Friday, February 17, 2012

WHAT THE MUSIC TELLS US-a note is worth a thousand words

In the choral world, music and text go hand in hand. The powerful majesty in Handel's Messiah: "King of King, and Lord of Lords." The stupefying terror of Verdi's Requiem: "Dies irae, dies illa." The countless examples of word painting in the Baroque.

But not always.

Our friend Brahms, already known to us to color outside the lines (a requiem with no Latin text, c'mon??!!), has another approach in mind when writing his very last work for chorus and orchestra, the Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), in 1882.

Musically dense, Brahms gives us a score heavy on the browns, grays and blacks as he sets Goethe's poem from the play Iphigenia in Tauris. It's a song Iphigenia recalls from her childhood that describes the all powerful gods and their callous disregard for the human race.

Mostly, Brahms's writing synchs with the ominous text...the crashing orchestral introduction, the rapidly shifting harmonies, the overlapping rhythms.

Yet the fifth sublime, so soothing. Marked in the score "sehr lebhaft und gebunden" ("very soft and legato") he shifts to major and 3/4 time. It's achingly beautiful, and quite disjointed from the text which says:
The rules turn away
Their blessing-granting eyes
From entire generations,
And refuse to recognize in the grandson
His ancestor's
Quietly speaking features.
Which they once loved.

Huh? This is the Brahms of "Selig sind die Toten," of "Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der geliebten ist Herrlich"?

What gives?

Thanks to my teacher Jan Harrington, who pointed me to a short blurb by Peter Petersen in the Deutsche Grammophon CD. "The discrepancy between the hounding of whole generations described in the text and the lovely, lulling character of the music is so obvious that the purpose of the setting must be to express rejection of the idea contained in the words."

I love that. Music and text in a tug of war...

It's a reminder that of the power of music's "voice," that can speak volumes over even the most potent words.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Blog author, chorus master, singer and DANCER(!) Eric Stark on stage to wrap up this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show

This definitely goes in the category of "things you never imagine you'll do but that you love every minute!"

Two weeks ago, while changing planes en route to DC, I received a call from Jennifer, casting director for this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show. One of her choral groups was suddenly unavailable, and she asked if I might be able to help find some willing singers to take the vacant spots. Each would have to commit to ALL rehearsals (and there were a lot of 'em), but in exchange they'd share the stage with Madonna, singing for nearly 70,000 fans in attendance and a worldwide viewing audience of over 100 million people.

My singers were thrilled, of course, at the opportunity. But it came with another complication...none of us could tell anyone what we were up to. In fact, we all had to sign a 5-page non-disclosure agreement. As the days went on, it was a challenge for all of us to keep this incredible news under our hats!

A day before our first rehearsal, in one of our phone calls Jennifer told me they didn't yet have anyone to teach the choir of 200 the music they were to sing (Madonna's "Like a Prayer"). Glad to help out, I told her to send me the music for a little homework on my part.

Turns out, however, we were never granted permission to have printed music--copyright concerns, apparently--and when I arrived at the first rehearsal, my first job was to notate the choral parts from a pre-recorded track.

20 minutes later, scribbled notes and my iPhone's piano app in hand, I strode to the center of the basketball gym where a single microphone and 200 singers in bleachers were waiting for me. Then, borrowing the time tested techniques I've learned from watching Gospel greats Rodnie Bryant and Tim Bratton, I sang each of the vocal lines to the singers. With some repetition, they got them pretty handily. And then we were off to learn our dance moves.

While the singers were being "auditioned" for moves, Jennifer came to me with profuse thanks for my help, and a suggestion that I join the group. They were one singer short, and so she was inviting me to be the 200th person in the cast. She sweetened the deal for me, saying I wouldn't have to be at every minute of every rehearsal...that did it, and I was soon being fitted in the wardrobe department for my black and white robe.

Rehearsals continued, via lots of repetition. Gradually, we got better and began to look like something with some sort of coordination. We were looking forward to arriving at the stadium on Wednesday night for our final rehearsals, and to see what the stage would look like.

Once in the stadium, we were all blown away by the elaborate set-up, lighting, costumes...and even more the talent. And, Madonna was there with us every night. She was the hardest working person on the field. Always scrutinizing, practicing, trying it again. At one point she gave a very heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of us who were volunteering our time...nice touch!

Madonna and I had a special "moment," too! On Thursday, she was inspecting all our costumes and had us arrayed on the stage in our spots. She approached my group, and after adjusting the copper laurel sprig on the head of the woman ahead of me, she started up the stairs where I was standing, headed for the main stage above. Wishing to steady herself, she reached out and grabbed my right bicep. Then, (obviously enjoying the sensation!) she put her other hand there as well...and for a brief second, in that vast arena, it was "just" the two of us as she glided by (well, okay, that's a reach for sure...but it WAS pretty neat!!).

Madonna, backed up by members of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Butler University Chorale

III. The Big Show
One of my singers from the Symphonic Choir told me he figured that, for every second of music we sang, we were in rehearsal for 30 minutes. That's his way of saying we had a LOT of rehearsal time.

But on game day, everything went fast! After checking in at Ben Davis High School and eating our box lunches, we donned our robes and boarded about 25 school busses for the ride into town (it was the choir members, the gladiators, the drumline and the stage hands).

Once in the Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the full-to-capacity crowd was breathtaking...twinkling lights from all the cameras, and the energy! It was electrifying.

After a brief wait in an underground hallway, it was time to take the field. Madonna was escorted out by the gladiators, and the show was underway.

Waiting our turn in the end zone, we were all giddy with the moment, watching and singing/dancing along and waiting for the finale when we would take the stage.

At last we were moving toward the 50 yard line. The crowd had been given flashlights, and requested to point them to the stage for our song. The sight was truly beautiful! All the little lights undulating to the music.

Good news for me...I remembered my steps, and didn't stumble, or sing along with Madonna's solo verse, or scratch my nose (all errors I had committed in the rehearsals).

Too soon, it was over, and we were racing through the tunnel and out the door. Screams of excitement were everywhere, as were high fives, hugs and congratulations. It was incredible, and all agreed it had been the opportunity of a lifetime.