Saturday, February 26, 2005

As Promised

The long Robert Shaw posting, as promised a couple of weeks ago before the applause discussion got started. 

I need to fill in a few details here. The summer of 1982, when the choral tour took place, was a pretty bad time in my life, owing primarily to a relationship that was on the rocks and would be on the rocks until it finally ended about 18 months later, and secondarily to my general unhappiness with graduate school. So that certainly played into how I felt about nearly everything going on that summer. 

Maggie Brooks is now at Yale and has been there since the mid/late 1980s. 

This account is based on a writeup I put together in 1993, eleven years after the fact. 

My chorus director at Stony Brook, Maggie Brooks, liked to travel, and she liked her choruses to have goals. I got to SB in 1980, and her plan was that we would do fundraising for two years and then go to Europe. She had a program picked out, in which we'd be performing Bach with Karl Richter. 

The fundraising involved a lot of house-cleaning, raking of leaves, babysitting, singing at faculty Christmas parties and, god help us, selling oranges. We sold crates of oranges for two winters, meaning we had to beg all our friends, housemates and relatives to buy a crate or two of juice or eating oranges. Distributing them was a nightmare, and I suspect Maggie didn't really like giving up her porch from the time the truck rolled up with 900 boxes of oranges until the time we got rid of them all. 

In the spring of 1981, Harold Aks, the musical director of the program turned up to audition us. He was a nice man who had been directing college choruses for 30 years. He liked us, and how we sounded, and we were accepted into the program. 

Richter, alas, died in 1981. Who did they get to stand in for him? Robert Shaw. 

The work? The Missa Solemnis, Beethoven's immense, complicated late work for chorus, solists and orchestra. 

The idea was that several American college choruses would spend a year learning the piece on their own, then get together in St. Moritz, Switzerland, to rehearse for a week. Then there'd be two weeks of touring, with the possibility of side concerts for choruses that so desired. It was all pretty exciting: a big piece and a legendary conductor. 

We got to work learning the Missa. This was not an easy task: The Chamber Singers, far and away the better of the two groups at SB, had only 35 singers. We could have handled a Haydn mass on our own, with a small orchestra, but the Missa? Not to mention the fact that we were highly variable in terms of musicianship. Some of us were graduate students who could sight read anything; others could barely read music. And we were also preparing music to perform in our own concerts. 

Fortunately, there were two assistant conductors - myself and John Baboukis - and we could split up into sections to rehearse. That helped a lot. And, Maggie liked to have chorus weekends where we'd rehearse six to ten hours a day. 

Until about two months before we went to Switzerland, I wasn't even sure if I was going. I had no money of my own, since I was living off a student assistantship of about $300 a month, $120 of which went to the rent. My mom had offered to pay my way, but I hated to take money from her, even though she could afford it. The chorus was committed to taking everyone, regardless of financial ability. 

Eventually, I decided it would be fun to go, and I let my mom pay for the trip. (I went to England & Scotland for three weeks after the tour, but that's another story.) 

By the time we left, we really did know the Missa pretty well, even, pretty well, the big, hairy, hair-raising fugues. 

The trip to Switzerland was l-o-n-g. We got to the airport at 4 p.m., we were loaded onto the plane at 6...I had been up running errands since about 7 a.m., and it was 12 hours later before we got off the ground. We flew into Brussels and had a four hour layover. One of our fellow choruses was there too, and they ran into Brussels for a beer and a look at the famous square. Maggie was afraid, and probably rightly so, that we'd get lost, stolen, or strayed, so we got to know the international terminal at Brussels airport quite well. It's about the size of Oakland Airport, so you can imagine how stir crazy we got in four hours. 

This was followed by a quick flight to Zurich, where we came closer to death than I've been since. The plane's wings were wobbling all over the place as we landed, and we were all very happy to step off the plane. 

We collected our luggage and climbed into a bus. Three hours later - it was now nearly 33 hours since I'd awakened - we were in beautiful San Moritz. 

We tumbled into our various beds, 35 choristers, Maggie, her then-husband Jim, their son Ben and their six week old daughter Kate and one chorister's mom, who was taking care of Ben and Kate when Maggie and Jim (a percussionist and very sweet man) needed a break from them. Hours later, we woke up and got oriented and met the other choruses. 

At this time distance - 11 years have passed - I can't remember the names and colleges of origin of most of these groups. One was the Perfect Fifths from UC Berkeley, and that's *all* I remember. I remember vividly, however, that of the seven choruses, two were mediocre and one was so badly prepared that I was surprised they were allowed to sing in the Missa. The others were quite good, and a pleasure to listen to.

