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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 3

A Choral Trip

by Wah Keung Chan / November 2, 2002

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St. Lawrence Choir, photo: Russell Proulx

Choristers around the world feel the instinct and need to sing. Gratifying this urge among similarly inspired singers is one of life's most deeply satisfying pleasures. On Sunday, September 22, the Montreal Symphony performed Beethoven's Ninth, with my voice added to the great chorus behind the orchestra. The ecstatic finale uplifted me and returned me to my musical roots. Here is my story.

From rollicking amateur to aspiring soloist

My choral career began when I was 19, in my second year in engineering school at McGill. A handwritten poster for the McGill Choral Society caught my attention with the great marketing slogan: "Do you sing in the shower?" Everyone possesses a singing voice, and it was natural for me to seek expression in song. Never having sung in a choir, the non-audition Choral Society was an ideal start. Director Mary-Jane Puiu, who combined a commanding voice with an engaging personality, made Wednesday night a fun-filled diversion from academic studies. The McGill Choral Society became the largest club at McGill, as close to 200 students discovered a combination of artistic, physical, and social experiences in choir singing.

I sang in various choirs for the next ten years. I was fortunate to perform most of the standard choral repertoire, as a baritone for the first 8 years and then moving into the tenor section. Along the way I sang for Charles Dutoit, Kurt Masur, Neemi Jarvi, and Robert Shaw. Choral highlights included Messiah, Mozart's Requiem, participation in the Grammy award-winning performance of the MSO's Les Troyens, Honnegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher--which should have been recorded--and Brahms' Nänie.

In 1990 I sang the last-named work with the University of Michigan University Chorus. (This choir was made up mostly of voice majors. At that point it was the best group I had sung in). Conductor Jerry Blackstone injected great enthusiasm into the Brahms text, and the experience of learning and performing the work became one of my treasured memories. Later, when I withdrew from choral singing, I promised myself that I would come out of choral retirement the next time Nänie was performed.

In the mid-90s I gave up choral singing in favour of vocal training as an aspiring opera singer. The technique of singing as a soloist of course is different from that of choral singing. In a choir the goal is to blend your voice with other singers so that no one voice sticks out. By contrast, the soloist must be heard above the choir and orchestra. Technically, most solo voices have the singer's formant, an envelope of harmonics in the range of 2 kHz to 4 kHz, which an amateur chorister usually does not have.

The return to group rehearsing

When the Montreal Symphony announces that their annual first concert featuring Beethoven's Ninth included Brahms's Nänie, I plot my return to choral singing for this one concert. Iwan Edwards, the MSO's chorus master, gives me permission to sing in the concert as part of the 92-voice St. Lawrence Choir (SLC), the non professional part of the critically acclaimed Montreal Symphony Choir. Another 50 professional singers (members of the Union des Artistes) make up the MSO Chorus.

Members of the MSO Chorus are expected to arrive at rehearsals having already learned the music, a point that Edwards reemphasises at their first rehearsal. However, since members of the SLC come from all walks of life--students and high-priced lawyers share the stage--Edwards normally schedules additional rehearsals to prepare the music for the non-professionals. At this level of music-making, members of the SLC must have passed auditions and are asked to try to learn the music on their own. Although I have not sung in a group for 7 years, I am able to pick up quickly from where I left off.

On September 6 I attend my first choral rehearsal in over seven years with the St. Lawrence Choir. The first rehearsal goes well. The choristers have varying degrees of sight-reading, the ability to look at a score and sing the right notes. Some singers have perfect pitch, while others could improve their skill through ear-training or solfege exercises. There are sections of the Brahms where key changes are difficult to follow. A sharp pencil is the ideal tool; I circle those sections to work on at home. My personal strength as a chorister is my ability to stay rhythmically in sync with the conductor. Traditional choral writing is divided into four parts, soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB). The sopranos usually have the easy task of carrying the melody. Having sung in the bass section, I always find that singing the bass line, which usually determines the key, is easier than the tenor line. Inner lines such as the tenor and alto are important to fill in the harmony. However, the melody of these inner lines is sometimes less interesting and is more difficult to sing.

The program of the September 22 concert consists of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Brahms's Nänie and Gesang der Parzen, a work I had not sung before. During the first rehearsals, Edwards works mainly on the Brahms, as most of the choir has already done Beethoven's Ninth many times. (It's a work that I love but not necessarily to sing; the tenor line is bland and lies very high in tessitura).

