Monday, March 23, 2009

Singing Mozart's Requiem: Impressions from the Choir Loft

I have long wanted to sing Mozart's Requiem. I became familiar with this work (as I suspect did many, many other people) through the delightful, grossly inaccurate film Amadeus. For me this was years ago as a teenager. Having grown up playing the piano, I had always loved Mozart, but I was in the incipient stages of discovering his great symphonic works when I watched this film. The scene where the dying Wolfy dictates his music to Salieri, and the haunting strains of the Lacrimosa and the Confutatis come to the fore, and from the first time I saw it this scene (and of course the attendant score) never left my consciousness.

Joining the Portland Symphonic Choir several years ago gave me the opportunity to do a number of incredibly important things. On a personal level, it galvanized my desire to improve my musicianship, to re-embark on the process of making great music with other talented musicians, an endeavor which had been long gone from my life at that point. It also allowed me the privilege of 'preaching the gospel' of classical music, so to speak. To put it out there for the world to see, to say 'this is the music I love, my ability to make music is the talent of which I am most proud, and I hope that whatever small contribution I make will help allow you to discover and enjoy this music for yourself.' Along with a great number of smaller gems that I have sung with the choir over the last few years, I have had the privilege of singing some of what our director Stephen Zopfi has called 'the great utterances of the human spirit.' Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Orff's Carmina Burana. Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music. And just last Friday night, we sang the Requiem.

For those who have never experienced the grueling rehearsal schedule of concert week for a major symphonic and/or choral work, let's just say the process can be exhausting. Hour after hour, for two, sometimes three or four nights before the concert, the entire focus must be on the music. Everything else is subsumed: personal life, work life, rest, even the most basic functions: meals hastily wolfed down in the few minutes between the end of work and the start of practice are the norm, and if ya gotta go during rehearsal, too bad: just hold it. We are forced to live our lives in the view of our compatriots. Talk to the kids, the spouse, the significant other on the cell phone; stretch out on the floor and catch a few winks during the ten minutes of break time allotted at practice. Even if there is an evening of rest somewhere in that crazy week, everything else that has been shuffled to the background in the temporarily neglected parts of our lives must be dealt with, so usually it's not much of a rest at all.

Occasionally I get tired of the music. Around about 9 oclock at Thursday night's rehearsal, I can honestly say that I was sick of the Requiem. I wanted to go out and have a drink with friends, not listen to more notes about our singing. I was tired; sleep had been a precious and rare commodity during the past week (I had also sung in a concert with the Bach Cantata Choir, and then played harpsichord and helped set up and tear down for a late night show with Classical Revolution Portland, both of those on Sunday, not to mention getting ready for the helter-skelter performance of the 4th movement of Beethoven's Ninth at the 24/7 concert on the 22nd.) Like most of the other musicians in the groups I perform with, this music making is on top of working a full time job and balancing family and personal life. So, yes, Thursday night I was just a little weary of the Hostias and the Dies Irae.

All that changes on performance day. Whatever exhaustion exists, whatever sacrifices have been made in the previous week, a curious and difficult-to-describe energy pervades the day. Work seems to rush by as you think about all the things that still have to happen before the show starts. Set up, sound check, a final hasty rehearsal, getting dressed, finding time to grab a bite to eat, all in the two or so precious hours between the end of work and the opening notes of the concert. My alma mater (PSU) was in the Big Dance (The NCAA Basketball Tournament or March Madness for the non-sports fans reading this.) Little ol' PSU under the bright lights, playing with the big boys. Can't think about that though; no time to watch the game (a thumping by Xavier) or get too bummed out about the Vikings' loss. Just one more thing that takes a back seat during concert week.

A snafu with the tickets, and the show starts almost a half hour late. By the time the first notes of the Kyrie sound, all of that fades into the background. Ideally one is raptly focused on the music. All the things you've worked on in the past week: the diction, the entrances and cut-offs, the articulation and dynamics, phrasing and blend, these are what should be foremost in the mind. And for the most part they are; there's nothing like a wandering mind (or many wandering minds) for fouling up a show. But there are invariably resting points, and during these my focus sometimes shifts from the minutiae of the performance and expands outward to take in the bigger picture.

Stephen's notes before the program stuck in my head; the death of such a young genius as Mozart, the tragedy of being buried in a pauper's grave, the true location unknown. This man Mozart, whose music is of such staggering beauty and titanic genius that it moved me to name my own son after him, what more would we have had from him had he lived to a ripe old age like Haydn? How would this piece have sounded had he finished it in his own hand, and not, almost as though fulfilling a dire prophecy of his own doom, died before he finished it?

I grew up in a religion that believed in a literal corporeal resurrection, so as a boy and young man I had always expected to speak to my musical idols one day, to sit down with Bach and Mozart and play music, to while away the long hours of eternity learning at the feet of the masters. I envisioned conversations that we would have, music that we would listen to from the time after their deaths, and songs that were meaningful to me from my own time. What would Mozart think of Debussy? Would Bach like Stravinsky? What about The Beatles or R.E.M.? My belief structure has since shifted to where I no longer think that will happen, but still the seeds that were planted, the desire and hope to actually meet these great men, do not die easily. What would I say to Mozart, had I the chance? I understand many musicias have similar imaginary conversations with their favorite composers. Would it be possible to explain to him how his name has become synonymous with musical genius, with ethereal beauty and the tragedy of dying young? How could anyone describe what the fruits of his tireless labor have meant to the world?

As a writer it is my task to put difficult concepts into words and phrases that will convey to the reader something of the true nature of that which I seek to describe. I'd like to think sometimes I succeed; other times I'm sure I don't. I frankly don't have the desire to try to explain precisely what Mozart's music, and the opportunity to perform it, mean to me. Some things can only be felt and experienced. Music is a completely different language, one that transcends, one that evades entirely the limitations of words and speaks the true thoughts of the heart. I said everything I have to say about it Friday night at the Schnitz, I and the more than one hundred other musicians who took this incredible journey with me.

I hope the audience enjoyed listening as much as we did singing and playing. If they did, that is a great victory for the arts and nothing short of a miracle for the soul.

Crossposted at Northwest Reverb

Addendum: Look for an "outsider's" review of the Requiem by Eric Johnson here at this site coming soon.

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