February 10, 2010

Life everlasting

I’m just returning home from Tampere on the fast Pendolino, which I was very glad to catch since it was late on its way from Oulu. Normally, the train I take back from the rehearsals of the Tampere Philharmonic Choir is the slower InterCity, which is usually hauntingly empty. I tend to occupy two seats and sort of half lie down, gazing at the accumulated rubbish from the day’s journeys and starting from my seat as the attendant comes to ask me whether I’d like anything from the circulating minibistro wagon. With trains crashing into buildings, ceilings falling right off the roof on top of shocked passangers and more trains cancelled than there are cranky staff members, this certainly hasn’t been a good year for the national railway. Still, you have to admire the self-irony one of the announcers at the Helsinki central railway station demonstrated today as she burst into laughter midway through her announcement. “Dear passengers, the Pendolino which was SUPPOSED to depart to Pieksämäki an hour ago and which was afterwards SUPPOSED to be replaced by a different set of wagons----“ and there she broke off with a giggle and abruptly switched off the microphone. Everyone on the platform burst into laughter, and two minutes later the same voice boomed across the station: “Dear passengers, this is an announcement about the Pendolino train to Pieksämäki….” and there she broke off again, possibly still quite unable to control herself.

Whether on the train, the metro or the tram, the first thing on my mind as I travel home after a choir rehearsal is usually the rehearsal itself. Right now, I feel pleased with the way the TPK has been making progress with the mother of all masses, Beethoven’s missa solemnis. The concert with the Tampere Philharmonic will take place this Easter. Today, we chewed our way through the central movement of the work, the Credo. 20 minutes long and with various different sections, it’s a real showpiece for big choirs who aren’t intimidated by the very long and high notes occurring in almost every part. Next week, we’ll start working on the final fugue of the Credo, which is something which I’ve never seen or heard anything like. As one prominent Finnish choral conductor has put it: “The final fugue of the Missa Solemnis Credo is the nastiest piece I have ever had to conduct”.

Seven minutes of pure euphoria set to music, the “everlasting life” section of the Credo would make any experienced or even professional choral singer cringe. First, there’s the whole of the first half of the mass to work through, and then suddenly the orchestra falls way into the background while the choir takes centre stage with its two parallel themes. The first three pages or so are excrutiating for the sopranos, who stay way above the staff lines for the majority of the exposition. Three majestic Amen chords, and suddenly the orchestra goes wild, ups the tempo, and the choir is back again – this time with some really devilish and syncopated coloraturae in every part “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamen” while each part takes its turn skipping along with the “et vitam venturi” theme, this time in a much faster and jumpier mode. Modulations galore, the fast intervals in the separate parts might remind you of someone practising rodeo on a particularly jumpy donkey. The drums and brass section join the fun, the notes seem to just fly by on the page (“where are we?!?”) and then we come to the real climax: on a high E flat major chord (sopranos on a high B flat), the tempo changes into Grave, dynamics fff, and by the time we finally finish, the tenors will be lying flat on the floor, the basses will be searching for their vocal chords amid the audience, the altos will be readjusting their hairdos and probably more than one soprano will be waving a white flag at the conductor.

So, all in all: can’t wait for next week’s rehearsal!


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