By the third rehearsal the other Brahms work is beginning to grow on me. The meetings are now held in the Place-des-Arts rehearsal rooms. The first rehearsal there is a make-up session for the professionals. The seating plan is revealed. On my right is Jean-Guy Comeau, a professional who teaches music at FACE School. On my left is Italian native Francesco Campelli, an amateur singer with a strong lovely voice who has been singing in choirs since he was young. Both show great professionalism and enthusiasm.

According to Russell Proulx, a bass in the SLC, "One of the highlights of a choral rehearsal is the breaks which allow singers to rekindle old friendships." According to union rules, the choir must break for 10 minutes for every hour of rehearsal. For a three hour rehearsal, Edwards chooses to give a 15-minute break and finish 15 minutes early.

Keys to good choir singing

Iwan Edwards in rehearsal, Photo: Russell Proulx
The first principle of choral singing is to blend with the other voices in the choir. "The key is to train 142 people to sing the same vowels," says Edwards. One of the choir members reads out the German text for pronunciation. Volume? A basic rule of thumb in choral singing is to listen to the people next to you. If you can hear the other person, then you are not over-singing. Scientifically, one hears one's own singing and speaking voice through bone conduction and the wrapping of lower frequencies back to your ears. This means that you don't hear your voice the same way as everyone else. If you hear yourself too well, you are probably pushing your singing too much and distorting the sound.

The mark of a good choir is its attention to detail, getting the ensemble to sing as one voice. This means the vowels are the same, the dynamic indications respected, the attacks precise and uniform, and the consonants clear and together. Audiences will hear ending t's and s's. "Put the t on the beat of the next note," commands Edwards. Once that basic work is done, Edwards exhorts the choir to inject the right emotions and colours into the text and music. The job of the chorus master is to make sure the choir is up to the challenges of the work and the demands of the conductor.

The quality of the sound is something that is largely determined when choir members are auditioned, and Edwards has assembled a fine group. Being in the middle of a rehearsal room amidst the sound of 142 voices is quite a stimulating experience. There are several new faces in the MSO chorus for the upcoming concert. I note that this September Montreal is mounting three different choral programs. Professional choristers have to choose between (a) the Opéra de Montréal chorus with Madama Butterfly, (b) the Grands Ballets Canadiens and their production of Les Noces with the Studio de Musique Ancienne, and (c) the MSO programs. The MSO alone has three concurrent programs: the Brahms/Beethoven, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, and Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust. The latter two programs will be repeated at Carnegie Hall in late October. For most choristers it means 5 days of rehearsals per week.

Over the 17 years of the Charles Dutoit/Iwan Edwards collaboration, Edwards prepared the choir to be flexible enough to handle any situation. Choral singers used to the clear choral beat always found Dutoit's beat a bit confusing. His downbeat looks like an upbeat, maybe that's what kept the orchestra so sharp. Edwards now insists on quick tempos for the opening of Gesang der Parzen. "Brahms never wrote any operas, but his choral works are the closest thing to it," says Edwards to motivate the choir to be more dramatic.

In the hands of the maestro

Five days before the concert, maestro Gilbert Levine flies in especially for the first conductor/chorus rehearsal. Edwards observes from the side. At the break, choir members are already quietly grumbling about the slow tempos chosen by Levine, which I find to have a sense of musical drama. His tendency to look at the score is a source of concern.

At the next rehearsal, Edwards works the choir based on Levine's tempos and dynamic inclinations. Having sung at a faster tempo makes it easier to adjust to a slower tempo than vice-versa. Nevertheless, certain long soft phrases require choristers to stagger their breathing, a trick that allows the phrase to sound unbroken to the public. Edwards had hoped Levine would have worked more on the meaning of the text, and he explains, "Gesang der Parzen is about the power of the Gods, and Nänie is about the grief of the Gods."

(Edwards is concealing some possible grief of his own. A few weeks from now, before the choir leaves for Carnegie Hall, he announces that he will resign as chorus master of the MSO at the end of the season to pursue other projects. The effect on the chorus remains uncertain).

The first rehearsal with the orchestra takes place on Friday night. Sitting at the back of the stage it is wonderful to listen to the orchestra. The sound is great except for the solo singers who have to face the audience. There is a great view of the theatrics of the conductor. No wonder acoustician Russell Johnson puts seats behind the orchestra. Levine first works the Brahms and after the break we meet the soloists for the Beethoven for the first time. The MSO has assembled a fine quartet of soloists. Soprano Pamela Coburn shows a powerful clear top line which Levine reins in during a high pianissimo passage.

The dress rehearsal is held in the morning of the afternoon performance. Allowing the choir and soloists off early, the finale of the Ninth is rehearsed after the Brahms and before the purely orchestral parts. Surprisingly, Levine has to repeat a transition point in the finale for the first violins.

