After our all-day rehearsal with Vance George on Saturday, I have a new set of notes in the margin of my War Requiem score. What a workout that was, as this master of choral conducting led us line by line, from the end of the piece forward, making us inspect each note, tend in great detail to our pronunciation, intonation, tone. He reminded us at each juncture, “This is hard!” “This is not easy music!”
At the end of the afternoon, his nudging and urging, the counting and count-singing—as well as his love for choral music and the piece we were rehearsing— had helped me greatly to begin to pull together what I’d learned so far this semester and to identify where I still need to do some woodshedding. I did, however, go home and take a nap.
Today, I’m looking at my score and at notes I made throughout the day. Lots of marking of rhythms and counts, lines marking cutoffs and indicating half and whole steps. A couple of cryptic notes made me laugh.
The first: “Start the Car”—sing the descending lines of the Dies Irae in the last section “as if you’re starting a car.” Lots of support, sharp rhythmic breath from the belly button. Suddenly the line became sharper and more focused!
The second: “Hot Mashed Potatoes”—sing those high notes as if you have a mouth full of hot mashed potatoes. Jaw loose, lots of space in the mouth/head/resonant areas of the head. Our high notes soared, flowed much more beautifully. (I also made a mental note of an opposite truth—don’t eat a cupcake with peanut butter icing before singing, high notes or low.)
What a gift to once again spend a day with Vance George, director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus for 23 years. I’m always taken by the combination of attention to detail and of dedication to the spirit of the music that he shares with us. I was procrastinating earlier today and stumbled on some of his writings on the web. I’ve pulled a few quotes from the article on his website, My life in choral music so far, which resonate with me and seem especially relevant to this semester, in which we’re working on a difficult but meaningful piece, at the culmination of BCCO’s 50th anniversary:
“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” writes Aldous Huxley. True! Musicians know this with certainty, with enthusiasm, from the Greek, “en theos”, enlivens our inner god, our passionate inner self with a conviction of worthiness that gives life meaning. We make a difference in the world. …
Text makes choral music unique! The singers carry the meaning, the language inflection and, if there are instruments they may underscore with colors, rhythms and dynamics. Together they reveal the truth beyond the notation, the truth beyond the vision—and, if we work hard, we realize that vision.
Margaret Hill’s used to say, “music happens between the notes.” As artists we seek to perform the truth. I believe the experience of this truth changes performers and audiences, and can change the world.
… Music touches our hearts and teaches our vulnerable, inner beings and shapes our humanity. …
The wondrous beauty and sheer brutality of life is what we bring to audiences; everything we know and feel is ours to express, the love requited and unrequited, the hope and the gratitude. We mortals search for the transcendental and eternal, a mystical experience that honors the reasons that reason does not know.
Thank you, Vance George, for patiently bringing your passion, knowledge, and fine musical spirit to this quirky but enthusiastic bunch of singers at BCCO.