Thursday, March 19, 2009

Me .. Me Sing .. Me Sing Bach!

Next week the combined forces of about 40 throats and some instruments are presenting Bach's St John Passion at two local churches.  I've been croaking my way through rehearsals for a few weeks now, gradually remembering how it goes (I've sung it before, about 15 years ago).  It's amazing how much CAN be remembered after such a long time - Bach's figured writing helps in that many themes are repeated or reprised throughout his works, so if you can get your head into some of the choral style you have won about half the battle.  The rest is merely notes, music, ensemble, style, watching the dear old conductor, staying in tune and remembering when to sit, stand, and be quiet.  Simple!

I haven't sung in a concert since the year before last, mostly because last year was so interrupted by preparing to travel, travelling, and recovering from such.  Then it was christmas, holiday time, and somehow it was 2009.  I think most of last year was fairly forgettable anyway, including some of the travelling bits, not because the countries were in any way disappointing, but because of my degree of unwellness and/or anxiety levels.  I was terribly homesick for a while, and although I do remember where I was and some of the detail of what we were seeing and experiencing, it's fairly cloudy.  So it's good to be involved with a score, a bunch of stroppy musicians, and immersed in plenty of the usual choir bullshit.

Conductors have this thing about 'Watch me! Watch me!' as if they are the centre of the stage.  The orchestra thinks it's their concert and play too loudly.  The basses go out of tune when they go low, and sopranos are prone to blonde moments.  That only leaves the tenor section, traditionally considered to be all gay, and the mighty forces of the altos.  We are a humble lot, happy to sit in our (enormous) numbers, quietly ignoring proceedings and failing to mark our scores.  We crack excellent jokes amongst ourselves and sneer at everyone else's.  We are the tall, brunette women who sing in sexy deep voices (if you can hear us), and you know you'll get a thrill when you see us stomping on stage.  Not a dry seat in the house - that's our aim!

Scratch a chorister and you'll find an anarchist.  We all know best, certainly better than the composer, the accompanist and the conductor.  ESPECIALLY the conductor.  If you can find an abstruse point of musicology to argue over, all the better.  Other welcome interruptions are the inevitable 'what page are we on?'; 'have we ever sung this chorale before?' (this comes up frequently at dress rehearsals); 'I think the composer intended Italian vowels here' (even though it's written in German and usually sung in English), and 'the sopranos are flat'.  We divide ourselves into two loose groups - the try-hards who sit in the front row, fixing their eyes on the conductor (very bad for their ego problem) and Paying Attention.  The rest of us sit further back, many choosing the back row for preference cos they can stand on risers during the concert and see everything.  This also means they can't hear as much of what's going on, and therefore feel restfully free to come in early, late or on the wrong note, at will.  This position is also very popular with bellowers who don't need those poxy bar lines to keep them in thrall to the mere scratchings of the composer's pen.

It's always remarkable to turn up in concert dress for the final performance.  You've been sitting around for weeks with a group of trackie-dakked, unshaven grumps who mutter, bite their pencils and complain about missing dinner again.  Suddenly you are surrounded by a clean, tidy, well-polished group of people all wearing the same clothes and looking rather competent.  One can be forgiven for thinking, briefly, 'where have all the choristers got to?'.  Then you file on stage, rumble down onto the seats, and wait for proceedings to start.  It can be quite a surprise that you have to keep singing, and that for once the conductor isn't furious, agitated, or stopping every 5 seconds to say something urgently like 'no, that's the A.  If you listen to the cellos they play a third above it in the seventh bar before your entry.  Pitch it from there'; or 'I can't understand why you keep getting that wrong.  It's quite simple, the tenors are singing an augmented 5th against the alto's Gminor 7th'.  Oh, right.  

It's good when someone has a tantrum.  As a chorister one is required to keep a straight face, which can be very challenging.  But when the conductor or the accompanist (or, if you're lucky, a soloist suddenly exposed to the rabble and sounding somewhat unsure of their notes) start swearing in F major, thumping the piano, or shouting about how the concert is only next week and there's no more time for note-bashing, and why doesn't anyone ever practise at home; well you just feel that the elements are aligned in their natural order and you can sit back and be berated, patronised or belittled with a happy heart.   There's nothing quite like a few well-turned insults to finish the evening off on a (sorry) high note.

I do love choirs.  I like the thrill of singing in the concerts, when everyone's concentrating and the music is transformed from thumps and squeaks into something ethereal.  And the post-concert parties are pretty good fun.  Everyone feels they've worked up a mighty thirst, so the pressure must be released!  Then the party songs start and the usual pub patrons start edging for the door.  Magic.

Today brought to you by Bach, quite a lot of Jo Malone 'Amber and Wild Ginger', and the amazing but true fact that I rowed one whole kilometre at the gym this morning, and didn't die.  A-MA-zing.

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