I was hoping I could come up with something more interesting, certainly more laudatory, than today’s topic but since I haven’t: I yelled at the sopranos the other night. I was appalled. I am not in the habit of yelling at my singers. But after having succumbed to the impulse, what came out of me wasn’t even a decent yell. It was more of a whine two octaves above my speaking voice.
Since I, myself, am the most prima donna of singers, a coloratura, I can say this: sopranos tend to be a supercilious bunch, only responsible for holding down the tune, the part everyone knows, the part everyone sings in the shower. I’m not entirely sure what the sopranos in the OK Chorale do over there in their gated community when I am plunking out the other parts; it’s only when they get to chatting rather too enthusiastically that I notice them at all. I’ve been especially neglectful this quarter because the basses are my problem children in that they are mostly tenors who are attempting to make a home on the baritone range.
Last week we were working on a Chanukah song called “Light the Legend.” I’d been hammering out parts for an hour (or so it seemed, it probably had only been five minutes) and was already regretting pulling this song out. In 20 years of directing the Chorale, I’ve been inspired by only two Chanukah songs and these I alternate one year to the next, occasionally throwing in a song from the second tier. “Light the Legend” is one of these.
My (limp) affection for it has mostly to do with what a good time we had the first year we sang it. Some of the women did a funny stylized Las Vegas routine at rehearsals and their joyousness permeated the performance. But it was the tenors who inadvertently made an indelible mark on Chorale history. We had a very loud tenor with no discernible head voice who was in the habit of singing as high as he needed to go in full chest voice. On the phrase “Maccabeans went to battle” he positively screeched. We got to where we looked forward to the line every time it came around and in subsequent quarters the piece became known as the “Legend of the Screaming Maccabeans.”
The ending had always demanded more rehearsal time than it was worth so for this quarter I had re-written it. Instead of the Cecil B. DeMille ending with every part running off, circling around and meeting the rest like water in a gigantic fountain, all the parts sang in unison until the last two counts where they moved into a simple harmony to end the piece. The only complicated thing about this was that the sopranos had to move off melody for 2/3 of a triplet.
I rehearsed the other three parts for two hours, maybe three. Finally I said to the sopranos, “You’re fine, right? You don’t need me to play anything.” I didn’t wait for them to answer. “Ok, let’s run this thing.” I wanted to get through it and move on to something else.
We went along reasonably well until the triplet at the end. The other parts finished smoothly but out of the corner of my eye I saw the sopranos flailing around like a bunch of windmills. I was still holding the last chord on the piano. I wiggled my hand in the air, “Ok, sopranos at the next to last measure, 3 and 4 and—”
But the sopranos were laughing, pointing to their music and chatting like girls at camp.
“Sopranos, c’mon let’s go. ‘Golden arabesques of. . .’ Sopranos! What the hell?”
They looked up.
“What is it with you?” I shrieky whined. “It’s two notes and you all fall apart, c’mon!”
They laughed. They laughed.
What I wanted to say was this: “My god, it’s two fucking notes and now it’s going to take five minutes to get you organized and I wish we had never started this piece, you aren’t going to laugh when you tank in front of all your friends, and I just want to go home and everything is taking too long and I wish my book was published and on sale right now, right now!”
I took a deep breath through my teeth. I can remember a few other times that I wanted to scream at the Chorale or at particular individuals. I have had 10 Xanax quarters where I obsessed about being ready for a performance. But I usually manage to contain these regrettable flights of narcissism. People don’t look forward to rehearsals if they anticipate yelling. People don’t sing well in performance if they haven’t enjoyed the rehearsals. Including me.
The Chorale always pulls it off at the end. It doesn’t mean that our rhythm is pristine or our intonation perfect. We get the unplanned solo work in a rest and the crucial entrance that doesn’t materialize. But music is alive. It sings for its short life and that’s it. I don’t want to be the person who hooks us up to life support. So note to self: no yelling or shrieking (whining is ok) in rehearsals.
If you live in Seattle, you can hear us lighting the legend at the Green Lake Luminaria. And maybe I’ll be signing copies of my book.