Music : Island Community Chorus raises the bar
The great director Benjamin Zander likes to point out that the conductor of a symphony is the only musician who doesn't make a sound. He's referring, of course, to a concert performance, not to a rehearsal.
For all of us in the Island Community Chorus, rehearsals are lively conversations, with 100 singers on one side and our director, Peter Boak, on the other. We sing, and he listens. He speaks, and we listen. Then we sing again.
And when our conversation goes well, the music gets steadily better.
Mr. Boak and the chorus have been locked in intense conversation every Monday night, with a couple of Saturday afternoons thrown in, since Jan. 7. The culmination of our work together comes this Sunday afternoon, April 13, when the chorus presents the most ambitious program in its 11-year history, Felix Mendelssohn's great oratorio, Elijah, at the Performing Arts Center of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.
The Elijah oratorio is basically an opera - a musical drama without the costumes and sets. The chorus is presenting Elijah with an orchestra of 24 musicians, six of them Vineyarders, the rest imported from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and around New England. For this concert, the digital organ from Grace Church in Vineyard Haven is being hauled to the high school and patched into the Performing Arts Center sound system, with Garrett Brown at the console. And singing the arias and recitatives will be five soloists, two of them Vineyarders.
For the Island Community Chorus, the logistics are so daunting that only a single performance is possible. Showtime is set for 3 pm so the guest musicians can catch an evening boat home. And because the musicians are staying over just one night in the homes of chorus members, they'll have only one rehearsal with the orchestra, a marathon session from 2 to 6 pm on Saturday.
Mendelssohn's Elijah is a big, over-the-top piece from the heart of the Romantic musical tradition. Audiences around the world rank it with Handel's Messiah and Haydn's The Creation as among the greatest of all choral literature. Says Mr. Boak: "This piece of music reaches every one of the emotions. Listening, you'll go from quiet sighing, because it's so beautiful, to being smacked in the face by the drama of it - there's such a gamut."
For Mr. Boak, preparations for this concert go back to last year. He started lining up soloists and musicians in December.
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
As the performance date nears, he's been living with the oratorio, poring over its 340-page orchestral score, in all his spare moments. He says that the piece connects him with the formative years of his musical career.
In 1970, as a sophomore at Westminster Choir College, Mr. Boak sang with the school's 200-voice symphonic choir at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, performing Elijah with the New York Philharmonic. He remembers standing in the back of the bass section, on the topmost risers, next to his classmate Wesley Brown (who remains a chorus member), as the conductor, Lorin Maazel, led the triumphant final chorus in rehearsal.
"At that point, Avery Fisher Hall still had the pipe organ in it. The risers were so high up that our ears were on a level with the organ chamber. And when we got to the final movement when the orchestra was going, and the choir was going, and the organ was going, I remember the conductor saying, ‘Can you give me any more organ here?' And the organist was saying, ‘This is all there is.' Talk about pulling out all the stops. The conductor wanted more sound, but Wesley and I were just shaking up there, the sound was so immense. It was a physical experience."
Mr. Boak has been working hard in our weekly rehearsals to draw the choir into the drama of the piece. The arc of a semester of rehearsals, for the chorus, always begins with the basics - learning the notes - and more or less quickly moves on to Mr. Boak's favorite part of the business, making real music.
Last week, with two rehearsals still to go, he said, "I think the choir is doing great. I still meet singers on the street who ask me, ‘Do you think we're going to make it? Are we going to be able to do this?' But you know, people always say that. I think we've done less note-learning than usual in rehearsal, and more real music-making, because the choir members are doing their homework between rehearsals."
One new resource that makes this homework possible between rehearsals is an online service called Cyberbass, where chorus members can play any of the Elijah's 42 sections on their home computers, singing along through the trickiest passages.
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
Last Monday night, in rehearsal at the high school music room, Mr. Boak spent two hours working with us on ragged entrances, missed accidentals and the shapes of phrases. Between sessions of picking at details, he seized every chance to play cheerleader and remind us that after three months of work, we know this work of music better than we might think we do.
He paused after a rather wobbly run through Part 16, The Fire Descends from Heaven, for this sermonette:
"Now, one of the ways to get stronger with this is to make yourselves sit up, get out of your music and start putting the drama in your face. You can sing this beautifully, but if your face is down in the music, it's never going to work. You've got to make the fire descend - you've got to show it in your face. If you feel confident, you'll sound confident, okay? Here we go: Three, four, one, two, three...."
Garrett Brown gave us the note from the piano, the chorus jumped in, and our lively conversation continued.
Elijah will be performed one time only at 3 pm on Sunday afternoon, April 13, at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center.
Nis Kildegaard, a Times contributing writer, sings in the chorus and serves on its board.