The Mechanics of Making Music

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This Friday, May 6th, we (the choir) perform Beethoven’s 9th as well as his Choral Fantasy. Last night was the first rehearsal held at the Esplanade (usually the SSC rehearses at the Victoria Concert Hall).

As usual, I arrived early in the hopes of catching the orchestra rehearsing. There is nothing more aurally exhilarating than listening to the SSO when you have the Esplanade to yourself. I’ve done it several times but it still makes my heart race.

I was the first to arrive and thus the first of the choir to discover that our security passes had been lost. The passes are pre-printed 8x5cm multicolor cards which you wear while backstage. A member of SSO admin was talking to the guard without much luck: the passes were gone and it was a public holiday so nobody was around to effect a proper search. I sat down to wait it out. A few other choir members drifted in and joined me.

Then Lim Yau arrived. I mentioned that the passes were lost, which I think he was aware of, but in typical fashion he didn’t reply and walked straight through security with his SSO credentials. But something must have registered as a minute later he was back asking the guards to sort it out. LY was really the only one who could force some action: the situation needed a bit of fear factor to get the guards thinking creatively.

Eventually, he got them to agree to let us in based on the ID confirmation by an SSO staff member who would check our names off a list. We then got a sticker to identify ourselves (we looked like a tour group) and were allowed through.

When I got through to the concert hall, I discovered the orchestra wasn’t rehearsing that evening. Instead, a group of “roadies” were tweaking the hall under the instructions of LY. The Esplanade has a lot of moving parts: a moveable ceiling, large doors near the roof, risers for the choir. There’s a hell of a lot of hydraulics behind the pretty wood and watching it in action is quite cool.

Once that was settled, there was a fuss about the chairs. The first row of chairs had rubber feet. But the next three rows were wooden. Any time you sat down or stood up, there was a fairly loud grinding noise against the floor. It’s probably something an audience wouldn’t think about twice though it would sound horrible on a recording. Clearly it would be a distraction to the piece in progress – that is if you weren’t already distracted by the fact 150 people just stood up.

LY was rather cranky about this as they (i.e. the Esplanade management) had supposedly promised to sort this out. And it seemed rather easy to sort too: give every member of the choir four felt pads to stick on the bottom of the chairs and within 15 minutes the volume of the chairs would drop appreciably. Anyway no such creativity was at hand.

I should point at that even though the upcoming performance is billed as “The SSC 25th Anniversary Concert”, the chorus is actually an amalgamation of four choirs: the Singapore Symphony Chorus (SSC), The Philharmonic Chamber Chorus (TPCC), The Hallelujah Chorus and the Singapore Bible College. This is because the SSC at only 90 strong is too small to be a symphonic chorus. Ideally you need 180. There actually used to be as many as 140 people in the SSC but due to what Lim Yau candidly described one day as his “charming personality” numbers had dropped since he took over as conductor. The fact is, he set the bar higher and not everyone could make the grade or was inclined to. The standard has supposedly improved (I don’t really know as I wasn’t around then) but on the con side reinforcements are now required. Having dedicated Christians supplement your numbers also limits the possible repertoire but this is another story.

The TPCC is actually LY’s own choir and it’s understood that you have to be pretty good to get in there. In truth they are fantastic: I’ve been to several of their concerts and they’ve never failed to completely mesmerize me.

Our rehearsal started with the semi-chorus opening of The Choral Fantasy. The “semi-chorus” is a hand-picked subset of the larger chorus chosen to sing the solo parts as a group. Each participating choir nominated 2 people for each voice part. This meant that LY didn’t hand pick the entire semi-chorus – half were chosen by the choral masters of the respective choirs.

The result was that in the choral opening for Fantasy, the sopranos were extremely weak. Even the dedicated semi-chorus rehearsal had not corrected this – their voices were lost in the great hall. No problem – some quick adjustments were made. LY started moving people around. He asked various women to sit to one end of the second row and join the semi-chorus. When the dust settled it was apparent that he’d deftly pulled together a cast of seven TPCC sopranos to carry the effort.

It worked – the section now sounded great. Plus there was a group of TPCC sopranos looking like a pack of cats who’d eaten canaries. They were definitely pleased to be in the semi-chorus. Meanwhile various members of the SSC were steaming. It seems that some of the altos were none too impressed that despite that this was the SSC anniversary concert, only 2 of their section made it into the alto semi-chorus of about 18.

I have no illusions about my diva status so I was just glad he sorted out the opening. The fact that less than an eigth of the semi-chorus is made up of SSC members is a footnote that concerns me not.

OK so the way rehearsal usually goes is this: We start at 7:30pm or a few minutes later in which case there’s a mandatory lecture about arriving late which all the latecomers miss; then we run through a passage; the choral master (Lim Yau) has us work on a few problems; he works with individual sections on weak areas in such a way that each section (i.e. soprano, alto, tenor bass) gets a bit of a vocal break; occasionally he waxes lyrical about some topic and thus amuses us while we get a breather; after an hour and a half of this we get a 15-20 minute break; then we carry on for another hour and end by about 10:15pm.

This lets us get in about 2 1/2 hours of rehearsal with enough breaks thrown in that your voice isn’t pushed too hard.

However last nights rehearsal went like this:
A number of people arrived early. LY wanted to get going so he started warming us up and thereby got an early start on being irritated that we weren’t really ready. Finally the whole choir was in place 5 minutes early (this is a record) and we started with the Choral Fantasy. There was very little breaking into sections (semi-chorus reconfiguration aside) as at this point it wasn’t so much that individual sections needed boning up but that we needed to come together as a choir. We needed to feel out our color, tempo and space in this new hall as the acoustics of the Esplanade are a bit tricky to get used to. It can be quite difficult to hear what’s going on at the front of the stage when you’re at the back and at times even hearing your cues from the other vocal parts is difficult. So we worked on this. It was full on.

Come break time, LY wasn’t inclined to stop. The fact is that when you have 150 people head off in different directions for 15 minutes, the break can drag out. He proposed to the choir that we would press on but that he’d agree to let everyone go early. I can tell you that nobody in that room was under any illusion they were getting out of there a minute before usual. Anyway with rehearsal time so precious at this stage, who could argue?

Fantasy is not that demanding. Ode, however, is a serious piece of music requiring full use of your pipes. By 9:30pm my vocal chords were genuinely tired. I could hear a lot of voices around me start to fade. There’s one section where we sopranos have to hold a high A for 8 bars. Most people have to take a breath in between but I find this no problem. I noticed, however, that as voices paused for breath, many weren’t coming back in for the rest of the passage. At one point I was the only voice in a section of about 5 chairs. I realized that if I didn’t adopt a similar strategy I would be putting my voice at risk for the efforts required later in the week. So I started to join them. LY wasn’t totally oblivious to what was happening as at one point he asked us that if we were going to fake it at least try use the appropriate mouth position and not be so obvious.

So what time did we finish? 10:12pm. Technically we did finish early although it certainly wasn’t quid pro quo!

Lim Yau’s parting comment to the choir was that we should keep our Esplanade sticker as a memento of “Administrative Incompetence.”

2 more rehearsals to go before Friday…