Friday, March 16, 2007

choral sympathy

Last Saturday, with the help of a bass-playing accomplice, I snuck into the Carnival Center to hear the Atlanta Symphony play the Debussy Nocturnes and Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony, conducted by Robert Spano. The concert was part of the American Choral Directors convention, which brought lots of vocalist types to Miami Beach last week. They had the hall only half filled, which was a shame since it was some fantastic playing and singing.

I had never heard the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, and I had also never heard the Atlanta Symphony. They play it brilliantly - shifting from big, bold playing to tender accompaniment of their vocal soloists, Measha Brueggergosman and Brett Polegato. (Measha is one of my favorite singers!) The piece is a setting of these ecstatic, imagery-filled poems by Walt Whitman - here's the beginning of my favorite:

O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Cover'd all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness;
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above,
Below, the manifold grass and waters,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thoughts begin to span thee.
I often feel like classical singing in English sounds odd and stilted - but in this poetry it seemed to fit perfectly, and the grand expansiveness of the verses really shone forth. It didn't matter that I'm not sure what a Rondure is - everything seemed to have a much larger meaning anyway!

Hearing this concert surrounded by choral conventioneers, I started to think about the role of the chorus in the orchestra. It's a little bit, I imagine, like the double bass in chamber music - we don't play in that many pieces, but the ones we do have are just about the most awesome and popular. Okay, I'm thinking specifically here of Schubert's Trout Quintet, as the chamber music
analogy to Beethoven's 9th. The two pieces may not have that much to do with one another, but still I think they both represent a kind of radical expansion of the expressive possibilities of the form. And both haven't never been duplicated, and certainly not equalled in their particular structure. (Back when I was growing up in Tacoma, Washington, the local classical radio used to play the 'top 100' most requested pieces, and the Trout and the 9th were consistently the top two - not that that's any sort of conclusive measure.)

Anyway, it gave me a sort of feeling of commonality with all those choral directors I was sharing the performance with - helped along by the beautiful music and inspiring poetry. Great choral music like this always seems to arouse an incredible feeling of fellowship and common humanity, no matter who else is in the crowd - even a bunch of choral experts!


mkh said...

There is something about the power of the human voice that reaches us in ways nothing else can. Whatever the tool an artist chooses -- an instrument, color and light, the written word -- we are trying to reach the part of our brains and hearts that hears emotions.

Kerry said...

Just want to bring to your attention a film I am doing on Beethoven's 9th. I'm still looking for stories.

kerry candaele

Matt Heller said...

Thanks Kerry, and to Kevin, I agree wholeheartedly - somehow vocal music in general seems to awaken my humanity, when I've become too involved in the machinations and distractions of everyday life.

It seems funny to say, as a musician, but when I feel I've become too focused on the technical, forklift-operator aspects of the craft, pulling levers and pressing buttons, there's nothing better than to listen to something vocal - and Beethoven 9th is a sublime example. I'll sing it myself sometimes too, but usually only when no one is within earshot! There are certain sounds that are best kept to oneself, even if the emotion is reaching outward!