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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


A conversation between 15 conductors and Händel

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Our next blog entry comes from Catherine Howard, who teaches English at the University of Houston-Downtown.  She was a section leader in the Houston Symphony Chorus for four years.

People think I’m crazy to want to sing a piece over and over.  I’ve been in the Houston Symphony Chorus for 18 years, and this year I’ll perform the Messiah for the 71st time.  (And there are many people in the chorus way ahead of me on that number!)  Why on earth would a person DO that to herself?  It helps that the Messiah is such a complex and varied composition.  I find that I learn—really learn—a piece when given the opportunity to perform it three or four times in a concert series as we do with the Symphony, rather than just a single time. However, I can think of very few pieces that I’d want to sing more than 50 times.  Of course Händel has so many musical ideas—for instance repeated motifs, dotted rhythms to represent flagellation or to set the mood for royalty, gorgeous dramatic representations in the solos, and so on.  It’s difficult to get bored, even in the third or fourth concert in the series.  Even so, 18 years is a lot of years to work on this piece.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that one of the things I enjoy most is getting to know the different conductors and watching them interact with Händel . . .

Catherine's marked-up score

It’s always exciting when a new conductor comes.  Will it be baroque, transparent, light this year?  Or more Romantic, heavy, thoughtful?  Will we get to do “But Thanks”?  What kind of funny stories will we hear?  And what about all those wacky sit-and-stand cues that are different every time?  As the element of surprise quickly fades, old voices from my score take over and begin to interact with the newcomer.  When I started with HSC, I owned a score at home, but the chorus librarian would never let me buy the one I checked out to use every year—the one with all the interesting marks I was beginning to acquire.  So one year I just “took it hostage.”  Later that summer, Tropical Storm Allison flooded the lower levels of Jones Hall, and all Messiah scores were destroyed;  therefore, I have one of the only extant copies of our conductors’ notes going back in the years before that.  You wouldn’t believe how many permutations of rhythms are possible on the first page of “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Tempos can vary widely, too—looking back through my score, I found one fugue with metronome markings of quarter = 162 and quarter = 88 for different years.  But most conductors address more than just the mechanics of the piece.

They discuss technique (“bubbly, effervescent runs”; Nicholas McGegan:  “It’s quite easy in this piece to sound like pirates. ‘Loight’ instead of ‘light.’  And then we’d have to issue parrots . . . “;  Robert King:  “Your words are your bowing arm”), history (both influences/homages, as for example to Palestrina or Monteverdi, and foreshadowing—Will Lacey:  “a minor 9th!  That Schoenberg moment!”), analysis (Bernard Labadie:  “It’s in Ab major—as far as you can get from D major, the 18th-century key of light”;  Lacey:  “Here Händel associates the tri-tone, the ‘devil’s interval,’ with original sin . . .”), mood and tone (Jane Glover:  “That word!  So bleak . . .”;  Jean-Marie Zeitouni:  “bell tones of aggressive-passive contained anger”;  McGegan:  “Think ‘intimate’!”), and even philosophy (Christopher Warren-Green:  “separate ‘god . . . that . . .he.’  Then it is really rhetorical, which is what the baroque is all about”;  Zeitouni:  “Basses, if you are too energetic, it can sound like Santa”).

Who could forget McGegan quoting Pope’s “Essay on Man” in practically the same breath that he warned, “Don’t sing like Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers movies”?  Or Christopher Seaman making us whistle the entire “His Yoke Is Easy”?  Or Glover pointing out Händel’s musical jokes?  Or Zeitouni making Sigmund the Sea Monster motions with his hands during “And the Glory of the Lord”?  Or King telling us to roll the r’s “like a whole choir of cats purring”?  Or Grant Llewellyn deciding at the intermission of the Sunday afternoon performance that we should be arranged in quartets for the evening performance two hours later (which nearly gave the chorus manager a heart attack, as she scrambled to rearrange the seating chart during our “in-between” party)?  Or Lacey imploring us to “Believe in something!” in the long pause between the final two “Amen”s?  Or Harry Bicket frozen in an elegant Christmas ornament pose, left hand up high at the end of a movement—for a full 3 1/2 minutes while a stagehand came out to remove a soprano who’d fainted?

No matter what, I try to keep in mind McGegan’s admonition that “There’s always going to be somebody who’s hearing this piece for the first time.”  The best conductors bring something new to the piece for me.  All of them make me think about what it means, musically.  Händel’s famous reply to the compliment applies here:  “Sire, I have endeavoured not to entertain you—but to make you better.”

So why am I doing this yet again this year?  It doesn’t matter whether I like the conductor or not.  No matter whether my excitement fades because of a ponderous interpretation or I’m uplifted by a sparkling “take,” my score gives me a conversation among fifteen conductors and Händel himself:  a debate and exchange and enactment of what the Messiah means—not just how to get the textual message across musically, but the true musical meaning of the piece.  Perhaps most important of all, though, is that more than for anything else we sing, the Messiah every year is a reminder that a composition is a living, changing thing.  THAT’s why I do this to myself.

—Catherine Howard, Alto II

Written by Houston Symphony

December 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

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