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seattle, ferris wheel

(This is the third post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

As I wrote earlier, the full choir rehearsal every morning, with Peter and David taking turns, was my favourite part of the week. Peter and David had very different styles of communicating and conducting, perhaps even complementary in some ways. David was more strident and demanding in rehearsal, and very deliberate in concert, Peter was more laid back, both in rehearsal and in concert. Both made jokes at the choir’s expense from time to time, and, like all happy choirs, we enjoyed them a good deal.

The most unexpected part of the rehearsals was the lack of accompaniment on piano or keyboard. I am not certain if all English choirs routinely rehearse in this way, or whether Renaissance music is more friendly to unaccompanied rehearsals, but this was certainly a new experience for me, and a lot of other students as well. There was a keyboard at hand (which Deb disparaged as being “out of tune,” adding that she prefers never to use them), which was used once in a great while for starting pitches or notes that were wrong, but that was about it. Strangely, I can’t say that the rehearsals suffered at all from the lack of accompaniment. This sort of a-capella-from-the-get-go rehearsal was scary and refreshing in equal measure.

Given the quality of singers Peter is used to working with, I wondered if we would drive him insane, but he was very patient with us. As he explained later, singers’ throats tighten when yelled at, so a parental, “I love you, but no” is likely to work much better. The most no’s we got were perhaps for slowing down too much too often, delivered with a, “I am not ritting am I? Sometimes I do a rit without meaning to.” At another time there was a “Why do people think it is more expressive to slow down?” As we saw, the composers had often put in implicit rits by using longer notes, and further rits from us were unnecessary.

Other comments were about speeding up on the “runny bits” i.e. eighth note riffs and slowing down too much on the half note measures that followed, and how keeping an even tempo is a technical challenge.  Peter also had us singing “eks-chel-sis” instead of the “ek-shell-sis” that I am more used to. He wanted no “egg shells” in his excelsis, as he put it. A comment that was more specific to chromatic music was how leaning on a sharp or a flat for added emphasis can easily make the note sharper or flatter than it should be. He also spoke of how last chords have a disproportionate impact on the audience — if the last chord is perfect the audience thinks it was a great piece irrespective of what went on before, and vice versa. When someone asked him what the dynamic marking was at a certain point he said, before looking at the music, that it was “m,” which, of course, is a non-existent marking. His point was that the default marking, and his favourite one was always “m” and from there one could move to “mp” and “mf” as needed.

Peter’s method of fixing wrong notes was sometimes an endearingly helpless, “Tenors, please fix that. Yes? What else can I say?” At other times he would get into technical details about A flat being a high note, and A natural a low note, with the distance between them less than a quarter tone. (One of these days, I’m going to sit down and teach myself what that is all about.) And when that particular pearl of wisdom did not help the sopranos fix their A’s, he repeated it and ask if he had indeed said it correctly the first time around, or had got it backwards. Another throwaway comment, that has somehow stayed with me was when David (Woodcock) fixed some notes in the (Claudio) Monteverdi mass score (which, incidentally, was edited by former TSSS tutor and Tallis Scholar and current director of music at St. Paul’s in London, Andrew Carwood) and Peter commented that the mass was in fact written by Claudio Woodcock, and this was okay because Monteverdi wasn’t about to come and argue over it anyway.

The rehearsals with Peter were fun and relaxed, and so was the overall interaction with him outside rehearsal. More on that in the next post.

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