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space needle from columbia center

(This is the fifth 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.)

Alright, coming back to the matter at hand, or which was at hand two posts ago anyway — the full choir rehearsals. It wasn’t clear to me early on, but in the concert we were to be in Peter’s hands for the Mass, the Lassus and the Gesualdo, and in David’s for the rest of the pieces. This division was not observed a 100% of the time in the rehearsals, especially early on, but it became that way as the the week progressed. I have to say that I loved David’s (occasional Tallis Scholar) style of conducting a fair bit. It reminded me of an old conductor of mine (my first, in fact), who would say that it wasn’t just the conductors waving hands that the singers responded to, but that the conductor’s overall body language directly impacted the kind of sound produced as well, because the singers subconsciously reacted to it. (In fact, she went further and said that even the moods and emotional details of the rehearsals created associations that affected the performance of a piece.) I am not sure what the evidence for this is either way, and I have to wonder if all this makes a makes a much bigger difference for amateurs than for professionals, but the bottomline is that David’s conducting really worked for me. Especially during the concert, his conducting created a sort of confidence boosting feedback loop. His very deliberate movements and his very thorough, almost meditative refocussing of concentration between one piece and the next helped the choir perform at its best.

A lot of the conductors I enjoy working with are very articulate, and so was David. I think the single thing he asked of us most often was to maintain a sense of line and to keep interested in a phrase all the way to the end, rather than just in the beginning, which was our default method. He would put together the thumbs and index fingers from both hands as if to hold a little ball between the four digits, and say how the notes should be glued to each other, instead of sounding choppy. When the rhythm was fast (and “even when Peter asks you to be firm”) the rhythm had to have fire, but it was important not to hammer the notes, and instead to maintain a sense of line. He told us that rests should be “alive” and should maintain interest, not interrupt it, and like Peter, he warned us against ritting on him unnecessarily (I nearly typed ratting on him), and against phrasing off too quickly.

For the chromatic pieces he would say, “That line sounded very much in tune. That probably means it was wrong,” and for the bits where we were working too hard for syncopation, and therefore failing, he said “Your syncopated rhythm sounds like a constipated rhythm.” And then, after a pause, “I was going to say, ‘It should flow more,’ but let’s go on, before I get into any more trouble.” (The syncopation-constipation is apparently a standard joke, but it was the first time I was hearing it.) He told us to be declamatory in our Renaissance singing (as opposed to “Anglican” and “boring”) and when there was a moving part against all the other non-moving parts, he told us to really make the most of it, at least until Peter said otherwise. David was also particular about details such as the vowel sound occurring on the beat, with the consonant coming early, and being a singer himself he would make comments like, “Though the notes are low here, place it high in the voice, so the later notes are easier.”

Some David moments and phrases that are stuck in my mind are his request for “clear daylight, we want clear daylight at the end of that phrase, before we start the next one,” and, equally, his request to sing through and build intensity through a particular comma/breath mark in the Adoramus te Christe where we wanted to pause — that spot really created a great musical moment in the concert, I thought. Another David-like comment on a particular note was to “caress it, but in time,” and in certain parts of the music he wanted us to “build an argument,” in the sense of building up to the next part. (Yeah, I probably liked that phrase the most.) In what I thought was a related comment post-concert, David also talked about how all out chromatic pieces were “symphonic” in nature, or “symphonies, in miniature,” and they all had this feeling of a “slow burn.” Especially for the chromatic pieces (or what I thought of as the “frictiony pieces”), and for the progressions in those pieces, I thought this was a great description. He would also refer to hitting just the mood-changing parts of a piece as doing it “in miniature.”

David is a singer and organist, and Director of Music at Harrow, and one of those people who is supremely talented and has probably worked his butt off from a very young as well. I suppose the last bits are true of all the tutors, but the reason I single him out is because he can do something I cannot even dream of approaching. At the final night’s post-concert party, he played the piano on demand as various people, including Jan, sang different songs. (Him and Jan were our “live music” that night.) The ability to just see a new piece of music and play it proficiently is so far beyond what I will ever do that I don’t even envy him that. All I can say is that he is capable of playing pretty much anything you can throw at him, and making it look easy. There were one or two pieces where he started playing and said something like, “This one’s no good, let’s try something else,” but apart from that, he demonstrated that he could sit with a perfectly straight back and play on demand all night long. It was sort of brilliant.

In a conversation with him that same night (when he wasn’t at the piano, I should add. I doubt even he can play new pieces and converse at the same time. He was actually standing drink in hand. Is there a theme with these English dudes or what?), he made a few general remarks that I found interesting. One was that how a rehearsal goes depends entirely on the director, and that there is a right moment to say something positive or critical. While the innate teacher in him wants to constantly point out flaws and improve things and not dish out too much praise (his highest praise for us during rehearsals was “not bad, not bad at all.” That was just fine by me, I should add), he knows that if he says something overly negative, he has about 3 seconds in which to soften it, or make a joke, so that the choir does not really turn against him, ruining the rehearsal. David’s rehearsals did make me wonder how much of a director’s work during rehearsal is acting — the reaction to a choir’s good or bad singing shouldn’t necessarily be the spontaneous one, it may be more effective to react deliberately and to give the most useful feedback to the group, whether that be encouragement through praise or exhortation to do better through criticism.

David also said that for him, personally, it had been among his top two TSSS concerts ever, and considering that we were (mostly) amateurs who were singing music rarely done by amateurs, we had done very well. (Someone joked that he probably said flattering things like that after every TSSS, but he claimed to be genuine.) The most interesting comment though, was comparing performing to playing, say, a football game. Just as no one expects a team to play two great football matches in one day, it is difficult to perform at the best of one’s ability twice in a day. He said he hadn’t been worried when our rehearsal earlier on Friday hadn’t been great, because he knew we would “bring it to the performance” or that we were “saving it for the performance.” I can safely say that I hadn’t known that — perhaps directors do know choirs better than choirs know themselves.