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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Every Valley...Has Its Terrors

My first time performing Handel's Messiah.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Where's your Messiah now?
In the course of my professional career, both as the author of Superconductor and for other publications, I have written an awful lot of reviews. However, last night at the National Chorale's annual Messiah Sing-In at David Geffen Hall, the tables were turned: I found myself, along with the audience, as a choral performer, embedded among professional and vocational singers in a struggle with Handel's written work. So yesterday I did the smart thing: bought a copy of the Dover miniature score at Juilliard and sat in Starbucks, listening to a new BR Klassik recording of the oratorio and dog-earing the choral sections in the score: the sections which I would be participating in in the night's performance.

Much to the chagrin of those in my social circles, I've always loved singing. In fact, one way you'll know I've relaxed around you is if I do sing. It's an invaluable means of my personal expression but one I'm shy and nervous about, as I have a tendency to flatten pitch and a middling baritone with aspirations of being a bass. (Were I a trained opera singer, my dream role would be Hagen or King Philip in Don Carlos but I don't possess the right instrument. C'est la vie.)

That shyness has not stopped me from enthusiastically lifting voice at many rock concerts (I've sung along loudly and enthusiastically to the likes of Metallica, Rush, U2 and Billy Joel.) More valued is singing in private moments with friends, showing off my ability to remember lyrics (I know some songs cold from memory and can do karaoke without looking at the machine.) However this was something different: a choral setting in which I would be sight-singing from a hand-held score. In the same place where I've sat in judgment of so many performers, I would be battling my way through difficult passages and attempting to find pitches and cues from the small army of conductors hired for the occasion.

At the end of the first chorus, "And the glory of the Lord", the gentleman in front of me turned and whispered "pick a part!" I realized that I had been score-reading: tracking both the tenor and bass lines. For the next "And he shall purify," I firmly chose the latter. (It's easier for me to read bass clef, as I was a trombonist many decades ago.) Also, the baritone range it fits more naturally with the unpleasant honk of my voice. I was tentative in these early passages, choosing what I could sing from the Dover score in my hand, singing in an unsure mezzo voce and skipping the difficult, ornamental melisma passages, where the voice must sing a rapid sequence of pitches on extended syllables. I know my limits.

The National Chorale does a stripped-down Messiah. There were cuts taken in the score (most notably the long Act I Pastorale). The traditional small orchestra was replaced with the electric "pipe" organ (played by James Wetzel) that is used in Geffen Hall. Four soloists (Brittany Ray Robinson, Erica Koehring, Kirk Dougherty and William Overton) took care of the arias, giving us choral audience members a rest. Everett McCorvey, the artistic director of the Chorale, emceed and led us off in a set of vocal exercises. He then introduced the fifteen conductors from various schools and ensembles. With each chorus, a conductor would stand, introduce themselves, greet us and help prepare us for the tasks at hand. Some were more helpful than others, but all were enthused and easy to follow.

However, with my eyes locked firmly on the staves, notes and stems in front of me, I will confess here that I relied on my full-throated neighbor for when to come in for the baritone parts. The score was most helpful in showing me when not to sing, and I relied on my ears and my friend to the front of me for my cues. And then, a minor miracle happened. About halfway through the first act, (right around the time we were singing "For Unto Us A Child Is Born", the part that goes "WON-derful! COUNS-ellor!", I relaxed into the task and stopped being nervous. And there I was, singing in public and suddenly enjoying myself and the experience.

And so it continued. There were genuine challenges ahead: "His Yoke is Easy" was introduced with "but this chorus is not!" The triple choruses of the Passion section were lead by three different conductors in rapid succession. And before "Hallelujah," we were carefully reminded that there are four repetitions before the final exclamation, not five. This was serious stuff. The only chorus that I felt genuine defeat in singing was the melismatic, long series of Amens that ends the Messiah. But now, I've got a copy of the score to my very own and more importantly, a year to practice. 

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