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Posts Tagged ‘for unto us a child is born

Mastering melismas + other joys of the timeless “Messiah”

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This next post comes from William McCallum, who has been a Houston Symphony Chorister for over 12 years!

I have been a member of the Houston Symphony Chorus for over 12 years and this will be my eighth season singing Messiah. During the day I am an internal medicine physician and work predominantly with cancer patients in the Texas Medical Center (I am a member of the staff at both Methodist Hospital and St Luke’s). However, my perspective changes on Tuesday evenings when I arrive for rehearsal with the HSC.

These 3 hours are reserved for time to prepare any number of pieces that will be performed with Houston Symphony. Learning something new is fun and sometimes a great challenge depending on the time allowed for preparation and the difficulty of the piece.  Messiah is a piece that (by now) is very familiar to us as far as the outline of the piece and the notes are concerned; but it is like exercise that you must practice to achieve results. So with preparation for a new season, there is always a bit of anticipation as to how the conductor will conceive the performance of this work and thus make modifications to achieve his/her version of it. It is a work that lends itself, within a framework, to interpretation without losing the intent of the composer, who in regards to this piece did the same thing.

My score is filled with comments and explanations that various conductors have given us over the years. Many are very businesslike, but others are sayings and comments that show some of the conductor’s personality. For instance, at the beginning of For Unto Us A Child Is Born, one conductor started to conduct the chorus by saying “tick tock” and then off we would go. Another, demonstrating the contrasts in the chorus of Since By Man Came Death, referred to it as a Gin and Tonic conversation. It is easily understood when one hears this chorus that it has nothing to do with a drink.

An example of a melisma.

The vocal gymnastics (otherwise known as melismas – stretching one sound over a line of notes) in a chorus like For Unto Us A Child Is Born are difficult to learn, but once mastered are an accomplishment to be savored. For a Bass, certainly one of the highlights has to be when the Bass section begins the final grand “Amen” which brings this most beloved work to its conclusion.

The other joy for me is the appreciation and love for this music that the audience has. This is a piece that for many generations has brought joy not only through the musical beauty, but also family traditions that surrounds attending performances together.

-William McCallum, Bass/Baritone


Taking the Chorus out for a spin

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Ahead of the orchestra’s performances of Handel’s Messiah in Candlelight this weekend, we invited members of the Houston Symphony Chorus (who, by the way, just celebrated their 1000th performance!), to write about their experience preparing for such a huge piece. Our first entry comes from Susan Scarrow, the manager of the Houston Symphony Chorus.  In her “day job” she is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.

Tuesday evening is the piano rehearsal for this year’s Messiah performance and I am really looking forward to it.  Piano rehearsals are my favorite part of the whole rehearsal process.  The term “piano rehearsal” is a bit misleading, because of course all of our regular rehearsals have piano accompaniment – in our case, this is generally provided by the amazingly talented Scott Holshouser, the Houston Symphony’s principal keyboard.  Scott’s artistry is a crucial part of our preparations for any piece.  He doesn’t just play the notes, though he does that extremely well.  More importantly, and much more rarely, Scott somehow “orchestrates” his playing so that we become familiar with the instrumentation long before we start rehearsing with the Symphony.  But I digress.

A piano rehearsal is the final Chorus rehearsal before the chorus and orchestra rehearse together, and it is the first chance for the week’s conductor to run through the piece with the Chorus.  For concerts with visiting conductors (Matthew Halls is conducting this week’s Messiah performance), the whole evening is a lot like a mutual test drive of a new car.  The conductor will take the Chorus out for a spin, seeing how fast we can sing the many tricky melismas, hearing how softly we can sign those pianissimos, maybe sprinkling in a few new vocal ornaments to see how they sound.  At the same time, we singers will get to know the maestro’s conducting patterns, figuring out how he is going to start pieces, learning his tempos.  In a piano rehearsal for Messiah, a piece we all know well, we also usually learn something about a conductor’s performance practice approach, and even about his or her theology.

For instance, what IS the most important word in the phrase “For unto us a child is born?”  Is it “us”, “child”, or “born”?   And are the pick-up notes in “Behold the Lamb of God” sixteenth notes or eighth notes?   If you listen closely to our performances, you will hear that each year’s conductor has a different set of answers to these and other seemingly minor questions, and their answers are often grounded in strong and thoughtful convictions.  At the piano rehearsals, conductors will take the time to explain some of the convictions behind the musical details they are asking for, sometimes giving these rehearsals an element of being master-classes with world-class musicians.  The mutual insights we gain at Tuesday’s rehearsal will guide us through the week, forming the basis for the understanding and trust that is an essential part of the wordless communication that you witness in any good performance.

Susan Scarrow, Soprano II