New World Chorale will be performing the Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with the Lexington Symphony on November 16, 2013 with one of our favorite directors, Jonathan McPhee. The Vaughan Williams isn’t that widely known, but a wonderful piece that NWC performed in 2011. The Beethoven 9th, on the other hand, is perhaps the most famous piece in all of classical music, and certainly one of the best-loved.
You might think that the Beethoven 9th would have no surprises left for choristers. There are people on the NWC roster who have performed the “B9” (a piece so well known that we’ve given it its own abbreviation!) at Tanglewood every summer for the last 40 years or so, not to mention many times in between. But of course every performance is different, and there are always stories to tell. I wanted to start off talking about the November program by telling a few of those stories, and encouraging other singers to share theirs as well. Let’s not name names — the idea isn’t to gossip or name-drop. But there are some wonderful stories to tell, so let’s share a few.
In 2010, New World Chorale performed parts of the B9 with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in the first free classical music concert presented at Fenway Park. For many of us who have the piece memorized, perhaps the biggest challenge was remembering where the cuts were to be, but the occasion was such that it really made sense not to have too long a piece for the audience to enjoy. The day of the performance was in one of the most extreme heat waves of that summer, and temperatures were up close to 100 degrees. We kept as cool as we could until it was time to perform, but still felt like we were about to melt long before we got to the final “Goetterfunken.”
At another performance, I was singing with several New World Chorale singers who were helping to cover for the touring Tanglewood chorus and the Boston Symphony at the traditional end of the Tanglewood season. We were working with a conductor who was traveling with his home orchestra. At that time, the tradition in the chorus was to perform “hashed,” which means with men and women mixed up throughout the group. A hashed chorus can be a problem if the group doesn’t know the music well as each person is generally only close to one or two people singing the same part as they are, so there’s a risk of missing entrances or singing wrong notes. But if the group does know the piece well, a hashed chorus can result in a better blend and intonation because everyone is hearing all the parts more clearly than they would in sections. However, having the chorus hashed isn’t always the preference of directors. In this particular case, the conductor felt like he didn’t know where to cue the different sections of the chorus, because all the sections were mixed throughout. (That’s not really a problem — when a section is waiting for a cue, they’ll know when they see the cue they’re looking for, whether the conductor is pointing directly at them or not.) Anyway, the Maestro complained and we were rearranged into sections to accommodate him. Later on, we were sitting on the lawn eating lunch when the Maestro came by and joked, “You even eat lunch hashed!” One of us replied, “It sure would be strange if we ate lunch in our sections!”
There are lots more stories to tell: We had a lovely trip down to Plymouth to perform the Beethoven with the Plymouth Philharmonic. Some of our singers were involved with the simultaneous performance of the 9th from locations around the world led by Seiji Ozawa at the opening of the Olympic Games in Japan that year. Once New World joined a chorus from Japan to sing the 9th with the Longwood Orchestra at Symphony Hall. Singers, would you care to share those stories, or whatever other stories you may have?