Saturday, July 28, 2007

Taking A Cappella to New Heights

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
Wow. This is very intense.

After a brief barbeque and some opening remarks, we headed into the ballroom for our first Full Chorus rehearsal, conducted by Peter Phillips. We were split into two separate choirs (so that we had eight parts – SATB + SATB) and began to rehearse Palestrina’s Missa Laudate Dominum omnes gentes – his setting of a full mass, 64 pages long.

There is no piano in the main rehearsal room – it is simply a big, empty ballroom with chairs for the two choirs, a conductor’s music stand, and three other chairs for the Tutors to observe. We get our pitches from David Woodcock, who strikes a little silver tuning fork on the bone behind his ear and sings the opening notes. Then we are off, in eight parts, sight-reading in Latin, completely a cappella.

We would work on a section, then he would stop us and talk, giving us performance notes. Then, without ever giving us a pitch, he’d say “OK – rehearsal bar 25, a G minor chord. And….3….4” and we’d be away again, somehow opening our mouths and remaining perfectly in pitch.

I’ve never done anything like this in my life – definitely my most challenging musical experience ever. Both exhausting and absolutely exhilarating.

Lauren is a lovely young woman from Georgia, currently in college, studying to be a choral director. Her enthusiasm is palpable, and as we walked together from dinner, she marveled at the once in a lifetime experience of being among people “exactly like me.” I share that feeling. Singing choral music makes my heart sing - I have loved it my whole life, and especially like singing in Latin, which I have done since I was a little girl. This is not exactly a mainstream hobby – it can be hard to explain the passion I feel for choral singing to other people in my life. So, to find myself among a group of people exactly like me – as Lauren said – is a bit like going through life as a closeted alien, and suddenly finding yourself among a whole group of aliens that you didn’t know were out there! And, since we are bound together by the music, it is an unusually diverse group demographically speaking. The 59 of us come from all over the U.S., as well as a smaller number from Canada and Europe, one each from Kenya and Japan. I would say about ¼ of the attendees are college music students. The rest of us range from late 30s to late 70s. We speak exactly the same language. It’s extraordinary.

And the evening wasn’t over yet. At 9pm we walked to the Chapel, where Andrew Carwood ran a rehearsal in which he taught us the Compline service. It is an ancient, contemplative evensong service – all sung, in Gregorian Chant (complete with chant notation). At 9:45 we sang the service, as we will every night. It is beautiful, but I must say that by this point, I was completely exhausted.

Carwood is an extraordinary singer and conductor. He has just been appointed Music Director of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The opportunity to sing for him (and to do the Compline with him) is quite something. Welcome to St Paul's Cathedral - Appointment of new Director of Music

I’ve made another friend here, a soprano my own age, named Roberta. As we walked together from rehearsal to Compline, we shared our fears about the “small groups” that will be forming over the next 24 hours. These consorts can choose from 150 pieces of music that the Tallis Scholars have brought with them, we’ll perform for each other in a private showcase on Thursday night, and some of the best may be slotted into Friday’s concert, which is open to the public. Roberta and I both confessed to being nervous about this. There are some great singers here, and people who know each other from coming in previous years. I have a sickening “please pick me” feeling in the pit of my stomach – worried that no one will want me in one of these groups. I was glad to hear she is feeling the same. I suspect that all the newbies do. We will see how it goes in the morning.

At the moment, I am completely exhausted (having arrived at 2:30 am this morning on a long delayed flight from New York's JFK). Do not pass "Go," do not collect $200. It is straight to bed for me.

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