Monday, 18 August 2014

Lucerne Festival - Week 2

It's my second week in Lucerne, and – rainy weather aside – things are beginning to heat up.  The choir has now had five days of tutti rehearsals.  Which may sound like much, but actually felt like getting hit with a ton of bricks.  Although the rehearsals only lasted half the day, they were extremely intense and demanding.  What with forty different voice parts singing rhythmically challenging and not-so-tonal music, there was a lot going on.  It's hard to explain exactly how it felt to be in the middle of it all.  But I'll try anyway.

In the beginning, there was nothing for us to do but take the plunge.  So we just started singing - jumped right into the madness, and prayed to God we would come out safely on the other side.


Usually, in choral music, you can rely a bit on your neighbours if you get lost.  Drifted off a bit?  Not to worry.  The alto next door will set you straight.  But in Berio's Coro there is no such option.  Everyone is responsible for their own line.  If you're lost, you're lost, and there's nothing anyone can do to help you.  It's every man for himself.

So we all sat there, our faces screwed up with concentration, and desperately tried to hold everything together.  In a piece like this, simply making sure things don't fall apart can feel like a major accomplishment.  Ideally, you want to end up on the right note.  At the very least, you hope that you'll be at the right bar number.

I'm pretty sure we all look like this for most of the piece.

When you're singing this kind of music, you need some serious help getting your notes.  As I mentioned before, singers are used to reading a piano-vocal score and being able to see the full musical picture.  This is because most of us can't pick our notes out of thin air.  We need to hear our notes in our head before singing them, and for this we rely largely on relative pitch.  Normally you have a simple frame of reference for your note – perhaps it's a perfect fourth up from what the cello plays.  But in a piece like Coro, finding your note is not so easy.  There's so much going on – and most of it very dissonant – that finding your pitch can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Enter your new best friend: the tuning fork.

I call him "Tuney" for short.

We've all been provided with tuning forks that play an A442.  Yes, I know.  Controversial.  Most of you are probably used to A440 (or 415 for the Baroquers out there).  But I promise, it's really not a big difference.  Unless you have super-duper-uber-perfectamundo pitch, you probably won't even hear the difference.  It might feel ever so slightly higher.  But then again, does it really feel higher, or is that only because you know it's higher?

Anyway, we've all become pretty attached to our tuning forks.  If you watch a rehearsal, you can see when we're approaching a difficult passage because we all have tuning forks glued to our ears.  I'm on extremely intimate terms with my tuning fork these days.  I'm considering having it surgically implanted into my ear, to save a lot of hassle.

Tuning forks can serve multiple purposes.  I often use mine to stir my coffee.  Not because I'm being eccentric or anything.  Only because we have no spoons.  Some people worry that the heat of the coffee might affect the pitch of the tuning fork, but so far I haven't noticed a difference.

Although perhaps my coffee tastes a bit sharp.

Many of my colleagues, of course, don't struggle so much with finding notes.  There is an extremely high standard of musicianship here.  I'm used to being considered a very good musician (for a singer, at least).  But it's all relative, isn't it?  Within the context of this group, my skills are probably average at best.  My pitch is passable and my rhythm is just shy of atrocious.  I'm continually humbled by everyone else's cleverness.

Some of the singers here are incredibly passionate about new music.  I'm no new music specialist myself – at most, I dabble.  But for these guys, new music is a lifestyle, a religion, a dedicated path.  It's inspiring to see people feel so strongly about something.

It also ups the ante in the geekery stakes.  I mean, I used to think I was a real music geek.  But after hearing people wax poetic about polyrhythms and spectral-ism (still not entirely sure what that is) – I think I might actually be pretty normal.

While the rehearsals require a lot of concentration and musicianship, they're also extremely demanding vocally.  It wasn't until our first run-through that I realised just how tiring the whole piece is.  It's almost a full hour of singing, and it uses every single inch of my voice.  I have to sing in every possible way, in every part of my range.  Chest voice, head voice, vibrato, no vibrato, high notes, low notes – you name it, I sing it.  It's a real test of technique and vocal endurance.  I'm not sure which part I love to hate more.  There's the bit where I have to sustain pianissimo notes right in the middle of my passaggio.  Or there's the bit where I have to sing staccato high A's on "ee".

We call that bit "the monkey chorus".

Between rehearsals, we've had time to explore Lucerne's beautiful landscape, whether from the streets, in a paddle boat, or on top of a hill.  On an unusually sunny free day, some people chose to wake up early and climb the infamous Pilatus.  I opted instead for a lie-in, and joined some friends for a less ambitious hike later in the day.  We didn't reach the top of anything, but we met some very lovely cows.

Our hiking selfie, or "helfie".
Yes, I am wearing a sweater on my head.

In our free time we've also been hanging out with our host families, familiarising ourselves with Swiss culture.  One thing we've all noticed is that the Swiss are extremely particular.  I mean, I thought the Germans could fuss over little details.  But the Swiss bring this to a whole new level!  You probably think you know how to boil an egg, open a window, or make a cup of coffee.  Well, let me tell you something.  You've been doing it all wrong.  And somewhere out there is an old Swiss lady who's just dying to set you straight.

They also have a rather odd sense of humour.  The other day I came home, took a bottle of beer from the fridge and sat on the sofa to watch some TV.  Perfectly normal behaviour, right?  When my hosts came home and saw me, they began laughing uncontrollably.  They've been making joking references to the incident ever since.  I'm still trying to figure out what was so hilarious.  Should I have poured the beer into a glass?  Was I not supposed to drink alone?  Or did I just happen to conform perfectly with some cartoon image they had of a stereotypical "American"?  I may never know.

I say this with affection of course.  Eccentricities aside, our hosts have given us a warm welcome, and I'm more than grateful for their hospitality.

I'll just say one more thing about Swiss culture: they take their card games very seriously.  In fact there's one game which they broadcast on TV, like a football match.  Except instead of a stadium of spectators, they have an audience sitting at wooden picnic tables with bottles of wine.  Every time someone does well they shout and blow horns and thump the tables.  I'm not even joking.  This is an actual thing.

The cards look like this, and apparently they're very exciting.

On Friday night the festival kicked off in earnest.  As members of the academy, we were offered discount tickets to the opening concert, a beautiful programme of Brahms.  We had been told to dress "elegantly" for the concerts – no jeans or flip flops please – so we all made a bit of an effort.  But nothing could have prepared us for the sparkling glamour that awaited us.  All the brightest stars of classical music and high Swiss society were there, gliding around the KKL in stiletto heels.  The dress code "elegant" had been a massive understatement.  Tuxes and evening gowns were the order of the day.  I couldn't help feeling a bit scruffy in my leggings and H&M dress.

The concert itself was fantastic.  After a week of intense rehearsals, it was such a pleasure to sit back and listen to some beautiful music.  Not that the Berio isn't beautiful.  But you see, I never really get the chance to sit back and appreciate the Berio.  I'm always too busy holding on for dear life and praying I won't miss my next entry.

We've finished the choir-only phase of rehearsals, and now the orchestra academy has arrived.  Yesterday we met them all at an official welcome event.  At the reception, between glasses of wine, we even caught glimpses of the man himself.  It's funny, you know.  He seems like such an ordinary man.  It's just that he happens to be Simon Rattle.

Anyway, I'll have to get over that whole star-struck thing, as we're rehearsing with him tonight.  The concert is on Saturday, which feels frighteningly close.  But judging from what we've accomplished in the first two weeks, I have high hopes for the third.

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