February 24, 2012 at 11:18am
We seldom devote print space to choral music in the Volcano, and I can understand why. It's not a genre that excites the average 20-something. I'm a skeptical agnostic myself, yet I find devotional music beautiful. I enjoyed singing in my college chorale and missed it over the years. My wife, a trained alto who sang with Opera Pacifica, inspired me to audition for their choir director, Claudia Simpson Jones. Much to my surprise, I was accepted and "cast" as a bass. Now I find myself belting Brahms's Requiem along with my wife and about 150 other voices years later. Not to brag, Gentle Reader, but cold-reading Shakespeare comes easy to me. This fancy belting is hard!
Singing choral music isn't like crooning along with Bruno Mars on the radio. It requires a wider range, for one thing, and it helps if you can read musical notation. I can't. The last few months have been a desperate crash course in picking through a splatter of flags and dots, struggling through my "role" while keeping track of the tenors, altos, and sopranos. Then, a few rehearsals ago, we blended our efforts with a full orchestra. It's incredibly difficult, even for the trained opera singers who surround me. It feels as if I'm trying to prepare a gourmet meal between Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay. They're awfully supportive, but I'm sweating all the same.
So how can I persuade young people to come listen to us sing? Choral music is achingly lovely in a way popular music seldom achieves. We admire the harmonies of the Beach Boys or Shins, but ignore an entire body of work devoted to much more complex melodic intertwinings. I don't claim to know more than the basics myself, but even my untrained ear can process Brahms's awe-inspiring fugues. I can hear what he's doing; I just can't imagine where he got the talent needed to accomplish such a thing.
In film soundtrack composition, when a melody references onscreen action directly, we call it "Mickey Mousing." For example, in classic cartoons, if Mickey took a spill, the tympanist played a thump of percussion. Similarly, choral music often "speaks the dialogue" of the poem or verse that inspired it. You can imagine which instrument accompanies the Requiem line, "We shall all be changed ... at the sound, the sound of the trumpet." When the text promises, "Yea, I will comfort you, as one whom his own mother comforteth," the music swoons into a low lullaby. "Here on earth have we no continuing place," admits the verse, and the alto voices pun on that text by "continuing" past all the other voices. "The righteous souls are in the hand of God!" the Requiem vows, with what can only be described as a superhero's fanfare. It's too, too clever, but more than that; it's as glorious as music gets, from any genre.
Generation after generation, people rediscover this stuff, so it plays to packed houses after centuries. We'll fill the main auditorium at South Puget Sound Community College. You should give it a shot. For a requiem, it's awfully lighthearted. There's a baritone soloist in our ensemble who has a voice like warm honey, and he's only an undergrad, still in the first bloom of his abilities. The choir is made up of folks from Opera Pacifica, SPSCC, and St. Martin's University, along with overreaching posers like me. The Olympia Chamber Orchestra joins us. Chances are, you'll know one someone on stage - but even if you don't, I can promise you no MP3 will ever hold a candle to such a live musical performance on a grandiose scale. It's like hanging out in God's media room.
Our next choral project: La Traviata, by the incomparable Giuseppe Verdi, quite possibly the greatest Italian composer of all time.
No pressure, right?
[South Puget Sound Community College, Brahms's Requiem, Saturday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., $15-$20, 2011 Mottman Rd SW, Olympia, 360.753.8585]
Off duty rules.
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