We may look like we’re all geared up and doing important stuff, but mostly, we spend all of our lives practicing, learning and getting ready for one thing or another. Some of those things happen in due course and many more of them either never quite come to fruition, or far more often, change along the way and we end up following along and seeing where it all takes us. All of this is quite normal and perfectly valid.
As a privileged observer and listener in many musical rehearsals long after the years when I was an active amateur participant, I can tell you that I think these more explicit practice sessions can have much the same sorts of both trajectories and outcomes. What anyone not privy to the backstage view of any sort of practice may easily forget, even if they once knew it, is that whether the moment is strictly obligatory, is amateur in the finer sense, or is wholly professional, it can have the same range of characteristics, studious, soulful, playful, predictable, heartrending or hilarious–or some grand combination of them all.
The experience of listening in on the preparations for musical performances is distinct from the performances themselves in a multitude of ways, but perhaps the most striking to a non-participant is arriving at a high-level rehearsal and seeing all and sundry set up camp for it in their work clothes. The star soloist is wearing old jeans. The conductor, who no matter how rigorously the singers and players enact their parts will likely move around and sweat the most, is wearing shorts and a short-sleeved, thin shirt. The players have open cases near their chairs with spare instrument pieces and alternate score parts strewn across them, and the singers, no matter what the temperature, are wearing neck scarves and lugging big containers of fluids to protect their own precious instruments. The rehearsal accompanist at the beat-up old piano is wearing glasses both on the bridge of the nose and the crown of the head, one for the easier to read individual parts and one for the microscopically reduced full score. All of this in a sort of ordered chaos the shows they are all there to Do Things. It’s work. It’s fun. It’s messy, like life.
Our Big Summer Road Trip, a driving circuit of over 6000 miles this July and August, was a multipurpose travel package designed to accomplish a number of ends, not least of them to attend and study and enjoy music-related adventures with friends, colleagues and other musicians and music lovers in several disparate events. First, we went to the Oregon Bach Festival to see the newly anointed Artistic Director make his debut interview marking the occasion, and more importantly to see maestro Helmuth Rilling conduct his grand finale performance as AD in this season when he officially passed the baton to his successor after 44 outstanding years at the Festival’s helm. The Festival is a fine one, Rilling a justly revered conductor and teacher, and many of the singers and players who participate, along with many regular OBF attendees, are longtime friends and colleagues, so it’s always a joy and privilege to go to the Festival ourselves, but particularly meaningful to see Rilling lead the B Minor Mass on his way to Conductor Emeritus status, since my husband Richard had the good fortune to sing the same piece under Rilling during the maestro’s second year at OBF. A great deal of water has gone under the bridge, and though a lot has changed in that flow of time, many things remain the same. Rehearsals and performances, practice and action go on as ever.
I had been reminded of all of this, of course, by the opportunity to attend the Boston Early Music Festival and see my spouse conduct and his Collegium Singers and the university’s Baroque Orchestra in June, along with admiring all of the other marvelous artists and events at BEMF. So many wonderful concerts and recitals; so much hard and happy work to prepare them! And how quickly June disappears into the mists of memory as the summer rolls forward. Thus, a long road trip seemingly becomes an amazingly fresh outing to experience more variations on this theme.
The second of the trio of musical events we attended on the road trip was the regional gathering of choral conductors in our former home area, a great opportunity to renew ties with longtime fellow conductors, teachers and friends over grilled wild salmon and to revisit musical literature options, audition processes, mull over the usual academic topics, share hints about favorite new compositions and gossip about who is the up-and-coming hottest new choir or conductor in anyone’s neighborhood. Driving up to the chapel that serves as the main conference space, whom should we see sitting visiting on the porch but a man who was the excellent recording engineer serving in that artistic task for many of my husband’s choirs’ recordings over the years, and with him, the teacher-conductor-mentor who led Richard to music as a vocation and profession in the first place and so became not only his ‘choral father’ but a lifelong dear friend. To follow this greeting with collegial renewal among many other fellow musical artists, from colleagues and collaborators to singers and students, composers and coordinators of conferences and musical programs at all levels, and then to have dinner a week later with both of those two first friends we’d spotted, was rich beyond words.
Third on our list and rounding out the road trip with our stop in Vancouver, BC, was the Vancouver Early Music Festival. A perfect bookend to starting the trip with OBF in Eugene, VEMF attendance had much the same purpose for us as the Oregon visit: see and hear good friends and other artists at work, and attend the events honoring the longtime AD’s retirement. While Jose Verstappen has served a mere 34 years in Vancouver, he has had as much impact of his own on the Festival there as Rilling has in Oregon, just a very different sort. Jose is a modest and self-effacing man, but as warm and as hardworking and dedicated, and certainly as hard for donors and supporters to say No to, as Rilling, and so both have created environments of commitment and excellence that will thrive long after both have abdicated their thrones. Matthew Halls, Rilling’s successor, and Matthew White, Verstappen’s, are both bright, gifted and able men and I expect to enjoy attending both festivals with as much outstanding artistry on display as ever in years to come.
While in Vancouver, besides the great fun of attending Verstappen’s farewell party, seeing many dear friends, meeting Bruce Dickey–the leading light of cornettists nowadays, he will be playing in the production of the Monteverdi Vespers Richard’s conducting in October–and hearing some terrific music of various kinds in concert, the highlight was sitting in during rehearsals for Händel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’. It was there that I was most struck by this lovely interweaving of labor and lightness that can happen when the people at practice are fully engaged in their work and love what they do. The piece itself is a marvel, full of potent and piquant and even picaresque melodies and moments, and those singing and playing it made the most of these riches. When Tyler Duncan and Sumner Thompson started singing the bass duet ‘The Lord is a Man of War‘, not only was the music and text mesmerizing (never mind my personal feelings about the story’s theology) but their obvious pleasure in exploring the expressive potential in the piece together with the players and conductor (the impressively sensitive and dramatic Alexander Weimann) moved me to pay special attention to this juxtaposition of the remarkable and the workaday, the plain and the powerful. So to all of you out there who sing, play, work, rehearse, prepare and perform, and especially to the players, singers, composers, conductors, administrators and Artistic Directors encountered on this summer tour of ours, I dedicate this poem.Number Thirty-Eight
Strike, then carry on, and so the sound
Belies in beauty such a martial start,
When ragtag troops in everyday are found
To sing and play at battle from the heart–
Who seemed so simply destined for the soil
As laborers in neither art nor war
But some plebeian, plodding sort of toil,
Then strike, and decimate what came before–
Show the illusion is not acted out
Through violence or merely artifice,
But rather, note by note dispelling doubt
That mystery’s all quite undone by this–
Where love and war are mingled in their way
By songs more eloquent than words can say.