Monsieur Berlioz has been my preoccupation this week, that and finding decent lunch options around our rehearsal locale. We have been spending full days at the Manhattan Center, the anonymous-sounding name for the stack of old ballrooms where the likes of Glenn Gould, Leopold Stokowski, and Leonard Bernstein made countless recordings for Columbia. And I thought this stretch of 34th street was just known for being the BoltBus stop.
Norman Mackenzie, the ASO choir director, has been our leader for much of the rehearsal process, introducing those of us newcomers to the what and why of Robert Shaw technique. As this is the 20th anniversary of the Carnegie Hall workshops, which Shaw himself established, many a veteran chorister is among us. Rehearsals were in a circle the first few days, giving us a chance to be in the middle of our own sound before transitioning to a symphonic set up. We also spent most of our time singing quite quietly, reserving what Mackenzie called the “vocal gold” for later in the week. The warm-ups that begin each rehearsal (with liturgical uniformity) help us cultivate a blended sound and clean up intonation. Mackenzie has us listen for the overtones we made, resounding like a boys choir in the balcony, and we practice single half steps by repeating a tone sixteen times, each one just slightly higher than the one before.
The restrained singing left me hungry to sing out, but thankfully not vocally tired, which can easily be the case in such a large choir (there’s nearly 200 of us!). The Shaw method also involves singing counted rhythms instead of the words, instilling a uniform pulse in the choir. For example, “Berlioz Requiem,” two beats of three syllables, would be read “one and a two and a.” We sang on counts so much that one of the Manhattan Center staff members – there’s one stationed at each corner of the room – asked if the numbers were the actual words to the songs.
“Give me religious choirs and dancing carols,” Berlioz wrote, describing his wish for great contrasts in a work. The ballroom is so boomy that I truly thought that Mackenzie quoted Berlioz as desiring “dancing camels.” Coming from the composer who brought us the musical decapitation and a laughing witch, camels wouldn’t be surprising. The Requiem is filled with contrasts. Sound booms out one minute and we sing intimate Palestrina the next. We make key changes from out of the blue, and – it must be unique in the grand choir repertoire – we intone nearly the entire Offertory on two notes, while the orchestra plays a shifting fugal texture.
Robert Spano has worked with us twice this week, ably keeping the whole ensemble together – that includes 184 choristers, two sets of tympani and four brass choirs, in addition to the orchestra. He works on details sometimes, summoning an eerie “de profundo lacu” in sotto voce. Still, Berlioz writes with an urgency that we’re still striving to match. The Rex Tremendae has a moment of syncopated dissonance to match Beethoven’s Third, animating the word acribus, bitter. This week, we’ve learned to sing sweet and spooky, here’s wondering if we’ll find our bitter too.