The first rehearsal we had with Sir Simon Rattle as a combined playing field of singers and instrumentalists came with a sense of curiosity and anticipation. I often wondered early on in the process, before I had even come to Lucerne, what Rattle would be like; his temperament, how he would guide us through the piece, and what we would learn.
The rehearsal seating was a little shocking. We were so far apart from one another; the intimacy of the rehearsal room at the conservatory was gone. The expanse of the musicians was quite considerable. I now had two strangers, albeit two highly talented strangers, sitting on both sides of me. I was surrounded by cellos and had an electric organ on my back. Okay, I thought, this ought to be interesting.
Rattle arrived and gave a brief welcoming speech. I instantly could tell the man was warm and expressive, down-to-earth. This was a relief. There is nothing worse than not feeling safe in a rehearsal space to create, risk, and make mistakes, which many artists have experienced a time or two. He opened the massive score and said Here we go and good luck.
The first run through with everybody was a disorienting experience. We were so far spread I could only faintly hear the other singers. The pairing of voices and instruments isn’t a traditional format for most musical works. I’m sure the baritone seated next to the tuba was just as thrown as the cellist seated next to the tenor. After rehearsing with James Wood for the past two weeks, we were also adjusting to Rattle’s conducting style and pattern. But we made it through the work, and I needed a martini. Of course that mission had to be bypassed, as two other colleagues and I went in for an interview with the Swiss radio, where I tried so hard to talk about everything I could other than how lost I was at moments within that initial reading. Lost? Me? Never.
And maestro was such a good sport, obliging many, many photo ops with the singers. After that rehearsal, I think my Facebook status update feed exploded with Sir Simon Rattle selfies for over an hour. #sirsimonrattle. Yeah. #igetitalready. This also led to my favorite hashtag, #sirsimonsays, which we posted on the chorus page with a witting Rattle anecdote. Some of my favorite lines included: Indication for the altos to have a grittier sound: “Altos, no. You sound like you bathed today, and that’s not what we want.” In regards to a tentative tenor and bass entrance (in good humor): “So now enter the sopranos, altos, and court eunuchs.” And after performing that section once again with more presence: “There! Nothing like a good old-fashioned insult to get things circulating.”
Rehearsals gained more clarity having my partner instrument next to me through the process, the first cello. Our musical lines at times paralleled one another, or my line ornamented his and vice-versa. Other times, I could check my pitch against his. My solo line is written as a complex little duet for tenor and cello, and we had to work to find balance, both in dynamic and in rhythmic gestures shared between the two lines. The collaboration between the two of us was a really wonderful experience, and I cannot tell you how sensual it was to be surrounded by the singing of celli, the honeyed warmth and depth of tone like some sort of audio-acoustic version of a glass of oaky scotch.
As our rehearsal period unfolded, the richness of the work really began to become more and more apparent. And each time we worked it, new layers of the work would manifest itself in a way I hadn’t noticed before. I think this was so evident in the open public rehearsal and lecture we performed as part of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL 40min series. Public interest in this piece was impressive. So many spectators came to partake that people were turned away as the space couldn’t accommodate everyone, including my cousin who was visiting from Germany.
I like to think of that session as Coro: Deconstructed. Sections of movements were played in different ways, highlighting the use and layering of folk idioms, vocal techniques, and different instrumental figures. The complexity of the work is so apparent with movements that feature use of a sort of Sprechstimme, Renaissance-like folk melodies, and Impressionistic flourishes from the woodwinds. And that’s only one example. It really made me contemplate the genius of the work, and the study and familiarity of the piece one needs to really get to the root of its depth and character.
Opening night (and closing night) came for the work. We were to perform in a concert that, as we learned, was fully sold-out and contained a large number of high-profile editors for world newspapers. Soprano Barbara Hannigan was featured in the first half of the concert premiering a work written for her by «composer-in-residence» Unsuk Chin, Le Silence des sirènes as well as Debussy’s Ronde de printemps.
The performance came and went, but it was a blur of passion. The enthusiasm and commitment of the ensemble really bled into the work, and with a house full of people, the energy they had brought with them only fueled the underlying pulse of the piece. I felt a genuine synthesis of the work with all participating, mindfully communicating the text and music under the guidance of Rattle. It was so hard to fathom that this project was coming to a close, after all, it felt as only it had just begun.
Rattle explained that the piece could be viewed as a modern Passion, a sort of secular oratorio. Or perhaps a musical city-tonal clusters making up the foundations of a metaphoric metropolis, and these micro-songs and incidences reflect the life of the people within, sometimes a snapshot of love, happiness, and in the next minute, total obliteration and pillage. Venid a ver la sangre por las calles, a sort of mantra within the work, speaks to any social tragedy in history, the seemingly inevitable violence mankind inflicts upon itself. The piece is a chilling social commentary, and I believe that the audience, whether hearing it for the first or the fiftieth time, could discern the heartbreaking humanity Coro represents.
After much celebration, the following day came when most of us would have to say goodbye to one another, for now. There is always a bittersweet feeling with the closing of a work. An artist can be so happy to have worked so hard, to have finished a process in a certain way, made personal connections, and yet sad to see that things change, and people depart. It’s a strange musical post-partum depression, in a way. We said our farewells and wrapped up an exciting chapter with the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY. I believe a lot of reflection will follow such a world-class experience with a hearty sense of gratitude; at least, that’s what I’m hoping for all my colleagues.
In the meantime, a few of us vocalists are staying a week longer to work with Barbara Hannigan. We will be presenting two concerts of landmark 20th century chamber works at the end of the week, once at Bourbaki, and the other within the KKL. I’m calling this week Barbara bootcamp. I saw Barbara perform at the beginning of my time here in Lucerne (and was stunned). If you’re not familiar with Barbara, she’s a beautiful singer with great musical intelligence, and she’s an emotive conductor. Sometimes she does the two arts at once, and if you’re lucky, she sometimes does it in a leather suit, singing Ligeti with unbelievable precision.
I mean, it’s not like that’s intimidating or anything. At her concert, I looked at my friend and anxiously said, “I swear, if Barbara makes me conduct my piece with string quartet…” What is it that they say in Southern United States? “Jesus, be a conducting instructor?” Something like that.