The moment of truth and art

It is the first concert of the year and as usual it is sold out. "It's fun looking at the audience, especially with a full house," says Proulx. "On some nights there are many empty seats. You notice the difference from year to year." Naturally we are nervous. Choristers and musicians alike are the first to be aware and critical of their own performances, and indeed, the perfect performance is hard to come by. Thankfully, this concert is not contingent on the efforts of any one individual member of the choir, as long as we don't make any unplanned solos.

I wish I could report that the afternoon is a completely satisfying success. Although the Brahms songs go well, the finale of Gesang der Parzen lacks impact due to an unclear indication from Levine. Beethoven's Ninth, especially the exuberant finale, is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Artistically, however, Levine's extremely slow pace, especially in the normally touching third movement of the Ninth, misses the sense of line. He keeps his head glued to the score, leaving little intimacy with the musicians. Still, I leave the concert satisfied that I did my best. The experience has rewarded me in learning a new work and meeting new people.

And the audience? Will they like it? We sing the final notes. We wait for only an instant, then the applause begins. It swells to a standing ovation that reaches

the back of the stage and beyond. All of us--audience, maestro, orchestra, chorus--are for a moment united in artistic celebration, our own ode to joy of immortal music.

Diary: September 11

Today marks the first anniversary of the events of September 11. The Seattle Orchestra Chorus has organized the Rolling Requiem, a world-wide effort to perform Mozart's Requiem to provide comfort. Conductor Martin Dagenais leads his Grand Chœur de Montreal and a volunteer ensemble at the crib of Saint-Joseph's Oratory. As I listen, I find myself wishing I had had time to join the chorus; I hum along with the bass line and my thoughts return to one of my last performances of the work.

The Mozart Requiem holds a special place for me and many Montrealers at times of grief, as it was performed to commemorate the École Polytechnique massacre thirteen years ago and again at its tenth anniversary. Following the massacre, I participated in an emotional performance of the mass with a chorus and orchestra of FACE School alumni and friends conducted by Iwan Edwards. The friends of victim Geneviève Bergeron, a FACE alumna and a member of the youth choir Cantare, in which I also sang, had told Edwards that she had always wanted to sing the work. I remember especially Mozart's sublime Ave verum corpus, which opened that concert. Now, as the September 11 performance unfolds, I am reminded of the greatness of the Requiem, even Süssmayr's controversial completion of the conclusion. For anguish and loss this music is a comfort like no other, and I feel renewed and even emotionally exalted when it ends.

Mozart: Requiem

Marie-Danielle Parent, soprano; Renée Lapointe, mezzo; Michiel Schrey, tenor; Marc Boucher, baritone; Le Grand chœur de Montréal, Martin Dagenais, conductor

Edition: Bärenreiter

XXI 2 1416

**** $$$$

Mozart: Requiem

Karina Gauvin, soprano; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, mezzo; John Tessier, tenor; Nathan Berg, bass; La Chapelle de Québec, Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie, conductor

Edition: Revised and completed by Robert D. Levin

Dorian 90310

***** $$$$

Martin Dagenais leads a strong performance in this recording made two days before his ensemble's successful Easter 2001 concert. The strong soprano and bass sections shine and the quartet of soloists all acquit themselves well of the task. One quibble: the soloists are recorded close, perhaps too close.

Les Violons du Roy visited New York for previously planned performances one week following the events of September 11. Dorian Recordings does a wonderful job in capturing the emotions of the September 20, 2001 Troy, New York performance. The sound and balance are remarkable. The opening movement is solemn; at 5'22, it is slower than I recall of the world-premiere performance in May 2001. Labadie sustains the intensity throughout. La Chapelle de Québec gives great dynamic flexibility. The quartet of soloists is top notch. This is the world-premiere recording of Robert Levin's revised edition of the Requiem. According to the liner notes, Levin added a non-modulating "Amen" fugue following the "Lacrimosa" movement and made other musical corrections to Süssmayr's version. On second listening, these modifications become an acceptable version of this well-established masterpiece. Wah Keung Chan

Montreal Choral Roundup

Peter Schubert leads VivaVoce, his professional chamber choir, for the third season. Three concerts will follow Schubert's successful formula of engaging running commentary: The French Connection (Dec. 1) looks at the link between Sermisy, Lassus, Ravel, Debussy, Le Jeune and Messiaen; Melted Architecture (March 3) features music inspired by great spaces; Josquin and his Models (May 7) looks at the dominant choral compositions of Josquin Desprez and his influences. (514) 489-3739.

