed to be on the radio constantly—at least, on the stations my parents listened to. It has become an occasional ear worm as Chorale rehearses Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel, not because it sounds like Shchedrin’s music, but because of the pleasure I find in returning to Shchedrin’s work, which we studied so intensely, as a previously unknown composition, back in 2012. In general, my feeling about repeating a work is, if it isn’t worth repeating, it wasn’t worth doing in the first place. If I don’t grow, and feel differently the second time around, either I am becoming stale, or the piece is akin to the shallow soil in the parable of the sower—the seeds come up quickly, but can’t withstand the heat or the drought. The Sealed Angel is good soil. Back then, it was really daunting for me to make sense of it—to find structure, guideposts, and to find the best way to conduct it. The score is bewildering—as I wrote last week, Shchedrin cares little for regularity or consistency; he writes down what he likes, and then may write something different in what one would expect to be a parallel place, the next time around, because he feels differently, and wants something else instead. I struggled to “get inside his head,” to feel and understand the motivation behind the changes and the nuances which constantly tripped me up when I first approached the work, to discover the overall sweep and direction of the piece. I find now, six years later, that I have internalized what I learned back then, and am far more comfortable with the work, and with Shchedrin’s idiom. My score—the same one I used then—is full of markings, of rhythmic groupings, of “eyeglasses” and other warning signs; and most of these are still “right”: I feel now as I felt then, and can make use of many of the decisions I made then. Some groupings and phrases change, and my understanding of dynamics has been somewhat refined, as I work with a different group of singers (one size really does not fit all)—but mostly I feel right at home. I am comfortable enough to feel less constrained by some of what he has written—his instructions are vague, even contradictory, and I agonized over this six years ago, fearful of doing the work injustice. I feel less constrained now. Numerous recordings which have come out since testify to the need for each conductor, each ensemble, to take its own stance relative to what Shchedrin calls “ 50 percent stupidity”—to find, and go with, what works. Steeped as I am in the tradition of J.S. Bach, I found it very difficult to just take off and do as I felt (exactly as Shchedrin himself does)—but I feel bolder, now.

Chorale has sung a lot of Old Church Slavonic since 2012—major works by Rachmaninoff and Steinberg, plus a number of smaller pieces by Chesnokov, Grechaninov, and Golovanov. Our singers are more familiar and comfortable with the sounds of the language than they were in 2012; and though the transliteration system used in the Shchedrin score is far different than that used by the editors of those other works, we recognize the equivalents, and learn quickly. Our language coach, Drew Boshardy, has become adept at working with us, at anticipating our difficulties and focusing on them, which is also a big help. And the singers are more familiar with the overall vocal approach required by the music-- so different from the lighter sound required by much of what we sing.

This relative comfort—on my part, on the choir’s part—allows, even invites, more freedom, and more enjoyment, in preparing the music. Time seems to fly by, in our rehearsals. We hope you’ll come to hear us, whether you heard us the first time around or not—find out for yourselves that this music is lovelier the second time around.