Monday, 11 August 2014

Lucerne Festival - Week 1

As I mentioned last week, I'm now in Switzerland for my next project.  And this project is quite a change from La Cenerentola.  In fact, it couldn't be more different from Rossini if it tried.

Over the next three weeks, I'll be participating in a special project at the Lucerne Festival, in conjunction with the Lucerne Orchestra Academy.  For the first time, this year the festival has arranged for a Choir Academy to work alongside the orchestra.  Forty-six young singers (including understudies) have come here from around the world to sing a piece by Luciano Berio, called Coro.

Lucerne.  It's even prettier than this in person.

Coro is a unique piece because it's written for orchestra and forty vocal soloists.  So there are ten different soprano parts, ten different alto parts, and so on.  Each singer is responsible for their own individual part, which is paired with a particular instrument in the orchestra.  The whole thing makes for an extremely thick and complicated musical texture.  Sometimes our individual voices come out virtuosic solo passages.  Other times we come together and sing in four- or eight-part harmony.  Then there are bits where we're all doing something different and it sounds completely mental.  As well as the different voices, Berio plays with various rhythms, languages, and vocal effects, so that the whole piece – almost an hour long – contains a universe.

I was extremely excited about the prospect of singing in this project.  A piece like this doesn't exactly get performed all the time.  It's a special event, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Still, when I first received my score in the mail, my reaction was nothing short of terror.  The music is extremely long and difficult.  Each of the thirty-one movements seems to have its own unique challenge, whether it's cross rhythms or metre changes or tones versus semitones.  It's like a crash-course in musicianship.  And on top of it all, I'm only provided with a small part of the puzzle.  You see, singers are used to reading a piano-vocal score, which gives us an overview of the full musical picture.  We aren't used to reading an individual part – essentially looking at the music through a keyhole – like orchestral musicians do.  It's a completely alien way for us to learn a piece.

"Was that a C# he just sang...?"

I'm usually very conscientious about preparing my music.  But I have to confess, with this piece I was so scared that I hid it away in a drawer for several weeks and tried to pretend it didn't exist.  Eventually though, my panic got the better of me.  I braced myself, took out the score, and began tackling it in small chunks.

We're now a week into rehearsals, and I still don't feel 100% confident with my notes.  Then again, I probably never will.  That's modern music for you.

When I first arrived in Lucerne, I had to check my pulse.  Surely I had died and gone to heaven?  This place is so beautiful it's almost obscene.  Crystal clear lakes swimming with swans, snow-topped mountains, fairytale towers and spires… it's actually ridiculous how beautiful everything is.  I've been here a week and I still haven't gotten over it.  Every time I turn a corner and see a new postcard-perfect landscape it's like, ARE YOU FREAKIN' KIDDING ME HERE??  I mean, even when you pass by someone walking their puppy, it's not just any puppy.  It's THE MOST ADORABLE PUPPY YOU HAVE EVER SEEN.  Switzerland doesn't do anything by halves.

Sorry, buddy.  The Swiss puppies are cuter than you.

Even for a vegetarian this place is paradise.  When I was in Portugal, it was practically impossible to find anything to eat.  The Portuguese were not exactly familiar with the concept of vegetarianism.  In fact, if I so much as mentioned the word "vegetarian", they would in turns appear confused, disgusted, and mortally offended by the idea.

But in Switzerland, vegetarianism is in vogue!  My first day here I found a lovely buffet restaurant that's entirely meat-free.  And since then I've been delighted to discover the myriad choices of vegetarian foods at the local supermarkets.  At this rate, I may never want to go home.

Doesn't get much better than this.

Of course, there is a downside to living in a utopia like this.  It's gonna cost you.  Everything from a cup of coffee to a plate of pasta at a mid-range restaurant will cost at least twice what you're used to paying.  Switzerland may be easy on the eyes.  But it is NOT easy on the wallet.

Since arriving here, I've been repeatedly surprised by how different everything is.  You see, I had naïvely assumed that Switzerland would be pretty much the same deal as Germany.  They live right next door, right?  And they speak the same language?

Well, first of all, they do NOT speak the same language.  Anyone who tells you Swiss German is remotely related to German German is obviously not familiar with either language.  From what I can tell, they are about as similar to each other as Russian and Japanese.  I mean, I've lived in Cologne for a year now.  I'm pretty confident that I can speak German.  But when people open their mouths here, I can't decipher a single word.  I think I finally understand how my Brazilian friend felt when he moved to Glasgow.  "I thought I spoke English," he confided in me, a note of desperation in his voice, "but I have no idea what these people are saying!"

And there's other differences of course.  There's the money, which looks dangerously like Monopoly money (and should never EVER be treated as such).  There's the beer (I've replaced my usual Pils or Kölsch with something called an Eichhof).  Even the electricity is different.  I was shocked when I realised I would need to buy an adaptor for my laptop.

No pun intended.
Ok, pun intended.

But, like Germany, everything here has been organised down to a T.  And this is something a type-A control freak like myself can really appreciate.  On the first day, amongst other things I was given a detailed rehearsal schedule, a contact list, a bus timetable, a list of practice venues and local restaurants, and a city map.  I think I may have had a small orgasm.

We've spent our first week in "sectional" rehearsals, if you can call them that.  Since every alto has their own part, there are still quite a lot of different things going on.  As if that isn't difficult enough, there are discrepancies between the full score and our transcribed parts – understandably so, with such a complicated score.  Our first alto rehearsal was total chaos.  Since then we've spent a lot of time consulting among ourselves and with the conductor on who's actually singing which note when.  Now things are finally starting to sound somewhat decent.

Of course, now that we're starting tutti rehearsals we're going through the same process all over again.  As my colleague so charmingly put it, it's a bit of a hot mess.

One of the most difficult things about singing music like this is that you have to give up your vanity.  You can't always use that bel canto technique which you've trained so carefully all these years – smooth legato, balanced resonance, healthy vibrato.  Instead you're often asked to do special effects with your voice, like making a nasal sound or singing with no vibrato and a breathy tone.  This is a challenge technically, of course.  But it's also pretty hard on the old ego.  I don't want my solo to sound harsh and chesty – I want it to sound pretty!  What if the audience hears that sound and thinks that's my voice?  It's just plain embarrassing!

I swear to God, guys.  This is not my normal voice.

Once I put my ego aside though, I have to admit the effects sound pretty damn cool.  Berio was a clever guy.  He knew exactly what he was doing.

Our choir is a motley crew.  We're just as individual as our parts, and consist of a wide assortment of performers, teachers, composers, and conductors.  Some of us sing opera, while others won't touch it with a ten-foot pole.  Some specialise in contemporary music, while others are completely new to it.  Some sing exclusively in choirs, some sing exclusively as soloists, and some, like me, do both.  It's rare to have such a rich variety of voices and personalities in one group.  I hope it will bring a similar richness to this many-layered piece.

Throughout the past week, we've begun to see advertisements for the festival popping up everywhere.  Posters on the bus, flags hanging over the street, flyers at the train station, and so on.  This kind of thing still tickles me.  I always smile to myself and think "hey, that's me!"  The Lucerne Festival is a pretty well-known institution in the classical music world.  So within Lucerne itself, it must be pretty damn important.  When I see these ads I feel like I'm really part of something big.

This week the choir is coming together for tutti rehearsals, which I hope will transition from hot mess to hot stuff.  Next week we'll be joined by the orchestra and our conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, will take over.  We have a lot of work ahead of us before we reach the final performance.  But with this international collection of talent and dedication, I'm sure we'll achieve great things!

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