How to sing in a choir 3
The choir meets the conductor for the first time
When the chorus master has honed his pride and joy to musical perfection, or four days before the concert, whichever is the sooner—and I’ll give you three guesses as to which of these comes first in practice—the chorus is ‘taken’ (to use a technical term) by the conductor of the concert. This is the cue for some jolly merriment on the part of the chorus which now appreciates it has the upper hand. After all, it is ludicrously close the concert and, faced with a bad performance from the choir at this rehearsal, the conductor really can’t do anything except sweat and panic.
After a tense and would-be humorous interchange at the beginning of the rehearsal—the conductor after all is being confronted by 120 songsters who, if their musical performance isn’t honed to a T, their pack instinct and corporate cunning certainly are—he raises the baton (or stick) and off we go.
The chorus duly turns in a dire performance. The conductor’s fears grow by the minute during the rehearsal in precise proportion to his inability (often) to mask them. The chorus master, who has stationed himself behind the conductor, is engaged upon giving frightfully rude gestures to all and sundry—a single finger repeatedly shoved up in the air, meaning you’re singing flat and if you carry on… [but let’s not go into that—Ed].
The reason for the chorus’s poor show is that either they were thrown by this new person waving their arms around in totally novel ways and asking the choir to repeat endlessly phrases which they were convinced they had got right and/or done completely differently before—or they are pretending to be.
This so-called piano rehearsal, because it takes place with a piano accompanist rather than the orchestra, is characterised by the chorus master having apoplectic fits trying to castigate the singers in sign language without letting the conductor see. Given that remarks like ‘well they sung it much better last week’ are as naff in the choral world as their equivalent would be in other walks of life, there is little the hapless CM can do at this point, except continually repeat ‘well they sung it much better last week’.
The choir meets the orchestra for the first time
Next comes the orchestral rehearsal. This is one day before, or perhaps on the day of, the concert. There is precious little time to put anything right and, in any case, the conductor has to worry about the orchestra as well as the choir. For extra fun, the orchestral rehearsal is held in a venue noone has ever been in before. Different from the choir’s and the orchestra’s separate rehearsal spaces, it is guaranteed also to have completely different acoustics and balance problems from those of the concert venue.
The choir will inevitably be stationed in the dark behind 27 pillars and will make this fact known all night. Those not behind pillars will be behind double basses or timpani and be either invisible or deafened as appropriate.
The rehearsal starts with the conductor introducing the choir to the orchestra (with which he will have worked many times previously) with what borders on ill-disguised hatred, given the uproar of the previous Wednesday.
This is also the time for the choir to practise standing in the right place in the performance. To the casual member of the audience on the night it must appear as if the choir slopes onto the stage in the order they left the artists’ bar. Not a bit of it. Who gets to stand next to who is the subject of intense analysis and decision making—to say nothing of bartering and negotiation.
Whole computer programs have been written to ensure that, by feeding in salient info like everyone’s height, a sequence is generated which guarantees that everyone can see the conductor, and is standing next to at least one of their friends. (It is a little known fact that many choir members lose all power of vocalisation if they are not standing next to at least two of their pals.)
For myself, I have long given up trying to stand next to my favourite altos—not just because there are so many of them, of course—but because chaps aren’t allowed in the ladies, so to speak (but refer back to the subject of female tenors).
The conductor will be hoping for a complete runthrough and, given thirty minutes faffing around time, Carmina burana (yes, we’re still on about that), at an hour, is not going to leave much time in a three hour rehearsal for the correction of faults.
The chorus master and conductor leave this rehearsal either in deep gloom or (conceivably, I suppose) with a hopelessly optimistic sense of ‘it’ll be alright on the night’. The singers leave the rehearsal, for the most part, entirely unaware that there have been any problems—possibly even that they will be singing in a concert in a few hours—for the others it is a time of trepidation.
On the night
Of course, on the night, the chorus sings like a phalanx of angels possessed—everyone comes in on time, they are always in tune, and they sing with a gusto which positively buoys up orchestra, conductor and audience. At the end, the conductor blows them kisses and has completely forgotten the anguish of the previous Wednesday’s débâcle.
Illustration is a cartoon by Gustave Doré of Hector Berlioz conducting a choir, published in Journal pour rire, 27 June 1850.
copyright © 2014 Jeremy Marchant