Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A Bach-disaster

The Lutheran church in London has a monthly Bach Vespers, where a group of wonderful musicians and a bass, a tenor, an alto and a soprano get together and perform one of Bach's 200+ cantatas. These are little gems. He wrote them for church use, churning one out each Sunday. He wrote many more than 200 in fact, but when Bach was around EVERYONE wrote things for Sunday worship, it was taken for granted, and music was often lost afterwards. Nobody had the slightest inkling that three and a half centuries later we'd be cherishing every last semi-quaver.

Well anyway. Martin Knizia, the musical director of St. Anne's Lutheran Church (on Gresham Street, just between St. Paul's tube station and the Museum of London) has been indulgent enough to have me sing the alto for these events a great number of times. I figure I've sung about 50 cantatas so far. Sometimes one or other of the singers (usually a bass or a tenor) comments "I think Bach was busy this week. Not one of his more inspired efforts", or "What was Bach thinking? Bad day?" But every one of these things is a masterpiece by my reckoning. Sometimes they're eccentric. Sometimes they're quirky. Bring it on!

A Cantata usually lasts about 20 minutes. It starts with a magnificent chorus (some of Bach's best, even including the Passions). At Gresham street we do these one-voice-per-part. Imagine the Messiah with one bass, one tenor, one alto and one soprano. A quartet of a chorus. A few places do this. People sometimes say it's more authentic, likely to have happened at the time the music was written. Sometimes that's complete bollocks. One-voice-per-part happens nowadays because it's too expensive any other way. At least with a quartet nobody has to squabble over who gets the solos. Any alto solos are MINE. Hah! For that I'm willing to carry any number of difficult long choral lines against an orchestra all by myself.

The drill, for me, is that Martin asks me if I can do the Bach Vespers on a given date or dates, and I write them down in my diary. Then I keep checking the St. Anne's website to see if they've announced which cantata it's to be. Then I go to the Cantatas website to download the PDF of the score. Then I learn it right away. I like to know these things inside and out. Completely. No amount of tempo-changes, no distractions of any kind will throw me, I hope. I'm just not a good enough sight-reader to do this music without prior study. Bach has one of the steepest learning-curves of any composer. I've seen people come in and sight-read the stuff and manage it fine, but I can always, ALWAYS tell. The intonation isn't right. The breaths are any old place. The phrasing, thus, is compromised. The piece doesn't lilt, sigh, or live.

Even with my preparation, I'm still thrown by things...a counter-melody from the second violin. The way an oboe comes in just after every phrase I do. The way an overtone in the building's acoustic reacts to a note of mine and affects the way I hear a modulation afterwards. We rehearse for the first time at 4 in the afternoon, performance is at 6:30. Always I finish the concert and always I'm singing the thing, much better, in my head all the way to the underground and all the way home, saying "NOW I know! Let me do it again!!!"

Well anyway. Day before yesterday was Sunday. I had my usual Finsbury Park church gig in the morning, and I looked forward to a lovely Bach Cantata at St. Anne's later; Catholics before noon, Lutherans after. The rehearsal schedule vibrated my Blackberry during the second mass and after a leisurely cup of tea I took a look at it. I saw "Duet, S and A, 5:30"

WHAT duet? I had a recit! What?!"
The website had said "BWV 96". I'd learned 96. It was actually 93. Okay, I'm not a total victim. I'm partly to blame. Had I cared to check, I'd have seen that BWV 96 is called Herr Christ, der einige Gottessohn. And 93 is called Wer nur den lieben Gott Läßt walten. And that the number and the title did not match. DUH!

Herr Christ, indeed. 

It was 1pm. I had to go to Father David's computer, print out BWV 93 on the backs of some "how to get to the cemetery" sheets left over from a funeral (bless him he said I could use fresh paper but scrap was fine) and watch, with sinking heart, as 16 pages of complicated chorus were slowly churned out. I kept praying for the double bar-line and never getting it. The duet was no easy thing either. Worse than a solo, where
at least I can concentrate solely on my line and the accompaniment, today I had the loveliest Bach soprano in the world, Emily Atkinson, to let down when I failed. The cliché is that the notes dance before your eyes in a jumble. For me it was just an inability to remember how my every entry started, feeling the weight of twenty pages in my hands against the inevitability of passing time, and a hot pressure inside my head and a weird lightness in my gut. Also a feeling that it's not really happening.

In the event, the church was full. The rehearsal for the choral bits was terrible, with me cutting out for whole measures and hearing a blank. The rehearsal for the duet was lovely, getting it slowly but surely, learning it, grasping it.

In the performance, inevitably, the chorus triumphed, and that duet crashed and burned. When the intro was played I didn't recognise any part of it. I sang it as if I was in the middle of a nightmare, one of those ones where something nasty is coming at you and your legs won't move.
There's one good thing about this situation however. No matter how badly you do a phrase, in a performance it's over quickly and you never have to repeat it. Soon enough, you'll be walking back to your seat, making a gurning face at the back wall only your colleagues can see.

I've done these cantatas and had a crowd of people surround me afterwards, saying I was magnificent, melting, heartfelt, glorious. This time, people walked away from me as I moved through the congregation.

For these Cantatas we must wear black. At least for this one I wore a skin-tight, beautifully-constructed with built-in corset Bettie Page early-fifties satin-and-lace black wiggle dress. I recommend the duet from Cantata 93. It is gorgeous. How I would have enjoyed it if I'd known it.

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