Berlioz – Luke Warm

11 min read

We performed Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle tonight.

I feel we could have done better by young Hector.

Every time I come to this choir – every week – I feel I learn something new. Now I have to learn to let this go. It is rather hard after spending so much time with something and yet not conquering it. It has eluded us and there’s no second chance.

I suppose I should feel good that, at the very least, I didn’t short change myself by lack of effort. I spent my lunchtimes in the Esplanade library almost every day for the past month reviewing the score both with and without the CD. And I spent many hours each week practising at home. I even ripped the CD and played it back slow on the PC for the passages that were giving me real problems.

Given my lack of experience, I needed to put in more effort. Half the people in the choir had been singing over half their lives. I haven’t even been at this half a year.

My goal was to ensure that I knew the material completely so that when we were asked to respond, I could respond and not get caught up in the notes. I did not succeed completely. Even at the end there were a few phrases that remained an effort. I certainly could not "sing it in the middle of the night if someone woke me up and put a gun to my head" which seems to be my voice teacher’s barometer for really knowing something.

The chorus opens with Kyrie Eleison. We are pleading for mercy – and we needed it too. We were in luck as the audience provided. Whether God will remains to be seen.

Before things went horribly wrong, they were clearly not good. At bar 108 we watch the conductor for the cue to burst out in a cry of "Christe." He has told us many times to quickly drop into the diminuendo on the first syllable to provide the contrast to the second syllable. We have done it right as many times as we’ve done it wrong… but right seemed to only come when he reminded us. Before the performance we were reminded in no uncertain terms.

The choir did exactly what we did in the warm up… exactly what we did wrong the first time before being corrected. The best performance of that passage was left in the 6th floor rehearsal studio.

Most of the audience would have been none the wiser. But the opportunity to take things up a notch was lost. This was one of the early milestones on the path to a great performance and we missed it.

Kyrie had not reached its nadir however. The last 9 bars sounded like a fight had broken out in a baby’s crib. We tripped all over the notes. It was so shocking it took all my effort to not show my disappointment and let the audience in on what was obvious to everyone on stage. We were out – way out. With each other and with the orchestra.

Lim Yau took a long pause after that. I’m not sure if it was so we could reflect upon our butchery or if he was simply composing himself for the next movement. Composure was certainly required. Gloria was up next and there were greater challenges ahead than Kyrie.

Amazingly, we negotiated Gloria with much more finesse. By the end of that movement I was still trying to let go of the initial disaster. This is a flaw of mine I know. The relative success of Gloria helped, but my heart was sinking.

We managed to get moving a bit after that. The score I held was so familiar to me that it was not so much a description of the music but a diary of influence and effort. Each passage brought back memories of guidelines we’d been given in rehearsal. I had notes everywhere but most were no longer needed to recall what had been said.

You need to add the colour here

The tempo is as solid as the metallic frame of this building (the Esplanade). You need to maintain its precision…

The passage here is rhetorical. You need to speak it. Speak! It’s as if two old ladies are fighting over money on the void deck of an HDB… (I can’t say I understood the hokkien demonstration that followed that description).

We were allowed to sit down at the beginning of Credo (#5) – just long enough to get some circulation going. Then were up again.

My notes read, "Stand – like a healthy person." Thus instructed, I did.

Resurrexit (#8) is the high point of the concert. It is also the most enjoyable to sing. There is a wonderful tempo and energy "Judicare vivos et mortuos cum gloria!" Something about judgement, living and dying – I guess. I don’t need to know Latin to understand the music: It’s the moment of truth. I’ve heard it hundreds of times and still haven’t tired of it.

Gloria!

We were given the "keep smiling" signal. LY pleaded with us at Thursday’s rehearsal to communicate to the audience. To present our best selves. I interpreted this in part as being more expressive, not only vocally but facially. However someone in the choir warned me that facial movement was NOT well regarded. I was confused. I decided to go with my own interpretation.

I was looking up at the audience, at the conductor. I was enjoying the movement. I was hopeful this would all turn out rather well. My confidence was premature.

Right in the middle of Resurrexit I suddenly swallowed a desert. Or it felt as I had. My vocal chords dried up completely over the course of 2 seconds. A huge coughing fit was welling in the back of my throat. I used all my control to fight instinct and swallowed. Was I going to cough in the middle of the high point of the concert at the Esplanade concert hall with 1100 people looking on?

This was a disaster. My eyes started to well with tears as I held back convulsions. Could people see I was struggling? My throat was so dry I didn’t even think I could fake my way through the rest of the song.

But fake I did – for long enough to moisten my throat and continue. And by some miracle before the first Amen, I was back in. I was OK. I’m living proof that no matter how bad you have to cough, you can control yourself.

We pushed on through Sanctus and found ourselves staring down O Salutaris. This section has been a constant problem for the sopranos. The first high G, the Maestro has pointed out, sounds like we’re trying to do a pull up for all the effort and screeching that comes from us. G is not that high for a soprano but it’s a very naked G sitting out there for all to see. Perhaps we’re gripped by a bit of panic.