The St. Lawrence Choir under Iwan Edwards return to the west-end of Montreal at the Oscar Peterson Hall for afternoon and evening performances (Nov. 30) after their successful Christmas concerts there last year. On Feb.16, SLC are joined by Repercussion for the world premiere of Imant Ramish's In Widening Circles. Last season's 30th anniversary concert of the Bach St. Matthew Passion was a triumph; to match that success, they present Bach's B-Minor Mass with the Ensemble Amati at St-Jean Baptiste Church to close the season on April 14. (514) 790-1245.

Iwan Edwards's young women's choir Concerto della Donna, fresh from their third prize in Wales this summer, will present their Christmas concert "O Magnum Mysterium" at Erskine and American United Church on Friday, Dec. 13. delladonna@msn.com

For the last two years Edwards has directed the Canadian Chamber Choir, a national ensemble for emerging Canadian choral singers: eighteen singers from seven provinces. The group made its debut in Manitoba and has already toured Southern Ontario (August 2001), British Columbia (April 2002) and most recently Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (August 2002). In 2003, the choir will tour Manitoba (Jan. 20-26), Montreal and Ottawa (March 23-30), Yukon Territory (Aug. 2-9) and Alberta (October).

Le Grand Chœur de Montreal under Martin Dagenais will present their annual Christmas Concert on Dec.14 and 15 at St. Joseph's Oratory. They will embark on an ambitious winter and spring program: Carmen Tango, an abridged version of the Bizet masterpiece (only Micaela is cut according to Dagenais), plays at the Théâtre Outremont as part of the Festival Montréal en Lumière (Feb. 21, 22, 23); their annual Easter Friday concert (April 18) features Mozart's Requiem and Dubois's Sept Paroles du Christ. The choir ends the season on May 24 with Duruflé's and Fauré's Requiem. (514) 803-4649.

Le Chœur Mélodium, also under Martin Dagenais, celebrate their 20th season with Mozart's C-Minor Mass and Vespres Solonnelles (514) 626-9696.

Miklos Takacs celebrates 15 years directing the Société Philharmonique de Montréal and the Chœur de l'UQAM. Their annual Christmas concert (Nov. 30) features Mozart's Coronation Mass. Their annual Good Friday (April 18) concert is usually sold out: the featured works are Fauré's Requiem and the North American premiere of Franz Liszt's Missa Solemnis. (514) 790-1245.

Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is popular with the city's Music Faculties. The McGill University Chorus and Concert Choir and McGill Percussion Ensemble under Robert Ingari perform Orff's chamber version on March 29 and 30. On April 5 and 6, Louis Lavigueur directs the Conservatoire de Montréal's Orchestra and Chorus, and the Pierre-Laporte and Joseph-Francois-Perreault School choirs in the standard version. On April 4, the McGill Symphony Choir under Julian Wachner present Brahms' Gesang der Parzen and Ein Deutsches Requiem.

Bernard Labadie leads Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec in Bach's Christmas Oratorio on Dec. 20 (Quebec City) and Dec. 22 (Montreal). In the spring, Labadie presents Fauré's and Duruflé's Requiem on April 4 (Quebec City) and April 6 (Montreal).

The first performance of Handel's Messiah of the season in Montreal, as usual, belongs to Boris Brott's McGill Chamber Orchestra at Christ Church Cathedral, on Nov. 25 this year. The MCO celebrate Easter on April 14 with Haydn's Les sept dernières paroles du Christ and Gabriel Thibaudeau's Requiem, which was commissioned by the MCO in remembrance of September 11. (514) 487-5190.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal also celebrate Easter on April 13, with Haydn's The Creation. (514) 598-0870. Nézet-Séguin's baroque ensemble La Chapelle de Montréal continue their Easter Friday Bach oratorio tradition with the Bach/Mendelssohn version of the St. Matthew Passion (April 18). Joining forces with the Atelier lyrique de l'Opéra de Montréal, La Chapelle present Vivaldi's oratorio Juditha. (514) 987-6919.

The MSO present their annual Messiah at Notre-Dame Basilica on Dec. 17 and 18. Iwan Edwards conducts. The MSO Chorus is then on break until May 27-28 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Hector Berlioz's death with his Requiem. (514) 842-9951.

Christopher Jackson's Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal present Heinrich Schütz's Christmas Oratorio and motets by Michael Praetorius and Hermann Schein as their Christmas concert (Dec. 8). Their Easter Concert features a Spanish theme of a cappella motets and masses (March 30). Their season concludes with Te Deum and motets by André Campra (April 27). (514) 861-2626.

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