The Berlioz Project: A Chorister’s View of the Philharmonia’s 2014/15 Season Opener

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Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia opened their 2014/15 season in London’s Royal Festival Hall on September 25 with a performance of Berlioz’s monumental Grand messe des morts. They dedicated it to the memory of the late Lorin Maazel who regularly appeared with the orchestra for over 50 years – his debut with them was in 1959 – and who, just before his death in July, had been discussing with them plans for concerts in 2015 and 2016.

For this concert the orchestra was joined by the French tenor Sébastien Droy and a choir comprised of the Philharmonia Voices and members of Bristol Choral Society and Gloucester Choral Society. Unfortunately, none of the London-based Seen and Heard reviewers was in attendance – they can’t be everywhere – but we were represented in other ways. Firstly, my colleague, Mark Berry was in the audience and you can read his thoughts on the concert here. Secondly, I was a member of the chorus as a guest with Gloucester Choral Society. What follows is not in any sense a review of the concert but some reflections on what it was like to take part as a singer.

Performances of Berlioz’s great score are relatively rare, certainly for the amateur singer, mainly because vast and expensive orchestral forces are required. Also in order to balance the orchestra it’s necessary to have a substantial chorus, one which is larger than most individual choral societies can muster. I’d taken part in a performance in Leeds over thirty years ago but no subsequent chances to sing in it had come my way. So with the added and significant bonus of performing it in the Royal Festival Hall with Salonen and the Philharmonia, my wife and I seized with alacrity the opportunity to take part as guest singers.

The invitation to take part in a prestigious concert such as this was a great compliment to the two choral societies though it was not the first London collaboration between the Philharmonia and these two choirs. Last April they sang Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass with the Philharmonia and Jakub Hrůša  in London and in Bristol  – I wasn’t involved in those performances. But this Berlioz project was on an even grander scale and occasioned a great deal of preparatory work, not just on the musical front but also in logistical terms. It must have been a prodigious task to bring together two choirs for a series of rehearsals and then get them all to and from London twice for rehearsals and the performance: but everything ran very smoothly.  The musical side was in very capable hands. Both choirs have the same musical director: Adrian Partington, who is also Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral and Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales. To him fell the task of preparing the chorus. Weekly rehearsals began in early June, when much of the initial spadework was done. After a summer break during July and August a really intense spell of final rehearsals – sometimes twice weekly – began in early September.

The Grand messe des morts is a huge and very demanding score for the chorus. For once thing, they’re involved throughout: there are no breaks for solos as in, say, the Verdi Requiem. So there’s a huge amount of music to learn, the music is far from easy and often exposed and intense concentration has to be sustained throughout the work’s span of more than eighty minutes.

Adrian Partington is renowned as a choral trainer and one who expects – and gets – high standards. He’s accustomed to preparing choirs to professional standards for the BBC and the Three Choirs Festival and he clearly adopted the same approach in preparing the chorus for this assignment. Quite a number of the Gloucester singers will have sung in the Three Choirs Festival Chorus, which always performs to a very high standard. Nonetheless, I wonder to how many of my fellow singers the exacting nature of the rehearsals came as a revelation? I’ve been singing in choirs for many years but the intensity and exactitude of these rehearsals was on a higher plane than I’ve previously experienced. For someone like me who regularly reviews professional concerts this process was also something of a salutory reminder of the amount of highly detailed work that goes on behind the scenes to produce a performance that’s over in one evening – unless it’s recorded. During the rehearsals a huge amount of attention was given to issues of crisp ensemble – the precise length of phrase ends, for example – and tuning. Berlioz is merciless in regard to issues such as these and no one in the chorus was left in any doubt that only the best would be good enough for this assignment. Bright vowels were also stressed time and again: even in a Requiem the sound must be kept bright and alive, not mournful. Fine detail was the order of the day: Berlioz may have written his Grand messe des morts on a big musical canvas but Mr Partington made it clear that this was not going to be a performance painted in broad brush strokes – and rightly so.

I’ve got several recordings of the work in my CD collection and over the period of rehearsals I’ve listened to a few of them. Because these rehearsals have got me so ‘inside’ the music it’s been fascinating to observe how many small points of difference there are between all these performances – breathing marks in different places, for instance. That’s not to say that the approach of one conductor or chorus master is “right” or “wrong” and the differences are subtle. But when you’ve been obliged through intensive rehearsal to pay such close attention to a score your senses are really heightened when you hear it performed by someone else.

The key day came two days before the concert when the chorus went up to London for rehearsals. It was a long day: I don’t know what the logistics were for our Bristol colleagues but the Gloucester contingent set off in two coaches at 8.30am and we got back at 1.30am the following morning. In the meantime we had the small matter of two three-hour rehearsals. In the afternoon there was a piano rehearsal in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, partly taken by Esa-Pekka Salonen and partly by Adrian Partington. In the evening we moved over to the Royal Festival Hall for three more hours of hard work, this time with Salonen and the full orchestra. At these final rehearsals we were joined by the thirty-odd mainly young singers of the Philharmonia Voices with their director, Aidan Oliver. I felt that these singers, with their strongly focussed voices and experience of singing in the RFH itself made a considerable impact, putting the icing on the choral cake, as it were.

