Just the dress rehearsal tomorrow morning left before the concert in the evening. I could have done with a couple more rehearsals, but it’s not too bad at all as it is. With a good dress rehearsal and a bit of luck, it might turn out much better than that.
The pleasant surprise of the day were the small groups, mostly quintets. They all sounded wonderful. I would have loved to work with each one a little more, but fortunately they worked well on their own. Almost all my comments concerned the text. For the singer, there is so much to address (intonation, rhythms, harmonies, ensemble etc. ) that the text very often becomes the poor cousin and is forgotten. For the listener, the words often make more immediate sense than the music. This discrepancy is a hard one to balance and I used to dislike the endless emphasis on the text by coaches when singing in a group myself. Hey, I am a musician, not an actor, I muttered to myself, all the while knowing that the coach actually had a point.
I noticed the same thing when I asked the singers in one of the choral pieces to match their expression and expressions with the text and the music at hand. This is an approach that often goes down poorly with professional singers. I know this, but every now and then I feel I need to shake the tree a little. The mechanism behind it all is something in this vein: professional choral singers quietly assume that their primary job is to produce the right notes, rhythms, dynamics etc. while the interpreting is done by the conductor (through the use of these technical qualities). I am actually quite sympathetic to this attitude. The skill set of a good professional choral singer is quite exceptional: the combination of vocal quality, ensemble skills and sight-reading prowess needed for the job is quite a rare combination even amongst well-trained musicians. It is only fair and logical that the singers feel pride in these qualities and see their work through this lens.
The catch in this train of thought is something I have often felt when listening to excellent choirs: a showing of skill without warmth or presence leaves the listener impressed, but also frustrated. Singing is by definition different to instrumental music-making; the human voice is the human being (using no external instrument), so reflective of what we are and what we think that removing the element of emotional expressivity from it just is not possible. Even if there were no expression, we would hear it as expression, as a non-emotion or even a negative emotion. It is just like speech or good acting: we hear the emotional content behind the words; we read the body language of the performer. When they are all aligned, we feel rewarded, often touched, sometimes blessed.
Just to make it clear: one of the reasons why I find myself 7,000 km from what was my home is the impressive warmth, openness and flexibility of the singers of the Chamber Choir. I think this choir is actually quite good at expressing itself and I have a feeling that with time a certain warmth will just become more and more natural for us as a combination. It is very difficult to be expressive when performing something very demanding and the solution might be combining demanding works with less demanding ones, in which the choir has the chance to be more expressive and relaxed. I emphasize this is a journey we need to make together as the conductor is bound by similar technical bonds as the singers. I have no clear picture of where this path will take us, but I think just being on that journey is an aim in itself.
P.S. The weather is still treating treating us kindly here: clear and crisp, with daytime highs around 8 degrees and nights only a few degrees cooler. If this is Winter in Vancouver, I am a happy bunny.