Getting to know you

A few years ago I wrote a post about conductors (So what’s the point of the bloke waving his arms), describing them as ‘chaps with pointy sticks’. How delighted I am that this is no longer the norm at the CBSO.

One of the fascinating elements of being in a choir which performs in professional concerts is that you work with many different conductors. Unlike my former choirs, where you would rehearse and perform with the same person almost exclusively, we have more than one conductor who prepares us for concerts (no one’s given Simon Halsey a time turner yet) and then we usually spend a couple of rehearsals with the concert’s conductor in the week of the performance. While our schedule mainly sees us performing with the CBSO, owing to the departure of Andris Nelsons in 2015 and the extended search for a successor, this lack of music director meant an array of familiar and not so familiar faces on the podium.

Plenty of communication usually goes on behind the scenes before a new conductor appears for a piano rehearsal. Questions are posed and metronome markings are issued to try and ensure we are as ready as we possibly can be to react to whatever is required. Every time we start a new project our goal is to give the best performance we can, to make a good impression, to encourage them to work with us again! It’s not about singing the right notes (that’s a given – most of the time…), it’s about knowing the music well enough to be able to react to the person in front of you as they shape the performance. It’s why the perpetual cry of our chorus master is to get our head out of our copies!

The conductor is in the driving seat during a concert (well usually, I will say I’ve seen performances where the orchestra appears to be in control!) and this means that anything can happen. The piano and orchestral rehearsals provide an opportunity to get to know how a particular conductor works, to familiarise yourself with their gestures and to understand their vision for a performance. However, they can (and do) do something different once the audience is in their seats and if you’re not careful it can catch you out. Andris once set a significantly faster tempo for the opening of the Verdi Requiem than he had in rehearsal – for a couple of slightly scary bars it sounded like there was an echo in Symphony Hall (hence the instruction to get heads out of copies!). A recent concert with Tortelier also got a little interesting when a particular gesture was interpreted by many (including myself) as speed up, when in fact he wanted more sound. It is rare for that sort of thing to happen, but it acts as a reminder that anything can happen in live music, and often it is the unpredictability that will make a performance exciting.

We got to get to know a new face this week – the CBSO’s new(ish) music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Despite being in post since September, the chorus has not had an opportunity to work with her before this week (although she has popped in to rehearsals to say hello). I think it’s safe to say that we wanted to impress her, and were also very excited to work with her since she’s been getting rave reviews all year. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’re smitten. She doesn’t wield a baton, but every gesture is musically expressive. She is both clear with what she wants and exciting to watch (she has the same tendency as Andris Nelsons to jump up and down on the podium). Last night’s performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo could have dragged (we don’t actually sing that much), but instead flew by (some of it was seriously fast!). I can’t wait to get to know her even better when we work with her again in the new season.

Up next: Beethoven 9 and MacMillan’s A European Requiem, then Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder at the BBC Proms (with Xian Zhang and Simon Rattle at the respective helms).

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