Berlioz intended for the opening of O Salutaris to be sung by only 3 sopranos however LY had the entire soprano section "go for it." It really was a "go for it" kind of effort as those who didn’t feel they could make it were encouraged to "fake it" – complete with singing gestures sans sound. The passage is meant for just a few voices so volunteering to take yourself out of the talent pool actually improves the effect.

I can usually hit the G easily if I’m warmed up but having just swallowed a desert back in Resurrexit I figured I’d take the faking option on the first note.

I think Sanctus actually went OK but I was in no condition to judge. By this point my memory is a bit blurry as I’d been standing for the better part of an hour. I suppose it was "OK" but not "really great" which is how I’d felt after our first performance of Mahler last month.

We were closing in on the finale.

The penultimate piece is Agnus Dei – a tenor solo. It was very hard to hear the tenor and I could sense some tension around me because at one part people weren’t sure if they’d heard their cue or not. We hadn’t and eventually it came though we were rather non-committal with the background effects we then provided to the piece as if we were still not convinced of our timing.

At last we arrived at Domine Salvum. Salvation did look to be at hand too. Everything was going along swimingly. Domine is one of the easiest passages to sing and we were taking it full on.

So what happened? We had been warned earlier that it is possible to get out of sync in just one or two bars if you’re not completely alert. If we didn’t believe it before we certainly proved it to ourselves tonight.

It’s probably hard to believe that the acoustics in the Esplanade can be anything but perfect. But the truth is that in the middle of a choir it can be hard to hear the orchestra. Sound is not the only cue available however. You don’t need to hear to stay in sync. You can watch, you can feel. Beg, borrow or steal – whatever it takes. The ensemble needs to stick together.

That’s not what happened. Over four bars in the finale, we came apart from the orchestra. I don’t think the altos or the men could really hear it. From where I was sitting it was clear. Could they see it? Could they feel it?

Perhaps it shows the experience of the others that they were able to hold the last two notes such that it felt we all ended together. But it was what engineers call "a force fit." It was way off.

The applause followed. Far more than I expected. Singapore audiences aren’t very frugal with applause in any case. Plus we had a slightly biased audience as half of them were friends and family of the chorus. They seemed genuinely appreciative mind you.

We didn’t do the three-four bows we had for Mahler. It was the usual two and then exit stage left.

I asked some of my fellow singers how they felt. They were all taking it better than me. Everyone said it was "not so bad."

Perhaps it was "not so bad" but is that really what we’re after? If we’re after "not so bad" I don’t know why we bother at all. The whole stage was set for greatness and we hadn’t put on our best shirt.

Later I was greeted by friends who thought the show was fantastic. The sound of a big choir carried the moment.

I am glad the audience enjoyed what they did. But as I’ve said before, while my job is to please the audience, the barometer of my performance as a member of the choir is not the audience, it is the conductor. It’s what he thinks that matters to me.

The choir can be pleased with themselves, the audience can go home feeling jolly and I can even deal with some of the looks from the orchestra. But the standard we have to aspire to is that set by the conductor. In this case, I can’t think of a higher standard to aim for. I have a hard time believing there is anyone on this island who would want more from us or who deserves more from us.

This was an incredibly ambitious project. There was a LOT of material to cover in a very short period of time. We did not master it. We needed more time which we did not have. We did not meet the challenge. I don’t blame anyone. I’m just disappointed we missed the mark.

A friend of mine who heard some but not all of the errors said she was very happy with the performance. Not because we pulled it off so well – we didn’t. But because we were doing it at all. The idea that someone was pushing the local scene to greater heights was inspiring just in itself. She figured the entire SSO budget should be thrown at the Resident Conductor now before he found something better to do.

The Messe eluded us and there is no second chance. Perhaps tomorrow we shall run faster, reach farther. But not on these pastures.

I find that very hard to swallow – and I’m only a visitor. What do you do when you set your standards so high that perfection must constantly elude your grasp – week after week – year after year? How does one live with that?

"Berlioz was said to have written this after ‘a year and a half of formal music training,’" Lim Yau once told us during rehearsal. "We aren’t told what ‘formal music training’ means but if it means learning to read notes then it is clear God is very unfair in his distribution of talent."

It’s possible there was not enough left over from composition for the performance.

God has got a mention a few times during rehearsal. My friend asked me if I thought the maestro was religious.

"I doubt it"

"Why not?"

"Who needs religion when you’ve got God staring up at you in black and white every day?"

Toscanini reportedly once told a trumpet player, "God tells me how the music should sound but you stand in the way."

That we did.

We shall have to do a bit of time in purgatory for today’s performance.

How often do we get the opportunity to transcend mediocrity? Perhaps we each get that opportunity daily. We just don’t notice it.

Purgatory must be overloaded.

Kyrie Eleison.

Post Script: It seems I’m harsher than professional critics. According to Andante our performance showed "flawless balance and perfect ensemble."