Rehearsing with John Nelson

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Last night the choir worked with John Nelson for the first time. Lim Yau has been preparing us for Elijah these last few month but has now handed over the reigns.

Usually when another conductor takes over from Lim Yau, we only get him for one rehearsal or less prior to the tutti rehearsals with orchestra and soloists. However Nelson is taking us for two full rehearsals before the SSO joins us. To this Lim Yau remarked “I suspect he’s a choral man.”

Nelson’s directions to the choir were almost identical to Lim Yau’s though expressed differently. While we acquitted ourselves well for the most part, I should think Lim Yau was rather embarrassed when the choir couldn’t get their timing right on a passage with a basic 6/8 time signature; I know I was. Lim Yau had us work on it beforehand but even Nelson had to get people to tap it out by hand with limited success. The only other moment of cringing was when Nelson pointed in the general direction of the first sopranos and said he was hearing too much vibrato. Lim Yau had made this point several times and although he said he “didn’t know who was doing it” he practically did a bee dance in front of the individual. He knows; we know; everyone knows.

Nelson was energetic and charming. Making the transition from one conductor to the next is not always straightforward but Nelson made it easy. He was very demonstrative of the passion he was looking for from us… this included a lot of entertaining hopping around, kicking Shane off the piano to bang out a few bars and even shouting at the top of his lungs a few times. It is a very different style of conducting to what we’re used to!

This is the old testament – it’s the Jewish God. We Christians are very polite with God. We never raise our voice to him. The Jewish God is a different story altogether. My Jewish friends restle with God… They Shout! They demand! THIS is the kind of God we have to deal with here.”

The contrast of approach makes me understand Lim Yau’s style more clearly. Nelson asks us to project the story through the music… he goes to the drama of the story line to illustrate the dynamics he’s looking for.

Lim Yau, on the other hand, looks more directly to the music. It’s as if the story is already saturated in the music and now all we need to concentrate on are the notes. When Nelson was describing the dynamics, he talked about the emotion of the story. When Lim Yau was describing dynamics, he talked about the colour of the music – the imagery evoked by the sound itself. It’s probably a subtle difference that nobody paid much attention to but I now wonder how this has influenced me over the years.

I’ve come to regard music as a communication of emotions – ideas and concepts like “I love you” “this is fantastic” “the sea” are only derivatives of the direct communication which strikes our hearts and a very primal part of our minds. Trying to grasp an intellectual meaning from music is like trying to grasp streaming water in your hands. You can get your fingers wet but you can’t really grab on to anything.

Words change all that. Focus on the words and the bird is caged. Focus on the words and you catch a thimbleful of the ocean.

For a non-christian who is rather uncomfortable with the messages Elijah has to offer on religious tolerance and the wrath of God, Lim Yau’s approach is easier on my conscious. Communication of emotions seem to occupy a higher ground even if the underlying inspiration was, say, the slaying of pagans. The musical message comes from a timeless archetype. The specifics of the story are incidental.

Saying that, there’s something very punchy about a direct reference to the story. Or perhaps that’s simply a reflection of Nelson’s style. I am happy for the exposure to both approaches as the contrast gives me a better understanding of each and in turn of the music.

Now if we could just get everyone to cope with compound timing, we might actually have something. One-two-three, one-two-three…