The conductors who got us ready for Shaw were Harold Axe, and a youngish (30-ish?) English musicologist and performer named Andrew Parrott, who now has something of a name in early music performance. [That's what I wrote in 1993; he has an even bigger name now!] The two of them were terrific and did a fine job of melding a disparate bunch of singers, used to wildly differing warm-up routines and singing styles, into something resembling a chorus. Within a couple of days, they had us singing together nicely, with a good line, and some sense of the shape of the work was emerging. 

I'm sorry to say that all of that changed when Shaw arrived mid-week. 

Shaw had an obsession: he wanted every last rhythm to be perfectly precise, and we had been working more on notes, choral sound and the musical line than on perfect rhythmic precision. 

He had a solution to that: he threw out everything we'd been working on and had us count all the rhythms, and sing them with numbers, mostly staccato, for the next several days. 

He got more precise rhythms, all right, but at rather substantial cost. Most of the choristers were ready to kill him; I certainly was. The beautiful work that was emerging from the first, relatively chaotic rehearsal got lost under the precise rhythms. Our voices were starting to shred, too, from all the staccatto singing.

And Shaw, like his mentor Arturo Toscanini, had a temper. I understand that when he first saw what shape the group was in, he nearly stormed out and broke his contract. I think we would have had more fun if he had. There were a couple of impressive displays from him, in any event.

It was all very demoralizing. The members of my chorus felt as though we'd been working our butts off for two years, had started to hear the payoff from that, and were then treated as if we'd done nothing.

Eventually, we climbed into our tour buses and headed off for the first performance. We'd been staying and rehearsing at a place called the Laudinella, on the edge of the city of St. Moritz. The orchestra, the Philharmonia Hungarica, was to meet us for a rehearsal at the site of our first concert. We got there and were quite stunned by the quality of the orchestra: there was simply no way that this was the top-notch group that had recorded all of the Haydn symphonies with Antal Dorati. 

They had to be ringers. They were slothful and careless, and we pretty angry about it, as angry as we were about Shaw.

With all of those strikes against us, somehow we managed to put on good performances. Shaw pulled everything together, the soloists were okay, the orchestra learned their parts, the choristers recovered whatever voice they'd lost during the staccato rehearsal torture. There were four performances, and each chorus sang in three of them. This was just as well, given how long and demanding the Missa Solemnis is. (For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's like doing the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony four times in one night.)

The Chamber Singers, my group, sang in Lichtenstein, Toulon, and (somewhere in Switzerland?). We also did some impromptu concerts in town squares, plus two more formal concerts at churches. One was in the middle of our stay in San Mortiz, where the tour sponsor had arranged for us to sing at a Sunday church service. We had prepared more than a full concert of music so that we'd have some choices. We had Barber, Shein, Schuetz, Palestrina and spirituals to choose from. 

The church was way, way up in the mountains, in a tiny village. The pastor was a lay preacher who wore a turtleneck shirt under his blazer. There wasn't a cruciform in the church, and it was clear from the quality of the singing that there was no minister of music.

And, the service was in a language none of us understood a word of: Romansch, a Swiss dialect that sounds like, well, Germanic but Frenchified. The Bible on the altar - a plain stone table - was in Romansch too, and we all gathered round after the service to get a look at it.

The only thing in the service that came through was some words that popped out of the pastor's sermone: the names Brezhnev and Reagan.

They liked us just fine, and we chatted with the multi-lingual pastor after the service, then started to walk down the hill. We'd agreed to meet our bus a couple of miles away. Along the way, we stopped at a tavern and did one of our impromptu concerts. Further along, in a village square, there were several fountains of water suitable for drinking, all full of minerals, and one of them naturally a bit fizzy.

The tour turned out to be much more fun than I thought: I had dreaded the thought of three weeks in close contact with a chorus consisting mostly of undergraduates, snob that I was. But the conversation was pretty good; we played endless games of hearts at the table in the tour bus; and the scenery was marvelous. There were stops of a couple of hours each in Basel, Lake Como, Avignon and Nice, and we stayed overnight in Genoa. We finished up in Paris, where we sang at St. Germain des Pres, one of the oldest churches in town. We saw The Perfect Fifths singing in Notre Dame, which in fact is a dreadful place for any chorus of under about 150 to sing.

The other Chamber Singers headed home, and two days later, after a mild bout of stomach problems, I headed for England. (When I got back three weeks later, I found out that 75% of the chamber singers had had the same stomach problems I had. The close quarters spread that flu like nobody's business.)

So that's the long version of my experience of Robert Shaw.

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