Experiencing Salonen at work in rehearsal was fascinating. In the afternoon he’d rehearsed the orchestra for three hours and clearly a lot of work had been done then. Even so, small details of the orchestral contribution were honed and polished during the evening general rehearsal. Salonen looks a very cool customer indeed and has a relaxed manner but his attention to detail is razor-sharp, as you’d expect from a world-class conductor, and the fastidiousness of his approach bespeaks someone who is renowned for performances of modern music where an eagle eye (or ear) is vital. Though he has a calm manner in rehearsals – and an evident strong rapport with the Philharmonia – it’s clear that he’s strongly focused. He doesn’t indulge in a lot of talking from the podium; all the available time is devoted to practical rehearsal.  He has a very clear beat, which was a great boon for amateur singers encountering him for the first time in a hall where they don’t regularly sing. I can honestly say that there was no point in the rehearsals when it wasn’t completely clear from his gestures what Salonen wanted. Not a moment was wasted in rehearsal, nor was anything skated over. It was now that the hard work of previous weeks bore fruit for Salonen was able to work on fine points of detail with his largely amateur choir just as he could with his orchestra of seasoned professionals. As I said, not a moment was wasted and not only did the rehearsal finish bang on time at 10pm but it was clear that by then Salonen had covered everything he wanted.

The day of performance brought a slightly shorter but no less demanding schedule. There was a tutti afternoon rehearsal in the Festival Hall. Salonen ran the work in full, with just a bit of fine-tuning at the end of movements, if necessary. Perhaps unsurprisingly quite a bit of work was done both at this rehearsal and during the Tuesday evening session to get right the tricky business of coordinating and balancing correctly the four brass groups, which were dispersed at various points around the hall.

Come the evening and the hall was virtually sold out. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the choral contribution to this performance but I think I can legitimately say something about one or two other aspects. One snag with being a performer is that you can’t sit back and admire the orchestral performance in the way that the audience can. Nonetheless, without losing concentration I could still relish singing with the formidable Philharmonia. In passages such as the ‘Tuba Mirum’ or the end of the ‘Lacrymosa’ awesome power was generated. But, as ever with Berlioz, it’s in the quieter sections such as the wonderful ‘Offertoire’ that the real genius of Berlioz, an orchestrator decades ahead of his time, really registered.

The tenor soloist has an unenviable task. He has to wait for the best part of an hour to sing and then Berlioz gives him long lyrical phrases with a cruelly demanding tessitura.  Sébastien Droy’s voice seemed well suited to the music and he sang clearly and with sensitivity.

I think I can legitimately comment on one aspect of the choral contribution. The a cappella ‘Quarens me’ was sung by a small semi-chorus of no more than twenty voices drawn from the Philharmonia Voices. I think this was Adrian Partington’s idea and it was a masterstroke. In all the performances I’ve heard over the years, live or on disc, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the music presented this way but it was enormously effective. After the tumult of so much of the preceding ‘Rex tremendae’ the cool precision of these few voices was the aural equivalent of a glass of pure, refreshing spring water. Mark Berry rightly drew attention to the ‘beautiful halo of sound’ in the last few bars. Not only did this use of a semi chorus work musically; it was also very moving.

Esa-Pekka Salonen welded together the vast forces demanded by Berlioz with consummate skill and musicality. There was no emotional excess in his direction – thankfully – but instead he allowed Berlioz’s music to make its own very considerable effect and he certainly inspired all of us in the chorus to give everything we could. Not that anyone was likely to give less than 100%, I’m sure, for such opportunities come rarely for amateur singers outside the capital. Being part of an ensemble of well over 200 singers performing with one of the world’s leading orchestras and a great conductor to a packed Royal Festival Hall does rather tend to put you on your mettle – and all the more so when the music concerned is one of the pinnacles of the choral repertoire.

At the end of the performance it was particularly gratifying that when the choir was brought to its feet to take a bow there was a particularly generous response from the audience. On the coach journey home I don’t think the mood was exuberant – that would have been at odds with the music we’d just sung – but more a sense of quiet satisfaction after a memorable experience.

Many of the performers will get a second crack at this masterpiece soon when the Gloucester and Bristol Choral Societies and the Philharmonia, this time conducted by Adrian Partington, perform the Grand messe des morts in Gloucester Cathedral on 22 November. It will be fascinating to experience the music in the much more resonant acoustic of the great medieval cathedral.

John Quinn

Details of the Gloucester performance of Grand messe des morts on 22 November here.

Details of the Philharmonia’s 2014/15 season here

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