Surprise, Surprise

Preparing for the upcoming Laudate concert program “Timeless Treasures” (Sat., March 7 at the Gordon Smith Gallery, North Vancouver and Sat., March 14 at Pyatt Hall, Vancouver) has been full of surprises. I have been in the choir for a long time – I’m like a bad penny or a house guest with an undetermined departure date or a STI in that I just seem to keep coming back. So when I saw the program description “polishing our favourite gems”, I assumed, only partially correctly as it turned out, that the program would be full of pieces that we had done over the years and that I would already know all the pieces. Lars disabused me of that notion. Only part of the program contains pieces that we have done in previous years so I had to learn some new pieces. The so-called familiar pieces turned out to be less familiar than my now middle-aged brain remembered. Like most people, I will do as little work as possible whenever possible. Not this program, I’m afraid. Oh well, my long suffering piano is getting some use. In all seriousness, this program is a very enjoyable one to both learn and sing.

I was quite pleased to find that we were going to do Brahms, “O Heiland Reiss”. We sang it many years ago and I remembered that I enjoyed it very much. Then we read through it and I felt like I was sight reading it for the first time. I am ashamed to write that I have never been a strong sight reader. I learned the hard way that sight reading Brahms is not a good idea. He’s a tricky bastard who goes into tonal places that you don’t expect. It’s a very beautiful piece but it requires a fair bit of time at my aforementioned long suffering piano.

Choral music is often more about the creating sonic texture and less about the narrative of the text. Long choral pieces can be written with as little as three words – take the first movement of any mass for the last two millennia for example. There are endless combinations of notes and voices that can create wondrous music with the words “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison” (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy). As a listener or a performer, you are not required to speak the language or necessarily understand it. When a decent choir sings the music of a reasonably skilled composer, you can get a rewarding aural experience with very little linguistic material. Choral music is forgiving of very little text or even poorly written text in a way that most vocal music idioms such as folk and pop are not. Often, the voices within the choir sing the text quite broken up or even just on syllables. With all of this in mind, I seldom pay much attention of the lyrics that I’m singing. I’d rather try to sing with decent technique, do the musical dynamics in the score, listen to the sonorities and maybe occasionally look at Lars.

Given that I seem to have no regard whatsoever for text, Erik Esenwalds’ “Only In Sleep” has been quite enjoyable, partly because of the poetry, much of which I’m not even singing. Time is not linear. When you remember an event in waking life, you are mentally and emotionally in that specific point in time, regardless of chronological time. When you are dreaming, time is even more fluid. Sara Teasdale’s text really captures that fluidity and at the same time, weaves very specific images of the protagonist’s childhood friends. Of course, Laura Kaario is freaking awesome on the solo soprano line; it’s just so pretty. Maybe I’ll take the night off and listen to her sing instead of actually singing my part. Don’t tell Lars.

Years ago, Laudate performed Ravel’s “Trois Chansons” and I have loved them ever since, so much so that I’ve listened to them quite frequently. The text is very rewarding though in all three pieces, especially when you consider that Ravel himself wrote both the text and the music – a rare feat that few composers manage successfully. I love the cheeky story of Nicolette who runs away from the big bad wolf and the mincing page but runs straight into the arms of the corpulent old rich guy. I find the second chanson, “Trois Beaux L’Oiseaux” so moving that I get shivers. Yet, now that we are working on them, I find “Ronde” every bit as difficult to learn as I remember, perhaps even more so. Ravel lists every possible demon in existence, including defrocked monks, often in triplets at a breakneck tempo. Then, the ill-advised old men and women frighten all those fabulous demons away. That’s right, Ravel, old people suck.

I was very happy to get the alto solo in “Trois Beaux L’Oiseaux” but so far, I find it more moving as a listener rather than as a singer. As a performer, you are concentrating on any number of things such as pronunciation, vocal technique, posture, watching the conductor and tuning whereas a listener can sit back and enjoy the whole musical experience. Most singers enjoy a piece too as they perform it but the experiences of a listener versus those of a performer are wholly different. Take a mountain, for example. You can observe a mountain from a distance and appreciate its beauty. You can also hike up the same mountain and see it as part of a forest and, if you are lucky enough to reach the top, eventually enjoy the view even though you may be covered in sweat and filth. The audience member is the observer; the performer is the hiker.

I don’t sing in a choir to be a soloist; my view is that if you want to be a diva, do it on your own time. That sounds harsh but it means that if you want opportunities as a soloist, you work hard and create them without jockeying for position in a toxic way within a choir. If you get the opportunity to sing a solo or even two, especially if you’re singing in the alto section where solos are not plentiful, be grateful. Yet another surprise with this program, this old lady got two solos. This program has lots of solos within the choir and we are richer for having these fabulous folks.

Stars are awesome. I love stars and no, not celebrities. You can’t see the night sky very well in the city but when you look up at the stars on a clear night outside of the Lower Mainland, the black dome of the cosmos whirling overhead makes you appreciate how utterly insignificant we are and at the same time, how wondrous it is that we can actually perceive the enormity of 250 billion stars in our galaxy alone. Whether you are a practicing member of an organized religion, an atheist or an agnostic, you can appreciate the enormity of space. As Joni Mitchell put it, “we are stardust”. Every atom in our bodies, the land and the oceans all came from the stars and will eventually return to the vastness of space to perhaps form more stars. Perhaps the cosmos is far too vast a subject on which to write a choral piece; however, I think it’s no less daunting or worthy than setting liturgical text. Composers have been writing sacred music since the dawn of civilization. Both religion and science try to understand what it is to be human. Thank you Emile for writing “Stars”.

The last time Laudate performed Lotti’s “Crucifixus à 8”, I was nineteen days away from having my second son. I remember that my enormous belly made a very good music stand. Some say that if you play Mozart to your unborn baby, they’ll grow up to be a genius. No one told me that if you sing a Venetian Renaissance choral concert just before your child is born, you will eventually spawn a metal head. My son does not like Venetian Renaissance choral music or any choral music but he does love metal, rock, Queen and Elton John. If you are vastly pregnant and attend this concert, take comfort or warning from my example; you don’t know what iconoclast will emerge.

This program seems to full of pleasant surprises so far. Much to my shock and mild amusement, good text does matter, even in choral music and can enhance the music. I’m enjoying other peoples’ solos almost to the point of forgetting to sing my own part and I got a couple of rare solos. I am discovering how the experience of a listener differs so much from that of a performer even within the same piece at the same time. Speaking of time, this program has reminded me of the fluid nature of time and space. It’s required more practice time than I thought but that keeps my lazy bum from complacency.