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Strange beasts, day 1

Today saw the beginning of the rehearsal process for my third concert here in Vancouver. This is probably the most demanding concert of the year and I thought I would write a little report on the thoughts I have throughout the process. I have found writing creates the kind of reflection that helps me understand what I am doing and to learn from the mistakes that are, unfortunately, inevitable.

The theme of the concert is Strange beasts and the music is full of real or imagined animals. Birds, of course, being the animals that sing, feature heavily, but there is a consort of other beasts accompanying the usual suspects. My objectives in putting together this program were, on the one hand, to push the choir a little by including some really demanding music, and, on the other, to see if I could put together a program that is fun – one that puts a smile on the face of the audience. Or, perhaps more precisely, explore a broader set of emotions than choral concerts most of the time do.

The unusual thing is that this concert is exceptionally demanding for me. Some of the pieces will test my ability to hear whether all is as it should be, some will test my skills as a pedagogue, and a few pieces really test my conducting skills with their continuously changing beat patterns. I tried to prepare as well as I could, but with material like this, you always feel ill prepared. So I entered the first rehearsal quite nervous.

Entering, by the way, literally happens like this (this is my door-to-door commute):

I have to say that the rehearsal had a calming effect on me. We made it through almost everything, albeit via some fairly iffy passages. But, on the whole, it was better than I expected. The singers are clearly either even better sight-readers than I imagined, or had put in some time navigating the difficult spots. Three contemporary works form the bulk of the program: four movements from Philippe Bodin’s Bizarre Bestiaire, Jan Sandström’s Biegga luothe and the premiere of a work by Paul John Rudoi.  The latter two are pretty much bread and butter for this choir, not that they aren’t without their demands. As are the Renaissance madrigals I programmed as a sherbet between the main courses and the Ravel Trois Chansons that end the concert. But it is the Bodin that makes this concert demanding. Here is a page from one of the movements. Needless to say, the basic tempo is pretty snappy.

The harmonies are lovely, but complex; the rhythms are ever-changing; the intervals are well-written, but demanding; and singing French in a quick tempo is not all that simple. But when you get it right, it sounds natural and fresh. Based on today, I think we are going to be OK.

One lovely thing about my job is that now, in the early afternoon, my day’s work is done. I will be preparing for tomorrow – a really interesting session with composers that I will report on tomorrow – and I have a ton of writing I need to do for future projects, but I can do all that in my own time and enjoy this brilliant autumnal day as I see best. Sometimes I feel a little sheepish for being allowed to do what I most love for a living, and being so free at the same time.

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