Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Lucerne Festival - Week 3

Our third week in Lucerne has been nothing short of unforgettable.

We began the week by moving into the concert venue, and meeting our new friends in the orchestra.  On Monday we watched as they did a read-through of the piece, and put us all to shame.  I can't imagine the choir being able to hold the piece together so well on our first day.  We had a full week of sectionals before we even sang together as a full choir!  We were all very impressed by the orchestra, and excited to join them for the first tutti rehearsal.

The Culture and Congress Centre Lucerne, or KKL - home to the Lucerne Festival.

Next it was time for us all to meet our instrument "siblings".  Instead of sitting separately from the orchestra as usual, in Coro the choir sits in the orchestra.  Every singer is paired with an instrument, or "spirit animal" as my friend liked to call it.  This instrument plays alongside you for the whole piece, sometimes in unison, and sometimes embellishing or harmonising with your part.  I was paired with a clarinet, as was my neighbour.  It was somewhat disorienting to go from singing in a choir to sitting in the middle of the orchestra.  I was used to hearing the other altos.  Suddenly all I could hear around me were clarinets and alto saxophone!

Actually, most of the time the orchestra made things much easier for us.  Our instrumental siblings' parts were cleverly written, so that they would often give us our notes.  No more trying to pluck random pitches from thin air!  My tuning fork wasn't such a desperate necessity anymore – still, I liked having it around at all times.  It was something like a security blanket, lying by my side just in case.

"It's ok.  Tuney will keep me safe."

Then again, there were also passages where the orchestra was playing completely different rhythms or notes from the choir.  At times like this you had to be extremely confident with your part –  watch the conductor like a hawk, and just keep plowing ahead.

Speaking of conductors, we were lucky enough to have a great captain at the helm of our crazy ship.  Sir Simon Rattle always kept the rehearsals fun and full of entertainment.  We were all surprised by how human he was.  Despite his fame, he was no diva conductor in an ivory tower.  He was an extremely charming and personable man, and eminently quotable.  We all enjoyed sharing his little quips over facebook and twitter.  In fact if you look up the hashtag "sirsimonsays" you might find a few gems which we heard from him this week.

Sir Rattle made sure that we did a run-through of the piece in each rehearsal.  At first I didn't understand the point of this – surely it wasted a lot of time we should be spending on fixing mistakes and going over the tricky bits?  But after a while I began to see the value of these run-throughs.  Each time we did the whole piece in one go, it held closer together as a whole.  We became familiar with the piece's rhythm and shape.  We knew how each part flowed into the next.  When we had to be on tenterhooks for the next movement, and when we could look forward to a well-earned rest.  With each run-through, we gained a bit of confidence, and the final performance became a bit less daunting.

When you're singing for such a prominent conductor, you tend to take every little thing he says to heart.  One time the Maestro critiqued my English diction, and I was beating myself up about it all day.  Another time I was singing a folky French solo, and he wanted it to sound more dirty.  "You sound like you washed this morning," he said, "and we don’t want that."  I seriously considered not showering for a week, just to please him.  Then again, I don't think my colleagues would have appreciated that.

"WHAT??!  I'm doing this for the sake of art!!"

Between rehearsals, we had the privilege of attending some amazing concerts with world class artists.  Now that the festival had begun in earnest, we regularly had opportunities to hear artists such as Midori or Lang Lang performing live.  Evenings often saw us lining up for last-minute discount tickets, as we tried to soak up as much of the festival as we could.

Before we knew it, the final performance was upon us.  We prepared a free lecture concert, a sort of "aperitif" for anyone interested in hearing the full piece the following day.  The hall filled up very quickly with curious concertgoers.  Some people even had to be turned away at the door.  Sir Rattle spoke to the audience with ease and charm.  He was particularly enamoured with the beanbag chairs in the front row, which he suggested introducing to the Berlin Phil.


As the day of the performance arrived, we were all beginning to feel the pressure.  The first half of the concert would also include a world premiere by Korean composer Unsuk Chin, sung by Barbara Hannigan.  Talia Berio, musicologist and second wife of the late Luciano Berio, would be attending.  And we would have the longest list of attending press which the Festival Academy had ever seen.  Coro is a rarely performed piece which has never been heard at Lucerne Festival before.  The piece is notoriously difficult.  Everyone was curious to see how we – and of course, Simon Rattle – interpreted the music.

When we finally walked onstage in the second half of the concert, the air was electric with excitement.  We were all bundles of nervous energy.  But after so many run-throughs and rehearsals, together we felt strong and confident.  We harnessed all our adrenaline and nerves and gave our very best performance.  It was truly a magical hour.

As an encore, at Sir Rattle's suggestion, we sang Purcell’s "Hear my prayer o Lord".  It made a soulful, reflective epilogue to the concert, and contrasted starkly with Berio's intense, chaotic piece, which Rattle had described to us as a "21st century version of a Bach passion."

Finally, after all our hard work, it was time to let our hair down.  We were all invited to an afterparty at a nearby hotel with cheap (for Switzerland at least) drinks.  Even the Maestro attended, and those of us who hadn't yet had the chance queued up to get our "Simon selfie".

My Simon selfie, complete with awestruck onlooker.

It's always difficult after a project like this to say goodbye to so many lovely colleagues from around the world.  We've become very attached to each other over the past three weeks, bonding as an ensemble and as friends.  It's hard to believe that this is the end, that we'll never see each other again.  Which is why I always like to say "see you soon".  After all, the music world is so small, it's quite likely that I will.  And even if I won't, it's a comforting thought, isn't it?  Easier than thinking this is goodbye forever.

The choir has now scattered around the globe to their respective homes.  Only nine of us have stayed behind to do a week of masterclasses with Barbara Hannigan.  We miss our Coro ensemble, and the comeraderie which we shared as we tackled this crazy piece together.  A piece which once seemed so terrifying, and is now a fond memory for us all.  We may move on to new pieces, new challenges, but Berio's melodies will surely be haunting us for years to come.  

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